by Helen Louise Herndon
The “missionary dropout” syndrome has been around for many years and has been used to “cover a multitude of sins.”
The "missionary dropout" syndrome has been around for many years and has been used to "cover a multitude of sins." Boards quote statistics regarding percentages of dropouts; former missionaries live with a guilty, second-class citizenship complex; and churches and missions-minded Christians are perplexed about how to treat the returned ones, or even what to call them, e.g., exmissionary or former missionary.
The problem is very complex. People return home for a variety of reasons, not just because they couldn’t make it. To label all of them "dropouts" is about as sensible as labeling all former military personnel A. W. 0. L., (absent without leave).
Part of the missionary dropout problem has been neglected. It is the phenomenon of "missionary pushouts." In other words, not only do people drop out of missions, but some are pushed out for a variety of reasons.
First, there is leadership that appears totalitarian in its exercise, almost usurping the place of God or the Holy Spirit in the missionary’s life. This type of leadership supersedes Scripture and demands unquestioning submission and obedience under the guise of "respect for authority." In a foreign situation, such leadership takes its toll. How many devoted laborers have returned home because they could not operate well or fulfill God’s purposes for them under such conditions?
There are organizational structures so rigid and regimented that only people with certain temperaments can survive and work within them, i.e., only the aggressive, achiever, choleric temperaments. Missionaries with more free-spirited, artistic natures have been crushed because they were not allowed to be themselves. They have even been led to believe they are not spiritual, when in reality the root issue was temperament or personality.
Second, some are pushed out because no one (church or board) is willing to be financially responsible for them. The response, "Trust the Lord for your needs," is often a cop-out for irresponsibility on the part of boards and churches. What pastor would serve a church unless it was willing to be responsible for him? There is also the question of whether or not support is sufficient, since most full-time workers must promise to boards they will not be involved in any "tent-making" activities; they must give all their time to the Lord’s work. Since support must be obtained by the workers, their charisma plays an important part in how much and how soon they raise it.
Third, another reason for "pushouts" is the issue of unresolved chronic problems on the field, i.e., problems that are never dealt with or resolved. It takes less effort to label problems as "personality conflicts" than as "sin", and by so doing we chop aimlessly at the fruit of the problems rather than at their root. God alone knows the need of Holy Spirit-led sensitive people on the field. It is not rare to find missionaries persecuting missionaries. Such cruelty and lack of love from "within" have disillusioned many a young, zealous, and idealistic worker. Missionaries are human, fallible beings belonging to human, fallible organizations. But the fact that we are Christians and Christian organizations should supersede the former condition.
Fourth, unintentional misconceptions of ministry and use of spiritual gifts also serves to push missionaries out of certain organizations. Perhaps Christian organizations need "truth in advertising" clauses as much as secular organizations. In other words, missionary probationers arrive to find a different situation or assignment than that which was described to them at home. Consequently , they find themselves either underqualified or underchallenged. Confusion and heart-searching set in quickly. They are asked to satisfy their dilemma by being willing to do anything for the Lord.
Our fifth and last reason pertains mainly to women. Many have professional backgrounds and much to offer, but often they meet male-dominated structures and attitudes overseas. They wind up feeling unappreciated by fellow missionaries and leaders, both professionally and as people. There is very little place in missions for Deborahs, Miriams, and Priscillas.
Not all of the above reasons are true all of the time. Yet there are enough cases to warrant concern, redefinition, and change. Prospective missionaries should ask discerning questions about records or data kept on file about boards and leaders, and their records of performance in interpersonal relationships.
There are several possible solutions to the "pushout" rate. One is setting up a neutral research and information clearing house for candidates and churches. This agency would keep records of boards. Missionaries leaving boards would submit their reasons. They would include constructive criticism (positive and negative observations). The neutral organization would over a period of time have a current statistical record on each board.
Missionary candidates are subjected to scrutinization from many different directions. They willingly submit to this process. It is time for boards to be open to the same scrutinization. The missionary/ mission board relationship should be a reciprocal one. A large turnover of personnel in a board does not always indicate a difficult field; sometimes it indicates a difficult board, leadership, or situation. One missionary I know learned for the first time on the day she resigned that her board lost more people than it gained. She should have been able to learn this before joining, not after quitting.
Missionary "pushouts" must no longer be given the fallacious label, "dropout." Their number must decrease in evangelical missions. As any group willing to take up this challenge and move towards a healthy change?
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