Engaging Women in Mission Leadership

by Wendy L. Wilson

As an increasing number of mission agencies desire to involve more gifted women as decision-makers in their executive and board leadership structures, they are experiencing difficulty in finding them. How can we create more avenues to find, develop, support, and retain more gifted women to bring the perspective and talent that we desire for our organizations?

As an increasing number of mission agencies desire to involve more gifted women as decision-makers in their executive and board leadership structures, they are experiencing difficulty in finding them. How can we create more avenues to find, develop, support, and retain more gifted women to bring the perspective and talent that we desire for our organizations? This article is an attempt to summarize key issues that can help move an organization from where it is in this dilemma to where it would like to be.

Three Benefits to Better Overall Outcomes
Before we will make any real headway in engaging more gifted women in mission leadership, we must be convinced that it is beneficial. As more women give added leadership to the present and future of our organizations, they will help unlock the gifts of women all across the spectrum of gifting and service.

1. Better engagement of existing personnel.
Likely, much of our needed people resources for a variety of roles are right under noses. “Women are possibly the most underutilized natural resource in the world” (CARE, International Humanitarian organization). Here are a few places to find women with gifts:  

a. Women who enter our agencies in support roles. Gifted, yet undeveloped, women often come to us in support roles with no real avenue for growth. Either they remain under-utilized, or they leave and take their experience and knowledge of the organization with them.

b. Women who serve alongside their husbands or male teammates, often fulfilling similar roles and doing similar work, but aren’t officially recognized. Can we pull them out of hiding and engage their gifts more honestly and fully?

c. Women who don’t know where they fit in the agency they are already in. One HR director of a well-known mission said, “Our men seem to know where they fit…Many of our women, however, become lost between the work that is laid out for their husband and their own experience, which typically falls short of their hearts desire to be a part of the mission.”

Reflect: What assumptions might you be making about the women already in your organization? How might you better leverage their experience and commitment?

2.  Attracting new talent for the future. More candidates are choosing an organization based on its commitment to utilizing, nurturing, and promoting its women in broad and integrated ways. If an organization cannot provide a meaningful place for their particular service, they will choose one that can. We will and are losing these important constituents in the future success of our efforts if we don’t address well the changing relationship of gender to mission leadership.

a. Experienced, talented, mid-life women coming out of corporate leadership and careers, wanting to serve in roles that steward this gifting and experience.

b. Younger couples are coming into missions with a partnership, shared home-responsibility framework in marriage and child-raising. They want meaningful job descriptions for both spouses.

c. Parents are looking for organizations that will be a place where their daughters can grow up with models and thrive as kingdom partners across the spectrum.  

Reflect: In terms of women, what do you communicate about who you are looking for, and what you would like them to contribute?

3.  Better organizational results. There are an increasing number of studies on the issue of gender and leadership. In her book, Women Lead the Way, Linda Tarr-Whelan puts forth her research on what has been called “The 30% Solution,” which asserts that at least thirty percent of women in decision-making roles create more effective, sustainable, and profitable organizations.

There was a clear correlation between balanced leadership and better results in the organization’s goals. Rather than one or two women at the top, thirty percent proved to be the critical mass in any group of decision makers at which women’s voices resonate fully to add the affirmative difference of their experiences and values. The 30% Solution puts the focus firmly on better outcomes as we pursue our goals together, not on quotas or tokenism.

When voices of women are amplified enough to be heard and heeded, different options become possible:

• More alternatives are offered, more skill sets are used, and more out-of-the-box thinking occurs from both genders
• Change accelerates, modernizing old ways
• A preference for collaboration, a longer and wider time horizon, and a focus on preventing crises
• Higher financial performance (as much as eighty percent of spending decisions are reported to be made by women)
• Improved policies for women and families—health care, equal pay, education, community building, diminished violence, childcare

Since over half of the Church is women/girls, how do our strategies and plans address the major concerns of women and children? Women in our decision-making structures are key to capturing more effectiveness around these areas of connection.

Reflect: Who are the true decision makers in your organization?  How might the 30% Solution give you direction in the practical and cultural shift you want to make regarding underutilized contributions of women?

Three Barriers to Transform into Opportunities
The following issues come up frequently regarding barriers to engaging more women in mission leadership, but they can be readily transformed into opportunities for progress.

1.  Organizational readiness. Preparing our organizations and teams for needed shifts can go a long way toward a more effective, systemic change over time.

a. Who is already on board? Who are our people who could be brought productively into exploratory discussions?  

b. What are perceived barriers/threats? What do current leaders think the barriers are, and what do the women think the barriers are? Any disconnect may give us helpful information about what we need to address.

c. Where do we already have common ground? Is there already agreement on aspects of the issue that we can build on (i.e., we value women and can make better use of their giftedness)? Identify the theological underpinnings of your culture. Are there inconsistencies that arise from “unwritten rules”?

d. How can we bring others on board? What discussions can be planned with various groups of staff and volunteers?  

e. Give regular, public affirmation. Where can current leaders give public affirmation to women in identified ministry roles? Have gifted women in appropriate up-front roles at plenary meetings. Ask for their input about recognized, crucial issues.

f. Identify where decisions are made. Are there meetings or events in which women are not present, but decisions are made—formal or informal?

g. Prepare for resistance. What stakeholders may be uncomfortable with such a shift? How will you address it? What do you believe you will gain in the long run? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Reflect: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your organization’s readiness to consider making organizational changes so women have greater access to leadership roles? What might be a best next step toward it?

