The Truth of Missionary Attrition

Many missionary candidates have insufficient theological education, ministry training, ministry experience, or spiritual maturity.  This creates a need for pre-departure theological, spiritual and ministry training.  Many leave for the mission field overconfident with unrealistic expectations and ultimately leave their missionary career because they were not adequately prepared for what awaited them. (Brynjolfson 2006, 9)

Missionary attrition results in significant resource losses, creating sustainability issues for missionary work.  According to Taylor (1997, 9-13), the attrition rate among evangelical missionaries in the late 1990s was about 5.1% per year, 71% of which was preventable.  That means the attrition of 5,368 missionaries per year may have been prevented, either by more thorough screening or by better training. 

The findings in the data from the ReMAP research project indicate that a large investment by mission agencies in missionary candidate selection and pre-field training is necessary for reducing the preventable attrition rate. (Blocher and Lewis 1997, 117)

Much of the current literature on missionary attrition is written about or in response to the World Evangelical Fellowship’s (WEF) study, the Reducing Missionary Attrition Project II (ReMAP II).  This study included data solicited from 598 agencies headquartered in 22 countries.  The ReMAP II report ranks 26 reasons why missionaries leave mission service (Brierley 1997, 92).  While reasons like retirement, health problems and elderly parents may not be preventable, Bloecher (2005), Hay (2006) and Van Ochs (2001, 2005) indicate that,

better screening, training and shepherding during the selection and preparation process may have helped to prevent other reasons for missionaries leaving service

(e.g. problems with children, conflict with peers, personal concerns, or poor cultural adaptations).  Blocher (2004, 2-4) quantifies the correlation between a lack of training and higher missionary attrition.

Concerned with financial losses due to attrition, secular multi-national entities (MNE) have also studied the problem of attrition of overseas personnel.  Experts report attrition rates of 16-70% among expatriates with 50-70% of expatriate managers serving overseas returning early or under-performing due largely to a lack of training and preparation (Harrison 1994, 17; Ko and Yang 2011, 158; Osman-Gani and Rockstuhl 2009, 277). 

Attrition and under performance of expatriates cost secular MNEs as much as $250,000 to $1 million (Littrell and Salas 2005, 307) or $2 billion collectively each year (Ghafoor 2011, 338).  It can be assumed that the costs for overseas MNE attrition may be proportionally equal to overseas missionary attrition.  As stewards of kingdom resources, churches, mission agencies and missionaries should be concerned about the financial losses resulting from missionary attrition and ineffective ministry. 

Sometimes a lack of cross-cultural understanding on the part of the worker or missionary contributes to preventable attrition.  Gannon (2011, 4) says, “… [H]umans compare a new and uncertain situation to something with which they are thoroughly familiar in order to understand it.”  If the familiar is not similar to the new and uncertain, misunderstanding results.  Living and working in a cross-cultural environment complicates individual life, family life and work.  

It is easy for the expatriate or missionary to think he or she is behaving correctly or communicating effectively when sometimes the hosts are simply being polite or seeking to gain something from the visitor. 

This lack of understanding and familiarity leads to stresses that can be overwhelming.  Some of the stresses of serving in a foreign culture can be addressed biblically, but effective cross-cultural ministry also requires an understanding of the customs, thinking and beliefs of the host culture (Elmer 2002; Taylor 1997).


Bloecher, Detlef, and Jonathan Lewis. 1997. “Further findings in the research data.” In Too valuable to lose: exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition, edited by William D. Taylor, 105–25. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Bloecher, Detlef. 2005. “Good agency practices: lessons from ReMAP II.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 41 (2): 227–37.

Brierley, Peter W. 1997. “Missionary attrition: the ReMAP research report.” In Too valuable to lose: exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition, edited by William D. Taylor, 85–104. Pasadena, CA: World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission.

Brynjolfson, Robert. 2006. “Maximizing informal learning in an intentional missionary training community.” Deerfield, IL: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Elmer, Duane. 2002. Cross cultural connections : stepping out and fitting in around the world. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Gannon, M.J. 2011. “Cultural metaphors: their use in management practice as a method for understanding cultures.” Online Readings In Psychology And Culture, 7 (1).

Ghafoor, Shahzad, and Uzair Farooq Khan. 2011. “Evaluation of expatriates performance and their training on international assignments.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business 3 (5): 335–51.

Harrison, J. Kline. 1994. “Developing successful expatriate managers: a framework for the structural design and strategic alignment of cross-cultural training programs.” Human Resource Planning 17 (3): 17–35.

Hay, Rob, ed. 2006. Worth keeping: global perspectives on good practice in missionary retention. William Carey Library.

Littrell, Lisa N., Eduardo Salas, Kathleen P. Hess, Michael Paley, and Sharon Riedel. 2006. “Expatriate preparation: a critical analysis of 25 years of cross-cultural training research.” Human Resource Development Review 5 (3): 355–88.

Taylor, William David. , ed. 1997. Too valuable to lose : exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Ko, Hsiu-Ching, and Mu-Li Yang. 2011. “The effects of cross-cultural training on expatriate assignments.” Intercultural Communication Studies 20 (1): 158–74.

Osman-Gani, Aahad M., and Thomas Rockstuhl. 2009. “Cross-cultural training, expatriate self-efficacy, and adjustments to overseas assignments: an empirical investigation of managers in Asia.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 33 (4): 277–90.

Van Ochs, B. 2001. “Ten challenges that may make going home look attractive.” EMQOnline, October. Accessed March 18, 2014.

David Selvey<
David is the pastor of global outreach at Faith Church and the executive director of Faith Global Missions. He serves as a counselor in Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry and teaches in and plans international conferences. David has served as a missionary and worked as a small business owner. He and his wife, Kathy, have lived in Indiana since 1995 and have been members of Faith Church since 1996.