Every day I see beautiful, passionate, world changers torn to bits by the machine that is missions, limping home disillusioned, cynical, and shipwrecked from their faith. It makes me wonder if this churning beast we’ve created has gone awry and our youth are just collateral damage, expendable because there’s always another to replace them.
I recently sorted through the data of my Millennials on a Mission Survey which over 119 millennial missionaries responded to. As I read through their stories of heartache, their desires, their humility, and their sense of being forgotten and overlooked, I discovered that maybe we’ve stereotyped this generation all wrong.
What I read truly saddened me because it made me realize how deeply we are failing this generation of global workers. If something doesn’t change soon, there may be nothing left to chew up and spit out as one young missionary said, like “cannon fodder.”
My entire manifesto is about advocating for more inner healing and each of us doing our work prior to and on the field, but what startled me was that Millennials wanted this too. They wanted personal growth, they wanted mentoring, they wanted to work on themselves so they could be more healthy to empower nations versus take from them.
What came through these voices was not laziness, but passionate commitment, not arrogance, but a desire to be learners, not colonialist pretension, but globally minded servanthood.
It furthered my theory that this generation will carry the torch of a new wave of missions. And they must. They have to. Because our old ways are just plain wrong and have to die.
Only they probably won’t call themselves “missionaries.” That term is “too loaded.”
As I read through the responses some patterns began to form that differentiate the Millennial generation from previous ones:
- They have a global mindset (due to technology) – Their focus is on raising up leaders in host culture for long term sustainability
- They don’t want to be called “a missionary” – They are running nonprofits and doing social justice
- They are more relational vs. project oriented – Time spent with locals as friends not as a “job”
- More Business as Missions/Social Justice vs. preaching – Meet physical not just spiritual needs
- Less martyrdom & workaholism – More focused on self-care, preventing burnout, being healthy. Focus on family relationships over ministry
- Want shorter term commitments – Preferred length 3-4 years or 4-6 years
- They want to present selves authentically – Don’t want to be the missionary “superhero“- Want to be able to share their challenges without being judged for them
- They want to be “heard” and “understood”
- They want input in the vision, strategy and decision making – Not just “told” what to do
- They want to be life-long learners
Here are further fascinating results of the survey:
Have you ever been discriminated against because of your age?
Out of 116 respondents 54 reported having felt discriminated against because of their age.
Of note was also that MANY single women missionaries felt discriminated on all fronts—age, marital status, and gender both by older peers and nationals in their host country. This leads me to believe we need greater training and support for women embarking on the field. (Shocking! Women in leadership need to be championed- insert sarcasm;)
“I have been told I am too young and unexperienced and I need to just trust the leadership.”
“I think a common misconception is that my age equals my life experience and capabilities, I have had people refuse to work with me because of my age.”
“Sometimes I think the older generation is happy to give us responsibility but not authority.”
“The founder/president of the organization I served with often ignored/didn’t engage me in conversation when I was at meetings or training at headquarters. She discussed and debated with older adults but just smiled at me as if she were my grandmother and I a small child with little understanding.”
“I have been overseas for 11 years, yet older missionaries still question me/my motives/why I do things the way that I do”
“My age group, for all our passion and gifting, are overlooked. We are the cannon fodder to be disposed of for the benefit of the managers who are just counting the days until they retire feeling fulfilled in their “mission.”
“I wish they would see my life as legitimate. I think as millennials we’re used to being shamed – we’re constantly being told about our participation trophies and snowflake complexes. I think the fact that we’re used to shame makes us attune to the shame of being a missionary. On one hand this makes us careful: we’re very aware of avoiding white savior complexes and empowering over giving handouts. On the other hand, shame and the gospel have no place together and I think the devil will use our shame to keep us from being bold in our faith.”
How do you think you view missions differently than prior generations?
“I think that, for better or for worse, there’s a greater focus on alleviating human suffering than on theological teaching. At best, this is a living integration of truth with action, and a genuine outpouring of pure and undefiled religion. At worst, it is an attempt to make up for the guilt of living privileged lives and a lash-back against strict conservative church upbringing.”
“I think I view it more holistically. It’s not about going in and asserting our agenda or our way. As millennials we crave more mentoring & support to prevent burnout. I think the older generations just went out and did it and got on with it. I think our generation thinks more sustainability both for our ministries and for our own selves.”
“We have chosen to put our family and mental health needs first before the ‘mission’ whereas previous generations sacrificed everything, sometimes to the detriment of their children.”
“I believe the church is ill-equipped to support missionaries and it really takes a strong sending agency with a supportive church in order for an M to thrive overseas. Also, it seemed M’s long ago focused on church planting movements so much, but I believe there are lots more opportunities out there.”
“I want missions to be effective and sustainable for not only the organization’s work but also for the missionaries. People, not numbers.”
“If I’m living in a foreign country, I want to actually live there, not in a sheltered compound all the time. I want local friends to come over, I want to walk the streets and meet neighbors.”
“When I first arrived on the field I get a lot of pressure to work 24/7 and never take a break. Whereas, to be long term thriving, more balance is needed. First time round, I burned out in 8 months time.”
