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.

 

Applied research helps donors, implementers to be better partners

Research provides a needed listening function for the mission community.  Listening well results in better understanding, and better understanding usually leads to better ministry.

A great example of the way that research increases understanding and leads to practical action in ministry is the Lausanne Standards project that fosters dialogue and collaboration among ministry implementers and funders about the giving and receiving of money in mission.

Check out this entertaining whiteboard video that illustrates (literally) how the Lausanne Standards were developed and the role that research played.

GMI is honored to have conducted the first round of research (mentioned in the presentation) that supported the development of the Lausanne Standards.   Rob Martin, Lausanne Senior Associate for Global Philanthropy, whose voice (and likeness) feature prominently in the video, graciously gave us permission to discuss some of that research here on this blog.

A survey of 147 mission leaders – divided roughly 55/45 between ministry implementers and ministry donors – revealed that both groups agreed that positive funding partnerships are almost always an important issue.  However, the leaders were divided on whether partnerships were problematic, and what the nature of the problems (if any) and solutions were.

Cluster analysis led to the identification and description of four “attitude segments” among ministry donors and implementers.  This enabled the research sponsors to understand the likely objections to developing a set of guidelines for philanthropic partnerships.

 

Each of these groups believes that funders and implementers want to partner well with one another.  However, each could pose a significant objection to the process of developing standards for effective funding partnerships.  Proceeding clockwise around the grid, from top left:

  1. Standards aren’t enough to fix the problems of dependence and power in philanthropy!  We need to overhaul the system and create new structures for working together.
  2. There isn’t a problem to address – the perceived conflicts in philanthropic partnerships are exaggerated.  Just because the work is hard doesn’t mean the system is broken.
  3. You can’t engineer a policy-based solution to a spiritual problem.  Partnership issues will dissolve when people focus more on the Lord and recognize their common dependence on God.
  4. Codes and policies are no substitute for deeper relationships with one another.  Making a greater effort to understand our neighbor will lead to more effective partnership, with or without a set of standards.

The Lausanne working group’s responses to these objections are:

  1. Yes, we can benefit from creating new forms.  Finding points of affirmation is a perfect starting point.
  2. Yes, the work is challenging, and good communication will help us to address challenges more effectively.
  3. Yes, human-centered solutions are insufficient.  Agreements must be developed and implemented in reliance on the Spirit.
  4. Yes, we must grow in understanding – and agreed-upon standards reflect an increasing level of understanding.

Watch the video again to see how some of these messages are communicated clearly and effectively.  That’s research in action!  Here, segmentation is not a tool to create or emphasize division but a means of addressing concerns to develop consensus and discover unity among varied perspectives.

Research for the sake of knowledge puffs up, but research for the sake of love builds up (variation on 1 Corinthians 8:1).  How are you are seeing research applied in your area of ministry?

Is Research Biblical?

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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!