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Surge and Stress: Missions in the 1970s

Summary: The 1970s were a transitional period. We emerged with remarkable speed from the American sending program of the 1960s into an urgent challenge to our strongest “receiving” countries to join in becoming “sending” countries. Despite these efforts, it soon became clear that even within the US we were unable to sustain the level of proposed sending. We grew, but with considerable emotional and familial costs. By the 1980s, we had resumed sending at a more realistic pace.


Overview of Navigator Initiatives in the 1970s
Non-Navigator Missions Trends
Signs of Stress in the Late 1970s
Responses of the International Leadership Team (ILT)
Reasons for Missionary Return
New Horizons in the 1980s

Overview of Navigator Initiatives in the 1970s

The 1970s was a fascinating and turbulent period for The Navigators, internationally: dynamic, creative, stressful, revealing.

Regarding our cross-cultural missionaries, we stimulated a strong surge in new sending during the years 1972-1976, followed by a spate of missionaries returning prematurely toward the end of the decade.

Much of this is described in my articles on global planning and examined in more detail in my article titled “Cross-Cultural Missions.” Therefore, this article will be relatively brief. We will start with a simple selection of the many Nav initiatives during the first half of the decade, which reveals the shifting internal setting within which our sending of new missionaries surged.

This leads to a summary of an important missiological debate, which peaked during those years among the wider evangelical community, though we chose to press on with our urgent program. Though this could have disturbed our sending program, it in fact had minimal impact on us.

However, we came to see that our program was too urgent, too sacrificial. There was simply too much pressure to send. Thus, in the second half of the decade, quite a few of our missionaries returned home prematurely. I end by quantifying this discouraging reversal and referencing the allied challenge of representatives resigning during a brief but troubling period of low morale.

In the early 1970s, we were starting to evolve from an American missionary outreach to an embryonic Worldwide Partnership.

There was much creative ferment. Even if we limit ourselves to the first five years of the 1970s, our stream of Navigator initiatives is impressive. For example:

  • Our first comprehensive global strategy (Waldron Scott)
  • Preliminary research and designs for the Fundamentals of Our Ministry (Jim Petersen)
  • Our first probes into Eastern Europe: Yugoslavia
  • The rise and fall of our China task force
  • Re-starting the commissioning of women as Representatives (Pat Lawler)
  • Our first holistic economic development ministry: the Philippines
  • Our first major fund-raising campaign outside the US: Great Britain
  • Our first seminar on indigeneity: Lebanon
  • The formation of US NavPress (Dan Rich)
  • The launch of the 2:7 Series (Ron Oertli)
  • The amalgamation of our three US divisions
  • The separation of our US and “international” HQs (Jack Mayhall)
  • Construction of a large new USHQ building
  • Launch of Design for Discipleship study series
  • Signing the Trail West Agreement: cooperation with CCC, IVF, Young Life
  • Joining the National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, the World Evangelical Fellowship
  • Our American Reps increased from 112 to 201
  • Our non-American Reps increased from nine to sixty-four, reaching 24 percent of our total force
  • Our gift income increased at an average of 20 percent per year to $7 million1

Given all this, what was happening in our thrust into the nations? God went before us2 so that:

  • We entered twelve new countries of ministry3
  • We sent out our first national missionaries from eleven countries
  • We almost doubled our missionary Representatives, from fifty-six to 109

Non-Navigator Missions Trends

While we were thus pressing on with our missions program, a missiological debate became intense among the wider evangelical community. One major factor was that the “colonial mentality” that had long been part of the (often) unconscious baggage of more than a few Western missionaries was coming under vocal attack. Though this had little direct impact on us, it was the atmosphere in which we worked.

For our purposes, we can conveniently illustrate this in the words of John Gatu in 1971. As general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, he issued a call for a moratorium on foreign missionaries and foreign funds. Thus: “Our present problems . . . can only be solved if all missionaries can be withdrawn in order to allow a period of not less than five years for each side to rethink and formulate what is going to be their future relationship. . . . The churches of the Third World must be allowed to find their own identity, and the continuation of the present missionary movement is a hindrance to this selfhood of the Church.”4

Reactions polarized. The tendency was to see the proposal for such a moratorium as either a severe threat to world missions or the dawn of a new and better era. Those who were more evangelical were disturbed by the call to withdraw missionaries, while those who were less evangelical could take the moratorium as a convenient reason to terminate traditional missions programs. Wade Coggins5 also noted that, “This call has proved very attractive to some large denominational missions that are already in trouble because lay revolt against their radical political adventures had dried up a large part of their missionary resources.”6 And, of course, there were various intermediate responses.