“The millennials I work with are more apt to describe themselves by anything but as a ‘missionary’ –as a teacher, or as communications, etc. I think we are more conscious that the history of missions and being a missionary, especially in Africa, comes with a lot of baggage.”
What do you most crave from your missions sending org/church?
- Regular, pastoral care/mentorship by someone who “gets” it – 35
- Honest, transparent communication (no strings attached) – 16
- More input in strategy/decision making- 11
- Treated like a person not a number – 8
- Help managing my supporters/finances/State-side issues – 8
- Words of encouragement/notes/care packages– 8
- Training resources to be equipped – 7
- Prayer – 5
- Clear expectations and roles – 4
- More support for families/kids (MK’s) – 4
- Ability to take breaks/vacation without guilt – 3
One of the most surprising results of the survey was how many Millennial missionaries craved having a seasoned missionary who would offer pastoral counseling/mentoring in an ongoing, relational context above everything else. They preferred this over more member care by their organization. Many reported feeling more comfortable speaking to someone outside their organization in order to foster safety, vulnerability, and avoid conflicts of interest.
Offering these services is even more essential because research shows that younger generations are in fact at a higher risk for burnout.
“Younger workers reported higher emotional exhaustion higher depersonalization, and lower personal accomplishment. This finding is consistent with other burnout research across various populations (Maslach et al., 2001), and it indicates that young people in service fields are at greater risk for developing burnout. Younger aid workers/missionaries tended to report higher burnout scores, and these new workers could benefit from specific training and attention.” - Cynthia Eriksson, Mental Health, Religion & Culture-
This means that we need to increase our level of support–both with training and equipping, on-field support, and post field support.
It’s always nice to hear that what you’re doing can be proven right by the data (humble brag) I’m so glad this is exactly what I get to do with my job and am thrilled that I’m building something to target this need even more over the next few months. (*Stay tuned)
“A sense of understanding of what we are going through on the field and what burnout and compassion fatigue are. It would be nice to see organizations value their members, especially millennials, instead of burning them out and throwing them away.”
“My sending organization cheered and put me on a pedestal while I was working in an extremely difficult context and destroying my physical and mental health. When I started counseling and began to make positive lifestyle changes to improve my health, then at that point they became worried about me and asked me to leave ‘for my health.’ This experience has been extremely painful and hard to fathom.”
“A safe place where who I am is OKAY and what I’m going through is normal.”
“A leadership culture that 1. Allows not only authority to flow from the top-down, but feedback and honesty from the bottom-up. 2. Leaders who are willing to explore and grow into a younger generation’s desire for emotional maturity/vulnerability.”
“Empathetic support of supervisor. Good visits where they’re giving me the benefit of the doubt and looking to get me what I need with advocacy to the head office, support to get out when I need a break, or stay in if I need the support of the likeminded community.”
“Orientation before and on-the-field and debrief (on the field and after/in transition) needs to be emphasized more. My home country church could greatly grow in this area. One can feel forgotten easily.”
“People who understand the reality of living in two worlds, who can provide wisdom, guidance and support about some of the more logistical things.”
“Someone to say that everything I am feeling is normal and OKAY. “
“Guidance on how I can utilize my strengths to further the Kingdom but also how I can grow and improve on my weaknesses.”
“It seems there’s a disconnect between the home office and the field, like they don’t understand what it’s like to ‘be in the trenches.'”
“To understand that I’m human and I make mistakes too. Hear us and please, please give us your wisdom. We know that there is years of experience before us and we want to learn from it. We also want to have a dialogue.”
What are your biggest challenges with missions sending orgs/churches?
“Tons of policies, a huge lack of member care, people are burning out left and right. It seems like everyone is so flat-out busy and overwhelmed that no one can care for each other.”
“They don’t really check in with us at all. They send money each month which we are grateful for, but it would be really nice to receive a response to our monthly newsletter, or an email every once in awhile asking how they could pray for us.”
“I think a need in member care is to be heard and not judged for struggling. I fought postpartum depression and anxiety after my first and am still on Zoloft to manage. I was afraid to reach out for help initially because there was this feeling of, ‘What if we get sent back because of me…'”
“I think that the hardest thing is not having transparent communication. We need to get real about what is going on in our hearts and how to work through those issues.”
“Sometimes they have higher expectations of me than I can meet.”
“Lack of understanding of long term missions and best practices. They still think sending old junk or sending as many visitors as possible is the answer.”
“I think they should have asked us harder questions and required more training/counseling instead of being so eager to get us on the field.”
In closing, we need to listen to these voices. Do Millennial missionaries need help? Yes. Do some of them suck? Sure. But are most of them laid down lovers who want to grow and learn? Yup Yup. Many admit to their own failings (That’ll be Part II) but they want to be better. They bring passion and enthusiasm and technological know-how to our environments.
They are worth us figuring out how to support them.
(This article originally appeared on Sarita Hartz blog and can be viewed at www.saritahartz.com/the-surprising-ways-the-church-is-failing-millennial-missionaries)