Helping Women Thrive: A Key Component of a Healthy Team Approach
by Lorrie Lindgren
The author shares some common concerns among missionary women.
There are approximately seventy-five thousand full-time North American missionary women serving around the world, making up two-thirds of today’s mission force. Women of the Harvest (WOTH) is a ministry that provides support and encouragement to meet the needs of these women so they can thrive in their calling. Our goal is to impact each one.
WOTH began in the fall of 1997 by publishing a magazine written by missionary women for missionary women. With over ten thousand subscribers, the purpose of this resource is to give these women a voice and a platform to be real and talk about what they are encountering on the field.
The second ministry arm of WOTH is a retreat ministry. Over the past twelve years the retreats have been held in twenty-two international locations, as well as nine U.S. locations for women on home assignment. Over 2,800 women have attended these retreats to date.
Through magazine articles and personal interaction with women attending the retreats, WOTH understands the issues missionary women face. By increasing awareness and understanding of these issues, our hope is that proactive steps will be initiated to meet the unique needs of female workers so that they can thrive individually and strengthen the health of the ministry team.
There are two primary areas missionary women want understood.
1. They are different from their male co-workers. In general, women are nurturers, love beauty, and are highly relational. These factors play a significant role in their ministry lives.
2. Their daily experiences are often radically different than their female counterparts in the West—they often feel nobody understands their cross-cultural life.
Below are key points to keep in mind concerning the needs of missionary women.
• They have a need to connect with other women who “get their life”
• They desire a safe place to process their experiences
• They want to feel that someone knows what they are facing and actually cares
• They are susceptible to the epidemic of the “Pedestal Syndrome”
• They have both perceived and real expectations put on them by family, churches, and their agency
• Their cross-cultural challenges may impact both their effectiveness and their longevity on the field
Since the ultimate goal of missions is to expand God’s kingdom, it is crucial to pay attention to the attrition rate and proactively care for team members so they can be effective. In 2007, ReMAP II (Reducing Missionary Attrition Project)—the most comprehensive research study focused on missionary retention to date—was published by the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission. The study revealed that one in fourteen missionaries leave their mission agencies each year and that two-thirds leave for potentially preventable reasons. In addition, it has been estimated that the average length of a missionary’s career has dropped to only eight years.
WOTH’s goal is to bring change to that reality by caring for, connecting, and creating a community for missionary women by means of face-to-face interaction through our retreat ministry. Through their interactions with WOTH, these women have conveyed the following issues as being common concerns.
1. Spiritual/emotional Issues
In Titus 2, God lays out his design for women to be in relationship with one another. In our local churches, we are intentional to provide both formal and informal mentoring relationships. But do we give the same attention to mentoring missionary women? These women have a deep desire for someone to show an interest in their spiritual journey, answer tough questions, process life’s challenges, and encourage them along the way.
They often experience extreme weariness and a loss of ministry passion. The logistics of balancing daily life in a Majority World culture and ministry takes its toll on their emotional health and relationships. Depression grips a high percentage and many become emotionally depleted, especially those working with extreme poverty, incarnational ministry, or among a dying population (HIV/AIDS).
They battle loneliness and struggle with isolation. They long for their loved ones to understand their ministry setting. One female missionary doctor in Ghana had no family or agency visitors to her village in over seventeen years. Another had worked in Estonia for over ten years and never had a single family member or friend visit.
1. Properly grieving both tangible and intangible losses. WOTH provides a workshop on this topic at every retreat.
2. Self-care and stress management. This is the need to step away from ministry for refreshment. Retreat attendees verbalize their hesitancy (and guilt) to let their agencies and/or churches know that they accepted our gift of time away to be refreshed.
3. Feelings of inadequacy/lack of spiritual fruit.
4. Cultural adjustment.
2. Interpersonal Relationships
Sexual issues are among the most frequent topics addressed in our private counseling sessions, including moral failure—whether it is a physical or virtual affair. One woman in South America discovered her husband, the team leader, was heavily involved in pornography.
Sexual abuse is another primary topic. Women must often deal with a difficult childhood experience or discover a current crisis with one of their own children.
Romantic relationships with nationals is a growing issue. One woman in South Africa was sure she knew the culture well enough that the challenges of an interracial marriage would be minimal. She discovered they were more intense than she imagined. It made her long for interaction with women from her own North American culture.
The massive topic of Missionary Kid/Third Culture Kid issues are too complex to address here. However, because a child’s struggles are close to a mom’s heart, it is a common topic of discussion among missionary women.
