Attrition Rates in the IMB

As with any large organization, IMB keeps a careful eye on employee turnover.  After all, hiring new workers costs money due to the selection process, training, and initial deployment.  Keeping experienced workers provides continuity and a pool of skillful knowledge.  Loss rates can demonstrate organizational health, morale, financial concerns, and employee population changes.

IMB divides their losses into two basic categories: attrition and expected loss.  The former refers to losses that no one anticipates: deaths, medical leave, firings, and resignations.  An extremely low percentage of attrition comes via death/medical leave; something to the tune of about 3%.  The latter heading, expected loss, includes retirements and end-of-service personnel.  Short-term workers – Journeymen, Masters, ISCers, and even apprentices – who successfully complete their terms count as end-of-service personnel.

Recently, IMB leader Dr. Gordon Fort announced the IMB’s most recent attrition rate estimate at 3.9%.  Let that sink in for just a moment: 3.9% attrition rate.  Let’s compare that with other loss rates:

2013 Voluntary Turnover By Industry:

Hospitality – 18.2%
Banking & Finance – 12.8%
Healthcare – 12.5%
Non-profit – 11%
Services – 11%
Manufacturing & Distribution – 8.4%
Insurance – 6.8%
Utilities – 5.2%

What conclusions might we draw from this?  Dr. Fort’s original tweet offers some insight: recruit carefully, deploy strategically, train intensely, support carefully.  I’ll take the liberty of unpacking his thoughts for him; he’s a busy man, don’t you know.

Recruit Carefully

Recruitment is more than “y’all come.”  The  perfect IMB candidate is called.  She is spiritually healthy.  He is emotionally mature.  They care for their health, their souls, and their relationships with others.  They possess a clear-eyed view of the task before them, even if they cannot anticipate all the twists and turns.

Deploy Strategically

Placing people on the field is a task which boggles the mind; the home office has an entire department to match the right candidate with the best possible working situation, location, and role.  One might suspect the process remains more of an art than a science, seeing as how it takes into account people groups, gifting, skill sets. emotional make-up, personality type, and family size.  The payoff, though, is a workforce that is optimally placed for long-term work and success.

Train Intensely

The last time I checked, new worker orientation required an 8-week stay at the company’s training site.  New workers arrive on the field for more orientation, more mentoring, more learning.  Annual goals center not only one how you’ll advance the Kingdom’s work, but also on how you’ve improved as a team player, a family member, a representative of the SBC, and more.  More than ever, IMB teaches and trains and requires new workers to learn and grow.

Support Carefully

For many folks, notions of support seem to center on finance, and rightfully so.  IMB financially supports their workers and their work, and does so in a way that fits the SBC’s expectations for wisdom and accountability.  Support only begins at finance though; missionary families with children on the field get informational support for the kids’ schooling, the kind of data a school district employee might offer.  Singles received the backstopping they need.  Stressed spouses have multiple avenues to relieve and evaluate their frustrations.  Spiritual renewal, prayer support, and regular encouragement make appearances with great regularity, as a general rule.  A well-supported worker is one who knows he’s valued, and that’s sufficient to overcome a good many difficult moments.

So the next time someone tells you of low morale, or high turnover, or problems in the organization, look back at this sort of thing. Sure, there’s likely more to the picture than simply loss rates.  Yeah, it’s possible to ask more questions and arrive at a slightly different answer.  Even so, 3.9% is pretty darn good.

Now – if only a new president were in office.


  1. William Thornton says

    I’m getting a whiff that the 3.9% is a designer metric formulated to yield a low result. Before I accept it I would have to know the data categories and other information behind it.

    You report attrition [death, medical leave] at 3% and attrition at 3.9%. Is attrition [firing,resignation] the remaining 0.9%? Do “career” field personnel ever complete a “term of service” after which a resignation is not counted as attrition?

    Did Dr. Fort give data or just report a couple of percentages and is data available?

    I do not question that our IMB screens carefully, trains intensely, and supports assiduously our field personnel.

    • Ethan Moore says

      I was afraid the 3% thing would be misunderstood the way I explained it. My apologies.

      Assume the organization had 4500 international workers. Losing 3.9% through attrition would mean a loss of 175 people. Just 3% of those 175 died or went on some sort of permanent medical leave; in other words , only 5 people. The other 170 were resignations and firings.

      Does that help?

      Career personnel do not finish a term and leave without it being considered attrition or retirement. It is only those whose term has an actual finish date written down somewhere who finish term and walk away without anyone calling it attrition.

      The numbers are actually pretty good. We’ve been above 4% for a while and even above 5% some in the last 15 years. This latest figure is our lowest in that time span, I believe.

      Thanks for interacting.

