This blog post was originally posted on the blog “A Life Overseas.” It is reposted with permission from the author. Craig Thompson and his family served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan for 10 years before returning to the USA. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures.

A survey of missionary attrition

In the five years since Andrea Sears conducted her survey on missionary attrition, she’s been steadily analyzing and releasing the results, topic by topic. Late last year at her Missions Experience blog, she posted the data on how “expectations factors” affect missionaries’ decisions to leave the field.1 Andrea Sears, “Expectations Factors,” The Missions Experience,” October 14, 2021. Her findings show that at least half of the former missionaries surveyed “experienced disconnects between their expectations and reality” in the five areas of:

  • team members, reported by 62%
  • community, 58%
  • relationships back home, 54%
  • ministry results, 52%
  • job responsibilities, 50%

And in looking at how unmet expectations contributed to the respondents’ attrition, she finds the top four factors to be:

  • team members, reported by 65%
  • job responsibilities, 64%,
  • community, 61%
  • family life, 56%

A survey of missionary expectations

These findings are interesting in and of themselves, but they remind me of the results of another survey, one that formed the basis of Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission, by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss. In their book, published in 2010, the two take a deep dive into the role expectations play in navigating cross-cultural work. In 2013, I referenced their work when I wrote about the topic of expectations at my blog.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations lately and hope to address it here in the coming months. To start, I’d like to repost my article below, in a slightly edited form. It originally appeared under the title “Missionaries, Don’t Let Your Expectations Weigh You Down.”

I remember the good old days when you could pack 70 pounds into each of your two checked bags on international flights—at no extra cost. That meant that when our family of six moved overseas, we could take 840 pounds of clothes, books, sheets, cake mixes, and the like. And we used just about every ounce of it.

It could be argued that we didn’t need to take that much with us, but we’re Americans, after all, and we Americans don’t often pack light. I’ve traveled with people from other countries, and even on short trips, I invariably seem to end up lugging the largest pieces of luggage. What if there’s a pool nearby? Better bring swimming trunks, and a towel. What if it snows? Then what if I spill something on my Friday jeans? Will I need work shoes? What if somebody throws a formal party?

There’s also another set of luggage that cross-cultural workers tend to overpack. It’s the bags that hold our assumptions, our plans, . . . our expectations.

Expectations exceeded reality

In 2010, Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss surveyed 323 female missionaries on how their expectations corresponded to reality on the mission field. The results form the backbone of their excellent book Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission. What they found is that our pre-field predictions often don’t measure up to our on-field experiences. (I say “our” because though the book is written for and about women, most of its insights and lessons easily apply to both sexes.)

The authors gave the women a list of 34 expectations and asked them to rate each one on the degree to which it applied to them. Then the respondents went back and evaluated the list against what actually came to be in their lives as missionaries.

In 14 of the areas, the women reported that their expectations exceeded what they found in real life. The 10 with the highest percentage of expectations greater than reality include some very deep, personal issues:

  • 75.4% Am fruitful
  • 70.4% Am a prayer warrior
  • 67.6% Am growing spiritually continually
  • 62.7% Am spiritually dynamic
  • 65.8% Continually trust God for everything
  • 57.5% Have a daily quiet time
  • 56.5% Have a successful quiet time
  • 56% Am well balanced in areas of ministry in and out of home
  • 55.1% Have miraculous stories to tell of how God is using me
  • 50.9% Embrace my new host culture

The disconnect between expectations and reality often leads to disappointment and guilt. And as the authors point out, this can lead to burnout. It is difficult to move steadily forward when we are dragged down by the weight of our overpacked luggage.

So how can we pack less? How can we lighten our load? Here are some suggestions.

Read fewer biographies. Read more people.

Stories about missionaries can be very inspirational, but when inspiration is the main goal, they can often leave out the flaws and shortcomings. When we assume that real missionaries are superhuman, then we are discouraged when we don’t measure up. That’s why we need to have honest conversations to find out the good and the bad, the easy and the hard.

But not everyone will give you the unvarnished truth. It usually takes time to earn someone’s trust. And you’ll need to ask questions that get people rethinking their responses, to speak beyond the safe and familiar answers. Try asking a missionary, “What do you wish you’d known before you moved overseas?” “What have you learned?” “Now what would you tell yourself as a younger missionary candidate if you could?” “What are some of your unmet expectations?” (For other examples, see the questions asked of missionaries in Eenigenburg and Bliss’s survey, printed in the appendix of their book.)

When you read, read between and outside the lines.

As Eenigenburg and Bliss discuss, too many books on the lives of past missionaries paint a picture of spiritual perfection. One of the best-known missionary legacies is that of William Carey, who is often called “the father of modern missions.” In 1792, a sermon he delivered gave us the words, “Expect great things; attempt great things.”2Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things,” Center for Study of the Life and Work of William Carey, D. D. [1761-1834], updated November 22, 2013).

But I doubt that all of his expectations were met in his later life as a missionary in India. During that time a five-year-old son died. His wife, Dorothy, suffered from severe mental illness, became delusional, and died at the age of 51. His second wife died at 60. Finally, his son Felix, after becoming a missionary himself, suffered tragedy and walked away from God. In Expectations and Burnout, the authors discuss this aspect of Carey, citing James R. Beck’s book, Dorothy Carey: The Tragic and Untold Story of Mrs. William Carey. Beck writes that Carey has often been portrayed as “never discouraged and never complaining” but adds that he wrote in his journal, “I don’t love to be always complaining—yet I always complain. 

The context for “Expect great things; attempt great things” is the life and work of Carey, not a Pinterest board or a poster of a snow-capped mountain range. But just as some books—and missionaries—are only completely positive, some can be entirely negative. Be cautious in drawing conclusions based on either side. But when you hear what sounds like cynicism and despair, be slow to judge. Context is important here, too. Find out the whole story. And don’t say, “That will never happen to me . . . not with my faith, my preparation, and my plans.”

Pack carefully

Before you set out for the field, prepare thoroughly and pack carefully. When it comes to packing your expectations, it isn’t just about seeing how much you can get into a suitcase and still get the zipper closed. It’s also about being discerning and knowing what to leave behind.

But you don’t want to go empty-handed, either. Hopes, dreams, and plans are important. Don’t forget your underwear and socks. And if you’ve got room, you might want to take that swimsuit, too. Just in case.

Editor’s note: For further study, see another blog post on the topic of how unmet expectations can lead to burnout.