1. Wives not feeling nurtured by work-aholic husbands.
2. Understanding generational differences with co-workers.
3. Need to improve communication skills in marriages, teams (e.g., dynamics of team/increasing multi-cultural teams issues).
4. Agency administration.
3. Agency/organizational Issues
For the past fourteen years WOTH has worked with over three hundred mission agencies to provide strategic member care for their female workers.
The women come from agencies with different demographics and procedures. Note the facts below:
• The women serve under both large and small mission agencies.
• Agency ministry styles vary: traditional, Business-as-Mission (BAM), incarnational, etc.
• Some agencies model a proactive member care approach, some are reactive, and some believe missionaries should be able to provide their own self care.
• Out of one hundred attendees at each retreat, we typically have over forty mission agencies represented.
Married women often express the lack of care from their agencies. Many would like to have the opportunity to attend marriage seminars and weekend getaways for couples.
Single women struggle with the perception and value of single women on the field. Their most common concerns include appropriate work relationships with married men, the tension/mistrust they sense from the wives of co-workers, not being valued in team decisions, being seen as the team child care provider, and the assumption that they can carry more responsibilities since they don’t have a family. Single women often experience a high turnover of roommates. One woman in Thailand had already had sixty-three roommates during her missionary career. She struggled with not wanting to invest in new relationships. Many single women also still carry a deep desire to be married.
We also see the need for more agency pre-field screening. It seems there is an increase of “issues” when new appointees arrive on the field. The post-Christian era brings more couples who have not grown up with a strong Christian background or with good marriage/parenting role models. This filters down to many unanticipated surprises once living cross-culturally. Finally, there is the important issue of team conflict.
1. Permission from their agency to struggle with something difficult.
2. Changing roles on the field—often related to life stages.
3. Not doing what they thought God called them to do.
4. Transitioning issues due to agency decisions, team conflict, retirement, etc.
5. Desire to have input when teams are restructured.
6. Second career—challenges of entering missions after age 55.
7. Trauma crisis; Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
8. Support-raising in a difficult economy.
9. Styles of member care.
10. Pros and cons of new technology (e.g., Skype, mobile phones).
Call to Action
If women are not thriving, the team cannot reach its potential. As we seek to build healthy teams, we need to evaluate and initiate proactive steps to meet the unique needs of missionary women. We can begin with asking the questions listed in the pullout box at the organizational level. Then, we must turn our attention to the individual woman. The obvious challenge is to know each member well enough to listen and recognize her individual needs. We can start by assessing the following: What are her spiritual/emotional challenges? What is the health of her interpersonal relationships? Are you aware of any agency/organizational concerns?
Investing in the women who comprise the majority of the North American mission force is essential. Encouraging them to thrive by meeting their unique needs will keep them effective in their kingdom-expanding work. As we’ve found through our direct involvement with missionary women, being proactive in member care yields a positive harvest—women are refreshed and ready to once again serve in the fields of the Lord.
As mission leaders seek to build healthy teams, member care teams can begin a dialogue using these key questions.
• How can we be proactive, rather than reactive?
• What unique care is needed in order to help women not just persevere, but thrive in their calling?
• How can we validate and affirm their call?
• How do we help them strategically connect with women who understand what they are going through?
• How do we encourage them to cultivate their walk with the Lord?
• How do we help young women network with seasoned workers (even in other agencies) who can mentor, being careful not to minimize their zeal but offering insight gained from experience?
• How do we verbalize that they are valued for “being” instead of “doing”?
• How do we model and teach them the disciplines of working hard and resting well?
• Do we recognize the continual need to process their extreme mission work by helping them clarify their thoughts and feelings?
• Do we provide opportunities for breaks and times to refuel and rest?
• How do we value and protect our single women?
• How can we know each woman well enough to recognize her individual needs?
• How can we become a student of each woman’s life to determine the most effective way to communicate our desire to encourage her?
• How do we come alongside women during difficult and emotional times?
• Are we listening and aware of their need for debriefing?
• What precautions are we taking to strengthen marriages and protect them from temptations of pornography and sexual sin?
• When agency decisions are made that affect teams, how can we include the women in the process and help them with the transition?
• How can we be persistent in visiting on-site as often as possible?
Lorrie Lindgren joined Women of the Harvest in 2000 and
became CEO in 2005. She was involved in the leadership of women’s
ministries for thirty years in her local church and the national level
of her denomination for thirteen years.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 109-113. 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.