One distressing feature in recent years has been the increasing number of mid-career dropouts. A generation ago it was a rare thing for an experienced missionary at the peak of his efficiency to resign from missionary service. Some were brought home to fill important posts in the home office, but resignations were unusual. Now, however, mid-career dropouts have reached such proportions that some missions are making a special study of this problem to see what can be done to stem the tide.
There are several contributing factors. One is teen-age children who have outgrown the education available to them on the foreign field. With the rapidly deteriorating situation in our high schools, involving drugs, sex, and vandalism, many parents are understandably reluctant to live half a world away while committing their teen-agers to the tender mercies of the school system here in the United States, especially after the sheltered life they have lived in a mission school.
Another factor is discouragement. Missionary work is not easy; Stephen Neill has declared it to be the most difficult of all vocations. After fifteen or twenty years in an unresponsive area, it is easy for the missionary to rationalize and say to himself: “I’ve given fifteen good years to this kind of hard work; now I deserve a change. It’s time for somebody else to put his shoulder to the wheel.” When the third or fourth furlough rolls around, there is a great temptation for the missionary to quietly settle down in Christian work at home. Another factor is the prevailing mood in American society. An increasing number of persons, women as well as men, become a little tired of the work they have been doing and want a change; and middle life offers an ideal time to launch out on a new career. Another ten years and it may be too late. For these and other reasons we are facing a relatively new phenomenon, the mid-career dropout.
When a person in the homelands decides to change careers in midlife, it is no big deal. No one suffers any great loss. But with the missionary it is different.
It takes the average missionary the best part of ten years to master the language and to acquire a genuine love for the people and an adequate appreciation for the culture.
Just when he is reaching the peak of his effectiveness as a cross-cultural missionary, he decides to stay at home. This represents an irreparable loss to the mission field, especially to the national church leaders who have been infinitely patient with him through the years when he was making all his blunders. When they finally have a missionary who is perfectly at ease with their language and culture, he decides to go home, where his overseas experience and his knowledge of a foreign language will probably never be of any further use to him.
J Herbert Kane, A Concise History of the Christian World Mission