Jim and Marge sank exhausted into their seats aboard a jumbo jet that would take them to a new and exciting world. They were headed to a new home in Kenya, where they would train pastors and other Christian leaders. After years of education and pastoral experience, at last they would be missionaries.
Never did they dream that in less than four years they would board a similar jet headed for home, returning to the United States discouraged and sick, their missionary hopes seemingly forever shattered. Jim and Marge number among the hundreds of missionaries every year who resign their commissions, at a cost to the missions enterprise into the millions of dollars.
Accurate, comprehensive records are not kept on how many missionaries resign, retire, die, or simply fail to return to the field each year after leaves of absence. But in many cases, recruitment of new missionaries enables mission agencies only to replace personnel who leave the field.
Agencies associated with the two major evangelical missions associations report little growth in recent years. “Both the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association (IFMA) and the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) have had some growth,” says E. L. (Jack) Frizen, IFMA executive director. “But that is primarily due to receiving new mission agencies into membership, rather than to growth of the missionary force.”
Losses By Retirement
The retirement of missionaries accounts for a significant portion of the lost personnel. However, it is not expected to produce the major losses predicted several years ago. At that time, statisticians noted that Christians who formed a massive missions movement at the end of World War II would reach age 65 in the 1980s. Their retirement was expected to decimate the missions force.
“The statistics on anticipated missionary retirement are moderated by the fact that not only young people went out after World War II, but [also] seasoned, older workers, who retired years ago,” says EFMA Executive Director Wade Coggins. Many of those missionaries have already left the field.
Mission agencies are more concerned about unplanned, preventable attrition, most of which takes place during a missionary’s first term. Stanley Lindquist, president and founder of Link Care Foundation, believes most mission agencies lose about 15 percent of their new missionaries during the first term.
Throughout the history of the modern missionary movement, attrition has been highest in the first term. An article by Robert Coote in the Mission Handbook (13th edition), produced by the Missions Advanced Research and Communication Center, states that up to half of all new missionaries do not last beyond their first term. However, many missions leaders dispute that claim.
A newer phenomenon is the tendency for missionaries to resign or take leaves of absence to place children in high school or college in the United States. “In the last five years, concern over the welfare and education of their children has been an increasingly important reason for missionary resignation,” says John F. (Jack) Robinson, former president of Missionary Internship. “This reflects the high visibility and importance placed on child raising in evangelical circles in the United States in recent years.”
Frizen notes that the loss of such experienced missionaries more seriously cripples the work of mission agencies, and reduces the pool of seasoned veterans from which agencies select their top leaders.
“There is no question shorter-term involvement overseas is increasing,” says Robinson. Nevertheless, he says he believes unplanned withdrawal is actually decreasing. “In the old days, everyone assumed missions was a lifetime commitment. Now, many people are entering contractual relationships, agreeing to go for one or two years, or perhaps one four-year term. If they don’t renew afterwards, is that attrition?”
Coggins says the problem of unplanned missionary loss is no greater today than in the past. Missions demography, however, is different from that of a generation ago.
“There is a trend today toward having multiple careers,” he says. “Today, people often have a special project for which they are sent. They go out and do it, finish, and return.”
Coggins says attrition is not as critical a concern as it was in the days when most missionaries were pioneering works in remote, unreached areas. “If those missionaries left, another generation had to come in and pick up from scratch,” he says. Because of the stability of established churches on the field today, he adds, many missionaries now bring skills to tasks that can be completed in a short time.
Nevertheless, the unplanned departure of missionaries from the field exacts an enormous financial and emotional cost from both missionaries and mission agencies. Frank Allen, SEND International’s minister of missions, estimates it costs at least $200,000 to support a missionary for four years in a country like Japan. Over a recent nine-year period, says Ronald A. Iwasco, personnel secretary for the Division of Foreign Missions of the Assemblies of God, the mission lost an average of $567,444 per year in monies invested in missionaries who quit the field.
Others say the emotional cost may be even higher. “There is a sense of not having been equal to the task,” says Allen. “The church must work with mission agencies to help returning missionaries find their place.”
Some agencies have been able to improve their track record on missionary attrition. Iwasco says the Assemblies of God has reduced its missionary dropout rate by becoming more “people oriented,” rather than “task oriented.”
“Mission administrators are becoming increasingly aware that missionaries are the most precious resource an agency has, and that it is very costly and unwise to let situations develop where missionaries come in the front door and out the back,” says Robinson, former head of Missionary Internship. He says it is time for agencies to cooperate in systematically looking at missionary attrition and assessing what is happening. “This kind of information is not being shared,” he says.
The EFMA’S Coggins points out that although individual agencies may know how many missionaries quit their organizations, no one knows how many of those same missionaries later rejoin the missions enterprise. That is the case with Jim and Marge, who are once again involved in missions as directors of the home office of a mission agency.
By Sharon E. Mumper.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- From the MagazineEve’s Legacy Is Both Sin and RedemptionThe first woman tried to get free of God. But when she aligned herself with God’s purposes, she became the ‘Mother of All the Living.’
- Editor's PickPCA’s 50th Anniversary Comes During a Season of GriefPresbyterians expect less fight and more fatigue as they gather following the Covenant shooting and the deaths of Harry Reeder and Tim Keller.