New research: Field staff estimate that 1 in 3 interns convert to long-term missions

In 2004 I attended The Mission Exchange/CrossGlobal Link (then EFMA/IFMA) Personnel Conference.  One of the breakout sessions dealt with AIM’s TIMO program, one of the longest-running mission internship programs.

There was a bombshell moment when the presenter cited statistics about how many of the interns were still on the field. (I can’t recall exactly, but the numbers were staggering — something along the lines of 90 percent still serving, two-thirds of those with AIM.)  Mobilization directors’ jaws were dropping across the room, and you could sense that any agency there that didn’t have an internship program would soon be considering one.

Given that prospective cross-cultural workers today are less likely than those in previous generations to commit to a lifetime of service with a particular agency or among a particular people, and internships seem to make sense — an on-field experience that allows future workers to understand what it takes to live and work “out there,” and a low-risk opportunity for agencies to train and assess the fitness of candidates.

But creating an internship program requires time and money – plus substantial cooperation from long-term field staff, who will have to oversee the interns. Is it worth the effort?

In November and December 2011, we put this question — actually, several questions — to the GMI Research Panels — large groups of current and future cross-cultural field missionaries ready to give their opinion on mission-related issues.  We asked about perceptions of field internships (defined as a cross-cultural field experience lasting from six months to three years); satisfaction with internship programs, the likelihood of prospective missionaries to do an internship, and estimated conversion of interns to long-term field staff.

We heard from more than 300 cross-cultural missionaries (from more than 18 agencies) and from more than 300 people who are considering long-term cross-cultural service.  The following charts show some of the topline statistics:

A third of prospective missionaries said they are somewhat or very likely to do a mission internship. As you might expect, interest increases with one’s commitment to entering long-term cross-cultural service. More than half of those who intend to serve long term said that they are somewhat or very likely to do an internship in preparation.

Three quarters of the field missionaries surveyed had experience with interns. Of those, 6 in 10 agreed or strongly agreed that they are satisfied with their agency’s internship program, while acknowledging in open-ended comments that internships involve a lot of work for field staff.

They also estimate that 45 percent of interns stay active in full-time field service after their internship, with a third continuing to serve with the agency for which they interned.

How does these perceptions compare with your experience?  Are field internships worth the effort?

In the next post, we’ll explore current and future missionaries’ open-ended comments about mission internships.

Keep your eye on the GMI store for the detailed report, which will include more information about the key elements that lead to satisfaction with internships, as well as descriptions of three types of interns based on their motivation for service.

Reflections on Mike O’Rear

GMI president Mike O’Rear died yesterday.

On Wednesday, I was geared up to post a couple of new, research-related items when Mike had his heart attack at GMI’s offices.  So, those posts will have to wait a while.

This blog isn’t personal –unless something changes, you won’t see my picture or my name here.  But it would be wrong not to mention a few personal reflections about Mike, a wonderful boss, mentor and friend.  If those reflections include a research lesson or two, it will more than justify my posting them here.

  • Mike had a great laugh.  When a visitor entered Mike’s office, it was never more than five minutes before you heard Mike’s warm, genuine laugh.  It showed how well he connected with people, how much he enjoyed them.  Mike found a lot of joy in life to laugh about.
  • Mike was a gifted editor.  When you submitted a report or other document to him, it almost always came back quickly, and improved.  His eye was keen for spelling, grammar, fact-checking, and accuracy in analysis.  Yet his edits were never discouraging.  He always communicated that you were on the right track.  I loved that.
  • Mike left the office on time.  He worked hard and made many sacrifices, as any CEO does.  But Mike encouraged his staff not to sacrifice family time for work and ministry and he led by example, usually eating lunch with family members and keeping regular office hours.  He might have burned the midnight oil after evenings with his kids; maybe he was up early to work from home.  But he honored his family by disciplining himself to go home shortly after five.
  • Mike had a deep sense of God’s calling.  When he talked with me two years ago about career plans and direction, his key question was, “What do you believe that God is calling you to?”  Mike was a trained researcher who didn’t do a lot of hands-on research – because he was called to be a leader and administrator in order to free others to do mission research.
  • Mike loved sharing credit with others.  Not just with those on his staff, but with other ministries.  Perhaps that came from his time working at the U.S. Center for World Mission with Dr. Ralph Winter, who famously said, “You can get a lot done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  Mike was glad when GMI’s work was acknowledged, but what he really enjoyed was successful projects done in partnership with others.
  • Mike would question conventional wisdom.  He wasn’t contrarian – saying B because others said A.  He was an independent thinker, unafraid to lobby for B if he thought it better than A.  Still, his counters were never personal or barbed, and his mind could be changed.  For Mike, ideas, actions and methods stood on their own merits.  I think one reason Mike believed in research was because of its ability to assess the value of both A and B – enabling people and organizations to affirm their course or change it for the better.

I will greatly miss Mike.

Is Research Biblical?


Welcome to the GMI research blog!

As Christ’s people people deliver the good news of Christ throughout the world, they can benefit from feedback to understand how the message is being understood and applied in various contexts.

Research is also useful for understanding ministry environments, for listening to constituents, for gauging progress, and for testing ideas.

We intend to use this blog to highlight results from our own research, to point people toward others’ research, and to discuss research methods, tools and resources.

Is research biblical?  Sometimes people might wonder, seeing where “knowledge makes arrogant” (1 Corinthians 8:1) and that David was punished for numbering his fighting men (2 Samuel 24).  When reliance on information is substituted for reliance on God, bad things happen.

However, those reliant on the Spirit can use research wisely, for it is commended…

  • by example (Nehemiah uses many forms of gathering information; Luke “investigated everything carefully from the beginning”);
  • by divine command (Numbers 13:1-2, where God commands Moses to send spies out to study the land); and
  • by principle (Psalm 111:2 — “Great are the works of the Lord; They are studied by all who delight in them”; Proverbs 27:23 — “Know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds”).

Perhaps an even stronger commendation of research — which we could define as “purposeful observing and listening” — is that it reflects the nature of God.  We know that God observes and listens.  In fact, the first divinely ordained baby name recorded in Scripture is “God hears”! (Genesis 16:11).

God hears not to gain information, but to demonstrate His concern for those He created and His desire to live in close relationship with them.  As people who are called to love God with all our mind (Matthew 22:37) and to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1), how could we do any differently?

A better question than “Is research biblical?” might be “What is the extent or limits to which research should be used in mission?”  In Planting Churches Cross-Culturally, David Hesselgrave identifies research (defined as “scientific observation”) as one of three sources of missiology (along with Revelation and Reflection).  In discussing research as a source, he points to three cautions as outlined by Augustine in On Christian Doctrine:

  1. Nothing in excess
  2. Value of worldly wisdom is small relative to that of the Scriptures
  3. Scriptural wisdom is the “standard of truth” that must be given priority

Some may feel that the application of research has already gone beyond its rightful role in the global work of the Church…but that’s a difficult case to make objectively.  In World Christian Trends, David Barrett and Todd Johnson note:

For global Christianity, a global organization with an annual budget of $270 billion, [the allocation for research activity] is an exceptionally small proportion: 0.03%.

Such a low outlay is short-sighted in the extreme by contemporary standards.  And only a small fraction of this goes to research on global mission.

(The fact that Barrett and Johnson are researchers and have a personal and professional stake in the matter shouldn’t dismiss their point!)

The purpose of this blog isn’t to appeal for more mission research funding (although we love to meet funders with a heart for the issue!), but to shine more light on mission research, to encourage and equip those involved in it, and to learn ourselves through dialogue with our readers.

We’d love to have your input in the conversation!