Missionary Attrition

07 Apr 2023

I’m trying to figure out who has up to date research and data on American missionary attrition rates. How long are people being sent from the West lasting out on the field these days? We are still using old data from the ReMap studies which are like 20 years old that said like 47% of missionaries weren’t making it past their first term…

The first ReMap survey (in “Too valuable to lose,” p. 86) analyzed an extensive survey of agencies for 1992-1994, and said the average number of workers who left was 3.4 per society per year, or 5.1% of each society’s mission force. That means each society retained 95% of its mission force year-on-year.

Some 3 percentage points of that 5% (or slightly more than half) were for “preventable reasons.” Note that this attrition was per-society: some percentage (not easily calculable) of those lost later returned to the field with other agencies, and thus weren’t actually lost to the field.

The ReMap survey didn’t ask about which term those lost were in, although it cited a WGM study in 1986 suggested half of its attrition occurred by the end of its first term (not half of missionaries).

The ReMap II study reported that, generally, agencies keep 96% (losing 4%) of their personal year-on-year. This is a little better, but hardly worth shouting about. The percentage of loss still seems small, but the study makes an interesting point: this rate, if kept over 10 years, means the agency would lose nearly half of its work force (slide 7). I wasn’t entirely convinced of this, so I quickly did the following spreadsheet to confirm:


So what would the result be if you factored in attrition of 5% and an equal recruitment of 5%? For an agency of 1,000, something like the following would be the pattern if half of the attrition was in the first 2 years (12.5% each year), and the remaining 25% of attrition were spread out over the remaining years (in this case, over a decade):


Is the current 2020 situation anything like the rates cited in ReMap and ReMap II? I queried a half dozen of the larger mission agencies in the United States and came away with several consistent notes:

  • “a remarkably stable 6.5% resign from the mission, about half of these in the first 4 years”
  • another agency: “median length of service on the field was five years”
  • another: “median length of of service is between 11 to 13 years, and heard anecdotally that other orgs are around 7 to 9 years”

A median length of service of 10 years is consistent with a 95%+ retention rate.

Some thoughts immediately come to mind:

  • single digit attrition doesn’t seem that bad
  • some attrition is obviously inevitable (retirement, death, loss of visa, move to a different role in a different country)
  • some attrition is preventable, and agencies work on that, but it’s only about half of the total attrition in most cases–so even if all of it were prevented, you’d still have about a 2 to 3% attrition rate
  • agencies need a nearly equal rate of recruitment in order to keep their numbers stable
  • not to be too rude about it, but it’s better to have a high % of attrition in the early years than in the later years. People become more effective the longer they stay on the field means losing less of the experience and effectiveness gained in time. The theoretical model above illustrates this point perfectly.

On the other hand, if recruitment rates don’t keep up with the attrition rates, a slow decline would ensue: