The Dislocation Effect:

5 Reasons for Missionary Attrition

1.  Lack of sufficient support

The average missionary, like most non-profits, is in a perpetual state of fundraising.  This is not as bad as it sounds however, many times it is for good reason.  Though many missionaries are underfunded even well funded missionaries are constantly looking to increase their support health.  The primary reason for this is that as a missionary's original objectives are achieved the ability to meet a greater need often presents itself, thus the need for increased funds and a never ending cycle of support raising.

2Misalignment of Calling

Since many missionaries join a large organization with a preexisting purpose it is not surprising that many missionaries find themselves misaligned when they finally realize the perfect version of their own calling.  I call this “The Dislocation Effect.”  The Dislocation Effect is when a missionary stays with an organization past the point of optimal partnership.  There are many reasons for this but sadly most of them come back to money.  When a missionary finds that the truest version of their calling would demand them to align with another cause or agency they have many real obstacles in doing so.  The primary reason being that they have already built a support base investing in their ministry through that organization.  If a calling changes either in actual ministry tasks or simply the location in which they are carried out most agencies can not change with the missionary.  This leaves the missionary in a very precarious situation having to choose between the truest version of their calling and the source of their financial support.  Which leads to the next phenomenon…

3.  Fossilization

This is what happens when a missionary stays engaged in their field of service past the point of effectiveness.  When a missionary stays committed to their cause beyond their effectiveness it can be for a myriad of reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to

1. Financial dependence: Having given up so much to get where they are and having nothing substantial to go back to the missionary feels it is a losing prospect to go back. 

2. Going Native: This happens when a missionary chooses to stay in their country of service primarily because they have grown to prefer it over their country of origin but not because they are driven to fulfill their original purpose for being there to begin with.

3. Fear:  This can have many causes but the primary ones are the perception of failure, unwillingness to relocate or return to a secular career even after the ministry objectives have been accomplished. And perhaps the biggest one of all is the fact that most missionaries gave us so much to be a missionary in their current field of service they can’t imagine giving everything up all over again.  

4.  Moral Failure

Sadly this happens more often than can be imagined or even quantified.  There are many spiritual and circumstantial reasons for such failings.  Often missionaries experience depression feeling isolated in a culture removed from their own.  Some missionaries have generational or hidden sin patterns that find unchecked expression in they new setting.  Perhaps the safest of all is when missionaries are actually successful in their objectives and buckle under the pressure of having too much success and a sense of infallibility.

5.  Conflict with other Missionaries

And number 5… the number one reason for missionary attrition is reported by returning missionaries as conflict with other expatriate and missionaries they work with.  Year after year, study after study, this sad reality seams to resurface.  We are not sure if this is because of lack of proper team training or simply because this is the most convenient excuse for any of the four reasons listed above.  But one thing remains true: of all the people called into full time missions, those who give up everything to spend the rest of their lives in missions the average term of service for today's long-term missionary is a sad average of just 2 years.

A Final Thought

With all of the above being true I still do not believe the missionary themselves is solely to blame but perhaps the system in which they serve.  A system where a missionary must often choose between their unique God given gifting and calling and a seat at the table may need an overhaul.  One thing that all agencies, churches and missionaries can agree on is that the supporting of the called should be designed to make the most out of the missionaries unique calling not to get the most out of those willing to serve.

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