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.

 

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.

 

 

New research: Perceptions about mission internships

This post teases GMI’s upcoming survey report on perceptions of mission internships among current and future missionaries.

UK-based mission researcher and Redcliffe College principal Rob Hay told me (years ago) that his research among future missionaries in Europe showed that many intended to serve long term, but few were willing to make a career-length commitment to an individual agency.

So, GMI thought that mission internships (6 months to 3 years) would make a good survey topic for its North American panels of long-term cross-cultural field missionaries and people considering long-term cross-cultural field service.

This post deals with an open-ended question about perceptions.  More than 300 field missionaries and more than 300 people considering long-term cross-cultural service were asked:

When you think of cross-cultural field internships, what are a few of the first words that come to mind?

Here are word clouds reflecting the frequency of the top 100 response terms.

Prospective Cross-Cultural Missionaries:

Current Cross-Cultural Missionaries: 

What do you notice about these two word clouds?  Here are a few things I noticed:

  • For future missionaries, internships appear to be a learning experience that comes with a healthy dose of work.  For current field missionaries, internships appear to be a work experience that comes with a healthy dose of learning.
  • Future missionaries see internships as a spiritual experience. God was prospective interns’ fourth-most-frequently used term.  Also, Jesus, prayer and faith appear among frequently-used terms.  This group is eager to see God and to be a part of God’s work in the world.
  • By contrast, current field staff view internships as a ministry experience, something related to work and profession.  You can see Godin the word cloud, but on a much smaller scale, and almost no other spiritual terms.  Hopefully, this isn’t reflective of the spirituality of field missionaries!  Rather, it shows that they view internships through the lens of work activity.
  • Work dominates the current field missionary cloud.  They likely view internships not only as a lot of work for the intern, but also as a lot of work for resident missionaries.  Interns require a good deal of supervision and mentoring, which takes time.  There are immediate benefits in terms of enthusiastic service and future benefits in terms of long-term recruiting potential, but obtaining those rewards has a cost: work.
  • Both groups see experience as a key descriptor of mission internships.  But in what sense is the word used?  Is it about having a valuable experience (to be reflected upon) or is it about gaining experience (to be applied in the future)?  For current missionaries, the perspective is forward-looking, with future, preparation and potential appearing.  For prospects, there is a bit more balance.  While long-term and training are prominent, so is rewarding – suggesting intrinsic value, not just preparatory value.
  • Both groups see internships as an opportunity and are generally positive about them.  Good and great appear in moderate-to-large type in both clouds.  Current field workers also used the terms beneficial, excellent, positive and effective.
  • Both groups also are well aware that mission service of any length is challenging.
  • Time is a key element in internships.  In both clouds, the words time, term, long and short appear.
  • Financial considerations are an issue for prospective missionaries.  Support and fundraising aren’t the most prominent terms, but they are a real challenge/barrier for some prospects.  Those terms don’t show up on field missionaries’ radar as a key element of internships – they may assume that people considering long-term service will certainly be able to raise funding for a shorter-term opportunity (with those dollars easier to raise because they do not require a long-term commitment from donors).

What do you see in these clouds?  What are you concerned that you can’t see?

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.