Listening well…and why it matters

 

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.

 

What future missionaries are reading

A few months ago we did a survey with prospective missionaries and asked about what they are reading.  Along with a lot of David Platt and John Piper, we noted the following titles (write-in responses from a total of about 160 respondents):

A Gleam of Light  by Ila Marie Davis

Thriving in Cross Cultural Ministry by Carissa Alma

Why Jesus Crossed the Road by Bruce Main

Cross-Cultural Connections by Duane Elmer

Daws: A Man Who Trusted God by Betty Skinner

Do What Jesus Did by Robby Dawkins

Dreams and Visions by Tom Doyle

Engaging Islam by Georges Houssney

Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle by Kent Annan

Go and Do by Don Everts

Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret by Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor

Kingdom Matrix by Jeff Christopherson

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis

Many Colors by Song Cha Rah

Real Life by James Choung

Students of the Word by John Stott

The Mark of a Christian by Francis Schaeffer

The New Friars by Scott Bessenecker

To Repair the World by Paul Farmer

We’d like to respectfully add a title to the list. Crossing Cultures with Ruth by James Nelson is the first book GMI has produced specifically for those considering cross-cultural service. While accessing research is one of the “Fruitful Practices” for effective mission, not every new missionary has a bent for data and reports.  So we have weaved lessons from a decade of research into a Bible study.  The result offers memory hooks that connect current research with the timeless biblical narrative of Ruth, a cross-cultural servant.


To retain missionaries, help them keep their CHIN UP

Retention of field staff is a key effectiveness issue for mission sending entities. In The Future of the Global Church (p227) Patrick Johnstone notes that “the period most likely to prove fruitful in cross-cultural church-planting ministry” is between the eighth and 17th years of field service.

Retention is also a key stewardship issue, as the costs of recruiting, qualifying, training, funding and sending a cross-cultural worker are vastly front loaded (incurred before sending and in the early stages of field ministry).  This is true regardless of the worker’s country of origin.  From a financial perspective, sending costs are “amortized” over a worker’s tenure on the field—the longer the tenure, the more cost-effective the sending process.

While it is true that when missionaries need to leave the field, allowing them to stay on can be damaging (personally, organizationally and ministerially), the general principle remains: encouraging and equipping workers toward longer tenures is a worthy goal.

A few weeks ago I spoke to prospective cross-cultural workers on “How to Become an Ex-Missionary…Or Not.” The research supporting the talk came from the qualitative module of the Engage study (fielded 2006 and 2007), which GMI did in partnership with Best Christian Workplaces Institute and Rob Hay, now principal of Redcliffe College.

A bit of backstory before getting to five key retention factors for North American cross-cultural workers.

The Engage research was initiated by the WEA Mission Commission as a North American follow up to the global ReMAP and ReMAP II studies on attrition and retention, which led to the publication of the useful books Too Valuable to Lose and Worth Keeping.

The ReMAP studies did a great job of outlining best practices in missionary retention on a global scale, as well as in drawing attention to the issue.  For example, the 60-plus agencies participating in the U.S. portion of the studies could be divided into virtually equal groups based on retention.  High-retention agencies averaged 97.4 percent retention annually, while the low-retention group averaged 90.4 percent.  When compounded over a decade, the high-retention rate projects to 77 percent of non-retired workers remaining on the field, while the low-retention rate projects to only 37 percent remaining.  You can read the source report here.

Still, there was one significant problem with the ReMAP studies: no current field workers were interviewed, only agency administrators.  We first got involved when the ReMAP II U.S. study coordinator asked GMI to review the U.S. data.  Certain variables appeared to yield counter-intuitive results—meaning agencies that rated themselves as high performers in certain dimensions actually had lower retention than those that rated themselves as lower performers.  How could this be?  Easy—self-evaluation often produces results such as these due to differences in standards.  Highly effective organizations typically have very high standards.  Therefore, they see more room for improvement than do their peer organizations.

The solution: don’t self-evaluate.  Allow others—in this case, current and former field missionaries—to rate how well a sending organization equips and supports them.

