By definition, we lead a transient life. Few things in the life of a missionary are permanent. If funding gets too low, we must leave our place of service to locate more donors in order to return. If the political situation changes drastically, we may be forced to leave. Our work may come to a close requiring we move to a new location. Closer to home, and more poignant is our ever changing community. With the changes happening in the IMB (International Mission Board of the Southern Baptists), we are grieving with many friends here in Chiang Mai sorting through the question, “What now?”


Just as a side note: Before the ‘Voluntary Retirement Initiative’ came down from Richmond, I would wake up in a cold sweat some nights wondering what I would do if we had to return stateside and look for a job. That question is now a reality for many of my friends. 

The implications not only affect each of these families, it affects the entire community. Favourite teachers are not returning. Classmates will not be here next year. Families in transition find out the real fibre of their family ties and in many cases, the kids suffer most.


Statistically, the IMB’s ‘recall’ fits in the category of unavoidable attrition. ‘Normal’ attrition includes things like death in a family, heath concerns, job changes, and the like. Avoidable attrition, or preventable attrition is a very different animal.



Of the avoidable characteristics of missionary attrition, character and relationships rank highest in reasons missionaries leave the field. I speak to this in my dissertation. What often gets overlooked, because the conditions for affecting change are too varied, is the role of sending agencies or sending churches in missionary attrition. This is not to say one is greater than the other. I do suspect a great research project would revolve around the combination of both the missionary, agency, and supporting church in why missionaries leave their field of service prematurely.


Over the next few posts, I will approach the question of attrition by speaking to those who send us (missionaries in general) out. The intent is to raise awareness not to condemn or shame. Most of our (the Shepherd’s) supporting churches ask regularly how they can best be involved in our lives as well as our ministries. So, don’t read this as a back handed jab at our friends. At the same time, we all could learn to see life from different perspectives than we normally do.


So, here’s the question: “How do we set up missionaries for premature departure from their field of service?”


High or Unreasonable Expectations


Especially for first-timers who really are uncertain of their budgetary needs or how life and ministry will actually look once they arrive, don’t expect that their research is or ever could be complete apart from living there. I tell all new M’s (for our agency and those I consult with) to hold their JD lightly. Circumstance will change, finances are not consistent, relationships are not as close as we thought. Language study is easy for some and down right daunting for others.


In some cases, I know of churches that only fund church plants but once the M arrives only to discover the local leadership has decided that they don’t want foreigners mucking about in their field of harvest so assign them to a more consulting role. Now the M has a dilemma. Their sending church expects to see planted churches and only supports that. The national church doesn’t want the foreigner help in planting churches but in consulting and training.


So, leave the field or stretch the truth back home to remain in the place they have spent years preparing to locate?

We all know that the higher the expectation the more devastating unmet expectations tendexpectations31 to be. Now, not only is the sending church disappointed but the missionary can become disillusioned feeling guilty, shame, and bitterness. The fact is, struggle and failure are a necessary part of life–especially in the missionary life. Not only does the missionary need to see the grace of God in the midst of struggle, so do the nationals they hope to serve and display the goodness of God.

As Jeanni and I prepared to transition Internationally with our ‘out of the box’ idea of providing soul care and spiritual nourishment for Christian leaders living and working outside the US, our path to the field was deeply disappointing. In one mission committee meeting, the chair just could not get his head around the necessity of what we were proposing. Asking for more research on the subject we came back to the next meeting with numerous articles on the struggles missionaries faced. Clearly frustrated, the chair turned to a retired missionary asking whether anything we were saying was in fact true. The missionary quietly explained that we were telling tame stories and that they could relay even more awful reasons for the kind of ministry we proposed. Further frustrated, the chair hit the table exclaiming, “Fine, there is a need. But how do we know God has called you to go meet it?”


I know it could look like I’m working out sour grapes. I don’t think so. I do think this incident illustrates a number of other stories I hear of how churches don’t quite ‘get’ either the need or the proposed ways and means of meeting it. In doing so, they ask the wrong questions. Calling to a particular field (yes, this still has to do with expectations) may not be the best question. Jesus did not ask for the called or qualified only that we pray for workers to meet the overwhelming need of the harvest.


More on this as this line of thinking unfolds over the next several posts…