Is this the exit? Building better off-ramps

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

Kath and her husband had been preparing to serve cross-culturally for most of their adult lives. So much study, planning, preparation and training had gone into getting themselves and their little kids overseas and into an environment where they were using their gifts and passions. After a few short years they found themselves back at the airport, preparing to move back to their passport country. Kath told me when she was first sent out she felt like her sending church had put her on a pedestal. She had done her best to live up to that, learning language and culture, throwing herself into ministry and trying to build something that would have an impact for Christ. Yet standing at those airport gates, uncertainty lay ahead. She was anxious about what it meant to go home. She was unsure what it would look like to come off that pedestal, to no longer be a face on the fridge but just another face in the pew, to live again in a culture she was not sure she understood anymore. As she walked through the gates, three people waved her goodbye: the dear friend she had not just studied language with but cried and laughed and raised her children with; the young teammate she had recruited and mentored who was now taking on a lot more responsibility; and the coworker who would keep serving with the dysfunctional team that had been one of the many complex reasons for leaving. 

Most mission organisations bear the legacy of founders who literally packed their coffins onto a boat when they were sent out into the great unknown. Today’s world is very different. The norm is now to serve overseas for a couple of terms not life. The missionaries I have been interviewing about leadership this year are mostly the people who have been in the organisations for a long time; the stayers that in so many ways make organisations what they are. Many have been through significant transitions and they are paradigms of resilience, having endured changes, conflicts and crises. The reality of the people they lead is often different. So many are just getting really comfortable in the language and culture they are serving when life calls them onward.

There has been a lot of investigation of missionary attrition and theories about what might be done to reduce it. There are also countless articles about the impact on individuals of transitions and the grief associated with reentry. I’ve yet to find much discussion on the impact of the way missionaries leave on those who stay and on the whole organisation. More so than most jobs, joining a mission organisation is like joining a family. A lot of effort goes into getting the right people onto the field and orienting them well. Any missionary will know just how high the bar and how long the process is. The way people join and are integrated into a team can have a huge impact on the culture of the team, just like adding a new member of a family. What does it mean to leave that family? 

Endings can colour the way we evaluate and remember entire experiences. As Daniel Pink writes in When “Endings helps us encode – to register, rate and recall experiences. But in so doing they can distort our perceptions and obscure the bigger picture.” The way a term of missionary service ends affects how the worker transitions into what’s next and how likely they are to encourage others down a similar path.  A good off-ramp isn’t just the farewell party and the goodbye book, nor is it just the welcome home party at the other end. A good off-ramp serves both the needs of the leavers and those who are left behind. 

I’ve written a little about the impact of the stories missionaries tell on the identity of workers and the functioning of organisations. Those stories loom large as people contemplate leaving and as they descend the off-ramp, particularly if mission service has felt like the ultimate culmination of a lifetime of calling and preparation. Leaving entails grief and loss, unmet expectations, unresolved conflicts and often a sense of failure involved in “going home”. 

Talking about off-ramps means acknowledging that people will eventually leave. There is a growing body of research on the benefit of good off-ramps in corporate environments, but in ministry, particularly cross-cultural mission the issue is even more complex. The reasons for leaving are rarely singular or straightforward, there will likely be a web of factors; financial, health, children, ageing parents, visas, civil unrest, career opportunities, conflict, frustrations and burnout. To navigate this complexity, there are three things off-ramps should be in order to help teams write a good ending to the chapter when one character leaves the story.

Off-ramps should be visible

Craig Hamilton in Wisdom in Leadership exhorts us to not be afraid of off-ramps. He says “leaders might try to hide the off-ramp by not ever mentioning it so that people might forget it exists”. Hiding the off-ramps doesn’t make for healthy teams, it just makes leaving feel like more of a failure, like something that was not supposed to happen. Hamilton encourages leaders: “Give people regular and systematic opportunities to leave gracefully. And when they do leave thank them, honour them and let them leave without guilt, shame or embarrassment.” He goes on to say “The healthier your team is and the clearer the off-ramps are, the less people will use them.”

Off-ramps should be a celebration 

The best way to make off-ramps a key positive moment for team culture setting is to make them celebratory. If it doesn’t feel normal and natural to move on, there will inevitably be a toxic impact on the morale of the people left behind. The annual exodus, the constant farewells can and does have a huge impact on the culture of missionary teams. Managed well people are grateful for the time with coworkers and excited to see where God will lead the people who leave and how He will work through the people who will come to replace them. Managed badly it makes people tired and cynical and encourages then to focus on smaller and smaller circles of relationships.

Being intentional about telling celebratory stories as people leave makes the whole team feel like the work being done is valuable and significant, that everyone matters and that God is honoured by our service no matter how or when it ends. 

Of course there will always be situations when things can’t end well. If you have ever worked in the corporate world or even read a few Harvard Business Review articles about off-ramping you will be familiar with the experience of a dismissed employee escorted out of the building by security to prevent retaliation or information loss. This is mostly unimaginable in a mission context, but there will still be times when a celebration won’t be possible or wise. These off-ramps will be painful and disruptive, but the team will appreciate a leader who is open and vulnerable, prepared to be present in the pain and to create space to process the complex and messy emotions. Even in such situations, always remember God is still at work in both the leaver and the stayers.

Off-ramps should be planned ahead

A period of cross-cultural service should be understood in the context of a lifetime of serving God, whether in support-raised vocational ministry or not. It should also be understood as one part in the long history of an organisation, and in the movement of God through his people in a nation. Understanding this will help people intentionally plan for the possibility of leaving. 

This is where the multiple layers of accountability and care in mission agencies come into their own; the sending office, the field leadership, the ministry team and the sending church can all play a role in helping people contemplate the end right from the beginning in both theoretical and practical ways. It will mean helping workers plan for succession. They should think through who will continue what they are building and care for the people they are discipling, both in an ideal leaving situation and in the event of an unexpected crisis. This might also mean practical things like supporting workers to keep up professional qualifications or to work towards new ones so that a worker has employable skills once they return to their home country. 

A good off-ramp should be focused on helping with the practical parts of transition: packing up, handing over, saying goodbye and landing well into new locations, jobs and communities. It should also provide a way to navigate the complicated emotions for everyone as team members finishing their period of serving together. It should remind us that our efforts in planting or watering seeds are but one small part of God making his kingdom grow. 

What has been your experience of off-ramps? Have people left feeling celebrated or discouraged? Have you seen them strengthen rather than weaken the team left behind?

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