by Carroll Ferguson Hunt
It makes sense to consider the potential of women and to look for ways to affirm and develop them.
Mary had several successful years on the mission as an MK teacher before she returned home, married a missionary, and later went back to another field as a wife. She entered language school, but her husband told her she would probably never learn the language anyway. So, when she got tired and discouraged, she just quit. No one encouraged her to continue learning. Her mission job, it seemed, was to keep her home, be a mother, raise her children, and entertain an occasional guest. No one suggested she could have any other role.
So, when her children left home to go back to the United States for college, she left too. Within weeks, her husband followed her. Today, their fellow missionaries say Mary ruined her husband’s effective ministry on the mission field. The blame is laid entirely on her. No one considers whether some leadership interest or caring could have changed the whole story.
It is a tragic, and unfortunately, all too common story. Women are an important resource in missions—and an often unappreciated and underutilized one. According to researchers, "data has always shown more females in the mission force than males" (MARC Newsletter 5/86). It just makes sense to consider the potential of women and to look for ways to affirm and develop them.
SPECIAL NEEDS OF MISSIONARY WOMEN
Why take special trouble to affirm and develop women? It will not happen automatically. Women have unique needs, and one of the most important is in development of an appropriate sense of worth. Everyone needs a sense of worth. Even some animals like horses and dogs to know when they are fulfilling a useful role and evidence a remarkable amount of pride and responsibility.
I fear that heavy amounts of teaching on womanly submission has led to excesses that leach away some wives’ sense of value. Yes, extremes fostered by feminists do exist on the other side of the teeter-totter. But unbalanced emphasis on wifely submission which suggests a woman has nothing to contribute to thinking or deciding family issues, which limits her ministry to setting the Bible by father’s place at the table and hearing children’s bedtime prayers, which requires her to remain silent at field council sessions or mission prayer meetings—an unrelieved enforcement of these limitations—undermines the sense of worth of even the gentlest woman.
A single missionary’s sense of value can be undermined by a lack of consideration for her individuality as she is lumped in with the other mission "girls," and treated as a second-class citizen socially. On the job, she may have an advantage over her married sister, since she is assigned a ministry—work that requires training, thought, and decision-making. Even so, her sense of value is not automatically secure in the male-dominated world of missions. She can still be nudged toward the rear of the bus by thoughtlessness as much as anything else.
A wife’s sense of worth can be undermined by education shortfall as her seminary or graduate school trained reads and works and grows, leaving her in the dust intellectually. And, traditional social attitudes can deliver a resounding whack to a woman’s sense of worth. Most women automatically know they are expected to listen to men discuss ideas and issues without venturing a comment or opinion. Married women are expected to be happiest discussing babies and recipes. This often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and since they are relegated to that arena, it is there they are more comfortable and verbal.
Even women who have achieved recognition and have placed in leadership positions suffer the consequences of traditional social attitudes toward women. Often, who have little experience working with women professionally do not accept their ministry; gifts, or position.
WOMEN’S ISSUES ARE IMPORTANT
Women’s issues are a more urgent item on mission agendas than ever before. In order to assess where we are in missions, I have conducted some research, including surveys of women missionaries in several countries and U.S.-based staff personnel. The following insights are based on those surveys, my own experience as a missionary for 22 years in Korea and then six years at the OMS headquarters, and my observations on travels with my husband to minister to missionaries in Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
I want to say first that mission agencies are doing many things right. Several of my respondents say they do not hampered by femininity; that their ministries are full satisfying. Several single women say they feel free to speak out, and believe they are heard. Increasingly, missions are using women in positions of responsibility on the headquarters staff. Women are regularly elected to field committees. On rare occasion, one even sees a senior woman missionary appointed to lead a field.
Beyond this, I would like to suggest some ways mission leaders can encourage women on their teams to more effectively use their skills in building the kingdom of God.
DECIDE TO AFFIRM WOMEN
Mission leaders can sensitize themselves to affirm women and their importance by making some conscious decisions about their own behavior toward women. They can, for example, decide to listen when a woman speaks. Many times I have begun to explain something or even to respond to a question put to me by a man only to have his eyes glaze over and slide past me to the rest of the room. This is a clear signal he has no interest in what I am saying, even when I am responding to something he has asked me. How rare, and therefore memorable, are the moments when a man looks me in the eye and concentrates on what I am saying. By offering women the courtesy of attentive ears, men in leadership can let the women on their team know they find them worthwhile fellow workers.
Further, they can encourage women to talk to them—especially on substantive issues. Ask a woman’s opinion about current problems or issues with which her team is grappling. Listen to her response, then react to something she says, even if it seems simplistic or beside the point She may not be accustomed to discussing issues with anyone besides her husband or the woman next door. It could fluster her at the beginning to receive the full benefit of a leader’s attention. Leaders may to persevere, but the rewards will be worth the time and effort.
AFFIRM THE WORK OF WOMEN
Men in leadership should look for value in the work of women, and then affirm them. One bright young woman wrote to say she works hard in her missions assignment in public relations. She apparently does a credible job, but her various bosses and supervisors never tell her so. She hungers to hear her work is acceptable, but the only assurance she can glean is from the absence of criticism.
Those in leadership can strengthen the women (and men, as well) on their team by spending some moments each week telling one or two they are doing something right. Then, watch them flower, not only in work output, but in organizational loyalty as well.
