If attrition is one side of a coin, retention is the other side. Retention is more than reasons people don’t leave. When we talk about missionary retention, we are talking about the positive reasons that keep missionaries in their jobs.
The Engage! study, was conducted to follow up on what was learned in the U.S. sections of ReMAP II study (Nelson 2010, 1). “Nearly 1,800 active and former staff, representing eighteen sending agencies, have participated in Engage!” (Nelson 2010, 1), which focused on missionary retention. That represents a significant group within the missionary community.
The study identified several key influences that encourage continued service (Nelson 2010, 3-4):
(1) A continued sense of calling: Sometimes with the pressures of ministry and life, missionaries become overwhelmed. They begin to question their calling and purpose. After all, most of us have chosen the easier path of serving God in our home culture near family and comfort, so wouldn’t it be alright for a missionary to do that? The rest of us can help the missionaries keep their focus and assurance of their calling by encouraging them through prayer and communication. We can follow them on social media, subscribe to their blogs and email occasionally to tell them how we prayed for them. Let’s encourage our missionaries to keep on keeping onl. (2 Thess 2:13-15)
(2) An awareness on the part of leadership of missionaries’ needs: Our leadership team at Faith Global Missions strives to maintain an awareness of our missionaries’ needs. Likewise, as church leaders we should be aware of the needs of our missionaries, both personal and ministry. Let’s be so well connected to our missionaries and so aware of their needs that they would not consider doing something else. (Rom 12:9-13; 2 Cor 9:10-15)
(3) Financial provision: Many American companies have learned that it is less costly to pay good people well than it is to try to replace people who are underpaid. Think of how much more likely you are to stay in a position of employment if you don’t have to worry about the grocery money next week. We often collect nice salaries and benefits for a good 40 hour a week job in the U.S. and expect missionaries to work twice the hours for much less pay. We should be generous with those serving in ministry. Let’s make sure our missionaries are well cared for financially so they don’t think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. (Phil 4:15-19)
(4) a sense of personal usefulness: It’s hard to stick around if you don’t feel useful. Let’s encourage our missionaries by praising their efforts and their faithfulness. I’m not saying we should paint a false picture or ignore problems, but some of us could use more practice encouraging others rather than criticizing them. (Phil 2:25)
William Taylor suggested the leading causes of “preventable” attrition, “…have to do primarily with character and relationships” (Taylor 1997, 13), so character and attitude must be a main point of focus in missionary preparation. These same factors are positive influences for retention. Spiritual formation and interpersonal skills are of primary importance for missionary retention and their lack promotes attrition. Spiritual character is what ultimately determines if a missionary maintains a sense of his or her calling. Spiritual character is what ultimately determines if a missionary remains faithful even when others are unaware of his or her needs. Spiritual character is what ultimately determines if a missionary is content with the financial provisions God has granted in His grace. Spiritual character is what ultimately determines if a missionary is what determines a missionary’s true sense of usefulness. (Rom 8:26-39)
Nelson, James. 2010. “The Engage! Study executive summary.” EMQOnline 46 (July): 1–8. Accessed August 4, 2013. http://www.emisdirect.com.
Taylor, William David. ed. 1997. Too valuable to lose : exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.v