by Martha Skelton
Missionary women face distinctive challenges in their service.
Missionary women — wives, mothers, hostesses, teachers, counselors, church leaders — must balance out all these roles and still find fulfillment of their missionary call, or face frustration, alienation, and possible failure.
Since 1974, a series of missionary homemaker conferences have been held in various missions of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board to assist women in establishing their vocation, handling their frustrations, and finding their God-intended avenues of service.
Mrs. Bill (Delcie) Wakefield has been there. She is a former missionary homemaker and wife of a mission field representative and administrator. She has developed the missionary homemaker conference program, gathered and developed resource material, and has worked personally in 25 such meetings.
The conferences address a gap in professional encouragement for the statistical majority of missionaries sent by the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board-the church and home worker. Women always constitute a high percentage of the mission force. In 1984, women were 53.70 percent of the total work force of 3,190. And most of the women were married; single women were eight percent of the total force that year.
The mission board’s position is that a missionary woman, married or single, must have a call, is appointed, receives a salary, and studies language. Missionary support includes items for missionaries both as individuals and family units. Each person receives a base salary, cost-of-living adjustments, and longevity and language study allotments. Family unit disbursements include automobiles, travel allowances (in most cases), housing tax assistance, and a furlough transportation fund.
The board has an ongoing commitment to healthy family life, says Truman Smith, who directs its family ministries office. Part of that health is ministry fulfillment-doing what you set out to do in Christian commitment, says Smith, a trained consultant.
But once women were sent to the field to do "church and home" work, there was no way to help homemakers focus on evaluation and developing their work.
WHAT THEY FACE
Missionary women face distinctive challenges in their service. A married woman missionary finds her work-and herself-defined by her family obligations. No man’s ability to be a field evangelist, for example, is shaped by the number, age, or educational needs of his children. But many women face that reality.
Terms for missionary homemakers, such as Southern Baptists’ "church and home" designation, are non-directive enough to give women choices in taking on ministries in addition to running their homes. While the latitude is welcome, missionary homemakers often face vague expectations of what they are to do, how to do it and on what basis to evaluate and develop their efforts.
Another distinctive of missionary women is their cycle of changes. Since church and home work is not tied to geography or institution, it often shifts with a husband’s new assignment, a mission committee appointment, a change in a child’s schooling, and other variables.
In addition to their family responsibilities, women with a call to missions go to the field to take the gospel. Conflicts arise when a woman cannot blend together those two major responsibilities.
WHAT THEY DO
These challenges are addressed in the missionary homemaker conferences. The homemaking role-its biblical basis, centrality to the family and society, its complexity and worthiness as a vocation are stressed. Asked to speak at the first conference, Mrs. Wakefield found almost no resources for the missionary homemaker. The conference text is a booklet she wrote herself, "The Missionary Homemaker: Vocation and Role."
The basic homemakers conference centers on three areas, according to Mrs. Wakefield. First, defining and clarifying in an objective way what goes into the role of missionary homemaker. Many times it is not homemaking or mission work that is the problem, but how a woman can blend the two in her own situation that can lead to frustration.
Second, determinants are identified that affect that role. Examples include the wife’s own self-concept, ambivalent feelings about the role of women, realities of each woman’s family and location. They try to help women decide "what realities must be faced rather than what you could be if things were different," Mrs. Wake-field explains.
Third, they deal with principles and guidelines to set goals, set priorities, determine gifts, determine needs, and where gifts can be used to meet those needs.
When she started, Mrs. Wakefield observes, wives were comfortable in their roles as homemakers, but struggled with their missionary responsibilities. Now women often come to the field with training, career experience, and are comfortable in their missionary role, but are just developing as homemakers. The situation has shifted, but the challenge is the same-to blend the two together.
There are variations on the basic homemaker conferences such as examining the woman’s missionary task, concentration on a particular role such as wife, mother, etc.; developing the competency model for missionary homemakers.
The Southern Baptist missionary wives in Thailand with whom Mrs. Wakefield worked "took the ball and did it first," she says of the competency model. Other vocational groups, including field evangelists, later developed similar models.
The conferences are held only at field request. "I only go by invitation; this is not sent from Richmond (the home office) out to their area," says Mrs. Wakefield. "This is an important dynamic. They have ownership of it. They take the initiative to ask for a conference and the Foreign Mission Board provides the financial resources."
No two conferences are exactly alike. For instance, in two sessions held in Europe, many of the participants had college-age children or aging parents in the United States and were feeling the tensions of that distance. In such a case, they try to help the women focus on the "do-able" things and accept the limitations of being separated.
Some topics are universal. "The greatest concerns were with children-their health, school, peer friendships-the common denominators of mothers," says Mrs. Isam Ballenger, whose husband is area director for Europe and the Middle East. Other topics are specific. They discussed how to minister meaningfully in Europe while seeing the differences even within the area. "Things you would do in France would not be appropriate in Germany; what you would do in Spain would be odd in Switzerland," Mrs. Ballanger points out. One common thread they found was friendships that lead to Christian witness.
HOW THEY RESPOND
Women critiquing the conferences have been overwhelmingly positive. Participants gain a "new sense of direction and purpose, common ground, mutual support and caring, fellowship. They look at who they are with more appreciation, value things they saw (before) only as modest contributions now worth their time, effort and enthusiasm," explains Truman Smith.
The homemaker conferences are strictly voluntary, and certainly not a universal or compulsory experience. But for those choosing to attend, they strike deep, intense chords-of frustration, need of spiritual refreshment, affirmation.
Frustration. One woman said the conference was "like someone has just pulled the plug of a filling tub before the water level goes over my head."
Missionary women often function away from their peers. It is easy to become convinced they are the only ones dealing with a particular situation. "The Lord has pierced me to the core through this conference. Christian brothers and sisters are just that, and we should tap that resource for affirmation and confession when we are hurting. Now I have hope. The Lord can use me," another participant said.
Spiritual refreshment. "This has contributed greatly to my experience with God," said one woman. "I have had a good look at priorities and this has been a difficulty of mine-to chart my own course instead of being pushed around with the tides. I must examine the results for God of the things I do."
Another woman especially appreciated the times of worship "because I am at home with a young child and I am often in the church nursery during worship services. Sometimes I feel isolated in the field, and the meeting gave me a sense of community."
Mutuality. No one, for instance, relates to the tensions of teaching children at home like someone who has done it. The conferences gave newer missionaries a good deal of perspective from veterans on how they made adjustments; the veterans, in turn, gained from the enthusiasm and challenges to learn new skills offered by the younger coworkers. "It has helped me to hear others tell how they’ve been where I am, but have come through this stage," said one participant.
Affirmation. Missionary homemakers drew strength from each other. "Although as individuals we approach our roles as missionary homemakers in a wide variety of ways, I (sensed) affirmation of my decisions and my right to make those decisions for myself and my family," said one participant. "That affirmation… enabled me to accept and affirm others who perhaps did not view their role the same way I viewed mine."
While she is active in church and family efforts, Mrs. Wakefield has found an answer to her own sense of identity and calling for service through the homemaker conference. They are "an important way I found my own ministry. The Lord developed it in his own way," she says.
The feedback on the seminars indicates a range of response. For some women, it is a general time of fellowship and growth. For others, it is life changing. Mission reports indicate that some missionary couples have been kept from leaving the field because the wife was able to deal with her problems through the conferences.
"If you begin to meet some of her (missionary home-maker’s) needs," says Mrs. Wakefield, "and she begins to have a clearer sense of her own identity, and an excitement about fulfilling that, you not only have a more effective missionary, you have a different wife and mother."
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