[The following is an excerpt from Patrick Nabwera’s master’s thesis on missionary attrition among Kenyan missionaries. Keep in mind that all the missionaries in this study are Kenyans. I repeat this reminder only because most of us, both Western and African, have certain stereotypes of “missionary” firmly implanted in our subconscious.]
Every informant listed lack of financial support as a key factor in missionaries leaving the mission. Anyomi (1997, 165), studying missionaries in West Africa, noted that “lack of resources to carry out the missionary task has played part in some missionaries’ early departure from the mission fields.” It is difficult to survive on the mission field without good financial support.
Many local people look to the missionary as one who should meet all their needs, given that “missionary” is a rich title and that missionaries are supposed to have come from a more developed place. When missionaries lack financial support, they are unable to meet basic costs such as rent, food, supporting their immediate family, and helping their target people. Failure to meet the needs of their dependants from home puts a lot of pressure on them. Supporting the extended family is an idea that may be unique to Africans because of our social orientation. Many of the missionaries were very responsible, and there was social expectation to support and guide the family. When a missionary fails to meet such expectation while serving, pressure for departure mounts.
Some could not even meet their own needs, leave alone the needs of others who look to them. One departing missionary advised an incoming missionary, “If you are not careful, you can even go naked in this work.” Another missionary observed that missionaries often operate in debt, an embarrassing situation, especially in the villages where they work. This lack of financial support makes some missionaries fall into the temptation of looking for jobs elsewhere (what they called “green pastures”) or choosing to serve with the churches back at home outside the unreached context. Lack of financial support led one victim who left to say, “it is better to go and look for work elsewhere or go and preach at home.”
Anyomi, Seth. 1997. Attrition in Ghana. In Too valuable to lose, ed. William D. Taylor, 61-170. Pasedena, CA: William Carey Library
© Patrick Nabwera 2008
Comment [Ben]: The idea of raising support frankly scared me away from formal missions (especially since we’ve already got multiple missionaries on both sides of the family.) My school also recently lost a key faculty member here because of financial difficulty (all Western faculty have to raise their own salary). As Patrick notes, African missionaries face additional pressure due to more limited revenue sources and pressures from cultural responsibilities to their extended family. Those who follow God’s call to missions are often the best and brightest of their extended families; these families pin their future hopes on the education and potential work opportunities of these shining stars. The missionary’s answer to the call to go to an unreached people group can be a serious blow to those hopes. At the same time, the missionary never gives up his responsibility to provide for extended family members who might be dependant on them.
Another point that emerges from this study is the need for respectability among the people they are trying to reach. It’s one thing to live simply, but what kind of God leaves his people to beg? The implications of these outside perceptions have to be carefully negotiated by African missionaries.
Patrick adds: Having to raise support in our context is especially daunting since many still see pioneer missions as belonging to the West. At one time, I thought I was better off “not begging.” This was part of the cost of leaving my career, which would have at least paid a stable salary. I do not forget though, the joy of following Him who gave his life for the unreached. Recently as I was praying for our new move to Mozambique, this thought came to my mind—–“When God marks a race before us, he will give us all we need to run that race.”