That’s what we did in the Engage study.  The quantitative module surveyed more than 1,700 current field staff from 17 organizations.  Results verified that an organization’s retention rate correlates positively with the attitudes of current field staff.  That finding refutes the hypothesis that ex-missionaries are merely can’t-hack-it, sour-grapes misfits who needed to be weeded out.  Rather, an agency’s missionaries reside along a likelihood-to-stay continuum.  The better an agency’s vision, leadership, training, policies and support, the less likely workers are to fall off of the attrition cliff.

The qualitative module compared the experience of more than 40 current field missionaries and more than 40 ex-missionaries who had left before retiring or completing a fixed assignment.  Questions asked of both groups included open-ended inquiries about factors that encourage or discouraged continuing service.

Group comparisons of coded responses yielded five key encouragement factors (as well as six key discouragement factors).

I remember those five encouragement factors through the acronym CHIN UP:

CH      A strong sense of personal CALLING and HOPE from God

I          A feeling of INCLUSION in team/agency decision making

N        A perception of great spiritual NEED among the people being served

U        A sense of personal USEFULNESS, regardless of visible ministry progress

P        A strong sense of God’s PROVISION via the prayer and generosity of others

Agencies and their member care departments will do well to regularly check the pulse of their field staff in those key areas.

Want to know more about applying insights from Engage?  Contact us at GMI about speaking to or consulting with agency leadership and/or member-care staff on retention issues.  We also love to speak with future missionaries about how they can prepare to avoid becoming ex-missionaries.

Also, agencies can sign up to do the Engage survey with your current field staff.  Best Christian Workplaces offers the survey at a very reasonable cost, using a sliding scale based on the number of field workers invited to take part.  It is a great investment that also adds to an ongoing database of learning about retention.  Please let them know that you heard about Engage from GMI.

 

 

Analysis links website “personality” to follow-up actions

 
Third in a series of three posts looking forward to the 2013 Agency Web Review by reviewing highlights from a prior edition of the study.

As in 2004, the upcoming edition of the Agency Web Review will not only consider the rational elements of a missions website (clarity, functionality, information) but also the emotional side—its “personality”—and how that aligns with visitors’ responses and potentially influences follow-up activity.

From a list of 40 or so descriptive terms, respondents select the ones that they felt best describe each website.  Once data collection is complete, GMI analysts use factor analysis to boil those characteristics down to a smaller set of themes, or personality factors.  Then, they use regression analysis to measure how those themes correlate with the follow-through outcomes that agencies are looking for: revisiting the site, recommending it to peers and pursuing service opportunities.

In 2004 four out of the 10 personality factors correlated strongly with desired actions.  Web designers for the participating agencies learned about these factors and were able to draw on them in adapting their sites to encourage future missionaries to take the next step.  Those four factors are shown in this chart:

The degree of correlation varied depending on the follow-through action being studied.  For Intent to Recommend, the strongest link was to the “Creative” aspect of a site (a factor comprised of “Creative,” “Fresh,” “Visual” and “Non-Traditional”).  For overall website appeal, the same four factors emerged, but with “Energetic” (an absence of characteristics such as “Calm,” “Simple” and “Casual”) at the top of the list.  

How did designers use this information? Here are two ways: 

  1. Striking the right balance between identifying with who your audience is and who it aspires to be.  The presence of Energetic and Creative suggests that an agency should demonstrate that it understands the next generation of workers and is relevant to them.  This is the classic affinity principle—demonstrating that an agency is “for people like me.” Prospects are drawn to organizations that have and welcome high-energy people with a creative spirit.At the same time, the presence of Wise (“Humble,” “Experienced”) and Capable (including “Secure” and “Aware”)  suggests traits that future missionaries do not yet have—especially in terms of cross-cultural effectiveness.  Prospects desire to develop these qualities and hope that an agency will be able to draw them out.  Prospects look for signals that an agency knows what it is doing and can help new people get where they need to be.

    It is easy to miss the mark a bit one way or the other.  Too much creativity can be misinterpreted as an emphasis on style over substance.  Too much emphasis on experience and resources can be misread as close-mindedness or lack of need.  In short, prospects don’t want agencies that aspire to be “like them”—rather, they do want to be understood while being given something to aspire to become.

