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.