INCLUDE WOMEN IN CONVERSATION
Men in leadership naturally talk to each other. There is nothing wrong with that. Occasions arise, however, when that natural tendency undermines a woman’s sense of worth—and worse, causes her to neglect her innate reasoning powers and intelligence. Countless times I have sat in on fascinating conversations about issues that matter deeply to me and found myself shut out because as the conversation heated up the men looked at each other, addressed each other, and answered each other—while ignoring altogether the women in the circle.
I think I understand why this happens, but I also believe mission leaders need to work to keep it from happening. Women need to be included. We don’t want to be out just when the conversation gets good. Even if we don’t surprise anyone with the brilliance of our insights” we might, given the opportunity—our sense of participation will be heightened, and everyone in the room will see we are deserving of just plain good manners, if nothing else.
When making decisions, mission leaders can train themselves to think how the outcome will affect women, who most likely comprise the majority of their teams. In some cases, mission leaders probably consult one or two women before making a decision. When we know we are taken into consideration and acknowledged as having worth, our security dignity—and, I believe, our production level—will grow by quantum leaps.
TRAIN MEN TO REGARD WOMEN HIGHLY
Male executives should be trained to follow the positive example of a sensitized leader. One of my respondents, a secretary teacher in Latin America, says she enjoys a good working relationship with her boss, the field leader. But, she says, when the leader is out of town, the other men do not acknowledge she can assume any responsibility, make the simplest decision, or supply them with any worthwhile information. Perhaps if the leader made certain the others on the team knew his regard for and trust in his secretary, her situation might be different.
INCLUDE WOMEN IN DECISION MAKING
Although missionary women are occasionally involved in the decision-making process in some mission organizations, leaders considering ways to meet the needs of women on their team can give the concept an extra push in three ways:
First, they can appoint women as board members. And, they should go at least one step beyond the token female appointee by electing two. One board member with whom I am acquainted, although competent professionally, appeared to be intimidated by her lonely status as the only woman in the group. In the several years I watched the activities of that board, she never ventured to open her mouth to contribute to any discussion.
Second, appoint women as field committee members. Single women are often elected to this decision-making body, but wives—especially wives of leaders and achievers—seldom are appointed to serve. The wives with whom I have talked understand why this is so, and agree the policy against both husband and wife serving on the board is wise. I remember some of us joking in Korea that we should use our majority status to elect ourselves to the committee and leave the men off for a term. The reason it was a joke—although now I wonder if that was I saw in a few male eyes—was that it was such an unthinkable action for anyone to take.
But what if a warm, supportive, unified team of missionaries were to experiment with such a concept? What if a husband would withdraw his name from the committee ballot and support his wife’s candidacy? Two things would happen to the averages missionary wife as a result. She would stretch and grow, learning what it means to see all sides of a question before deciding how it should be resolved. She would also bring her unique set of insights wisdom to bear on issues in ways that could profit the team and the work.
Third, appoint women as advisors. Women are often skilled in conflict resolution, mainly because they dislike conflict and are willing to work toward a peaceful solution. A woman’s counsel could be especially useful when a mission is grappling with a work-stopping conflict.
The same holds true for problem-solving. Women are accustomed to dealing with problems, and sometimes, because often we are not in on the inception and development of the difficulty, our sideline view can be helpful. This can be true especially in relational issues. We care terribly about relationships often focus on them rather goals. So, when relationship problems threaten a missionary team—as they often seem to—why not get a woman’s advice?
On property matters a woman’s keen eye can pick out flaws and problems in plans and projections. Or, she may have experience in schools, camps, churches, offices, and homes which could steer boards away from costly errors.
CONSIDER WOMEN WHEN DEALING WITH LOGISTICS
A married woman often sees making a home for her family as her major responsibility. Consequently, she cares the logistics of life that affect her family. Even single women, although they have no family for which to care, still and and want to create a proper environment in which to live and offer hospitality. Attention to logistics can make a major difference in the lives and performance of missionaries. This is one area in which a woman may function profitably as an advisor. She can be entrusted with the communication of mission policy on logistics and the authority to relay back to the mission information about people’s needs and ideas in these areas.
Housing is especially important to women. At the outset, a woman should be encouraged to ask questions about her overseas housing. If she is going to live in a primitive or difficult situation, she should be prepared for it. Mission leaders can show they care about these things. Many missionary women will rise to such a challenge and turn a wretched spot into an oasis of love and light if she feels supported and prepared, rather than ignored.
The care and education of children is a special concern of women. Missionaries should know leaders care about their children and are planning for their welfare. Teacher recruitment should receive high priority; if at all possible, college-bound missionary should be sent to one of the excellent re-entry seminars now available. Leaders should attend conferences on MKs, or at least listen to or read reports on them.
Transition is especially difficult for the one whose responsibility it is to provide a home for the family and keep it going. Someone from the mission should communicate about the nitty-gritty issues of transition — clothing, transportation, salary, housing. Tell missionaries in transition what is going to happen to them, when, where, and why. These are some of the most insecure moments in their lives, points at which a helping hand and a listening ear can mean so much.
IT IS NOT TOO LATE
I believe most mission leaders consider the missionary woman significant. She doubts that, however, when leaders don’t listen to her, ignore what matters to her, and exclude her from the mainstream of the activity to which God called her.
But when she is drawn in as a participant, prodded to think, to grow, and to contribute, her sense of worth fuels her production level, and through her, the kingdom grows. Could Mary and her husband’s mission ministry have been saved if her value as a missionary had been affirmed and if she had prodded to grow and contribute? It is too late now to find out. But for the tens of thousands of other women who form the heart of the missions enterprise, it is not too late.
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