Roland Allen had many years earlier expressed concern about western paternalism. He wrote: “We have done everything for them [sc. those who received missionaries] except acknowledge any equality. . . . We have treated them as “dear children,” but not as “brethren.” . . . we have educated our converts to put us in the place of Christ.”7

Although the debate was fierce, Navigators were usually onlookers because we were not trying to replicate daughter congregations responsible to our US headquarters and financed by US money or to copy American forms and structures. However, it was a warning lest we be complacent.

Gatu was present at Lausanne 1974 and influenced John Stott to include a gentle reference in the language of the Lausanne Covenant. Thus, “A reduction of foreign missionaries and money in an evangelized country may sometimes be necessary to facilitate the national Church’s growth in self-reliance and to release resources for unevangelized areas. Missionaries should flow ever more freely from and to all six continents in a spirit of humble service.”8 The dozen or so Navigators who were present at Lausanne signed this covenant.

Gatu was an evangelical. He later explained that he had advocated a moratorium because it was necessary to examine inherited structures, to consider whether local nationals could be found to manage such structures, to remove the sense of “begging year in and year out” and thus fostering a dependency syndrome.

Nevertheless, we continued to send at an accelerated rate. 1973 was our peak year, in which we placed a record twenty-one missionary Reps.

Signs of Stress in the Late 1970s

We move now to the second half of the 1970s. Here, as noted, we experienced the return of surprisingly many missionary representatives, and, linked to this, the resignation of more Representatives from our staff. However, we should beware of drawing too stark a distinction between the surge (1970-1974) and the stress (1975-1979). There is a clear but not an absolute contrast.

So, starting with a brief summary of the decade as a whole, let’s look at what happened to our stock of Reps.

We had endorsed a rudimentary global plan in 1970 which committed us to increasing our Reps by 15 percent per year and our gift income by 25 percent per year. This was extended into a full “Strategy for the 70s” at the end of 1972. During the decade, our Reps increased by 12 percent per year and our gift income by 20 percent per year.

The target of 15 percent per year was what we had experienced in the last three years of the 1960s, and we exceeded this rate until 1977, buoyed by two fresh segments: non-American Reps increased from nine to 112 and women Reps increased from five to forty-five during the decade. So, by 1979, women comprised 12 percent and non-Americans 31 percent of our stock.

A milestone occurred in 1976-1977, which was the first year in which we had one hundred missionary representatives. It also saw the successful launch of the missionary associates program.9

However, fifty-seven American associate Reps resigned during the decade, notably during 1977-1979 at the disturbingly high rate of 16 per year. Why? The Fundamentals of the Navigator Ministry (FOM) precipitated many resignations in this period, especially among older associate Reps, by clarifying our Calling. The next most significant reason was analyzed as a lack of effectiveness/maturity.

We ended the decade with a force of 368 Reps.

Because our practice was to “grow our own,” every resignation of a Rep was a serious loss. In fact, from our first appointments in 1948 until the end of 1979, eighty-four of the 315 Reps appointed had resigned,10 a cumulative loss of almost seven hundred “rep-years.”11

International Missionary Representatives

What about our international strategic force of missionary Reps?

Excluding the American Reps in the International Headquarters (IHQ), such Reps increased by an average of 9 percent per year, from forty-seven to 113. This net gain of sixty-six Reps comprised 136 missionaries sent and seventy returned missionaries.

The impact of our “Strategy for the 70s” is very clear. In 1973 and 1974 combined, we sent thirty-seven Reps compared with twenty-six in the previous two years. Our emphasis on new sending countries helped: Fifteen countries sent out their first Rep in the 1970s. We saw evidence that we were exceeding our sustainable capacity and so, in 1974, Sanny imposed a moratorium for three years on entering new countries.

The 1970s are also notable for our effort to open “closed” countries, starting with the China Task Force and then building up in Eastern Europe and, later, in India.

The downside of our accelerated sending early in the decade soon became painfully apparent: during the four years 1974 to 1978, forty-three missionary Reps returned home compared to forty-nine that went to the field. In our most discouraging year, 1978, we sent eleven and saw the same number come home. Poor selection, under pressure to send, was the major cause of this wastage. The outgoing class of 1972 proved to be the least durable.

By the end of the decade, as the churning subsided, the highest concentrations of missionary Reps were in Japan (eight), Indonesia (seven), and India (six).

Responses of the International Leadership Team (ILT)

The pause in our productivity showed in ministry fruitfulness as well as the experience of some of our Reps.