  2. Designers also need to understand what is not helpful.  In this case, six other website personality factors were not significantly linked to any of the key follow-through behaviors:  intention to revisit, refer or respondto opportunities.  Websites that were viewed as “Courageous,” “Concerned,” “Sharp” (incorporating “Confident” and “Smart”), “Thoughtful” or “Fun” likely did not generate the best possible response from visitors.(Note that positioning does not refer to the inauthentic donning of characteristics that are not part of an agency’s identity, but rather to expressing aspects of one’s true identity that are likely to resonate with candidates.)

Web designers usually know how to help make a website more usable or functional.  Some also have intuitive skills that enable agencies to strike the right notes in messaging and imagery. But for those who don’t—and even for those who do—message modeling can provide a well-defined target to shoot for and criteria to assess whether the messages are hitting their mark.  Such models are a standard feature of the Agency Web Review report.

Eight years after the first review, who knows how the personality characteristics may have changed?  New factors are likely to emerge in association with key outcomes.  To find out, be sure to register for the 2013 Agency Web Review.

 

From their keyboard to your web designer

(Second in a series of three posts)

As we introduce the 2013 Agency Web Review, we are reviewing highlights from the 2004 edition.

It is great for an agency to get numeric ratings on various aspects of its website—especially when comparable ratings for a group of other agency websites are available to show relative strengths and weaknesses.

But the ratings come to life when designers and mobilizers learn the specific reasons beneath the great ratings—or when they get suggestions to improve elements of their site.

Back in 2004, when we first gathered opinions of dozens of agency sites, social media was still in its infancy and dialogue with prospects was much less prevalent—so getting actionable feedback from the target audience was more difficult.

Today future missionaries have more channels to offer ideas—the challenge is getting them to take time to look closely and consider how their input can help.

Next month, the Agency Web Review will provide incentives to those considering cross-cultural service to spend several minutes observing agency websites—and then offering their opinions about them.  In addition to numeric ratings, respondents will provide open-ended feedback on their initial impressions, the website’s strengths, and elements that can be improved.

Here are some of the verbatim quotes from future missionaries.  Would any of these apply to your site?

It was attractive, but it wasn’t obvious what they did.

 

It was a little cluttered with things and I really didn’t know what I should click on. But it was VERY informative.

 

Really liked the home page and the different pictures that come up when you point at the options to enter.

 

Opportunities— list was hugely long—I had no idea which ones to select.  Perhaps narrow the categories a bit for a first selection.

 

They recommended books which would be helpful for someone looking for more resources and help in a particular area.

 

I liked the opportunity boxes that popped up over the world and then I could click on them.

 

Include more stories about past missionaries’ experiences.

 

I love the emphasis on prayer. I think that it probably points to a good orientation.

 

Things weren’t hidden in fine print from what I could tell in my brief study. Everything seemed very up-front.

 

Give more detail about service opportunities without requiring a person to receive mailings.

 

I could not find a belief statement.

 

It is impressive they have the site in a different language.

 

Increase the size of the font, I can barely read it.

 

Visually a bit sparse, but seemed spiritually grounded.

 

There is a lot going on, visually creative. I wanted to learn more.

 

Seemed to be more focused on their organization than on the people they were serving, kind of a turn off.

 

Mission and values were clearly stated and inspiring.

 

The global map links on the home page didn’t all work.  I couldn’t find a webmaster link to report it.

 

How do I actually work for (agency)!? I have no idea how to apply or what to do if I want to work with them!

 

Present more ‘in your face’ opportunities to serve or donate.

 

I really liked that one of the first things I saw invited me to pray with the group.  It gave me a way to get involved right now.

At the agency level, this kind of feedback is especially valuable for designers.  Collectively, comments about dozens of sites can be coded and analyzed for helpful trends.  Comments in the 2004 study most frequently related to the following:

  • Ease of Navigation
  • Quantity of Information
  • Organization of Site
  • Design / Layout / Color
  • Graphics / Photos

The most-frequently-mentioned opportunities for improvement fell into these categories:

  • Information about Opportunities
  • Visual Style / Layout
  • Information About the Agency
  • Text / Font
  • Verbal Style

What kinds of ideas has your agency implemented on its website based on the suggestions of visitors?  Add a comment and let us know!