Does your mission organization listen well?
How would you know?
One of the more famous mission research studies since the turn of the millennium was the ReMAP II study of missionary retention, done by the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.
Fieldwork, conducted in 2002-03, involved 600 agencies across 22 countries, representing some 40,000 missionaries.
GMI associates played a prominent role in the research and analysis, as well as in the creation of the book that reported the results, Worth Keeping. The first half of the book is available free from WEA Resources.
It is an important book and well worth having on your shelf if you are involved in recruiting, assessing, training or leading field missionaries. The book provides a helpful formula for calculating retention rate that every agency should apply. Beyond that, its insights include:
- Some agencies retain missionaries much better than do others. The average (mean) tenure of those serving in high-retention agencies was 17 years—compared to 7 years in low-retention agencies (p. 3). That is especially important for certain ministries, for the time between the seventh and 17th year is, according to Patrick Johnstone, “The period most likely to prove fruitful in cross-cultural church-planting ministry” (Future of the Global Church, p. 227).
- Large agencies offer a decided advantage in retention over smaller agencies (pp. 39-41).
- Setting a high bar in missionary selection correlates strongly with retention—the more criteria an agency considers in selection (character references, physical health, local-church ministry experience, affirmation of a doctrinal statement), the more likely it is to have strong retention (pp. 69-71).
- The greater the percentage of an agency’s budget spent on member care—and especially preventative member care—the more likely it is to have strong retention. In newer sending countries (Majority World), high-retention agencies spend twice as much as low-retention agencies (as a percentage of budget) and twice as much on preventative care (pp. 182-183).
All of these findings are meaningful and credible. They come from the portions of the survey questionnaire that ask agency administrators to report on facts: What is your agency’s size? Its retention rate? The average tenure of departed field staff? What criteria does it consider? How much does it spend on member care? These are facts that would be reported similarly, regardless of who completed the survey on behalf of the agency.
However, a large chunk of the survey instructed agency administrators as follows:
“Please evaluate your mission agency’s practices in the following areas (as evidenced by time, effort and effectiveness).” Items were listed on a six-point scale ranging from “Not well done” to “Very well done” (p. 413).
Among the 49 items in this section:
- Missionaries are assigned roles according to their gifting and experience.
- Good on-field supervision is provided (quantity and quality).
- Missionaries are generally not overloaded in the amount of work they do.
- Effective pastoral care exists at a field level (preventative and in crises).
- Missionaries are included in major decisions related to the field.
During the analysis phase, Jim Van Meter, who led the U.S. analysis, noticed that several items in this section did not significantly correlate with retention rates—and some significant correlations were counter-intuitive. He asked GMI for a second opinion about why.
Our response: The problem isn’t the questions. It’s the person answering them!
Administrators can reliably answer factual questions about their agency’s practices, but they cannot reliably answer evaluative questions related to their support of field staff. The field staff has to answer those questions!
That’s why we launched the Engage Survey in 2006—so that field missionaries could give their input on issues like these. It is also why we sought a grant to again promote Engage—with a substantial discount to agencies—in 2014-2015.
Consider the last item in that list above: Missionaries are included in major decisions related to the field. In ReMAP II, agency administrators, both Western and Non-Western, indicated this as an area of strength for agencies. Further, the item was not linked to retention.
But when we surveyed 1,700-plus fieldworkers, a completely different picture emerged. “My organization involves employees in decisions that affect them” was one of the 10 lowest-rated items (out of 68). When combined with related items like “My organization’s management explains the reasons behind major decisions” and “My organization acts on the suggestions of employees,” the factor we titled “Involvement in Decisions” was the lowest rated of 11 themes (principal component factors) in the survey.
What is more, the factor was significantly correlated with agency retention.
When we did follow-up depth interviews with current and former missionaries, inclusion in decision-making was one of five encouraging themes related to continuing service. Exclusion from decision-making was one of six discouraging themes.
In short, everything we hear from field staff says, “This issue is important, and most missions have significant room for improvement.”
So, back to the original questions:
- Does your mission organization listen well?
- How would you know?
One clue is your agency’s annual retention rate for long-term cross-cultural workers. If it is 97 percent or above, you probably listen well relative to other agencies. If it is below 94 percent, you very likely have room for improvement.
To be sure, I would strongly recommend surveying your field staff. Use a survey that assures anonymity for respondents, ideally administered through a third party. Even better would be to do it collaboratively with other agencies, so you could learn how well you are doing compared to like-minded organizations with globally distributed staff. And if you could find an experienced researcher to walk you through the results and make sure you make an action plan, so much the better.
That’s Engage. Pricing is reasonable (less than $1,000 for many agencies) and is graded by the number of missionaries on staff. Those signing up by November 30 save 25 percent on registration (via a $125 check from GMI, courtesy of a foundation grant) and 20 percent off the per-missionary graded rate. Bu the way, none of the registration fees comes to GMI—our involvement is funded fully through the grant.
Count the hours that it would take you to do this on your own, without comparative benchmarks or a professional-grade survey instrument and follow-up consultation.
Pardon the shameless plug, but Engage is one of the best deals I know of in mission research. Everyone wins: Leadership teams get to celebrate successes and identify priorities. Boards receive meaningful measures and see how leaders are taking initiative. Field staff gets a chance to be heard and offer ideas.