  2. says

    As a former IMB missionary, I can tell you that whatever the attrition number is, no one takes better care of their personnel than the IMB. I am forever grateful for our years on the field. In the same way, I am forever grateful to you, Southern Baptists, for sending and keeping us. And Chris got it right above – many of the complaints regarding the IMB relate to the issue of spending CP monies from around the nation. The IMB never tells anyone they cannot serve as a missionary, but they do occasionally tell someone they cannot do so with CP funds.

  3. Tom Covington says

    It would be interesting if we could compare such attrition rates to the “turnover” rates of SBC pastors. I know that is apples and oranges but it does make you wonder.

    Perhaps it could be a good primer for individual churches and their relationships with their pastor.

    • Stephen says

      Might be interesting, but as you say there’s a lot of differences. The biggest would be that your paycheck does not come from the people that you minister (church members) but rather from your supervisors (IMB leadership), which probably gives less pressure and provides more freedom in being faithful and having integrity rather than just trying to please your congregation. Another difference would be that if you are living somewhere and have some reason to move (not amicable to the climate or the neighborhood, etc.), you could get reassigned to another post with the IMB but in a local church your only option might be to find another church somewhere else.

  4. William Thornton says

    Avg. pastor tenure was around 5 years. IMB tenure would be much longer, I’d presume, because of the level of support. A church has little or nothing invested in their pastor. IMB would have several hundred thousand dollars invested in a given mssy through a first turn. Naturally, this level of investment is a very strong incentive to the IMB to retain personnel. The same incentive is absent in a local church in retaining their pastor.

    • Ethan Moore says

      The last time I heard a specific number for average length of service, it was specified for long-term (apprentice/career) personnel only; not ISC, Masters, or Journeymen. At that time, the average length of service of people on active duty at that time was about 10 years.

      That report is two years old, though. The newer number tweeted by Dr. Fort is from the latest (2013) report.

  5. Mark Terry says

    I’m a retired IMB missionary, and I teach missions at Mid-America Baptist Seminary. (Come for some good barbecue.) I’m grateful to Ethan for this interesting post. He is correct the IMB’s attrition rate has varied from 4-5 percent for the last twenty years or so. So, 3.9 percent is quite good. The IMB has the lowest that I know. I had a student who served with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). He told me their attrition rate was 30 percent; though to be fair, their missionaries tend to be younger. I asked an IMB staff member recently about the average length of service for IMB missionaries. He told me that it is now 9 years. Thirty years ago it was 20 years. I wonder about the difference. Perhaps my fellow bloggers can offer some suggestions.

  6. Ron West says


    I still intend to come to Memphis for BBQ sometime. Want to hear about your trip to my old home.

    Now to this discussion. I am a mathematician but I don’t base my thoughts on IMB attrition rate on the numbers given here. My thoughts come from 32 years as a career missionary.

    This IMB has an outstanding personnel department. They do a good job of finding and screening candidates. This was true when I was appointed in 1978 and has remained true. I am one of those who thinks “missionary call” is a requirement for service. My own candidate process was very helpful and encouraging. In the years I was with the board I saw a few who got through but shouldn’t have but they were the exception. I saw few firings. Most resignations were because of circumstances beyond the missionary’s control and they would have stayed if they could and the board would have wanted them to stay. Retirements came after many years of dedicated service and usually with great regret at having to leave.

    I am not sure of the reason for shorter length of service. When I was appointed most went with the idea they would stay until they retired. Many today come with the idea of serving a few years and then back to the US. Also there is so much moving around on the field that moving back to the US is just another move. In the old days you usually stayed at your first mission field throughout your career.

    Thanks David for giving this helpful information. I have been told by friends on the field that they are being told that because of finances they will be reducing the force over the next 3 years by 600 missionaries. This will be more than average attrition and will require letting some career missionaries go. This will be the first time in my lifetime if this happens. I pray it won’t be necessary.

    • Ethan Moore says

      Thanks for your perspective. I appreciate someone with your amount of time on the field weighing in on this.

      One note about the loss of 600 missionaries and the need to push people out the door: I doubt it will be necessary. While I don’t have all the statistics for this year’s report, I know that gains/losses in over the last few years have been such that reducing headcount by 600 isn’t impossible.

      For example, over a recent 2-year time span, the IMB added on average 485 new people per year. Over that same time span, they averaged around 700 losses (retirement, end of service, illness, etc). Without a deliberate effort at reducing their overall financial burden, therefore, the organization lost about 135 people per year without forced layoffs or mandatory retirements.

      In order to reduce headcount by 600 over three years, all they need an appointment/departure difference of 200 a year. Seems workable to me.

  7. Ron West says

    Hope you are right Ethan. It may have just been someone in Richmond sighting the worst case scenario.