When the International Leadership Team (ILT) met at the end of 1976, they were concerned by static or declining production of disciple-makers. Reasons appeared to include:

  • Rapid growth of community ministries
  • Rise of “managerialism”
  • Philosophy of training
  • Growing complexity and internal tensions
  • Absence of projections, targets and names

The divisional directors agreed to engage in further research before our next meeting. By June 1977, Lorne was ready to observe12 that, “The Navigators has levelled off in terms of production increases since the ministry year of 1972-1973. Some probable causes are:

  • The heavy investment of men into the community ministry in the last four-year period. (Production was lowered because of start-up time and the community ministry has not been clearly defined.)
  • A constant flux of leadership since 1973 when the US divisions were abandoned.
  • A tightening of definitions in some of our key result areas, notably that of the disciple-maker.
  • The Navigators, not unlike business corporations, experiences a cycle of advance and leveling off. It could be assumed The Navigators is in a momentary cyclical leveling off period.
  • A relative “wait and see” attitude as regards the outcome of the FOM project, which was started in 1974. I observed on my US travels that people are waiting for the final word on the FOM.
  • The lifting of all numerical targets from December 1973 onward.

My view is that the most influential of these factors were the first two: The community ministries were attracting some of our best older Reps, but they were not yet visibly productive; and, secondly, the churning of our middle leaders weakened the sense of responsibility for new missionaries.

Also, the emergence of the FOM around the middle of the decade precipitated the resignation of several Reps whose vision and priorities were no longer aligned with our clarified calling.

Reasons for Missionary Return

So much for the leveling off of our missionary force. How did we seek to understand the high number of returning missionaries? The most intensive study, which was instituted by Jack Mayhall as US director, focused on the fifty-one American missionary Reps who returned to the US between January 1970 and August 1978.13

A questionnaire was sent by George Sanchez and Jim White to thirty-four of these men and their supervisors. Of the other seventeen, fourteen were clear enough not to need investigation and three occurred after this survey was taken.

In September 1978, a group of senior leaders (Sanny, Mayhall, Sanchez, White, Sparks, McGilchrist) together14 examined each of the fifty-one instances to identify the primary reason for leaving the mission field. There was unanimity in 95 percent of the cases as to the primary causes. These were:

What might be called “straightforward” (18)
According to strategic plan (8)
Assignment completed (5)
Health of a family member (5)

Ineffectiveness in the ministry assignment (12)
Mostly, with previous deficiencies

Character or commitment deficiencies (11)
Lack of courage, determination, or holiness
Uncertainty as to gifts or calling

Philosophical differences (4)
Mostly, existing previously

Inadequate or faulty supervision on the field (4)

Total: 49

Sanny noted after the discussion some primary corrective measures that he proposed should be taken.

  • Significant, and possible radical, improvement of our selection process
    • Job descriptions
    • Performance expectations in terms of specific objectives for the first six, twelve, and twenty-four months; indispensable relationships to be established and maintained
  • Help senders develop criteria for an inventory of potential missionary Reps
  • Establish monitoring groups in each division for both sending and receiving
  • Improve sending orientation—including women Reps, contact staff, international trainees
    • Exposure to philosophy
    • Language aptitude
    • Character stress
    • Commitment tests
    • “Dos” and “don’ts” upon arriving on the field
  • A program to develop knowledge and abilities of receivers and senders
  • History of selection, successes, and failures
  • Principles of selection
  • Writing job descriptions and performance expectations
  • Receiving and orienting to the field
  • Supervising
  • Keeping home country informed

Sanny also recommended an orientation center in each division, with a designated person to develop the above requirements. He proposed that the deputy president be responsible to see that the above measures are instituted and coordinated.

Finally, he recorded a radical suggestion, requiring a change in our ILT approach. Because our missionary expansion is totally dependent on the availability of qualified missionary candidates, our international planning should begin with a roster of approved candidates, not with geographical allocations. Only then should we look for the best place to assign them, according to our established guidelines for allocation.

However, despite the preponderance of each of the three most frequent causes as above—namely straightforward or ineffectiveness or character/commitment deficiencies—the underlying tone of responses from these missionaries when asked about our organization and direction is cause for concern. George Sanchez grouped the main negatives in this respect as follows:

  • Becoming like big business, impersonal, poor relationships
  • Authoritarian leaders, rigidity, narrowness
  • Professional pride, exclusiveness
  • Financial structure
  • More emphasis required on personal godliness and character
  • We should be more involved in serving the Body
  • Leaders not listening to the voices of our staff
  • Improvements needed in training and orienting missionaries

While it is true that these are the voices of those who had returned from the field, sometimes painfully, quite a few of their comments are chastening.

