Going the Distance

Four fighter jets scream across the sky in a “V” formation, one leg of the “V” longer than the other. Suddenly the plane to the right of the lead jet streaks upward, leaving a hole in the formation as the other three continue overhead. Soon all four have vanished beyond the horizon.

The “missing man” formation, as it is known in military aviation circles, is a striking tribute to a fallen comrade. Commonly used to honor pilots who have lost their lives in combat, it is also seen in funerals for heads of state or other dignitaries.

In China the imagery may not be nearly as stark, but the signs are nonetheless evident when, for various reasons, a fellow servant in Christ is prematurely taken out of action: the missing chair at a committee meeting, the foreign family that hurriedly returns to their home country unannounced, the half-finished project whose owner is nowhere to be found, the promising student who found Christ overseas and returns to China only to “fall through the cracks,” lacking fellowship and the encouragement to grow in his or her newfound faith.

For these servants the cause of their being sidelined is not as final as, for example, the tragedy that spells a premature end to the career of a fallen pilot or soldier. It may be burnout, frustration with the language, interpersonal conflicts with colleagues, or succumbing to temptation in a moment of weakness. Perhaps it is just the everyday demands of life in China that crowd out opportunities for spiritual growth and effective ministry.  Often it is a combination of these and other factors. Yet the results are nonetheless devastating, both for them personally and for those with whom they serve.

A three-year, 22-nation study of organizations that send Christian personnel overseas[1] suggests that there are measures such organizations can take to ensure that their personnel will be more likely to stay on the field long term. The lessons from this study are valuable not only for similar organizations but also for other entities, such as churches or business enterprises that recognize the importance of long-term effectiveness in China.

Organizations with higher retention rates, the study found, were organizations that placed a significant emphasis on prayer, both throughout the agency and in the lives of individual workers and those supporting them. They carefully screened applicants and required a higher degree of prefield training. Recognizing the importance of ongoing development, they also provided more opportunities for language and culture learning, as well as growth in particular skill areas. This factor alone is extremely relevant to China, as other research has shown that short-term foreign workers who do not have Chinese language ability eventually either take the time to learn the language, and end up serving longer term, or else leave China altogether.

Organizations with a higher retention rate effectively communicated plans and job descriptions. They encouraged open communication to and from leadership.  They ensured that their workers’ personal needs were met through adequate financial support, consistent spiritual growth, regular annual vacations and help with cultural adjustment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these agencies evidenced healthy leadership practices, including annual reviews of personnel and effective supervision on the field.


  1. ^ Jim VanMeter, “The 7 Best Practices of U.S. Agencies with Good Retention of Long Term Missionaries,” Paraclete Perspective. Vol. 5, No. 2 (Summer 2006), pp. 1, 4, 6.

 Image credit: 140918-N-TR763-213 by U.S. Pacific Fleet, on Flickr

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio