Field Leaders: Navigating the Complexities of a Four-dimensional Role
by Ken Harder and Vicki Gascho
Field leaders typically navigate four dimensions in their roles: personal, organizational, stewardship, impact. The authors give guidance on how to address each of these.
Jerry1 had enthusiastically embraced his new field leader assignment. He vowed to be an effective leader even though his continuing local ministry allowed him to give only part time to the role. He had counted on a detailed job description and orientation with follow-up coaching and training.
Before long, however, Jerry’s feet hit the ground—hard. “Orientation” had been a transfer of checking accounts and a pat on the back. “Training” would take place during a two-hour slot in the field leader strategy meetings four months away. As for coaching, other leaders confirmed that it did not yet exist. In a short time Jerry noticed that he was desperately alone in a sea of crisis decision-making one day and tedious details the next. He began to sense a strange isolation from the very people he was supposed to help.
Mission executives readily acknowledge that frontline missionaries are essential to accomplishing the organization’s vision and mission. Yet, too often, the on-field leaders tasked with guiding those ministry personnel and giving direction to the organization’s vision at the country or local level are left on their own to traverse the messy, multi-faceted realities of their roles. Perhaps even more sobering is that the extent of the field leader’s role is seldom fully identified by the organization, so intentional, well-rounded equipping and support cannot be offered to the leaders. Yet, Bob Fetherlin, vice president for international ministries for the Christian and Missionary Alliance, explained the importance of leadership health this way: “As goes the health of the field leader, so goes the health of the field.”
This article describes personal and ministry realities expressed by field leaders themselves. It then offers a fresh way of seeing those realities by positioning field leader practices into a four-dimensional working grid. Finally, it suggests starting places for organizations committed to improving the effectiveness, well-being, and growth of their field leaders.
Field Leader Realities
Ann, a veteran country leader, is in a different place than Jerry. She has maneuvered through the deficits of inadequate orientation, training, and support that are so distressing to Jerry. She is viewed as a well-suited leader who works wisely with both her host culture leaders and missionaries.
Frequently, however, Ann feels tension in relating to her own superiors. Is it her imagination, or are her executive leaders reluctant to consider her recommendations and to discuss the effects of their decisions on the ministries in her country? At a personal level, she admits that she has not taken the time lately to forge close personal friendships. And at home she notices that her adolescent children more often pursue deep conversations with her husband than with her.
Recent research (Harder and Shaum 2008; Gascho and Harder 2009)2 focused on the perceptions of team, country, and regional leaders from seven prominent North American mission organizations. Eighty-three percent of field leaders responded, documenting their firm loyalty to their organizations and to the missions and visions to which they ascribed. Yet they also held strong opinions about needed organizational improvements and changes necessary to strengthen their own roles. In confidential surveys, 277 frontline field leaders revealed the following realities about their roles:
1. A sizeable majority divide their responsibilities between field leadership and the personal ministries toward which they feel a great calling and commitment. This is particularly true for team leaders, 71% of whom say that they give only limited time to their team leadership roles. While those dual roles provide enormous benefits in personal satisfaction and in interfacing with on-the-ground realities, most leaders admit that their multiple responsibilities result in overload and personal life imbalance.
2. Only 30% of new field leaders receive any kind of orientation, training, or coaching specific to their leader roles. And since 40% of current field leaders have served in their positions three years or less, it is not only the initial role preparation and guidance that is lacking, but also the day-to-day wisdom and efficiency that comes with accumulated experience and practice. Both realities reduce their ability to handle multiple responsibilities effectively. Energy reserves are thus quickly depleted and too seldom replenished with intentional care, training, and support.
3. A lack of ongoing communication exists between field leaders and their own immediate supervisors. In spite of an organizational desire to forge helpful relationships among leaders, nearly 40% of field leaders reported that they have no regularly scheduled meetings with their supervisors, and 35% had received no constructive supervisorial feedback in the past year. Although a high number admitted that their supervisors are quick to respond in ministry crises, 70% revealed that they are never asked about the condition of their souls or their relationship with God. Leaders admitted that the lack of connectedness within their superiors and organization takes an enormous toll on their passion for their roles.3
4. Many field leaders struggle to find joy and balance in ministry, family, and personal life. While a large majority feel privileged to be part of mission leadership, one-third admitted that the complexities of work and life result in an unending battle to find margin, balance, and satisfaction. Even higher numbers confessed that they are increasingly prone to discouragement cycles, unhealthy coping habits, or questions about their role fit.
Don moved from country leadership to oversight for his organization’s ministries in a large region. He is shocked at the amount of time he now spends on operational tasks he had not anticipated. With inadequate resources and outmoded patterns, he has begun to realize why people talk about “responsibility without authority.” He gains satisfaction from seeing breakthroughs in the regional ministries, but realizes that he misses the hands-on involvement to which he originally felt such a calling. Is the inadequacy he increasingly feels an indication of the “Peter principle” at work? Or is God perhaps withholding blessing because Don hasn’t listened well enough? If only he could talk freely with someone who understands.
When asked how mission organizations can miss significant blind spots when it comes to the care of its leaders, one field leader suggested:
It’s not that mission executives mean to ignore us. Perhaps it’s more that the world of missions is widely “blessed” with an ability to see the future as though it is the current reality. That optimistic spirit may have its strengths, but it also tends to make huge assumptions about the health and effectiveness of its own generals.
In that spirit, the following advice on developing leaders is widely attributed to military visionary, strategist, and commander, General Fred Franks:
The longest development process we have in the United States Army is the development of a commander. It takes less time to develop a tank—less time to develop an Apache helicopter—than it does to develop a commander. It takes anywhere from twenty-two to twenty-five years before we entrust a division of soldiers to a commander… [leaders] must continue to grow and to learn and to study [their] profession, to learn by [their] own experience, to learn by study, school, reading and from others… It [requires] total professional involvement. (Janssen 2011)
Given the magnitude of the field leader responsibility across the mission community, it is startling to realize how little focused attention is given to field leader training and support by mission organizations. Field leaders are clever, gifted, and most feel called to the task, yet can we assume that they will develop effectiveness and sustainability without assistance?
The Four Dimensions of Responsibility
Field leaders’ roles are complex and demanding. A wide variety of resources are needed in order to respond effectively to the realities of their work, to increase their capacity to lead and manage well, and to develop healthy habits in all dimensions of their lives. This complexity was confirmed in the confidential responses in the research and during several structured dialogue times with executive mission leaders. Whether their roles are in well-developed or emerging ministries, the research results and subsequent focus groups suggested that field leaders typically navigate four dimensions in their roles:
• Personal holistic health, including one’s ministry calling, family life, and emotional and spiritual health
• Distinct organizational duties
• Stewardship of people responsibilities
• Impact role
As we understand the vast range of responsibilities that fall to most field leaders, we begin to grasp the overwhelming nature of the task, particularly given the minimal training, counsel, and supervisory support.
Yet, each of the dimensions has a unique function in maximizing God-given resources and people for his glory within a mission organization. Taken in totality, the four dimensions can be an incredibly powerful and influential tool for field leaders. As the entire organization acknowledges and proactively supports the health and effectiveness of field leaders, both the field leaders and their work will be recognized as true gifts to the organization and the kingdom.
The following are brief descriptions of the dimensions4:
The personal dimension may be the easiest component to define, but in reality, it is one of the most overlooked. Executive leaders agree that holistically healthy field leaders are essential for both personal ministry and leadership. Yet they sometimes mistakenly assume that those dynamics are in place in their own organizations and that, regardless of caution lights, certain issues are private and therefore inappropriate to address. Not surprisingly, then, the personal dimension was revealed to be an area of broad neglect across organizations and of major concern among the field leaders taking part in the study.
The organizational dimension speaks to both formal and informal responsibilities that reach far beyond the specific ministry or region named in the field leader’s job description. Not only are field leaders expected to interpret, communicate, and implement the organizational policies and change initiatives taking place among their own charges, but they also may have a “canary in the coal mine” role since strategic global issues and opportunities often raise their heads first in the host cultures or at local levels. In addition, they may have oversight responsibilities of the local office’s legal and operational functions.
The stewardship dimension encompasses the oversight, development, and care of the missionaries. Field leaders must constantly balance between encouraging the individual health of missionaries and building effective, often virtual, teams that will serve effectively in spite of differences, conflict, and cross-cultural stress. The challenge of stewardship responsibilities is exacerbated because missionaries typically come with their own defined sense of calling and personal and financial support systems to which they feel great allegiance. The field leaders in the study acknowledged that of all their responsibilities, those falling into areas of the stewardship dimension were the most frustrating and neglected. In fact, three of the six primary development issues identified by field leaders fall into this dimension: helping ineffective missionaries become effective; managing conflict constructively; and learning to give frequent and specific feedback and guidance.
The impact dimension highlights the challenges of fostering a reproducing ministry among the people and churches with whom the missionaries work. This dimension focuses on long-term, sustainable results of ministry rather than daily operational activities of missionaries. It concerns itself with developmental partnerships with local leaders or churches. It seeks to center the organization’s work in relevant service that creates reproducible, sustainable, long-term outcomes. It requires periodic, skilled actions of strategic thinking that include evaluation, feedback from local partners, listening to God, and thoughtful planning.
Mission organizations that create ways to listen to field leaders are those that begin to take action. They accept the challenge to understand the roles of their leaders and to provide training, coaching, and more effective developmental oversight. They implement organizational practices that utilize the wisdom and gifts of field leaders more intentionally. They do this, understanding that the return on their investment will have a big payoff for their missionaries, leaders, and the kingdom. Wayne Pederson, president of HCJB, explained his journey this way: “We recognized that we needed to make significant changes. It has now transformed the way we work with our leaders in the field.”
Where Do Mission Organizations Go from Here?
Organizational practice and change occur only with great commitment. In the enticement to spend energy and resources on the newest, flashiest initiatives, it takes tremendous executive conviction to prioritize the proactive equipping, training, and support of the organization’s field leaders.
It requires profound courage and humility to invite field leaders to give voice to broad organizational thinking beyond their local responsibilities. It also demands ongoing intentionality by executive leadership to communicate expectations in ways that field leaders can own, live out, and use in their stewardship of people, opportunities, and resources. In the box on page 434-435 you will find four starting places for organizations wanting to increase the effectiveness of their field leaders.
Warren Janzen, international director for SEND International, offered the following wisdom regarding the way organizations should view their field leaders:
The most powerful ministries are performed by Spirit-directed missionaries making great decisions in real time on the frontlines. To do so, they need empowering leaders who themselves are practicing what Peter reminds us to do: be self-controlled and sober-minded so that we can pray and apply the grace of God to each situation (1 Pet. 4:7-10). These types of leaders do not grow on trees. They need to be nurtured and intentionally raised up.
One of the most seriously overlooked challenges for twenty-first century mission organizations is the stewardship of their frontline leaders. Field leaders must be recognized both as people-managers and strategic guides who need high levels of training, consistent support, and authority in order to execute their roles in the midst of today’s external challenges. Will it be worth the investment? What do you think?
If you want to join a learning community of leaders concerned with leader effectiveness and health, go to http://impactfieldleader.wordpress.com to participate.
How Organizations Can Increase the Effectiveness of Field Leaders
1. Personalize the facets of the four dimensions, adding, deleting, and prioritizing responsibilities in a way that is most consistent with the structure and realities of the organization and each field leader role. Each organization must draw their own conclusions regarding the extent of their field leaders’ responsibilities in areas such as mobilization of new recruits, level of member care for which they have responsibility, and fund development for new initiatives in their ministry areas. As the dimensions are amended to the organization’s unique dynamics, the thinking can become a useful tool.
