How life seasons affect mission recruitment and attrition
Last week, I went to the funeral of a wonderful woman–my great aunt. She was 93, and had lived a great life full of faith, with a heritage of many believing children. At the funeral, one of her children said to me, “We must all stay in touch. It’s just us now–that generation is gone.” And that’s true. Funerals are a very definite form of closure–not just for the people who’ve died, but also for us. Our lives become different for the lack of that person. We transition into a new stage.
We can’t avoid these kinds of transitions. There are two seasons of life that are major ‘transition seasons,’ affecting mission recruitment. One is the 20s, roughly, when people are either getting married or having kids. If they are on the field when they marry or have children, this can deeply affect the decisions about staying on the field. The other is roughly the 40s, when people have to make decisions about children’s higher education, or have to help with aging parents. Helping people through these transitions are equally important. It’s possible that the worker who comes off the field for kids can go back on the field later.
I’m in my 40s, so I’m in the stage where those 40 and older when I was born (namely, parents, grandparents, and everyone in that generation) begin to pass on. The average life expectancy is going up, but not everyone lives longer. My mother passed away a few years ago. Earlier this year, my great-uncle (who was a grandfather to me, my mother being orphaned early in life) passed away. Last week, my great-aunt (other side of the family, but the last of a trio that were kind of a grandparent to me on ‘that’ side) passed away as well. So we’ve been doing funerals lately. Fortunately, they were all strong believers, so we grieve with hope.
Such transitions are inevitable and unavoidable. There are two questions we must resolve for ourselves:
- first, if people leave the field at these transitions, are they failures? Yes, we need more workers, and yes, we shouldn’t use excuses to allow us the option of laziness or selfishness that is in fact disobedience. But neither should we assume people who decide to come off the field are less saintly workers who just ‘couldn’t cut it.’ This is where I have a little problem with the “pack your belongings in a casket” mentality – because, while I admire the passion, in “the fine print” of daily life, it makes people who come off the field judge themselves failures.
- second, if people leave the field, does it mean their work is done? Those who leave today may go back tomorrow. Consider C. T. Studd, who to China as one of the Cambridge Seven with CIM (later OMF), then returned to England, where he formed what would eventually be WEC International (now 2,000+ workers).
Field deployments may be temporary and shifting, while participation may be lifelong and take different forms. When transitions are inevitable we need to help people make them with grace. The investments we make in people can help them on to even more fruitful ministries later (fruit that may or may not help us).
One way to do this is to consider in advance the various stages of the missionary career, making sure that individual stages are meaningful, helping people anticipate transitions and make choices, and providing easy on- and off-ramps toward different kinds and levels of involvement.
If the Christian life isn’t a one-time event (baptized and you’re done), why should missions be? We sometimes think of a mission ‘success’ as this: a person persuaded, packed on a plane, and sent off to be permanently somewhere else. (Mother Theresa, William Carey, etc). But for the vast majority, it just doesn’t happen that way. We should think of mission as a journey, where we invite the prospective candidate to join a band of pilgrims on a pilgrimage, and help them through every stage of the trip.
As has been said around Ethne circles: if you want go quick, go alone – if you want to go far, go together. We are about doing the Great Commission, yes, but we are also about becoming family along the way.