By the end of 1978, low morale extended beyond missionaries who were returning prematurely, Separate articles briefly consider “Removed15 Middle Managers” and “Resigned Representatives,” categories that to some extent overlapped.

New Horizons in the 1980s

This very difficult period in the late 1970s, from which we recovered by the end of the decade, certainly exacted a toll on Sanny. He was determined to turn matters around. In late 1978, he prepared detailed commitments and requirements for his International Leadership Team, by way of a progress report.

What galvanized him, in his somber words, was “the veritable blizzard of concerns and criticisms that have come to me.” He was also frustrated by “the constant reassurances that I don’t know what’s going on.”

At his request, the ten men closest to him gave written assessments on “getting through to Lorne.” This was precipitated by reports that some of our people told him “only what he wanted to hear” and, more broadly, by what some saw as “a rapid drift from spiritual leadership to excessive managerialism.” Therefore, he discussed what should be our primary and secondary motivators, methods of discussing trends in morale and requirements for an effective motivational leadership style.

By the time of our large international leadership conference in 1980, much of the pressure had dissipated. Our leaders were more alert and attentive, and there was a growing sense among our staff that we were determined to trust God’s promises as we entered the 1980s. The strategic global imperatives that emerged from this conference pointed the way ahead.

It is instructive to consider our experience in the context of the time. One resource is a paper on “The Cause and Cure of Missionary Attrition” by Cesar Vega in 1976.16 Cesar’s approach is interesting in that he compares his findings, with those of several earlier studies ranging back to 1900. In every one of these studies, interpersonal relationships could be identified as the most frequent reason for attrition. While recognizing that the problem is complex, he identifies several desirable improvements.

See also articles on:

Global Planning: 1966-1975
Global Planning: 1976-
Removed Middle Managers: 1970-1978
Resigned Representatives: 1970s
Cross-Cultural Missions

By Donald McGilchrist
3070 Words


  1. Gift Income: 20 percent per year, but from a low base of US $2.9 million and with high rates of inflation, the US dollar floating from August 1971. As a result, our American missionaries were frequently caught in a trap as their dollars bought less of the local currency and the local currency rapidly became less valuable.
  2. During the 1970s, we meticulously counted many variables. This data is taken from the ministry performance analysis prepared for our international leadership conference in 1980.
  3. New Countries: Spain, Finland, Taiwan, Yugoslavia, Uganda, France, Scotland, Austria, Argentina, Iran, Wales, Ghana; to add to the twenty-one countries in which we already worked during 1969. We also carried out extensive on-site surveys, usually lasting several weeks, in at least India, Burma (Myanmar), Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa.
  4. Source: Quoted in Robert Reese, Roland Allen and the Moratorium on Missionaries, p. 4.
  5. Coggins was the Executive Director of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association at the time.
  6. Source: Quoted in Robert Reese, loc cit, p. 5.
  7. Source: Quoted in Robert Reese, loc cit, p. 3.
  8. John Stott, An Exposition and Commentary on the Lausanne Covenant, World Wide Publications, 1975, p. 36. Thirteen Nav Reps from nine countries were among the three thousand attending Lausanne 1974.
  9. ILT minute 2.3, December 1977.
  10. April 1980 class analysis by Ronka. About 41 percent of all resignations occurred in the first four years after appointment.
  11. By “rep-years,” we mean the cumulative number of years a Rep has served since being appointed a Rep.
  12. Source: Sanny’s paper on “Highlights of the Navigator Ministry” dated June 21, 1977, four pages. Filed under McG H2010: Evaluation.
  13. During the 1970s, we transitioned from using calendar years to ministry years based on the collegiate pattern in the northern hemisphere.
  14. Meeting held on September 28, 1978. See McGilchrist archive, box 9: returning missionaries study.
  15. “Removed Middle Managers, 1970-1978” (660 words) and “Resigned Representatives, 1970s” (430 words) reveal the extent of the problem analytically but do not provide the names of those whose circumstances were studied.
  16. Cesar was Nav staff. This resource project was for his master’s degree in biblical education at Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions, sixty-nine pages. Source: McGilchrist green notebook of missionary papers. This notebook also contains the comprehensive Study of Missionary Motivation, Training & Withdrawal: 1953-1962 by Helen Bailey and Herbert Jackson, Missionary Research Library, New York 1965, ninety-six pages.
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