2. From the priorities the organization has personalized, develop an intentional, well-rounded plan for onboarding5, training, and field leader support. Consider the following as foundational:
Provide a foundation and expectation for effectiveness in all four dimensions.
• Include training and coaching opportunities that address both generic and individualized learning needs. Provide training for supervising mission leader to give oversight to that process.
• Agree together on a coach who will serve as a sounding board and adviser to the field leader.
• Cluster field leaders in cohorts to initiate and sustain networking, safety, challenge, ongoing fellowship, and growth.
• Assist field leaders to develop and maintain an individualized continuing education process.
3. Foster healthy field leader/supervisor relationships and connectedness. Consider the following:
• Share the clear expectation that leaders at every level of the organization will own the commitment to quality leader/supervisor relationships.
• Arrange for forthright discussions between supervisors and field leaders to shed light on current realities, organizational practices, and specific role authority.
• Build on the above clarification to mutually agree on job descriptions, role priorities, appropriate goals, and structures and expectations for accountability.
• Develop, communicate, and monitor the expectation that the supervisor and field leader will schedule regular face-to-face or virtual meetings to discuss issues in each of the four dimensions.
• Do not assume personal, family, or spiritual health. Remember LAPS: Listen, ask, pray, support. Include those topics in the regular leader/supervisor discussions.
• Set a schedule for the annual review and updating of job descriptions and plans.
4. Create a culture of listening to field leaders and their learning. Consider the following:
• Provide systematic opportunities for field leaders to speak into wider organizational issues.
• Encourage field leaders to serve as advocates for relevant change; they may be the first to see trends, weaknesses, and global opportunities.
• Use a portion of each leader group meeting as a learning time, speaking not only to organizational issues determined by executive leadership, but also to topics that field leaders themselves have requested. Use the wisdom and skills of field leaders to contribute to the training process.
1. All stories represent either confidential statements or composite stories. Names and distinguishers may have been altered.
2. The Impact Research study is part of an ongoing cooperative effort between Barnabas International and Global Mapping International, with the purpose, “To identify, in partnership with mission organizations, the issues that impact the effectiveness of a field leader’s ministry and life so that mission organizations and leadership ministries can provide more relevant support and development.”
3. For further reading on connectedness, consider the Blanchard Leadership Research on “Employee Passion.” Register for the “Perspectives and White Papers,” available from Kenblanchard.com.
4. The “Four Dimensions” framework and diagrams are evolving as new research and practitioner responses are gathered. Go to http://impactfieldleader.wordpress.com to read updates and share insights.
5. Onboarding is a term used to describe both orientation and integration of new workers/leaders, typically extending through the first year of service. See Partnership for Public Service under references below.
Gascho, Vicki and Ken Harder. 2009. “Impact Survey 2009: Executive Summary.” Impact Field Leader Resources from http://impactfieldleader.wordpress.com.
Harder, Ken. 2011. Unpublished PowerPoint chart: “Field Leader Roles and Responsibilities.” Available from email@example.com.
Harder, Ken and Scott E. Shaum. 2008. “Impact Field Leader’s Survey: Fascinating Findings from a Pilot Research Project on the Needs and Realities of Field Leaders.” Impact Field Leader Resources. Available from http:// impactfieldleader.wordpress.com.
Janssen, Jeff. 2011. Quotation from “Top Leaders on the Importance of Leadership Development.” Janssen Sports Leadership Center. Accessed July 20, 2011, from teamcaptainsnetwork.com.
Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton. 2008. “Getting on Board: A Model for Integrating and Engaging New Employees.” Accessed May 20, 2008, from nicic.gov/Library/023101.
Ken Harder, PhD, is a consultant with the Dynamis Group in Colorado Springs and a researcher with Global Mapping International, with ministry experience with Africa Inland Mission and Compassion International. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vicki Gascho, PhD, works across mission communities with Greater Europe Mission, teaching and consulting internationally. She may be reached at Vicki.email@example.com. The two serve on the ongoing Impact Field Leaders Research Team, sponsored by Barnabas International and Global Mapping International.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 434-442. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.