I was recently asked for the source of a statistic:
“75% of missionaries return home within the first three years and never go back to a foreign field”
I’ve confirmed the stat is often quoted but without source in various places around the Web. So I began digging today for the original source. Bill Taylor (WEA Mission Commission) confirmed to me that the stat was a myth, tossed around in the early 1990s during their work om missionary attrition (see the ReMAP studies). It originated as a misquote from an EMQ article. As far as I can tell this originated from a July 1976 article, “Twenty to Fifty Percent Fail to Make It–Why?” by J. Richard Arndt, containing an interview with Dr. Steven Lindquist (the father of my friend Dr. Brent Lindquist), in which he said:
JRA: In general, how many Protestant missionaries are severely debilitated due to psychological and emotional problems?
SEL: Although there is no clear answer, some authorities have stated that 50 percent of all first-term missionaries have to return to the States, or are limited in their effectiveness while remaining in the field. I think this figure is misleading because it includes short-termers. I think the figure of about 20 percent suggested by many mission boards may be more realistic. When you consider that most mission boards figure it costs them $20,000 to $40,000 out-of-pocket, depending upon the field, to send and language-train a missionary, each loss is a significant financial drain to a board. Multiply this times the number of drop-outs and the figure is frightening. This figure does not include the personal costs of the missionary in getting ready to go. Whatever the figure, the essential point is that if only one person develops psychologically debilitating problems, we need to help in the best way we can.
Further, many physical problems which missionaries experience are often related to emotional problems. As one missionary recently told me (who had to return home because of various physical diseases), “My main problem was emotional. Emotional upset led to my being physically run-down, and so I fell prey to the other physical problems I now have. If I had been stronger emotionally, I believe this would not have happened.”
How this eventually became “75%” I don’t know. But as far as I can tell, the statistic is incorrect. Now, a caveat: there are other related but unpublished statistics from various organizations, so it might not be too far off yet: but I wouldn’t be citing this one. This one is too far off.