2. Intentional pathways into leadership. Actively inviting women with leadership gifting into ways they can serve will help more women feel confident to respond.  

a. Identification
i. Evaluate your current leadership recruiting profile. Establish what your (perhaps unspoken) leadership profile is, then evaluate how it might relate to gender assumptions.

ii. Evaluate your current recruiting networks, internal and external. Where do you typically find your leaders? Where else might we look to find them?   

• Executive coaching and placement agencies
• Women’s professional networks
• Volunteer networks
• Your support constituency

iii. Evaluate your internal gift assessment and development of all staff.
• Who are the women who may have been overlooked because they have not been carrying visible roles in the organization?
• Women often need to be sought after and affirmed that they are recognized with leadership gifting and potential. Too often, women lack confidence or believe they shouldn’t be functioning in leading roles of all types.

Once you’ve identified them . . .

b. Development
i. Consider what pathways currently exist or could possibly exist to move her from her current role into a leadership position.
iii. Seek a mentor for her or for a few women at a time to help them develop.
iii. Identify and encourage skill acquisition. Put it in their budgets and job descriptions.
Once you’ve engaged or placed them…

c. Support
Have a clear statement and consistent practice of public support for her leadership. Don’t allow her to be a “lightning rod.” Are you ready to lose some staff (and gain others) as you move forward in this shift? Are you ready to lose some donors (and gain others) as you shift toward integrating more women? We chose whom we will gain and lose by the decisions we make.

Reflect: What processes might you need to put into place to ensure that these change agents (new women leaders) thrive?  

3. Organizational policies and language. Structural issues can be evaluated in terms of how our organizations function practically to encourage women to participate.

a. Organizational language. Re-consider your organizational communications:  personnel and policy documents, mission/vision statements. Begin to change to gender-neutral language where appropriate (one, they, we, the staff member), or alternating gender pronouns (he/she, her/his, men/women) so that it feels more accessible to women and men both.

b. Job descriptions. Are they written to attract both gifted men and women? What are our expectations regarding hours, travel, or meetings? Do we consider part-time, flex time, job sharing, or interim positions?

c. Pay structures. Dual or split salaries can be a way that communicates value of both spouses when couples are recruited for service. Like it or not, paychecks communicate the value of our roles. When women don’t get one, they undervalue their contribution to the organization. And it can put them at peril for other benefits in the future with no employment record.

d. Benefits. Creative solutions to benefits such as childcare, education, health care, or pensions may encourage women to participate more fully.    

e. Educational requirements. What are our expectations of women regarding pre-field and continuing education, required, or encouraged training and development, so that women participate in gaining valued competences?    

f. Evaluation and feedback processes. Regular times of evaluation through life stages can help women stay envisioned and help transitions occur with changing interests and experiences.

Last, policies for balancing family and work are probably the most influential aspect of engaging more women overall, but especially women in leadership. More than likely, women will always wrestle with this tension when both work and family matter greatly to them. In the traditional work-centric culture, dedication and commitment are measured by extraordinarily long hours rather than outcomes. Most women, and more men, reject the work-centric model in favor of a dual-centric one with family and work creatively intertwined. Having more women in our decision-making processes can help us develop more creative approaches to this reality.

For example, a dual-centric model can be encouraged through two high-impact issues. First, “project-based” rather than “position-based” responsibilities can be very effective in providing on-ramps and off-ramps during more need-intense family years. They have a limited time frame (i.e., three to six months, one to two years) with specific parameters so that gifts and contributions of women are not neglected but engaged, also improving morale. Second, flexible hours, whether from home or an office, can allow women to “get the work done,” but in a rhythm that also allows reasonably for family needs.

Reflect: What are the current attitudes in your organization regarding a dual-centric culture?  

Women may be a huge pool of underutilized talent for our organizations. Having women involved in setting priorities and allocating resources in the tough choices about policy, operations, and procedures is essential to maximizing the contributions women can make. Intentionally engaging gifted women in mission leadership will bless our organizations, and thus the Great Commission, in a multitude of ways. There is hope as we seek to find and retain them!


Wendy Wilson serves the Great Commission community by highlighting the privilege of stewarding the gifts of women who comprise over fifty percent of our missions, churches, and educational institutions. She coordinates the collaborative Women’s Development Track (www.womensdevelopmenttrack.com) and serves as the consultant for ministry development of women to Missio Nexus members.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 362-368. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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