Beating the statistics

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How can YWAM be more effective long-term on the mission field? This paper was discussed recently in a Frontiers Mission school.

Beating the Statistics

During a recent consultation on ministry to one particular people group, it was suggested that close to 70% of the new workers who arrive on the field are no longer there at the end of five years. Few workers have stayed on the field more than 10 years. The issue was addressed via a panel discussion involving a panel of veteran workers (workers who have been there between five and fifteen years). Questions were presented to the panel by a moderator and by a group of prospective career workers.

That figure seems to be very high and assuming it is accurate, it needs to be understood in context. Because workers come for different types of assignments and from a number of different agencies who have varying requirements for preparation and qualification, it probably is not correct to lump the "70%" all together. Furthermore, it may be a moving statistic. That is, the people arriving today may have more staying power than those who arrived five or ten years ago, when living conditions were more difficult.

Regardless, the overall attrition rate is high. The sad fact is that many workers who came intending to stay as career workers, drop out. The information provided by the panel members, together with other related comments given during the consultation are summarized as follows:

Health Problems

A small number left for various health reasons. Local health care facilities are usually sub-standard which necessitates leaving; whereas if the same worker was in our country, he/she could stay on in ministry because adequate health care facilities are available here.


In places where schooling can be provided (usually via an international school or a shared 'home-schooling' arrangement), this is becoming less of a problem. Nevertheless, some have unrealistic expectations of what the schools can provide. Additionally, there are a number of workers located in outlying cities and towns who do not have access to either an organized school or shared home-school arrangement. Some come with the intention to home-school by themselves, but find that is not a workable solution. Candidates need to investigate and think through these issues.


Teams still need to be sent out to towns and cities where the good news is yet to be heard. The teams can be as small as 3 or 4 people and are often very isolated. Pastoral care is important, and where it is not provided from the outside, the agencies are good at cooperating to provide mutual pastoral care and accountability. Nevertheless, "high maintenance" people struggle, especially in isolated locations.

Depending upon one's personality, and the compatibility of the personalities of team members, the isolated location can prove to be emotional isolation as well as geographic isolation. Some workers cope with this by retreating emotionally (ie. withdraw from engaging their team members and the culture -- eg. lots of hours watching videos, etc.) That's not a healthy thing to do.

Prospective candidates should come informed about the pastoral care provided by their agency/team. Is it adequate? If possible, candidates should try to learn about the team they will be joining -- will they be compatible with the existing team and its ministry philosophy?

Life Style Change

Working as part of a small team requires a major life style change. In our culture, we live segregated lives where our co-workers, neighbors, extended family, church and close friends are often different people. In most of this field, where many workers are in small teams in isolated cities/towns, the team members live integrated lives. Even in the two or three larger centers, workers generally live more integrated life styles that we do in North America.

Workers respond to this differently depending upon their personalities and expectations. Some people can adjust to this far more easily than others.


Living under the stress of limited access nation security is a major factor in burnout in this field. Some workers cope well; others to not. Some get feeling that they are alone in the battle. Other burn out factors include: trying to do too much, discouragement and cultural fatigue (Someone once described cultural fatigue to walking in knee deep in water all day long).

Call to Ministry

The panel made the point that because agencies are recruiting more professionals (out of secular careers), some are coming without a real sense of a call to ministry. When the going gets tough, they return home to resume their (secular) careers. "Be sure of your call to ministry," the panel told the candidates.

Unrealistic Expectations and Inadequate Preparation

The panel was in agreement that the related issues of "unrealistic expectations" and "inadequate preparation" are the biggest causes for the high attrition. The issues are related in the sense that they can be addressed before the candidates leave for the field.

Unrealistic Expectations

The Drive for Results

Idealistic, goal-driven people arrive hoping to make a difference. But, unfortunately many cannot adjust their expectations to the realities of the field, and thus cannot understand/accept that measuring results is done in decades -- not in months, quarters or years, like we do here. === One worker told of co-workers who were discouraged because after several years of on-the-ground work, they planted only one "church" comprised of 4 believers. Our North America way of thinking has spoiled many of us from being willing to rejoice over one person coming to faith. Other panel members spoke of the frustrations of "three steps forward and two steps back" that comes in this ministry.

Goal-driven people need to be aware that adjusting their expectations will be a real challenge for them. They will need to be able to do so in order to have staying power after they get there.

Our Short Term Mindset [1]

Today's college students are told that in the course of their working years they will change jobs 4 or 5 times, and maybe even change career paths/professions. They expect to make changes. They expect to achieve results in short time frames. Thus the appeal of Short Term Missions.

Unfortunately, sending agencies can place too much emphasis on Short Term Missions, unwittingly creating a mindset that believes that effective transformational ministry can be completed in short bursts of activity. Then when the worker moves into fulltime service and finds that the results do not come as fast as they expected, his/her short term mindset equates that to failure. They too quickly abandon the task when instead they should be abandoning the mindset. The problem is not Short Term Missions, but rather the short term mindset. When working with resistant people groups, career workers (and their supporters) need a long term mindset and the stamina to stick with the task.

Mastering the Language

People arrive needing to learn two languages to be effective (the official national language and the people-group language). That takes skill, a lot of hard work and time. The first four years may be spent gaining just a working level ability in the languages (Rapid language learning may help).

The panel recommended that all candidates take language-learning testing. If that testing shows that the candidate does not have a reasonable or better chance at mastering another language, they should re-think their plans to go to this field. (There are a few jobs that can be done without local language skills, but they are very few.)

One worker added, "It's really hard to feel fulfilled when all you can show for your day's work is that you learned three new words, and at the same time you made a real hash of the grammar you used in talking to your language tutor. And that goes on day after day. Come with realistic language expectations and a determination to stick with language study until you have the language."

Career Fulfillment

The panel stated that this is a BIG ISSUE in today's world where most new workers have a professional education (aside from training in theology). Their professional designation or professional experience was a key requirement to getting their visa into the country (as compared to traditional cross-cultural work where a 2 - 4 year theology diploma or degree was the required educational training). However, once they get to the field they seldom get to really use their professional education. They suffer from "under-employment". For many this results in a serious lack of fulfillment. Candidates need to learn to get fulfillment from people & ministry relationships rather than in career results.

(I wonder too if there is sufficient on-going career development that enables people to grow in their ability to do the work they feel called to?steve-the-not-so-hasty 12:32, 21 April 2008 (CEST))

On the other hand, some are frustrated because living in these countries demands too many survival skills. For example, if you have a vehicle, you may have to be your own mechanic at times. That may be a stretch for someone who has been trained to teach English and who does not like dirt, grease and mechanical things.

Inadequate Preparation


The veterans really stressed this issue. These workers are going right into the thick of the spiritual battle. All too often, when discouragement comes or serious questions arise, their theology crumbles because it was too superficial. Unfortunately when this occurs, these workers return home discouraged, defeated and sometimes disillusioned with God. "Get a good understanding of spiritual warfare and come with a solid theological foundation" the panel told the candidates.

Inadequate Prayer Support

Too many prospective workers focus on raising their financial support and not enough time on developing a strong prayer team. Financial support gets them to the field, but prayer support is needed to keep them there. "Get as many committed prayer supporters as you can," one panel member recommended.

  1. This Point Was Not Made by the Panel. It Was Added as a Result of Feedback From Another Career Worker Who Reviewed These Findings.

Attribution of This Paper

This article was taken from a paper circulated during an SOFM 20/11/2007. Author unknown to Kevin