by Frank Allen
In many cases, deeper problems lie behind so-called poor interpersonal relationships.
"Is it true that the main reason missionaries leave the field is because of poor interpersonal relationships?"
This question has been put to me twice in recent months. The first came from a young man writing an article saying that the answer was Yes. The second came from a young couple, Bible school graduates.
Their question reflected a popular assumption. I have never seen any studies to substantiate it. But my observations cause me to doubt its validity.
During much of my nearly 29 years in the Philippines I was either a college administrator or the field director. Until I left in 1981,I knew all but one of our missionaries who had served there since 1947.I also knew why those who had left had done so.
Of course, some left for natural reasons: marriage, health, retirement, and death, to name the most common ones. But as I have reviewed our field’s history, I would say that poor interpersonal relationships were only one of a number of reasons why our people left, and certainly not the paramount one. There are many other reasons that must be given at least as much credence. These I am going to discuss below: lack of gifts, culture shock, unfulfilled expectations, morals, family problems, disagreements with the mission, and difficulties with the language. I am also going to suggest that in many cases deeper problems lie behind so-called poor interpersonal relationships.
Lack of gifts. How many missionaries have tried a field ministry without the requisite gifts? We can only guess, but I have been shocked looking over candidate papers of potential evangelists and church planters. When asked about their evangelistic experiences, most could only say that they had led a junior Sunday school boy to Christ, or an "eight-year-old girl at camp." Few could tell about any experiences with adults on a regular basis.
Yet here they were, wishing to minister to adults in another culture, in a strange language, to establish churches. They had never done anything like this in their own culture and tongue. Their subsequent work revealed their lack of gifts and many gave up and went home.
Culture shock. Luzbetak defines culture shock as "a breakdown, an attack, a stroke, or exhaustion resulting from improper adjustment to cultural frustrations and jolts" (The Church and Cultures, p. 98.) He explains that the victim of culture shock "either clings blindly and immovably to his original ways, or he blindly and indiscriminately renounces his former ways and values in favor of the ways and values that are responsible for the culture shock" (p. 97).
Although it is not popular to admit, culture shock is responsible for a significant number of missionary drop-outs. It may be seen as a refusal to accept any changes at all. Those going through culture shock constantly talk about how great the United States is, even though they may be very critical of the U.S. when at home. They look at everything that’s different as being wrong.
Perhaps its ultimate expression is reflected in this comment by a missionary: "I have not yet met a national I can respect." This was said in a country where national church leaders can genuinely be described as outstanding.
Obviously, this feeling is closely linked to ethnocentricity. It is, no doubt, easier to say that one’s fellow missionaries are "impossible" to live with than it is to admit one’s inability or unwillingness to overcome culture shock.
There is, perhaps, a more subtle form of culture shock to which many missionaries succumb. A colleague once referred to this as "culture fatigue," where, although they have adapted well, they may eventually be worn down by the constant adjustments to different ways of doing, thinking, and speaking.
Unfulfilled expectations. Years ago when things did not always turn out right for new candidates, someone would remind us that there was "many a slip ‘tween the lip and the ship." There still is. Sometimes years can elapse between the time a person is contacted by a mission and the time he or she arrives on the field. By then, the position for which he or she was recruited has been filled-many times by a qualified national-and another role is called for.
Some missionaries can make the switch, but others can’t and they are devastated. That means another missionary casualty, another volunteer returning home with deep disappointment.
Morals. Given the circumstances, it’s cause for praise that missionaries do not more often fall into sexual immorality. After all, the missionary community is a microcosm of U.S. churches where, tragically, such cases are on the increase. Some missionary husbands neglect their wives, and vice-versa. When this happens and either one is thrown into close, continuous contact with another man or woman (including nationals), there’s grave potential for an affair. Single missionaries, too, face unique temptations and sometimes they are overpowered in trying to meet their needs. But on the whole, from what I’ve seen in many missions over many years, relatively few missionaries are sent home for sexual immorality.
Family problems. Here is a major reason for missionary attrition, with several contributing factors. For one, parents may be overly permissive and feel that any kind of limits, guidelines, or discipline for their children are old-fashioned. Their children grow up with all kinds of problems and insecurities, which in the end demand departure from the field. Of course, overly strict parents can produce similar problems by removing all choices from their children and turning them into automatons.
A second factor is disagreement among parents over the nurture and discipline of their children. Problems between spouses cause tensions that ultimately tear up the children emotionally.
Third, parents, especially husbands, may be too busy doing "the Lord’s work" to give sufficient attention to their families. Samuel Rowen of Missionary Internship asks, "Does God ever lead people to neglect their God-given responsibilities in order to serve him elsewhere?" (Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July, 1985).
I once knew a father who, after traveling hundreds of miles to visit the school where his children lived, to pay their fees, would leave before school was out without seeing them. He said he had much work to do in that city. Imagine what this communicated to his children.
Disagreements with the mission. Disagreements fail into two categories: those with mission policies and practices (including finances), and those with field leaders. Probably one of the keenest disappointments that new missionaries face is that everyday life on the field is a far cry from what was told them by the agency’s recruiter. The romantic days eventually end.
The candidate selection process should include a question-and-answer session on mission policies, practices, and doctrines. Such matters are far too important to take for granted, especially the sensitive issue of finances.
Regarding friction between field leaders and missionaries, the characteristic North American individualism does not make for either good teamwork, or for the recognition of duly delegated authority (especially among peers).
Ralph Winter once remarked that the words, "The Lord is leading me," are probably one of the greatest obstacles to effective missionary work. Individual "leading" can wreak havoc with the carefully laid plans and strategies of mission leaders.
When missionaries talk about poor interpersonal relationships, they usually mean friction between themselves and their leaders. If the mission director disagrees with the "leading of the Lord" in someone’s life, he may be suspected of unspirituality or even heresy.
Language. Much missionary work, especially in evangelism and church planting, demands a mastery of another language. To accomplish this requires rigorous discipline and self-effacement. Missionaries must be willing to be embarrassed, to be laughed at, and at times to be humiliated.
Willingness to subject oneself to this discipline does not come easily, and some are either unable or unwilling to do so. At times a ministry in English can be found for the language dropout, but for others there is no alternative but to return home.
Experience and observation tell me that the above circumstances account for more missionary casualties than do poor interpersonal relationships. As a field director, I did encounter problems between missionaries, but I can’t recall a single case where someone had to leave the field for that reason. Therefore, when I hear that reason given, questions are raised in my mind: Are the poor relationships between missionaries and their field leaders? Are the missionaries unwilling to submit to authority? Or, do the missionaries have deeper problems?
Poor relationships do exist, but I am not convinced that they are the major cause of missionary attrition. My theory that poor relationships indicate deeper problems needs to be tested. Mission agencies must do more research on missionary attrition. Mission agencies also can assist dropouts to leave the field with dignity and encourage their home churches to accept them with genuine understanding. If headquarters can accomplish this, ex-missionaries will then feel free to disclose the real reasons why they left the field.
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