You’re looking in an overseas direction, maybe even beginning the sacrifices to get there.
Perhaps you’ve sold the Volvo, put the kids’ bikes on Facebook Marketplace, said goodbye to the grandmother you’re not sure will make it to your first home assignment.
Leaving is hard.
And maybe you’ve wondered, in all that it takes to get you to the land of your passion: What could make me leave the field?
why missionaries leave: “What could make me Go?”
First off: We live in a different era than the slideshows of yesteryear’s church basements. None of you need to pack your coffins on the boat (or 757). In fact, that would be weird.
That is to say, the mission field is more transitory.
Yes, the longer you’re there, hopefully the more effective you are in terms of loving in ways more culturally-relevant. Commitment. Cross-cultural communication. Language fluency. Relationship pathways and equity.
So the length of time you stay can be seen as an investment.
But it’s also easier than ever to bring a family on the field, or to be on the mission field for a length of time with obstacles: a food allergy, a counseling need, a disability, a health issue, an ailing parent, even political instability or hey, a random pandemic.
And it’s easier to leave–and even, in that way, to speak the Gospel to our own families in seasons they need it most.
It’s easier to say to yourself and your loved ones, We are not what we do, are not more worthy if we never leave. Our needs matter to God, too: Our depression or PTSD. Chronic fatigue. Burnout. Safety. And he loves us this much.
If you’re wondering why missionaries leave, realize sometimes you’ll work yourself out of a job–one of the best-case scenarios, yielding to national leadership. Or you’ve fulfilled a previously agreed-upon assignment length, and your project is finished successfully.
If I Should Be Staying, how can I stay?
But of course there are not-so-great reasons why missionaries leave. No one goes overseas hoping conflict with another missionary will be so crippling, healthy ministry can’t move forward. Or that a crime happens to someone you love.
Truth: Some of the reasons why missionaries leave are preventable.
Studies continue to shed light on missionary attrition. Research from authors at ALifeOverseas.com states that
the highest rated factors in the decision to return to a passport country as perceived by former missionaries were lack of missionary care, lack of integrity on the team, lack of freedom to pursue calling, team conflict, and confusion over role on the team.
In separate posts, ALifeOverseas.com also lists family-related factors (family and missions agency were some of the highest-weighted factors by missionaries, so consider the importance of choosing an emotionally-healthy agency!).
But the site also confirms team conflict is one of the greatest factors in why missionaries leave–including issues specific to women (e.g. limitations on their ministry roles, exclusion in communication or meetings, minimization of roles or opinions, or being assigned stereotypically female roles, like childcare).
Why Missionaries Leave: Free Download
Interested in a bit more depth? One of Go Serve Love’s roundtable partners, The Center for Missionary Mobilization and Retention, has issued a free 9-page pdf, Why Missionaries are Leaving the Field Prematurely.
“What does this mean for me?”
Diving into the posts and data above can help you go in with eyes wide open from the get-go. You can ask questions like,
- Is my agency emotionally healthy?
- Am I in an emotionally healthy place? (Do my spouse or I need to see a counselor before we leave?) What current issues in our family could swell beneath the stress pressure of overseas life–and how can we prepare ourselves in advance?
- Are there “red flags” in the character and integrity of potential teammates?
- How do my organization and those I work with view my gender and its associated roles? (Look beyond the organization’s statements and deeper into practice. Consider the post “Is There Gender-Bias in Christian Non-Profits?”)
- How clear and confident do I feel about my projected role on the team, adequate training for it, and my ability to fill it? How does this interact and overlap with other roles on the team?
- Does my organization have clear and adequate resources for “member care” of its staff?
- How do I handle conflict, and how have I handled it in the past? What resources does my agency have for conflict management?
- How well do I currently handle self-care (or soul-care, if that term helps)? How do I plan to make self-care a priority for myself, my spouse, and my family? Are there adequate finances, resources, and an organizational culture to promote this?
The moral of the story: Go with Eyes Wide Open
When it’s time for you to leave the field, God will reign over both your going and your arrival.
But if your premature leaving can be prevented? Go in with eyes wide open.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) releases October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
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