Americans have not always had the easiest of times moving to the United Kingdom. One would think the transatlantic move would actually be somewhat of an easy transition, given the similarity between the two cultures. It surprised me to hear that the average stay of an American in the United Kingdom, in any type of industry, was about two years. That’s hardly any time at all. Why is this the case?
Let me start right from the top and say this post is not a result from a large scale survey or replicable experimental model. It comes from my conversations with Brits who have experienced Americans in their culture, Americans who have lived there and moved and Americans who have been able to reside there long term. Basically, anecdotal evidence. So this really is just my perspective but I’ve had quite a few conversations with people from the above three categories (due to an obsession to learn as much as possible from them), so hopefully this information is somewhat on track. Either way, here’s what I have found.
In my conversations, the top three reasons American Missionaries leave the UK have been cultural difference, spousal differences, and finances.
1. Cultural difference. It’s not the issue of culture being different between the USA and the UK, it’s a failure to appreciate the cultural difference. Or, if such a difference is observed, a failure to submit to cultural differences. It’s a fine line between deciding where to “act American” and where to contextualize. Not an easy thing, even in our own American cities. Where does a church challenge a cultural assumption? Where do they champion it? Where do they co-opt, subvert, or choose to redeem it? This also includes the (typically stereotypical) expectation Americans have about living in the (supposedly quaint, quiet and polite) UK. Unfortunately Americans in the UK have the reputation of not thinking they have to change very much, then get frustrated when things don’t work out their way. These are hard questions that require wisdom, counsel, and prayer. More on this topic in the future.
2. Spousal differences. The husband and wife may not be on the same page. That may not be the case when deciding to move, in the midst of the move and even for a stint after the move. But eventually over time, one spouse feels more called to be near their family at the old home. Grandparents may want to see children, or parents may want to raise their kids in a more familiar environment. It may even be that over time one discovers that ministry in the context of the UK is just not all that suited to them. Sometimes that can only be learned after living there and struggling through.
3. Finances. It can be hard for an American living in the UK to raise funds for ministry. In general, the church in the UK isn’t as financially rich as the United States, so often moving over there requires fund raising. Many people from the US may not understand the need for ministry in a “Christianized” nation (though it’s far from it). After moving to Europe, it may be hard to maintain financial support, let alone raising new funds locally. Brits have told me that, in general, people in the UK will assume Americans are quite well off as is and be less inclined to support a ministry because of that. Combine the above with a challenging exchange rate and over time some have found this to not be sustainable.
It is possible to do some work overcoming these areas before moving to the UK, but I believe the hard work of wrestling with these obstacles can only be done on the ground and in the present as it comes. The answer isn’t only in front loading, it’s in the day to day. But that’s true of every ministry, isn’t it? We can gain all the knowledge in the world ahead of time, and there’s real advantage to that, but there is no getting around struggling with cultural differences as they come, or a spouse not feeling as connected to their new city as their partner, or drained resources over time.
In any ministry, in any context, our hope is in Jesus leading His church. And if we’re following Him, then we know we are where we should be. That truth allows us to enter these struggles not with whitened knuckles but with our hearts open to what He will do, our minds ready to engage with His mission, and our eyes fixed upon Him.