Innovation in Mission: Women Workers in the Harvest Force

by Leanne Dzubinski

Empowering women harvest force workers to fulfill God’s calling in their lives can bear tremendous fruit for the gospel.

Mission theory and practice is undergoing something of a paradigm shift these days. Business as Mission (BAM) is replacing our previous concept of tentmaking; the missional and organic church movement affects everyone working in missions; and churches’ shifting understanding of their function as senders more than supporters affects how missionaries get to the field and to whom they report once they are there.

Another paradigm shift that is beginning to be felt once more in mission theory is a renewed focus on holistic ministry. A national work in India, for example, has experienced tremendous church growth. This is coupled with medical care, education, clean water programs, and leadership training. Indian women are integrally involved in every aspect of this work. Generally speaking, women have often been the ones to initiate reform programs for social good and gospel awareness. In the U.S., Christian women have been key workers in everything from the abolitionist movement to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In England, the modern concept of Sunday school was pioneered by two women in an effort to educate and evangelize child factory workers in the eighteenth century (Tucker and Liefeld 1987, 166). The Salvation Army, co-founded by William and Catherine Booth, is another example of a highly successful holistic ministry approach pioneered by a husband-and-wife team.  

Both historically and geographically, there is strong evidence to indicate that women’s integral involvement in the work of missions can be quite fruitful. Carol Davis of Global Spectrum states that women often make the best church planters (Davis 2007). The well-known Yoido Church in Korea experienced explosive growth when Pastor Cho, who co-founded the church with his mother-in-law in 1958, decided to appoint women as cell group leaders. This decision enabled the church to grow from about 8,000 members in 1968, when women were first appointed as leaders, to over 830,000 in 2007. The Baptists have also seen the connection between church revival and women’s involvement. In an article entitled “A Biblical Primer on Women in Ministry” posted on Wade Burleson’s blog, Grace and Truth to You, Nic Gold comments:

When studying our history it becomes readily apparent that during times of great Baptist expansion and spiritual awakenings, women inevitably become active in preaching, teaching, and leading the assemblies of believers. It is only during spiritually dead and inactive periods when Baptists fall into extreme liberalism and conservatism that we see a rush to diminish the roles of women in ministry. (Gold 2008)

If history and geography are correct, perhaps one of the most significant, yet easily achievable, mission innovations or paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that the mission movement of the twenty-first century could experience would be a noticeable change in how women harvest force workers are empowered to do ministry. If the movements in India, Korea, American society, and Baptist history are any indication, the full inclusion of women as partners in the work of the gospel could once again have far-reaching effects for the cause of God’s kingdom on earth.
At a time of unprecedented movement toward the full inclusion of women at all levels of church and society in North America, many mission agencies and structures continue to promote a strictly gender-based division of labor as the model of life and work on the mission field. In this view, the husband is sent to the field as a missionary and the wife accompanies him, primarily in a supportive role to care for home and family. In this scheme, the husband is the missionary and the wife is, well, a “missionary’s wife.” She may find that, in the eyes of her agency and sending churches, she more closely resembles the wife of an international businessman down the street than other missionaries on her own team.

Mixed Messages
Married women may find that the messages they receive from their sending organization are quite mixed. At the time of recruitment, the women are likely judged by the same standard as the men in regard to their call to missionary service, physical and mental health, language aptitude, education, spiritual maturity, and doctrinal standards. Once on the field, however, circumstances may change. The couple may no longer be treated as two adults in ministry, but one. Placement may be made based solely or primarily upon the husband’s gifts. Language training may or may not be required equally for husband and wife; if it is required for the wife, mission policy might not provide for adequate childcare to facilitate her language learning. The immediate demands of his work may be allowed to crowd out her language and culture learning time, hampering any future ministry she could have. Job descriptions may be written based upon the husband’s ministry involvement, and accountability may be expected only from him. Her full involvement as a missionary may be seriously compromised by lack of agency support.  

Supporting churches may also contribute to the confusion surrounding the identity of the missionary woman. Many churches routinely ask the man for a report about his ministry. Typically they ask married women about the kids, rather than ministry. When missionaries visit their home country, churches often ask the men to speak or give a testimony. Yet women are rarely invited into the pulpit, and if so, only to talk about the family. References to “the missionary and his wife” or “the missionary and his family” reinforce the perception that although two adults are living and working overseas, only one is doing ministry.

Confused Definitions
Furthermore, the definition of what constitutes ministry may be limited primarily in terms of the man’s activities. If he goes to a football game and out for a pizza with a group of non-Christian friends, this may be considered as pre-evangelism ministry, while her time at the playground with the children, chatting with the other children’s mothers is socializing. His discipleship meetings on Wednesday nights with two men from church is ministry; her morning coffee and play-dates with other moms from church is leisure.  

Students of mission history are familiar with this dichotomy. The question of whether home and family-based ministry is true mission work has been debated since the nineteenth century. Dana Robert addresses it in her book, American Women in Mission. She describes how early missionary women to Hawaii grappled with the realities of being “shut out from the ‘pure’ evangelistic work of preaching and translating” (1997, 70). For them, the “mission theory of the Christian home eliminated any dissonance they may have felt between their original expectations and the realities of their situation” (1997, 70). For these women, “the mission theory of the Christian home at its best allowed them to practice holistic ministry: one that cared for both body and soul” (1997, 73). Thus, over time, the general trend moved toward a “mission theory that saw a woman’s top priority to be husband and children” (1997, 75).

Women today may well find that the same expectations for home-based ministry surround their work. Whether formally prohibited from or simply not supported in efforts to engage in the “pure” missionary work, they may turn to the model of the Christian home to fulfill their calling. For many, the home becomes a significant basis for ministry as they reach out to the people in the community around them. Occasionally, it may become a place of retreat from difficult work or circumstances, and this approach may even be justified by what is described as a biblical model for women. The majority of missionary women, however, view themselves and the influence they have for the gospel through home-based ministry as their part in fulfilling the Great Commission.

In addition, for women with less traditionally female gifts and desires, the mission field for many years represented an acceptable place for them to exercise those gifts. Women with strong evangelistic, leadership, teaching, and apostolic gifts were frequently able to participate in those types of ministries overseas, even if such work was prohibited to them at home. Speaking of the modern missionary movement before 1920, Janet Hassey states, “Churches sent missionaries primarily as preachers, church planters, and Bible teachers, with women filling those positions along with men” (2004, 54). Although this can be seen as a kind of discrimination by the sending culture toward the people receiving the woman missionary (“A woman is good enough to teach them, but not us”), many people have been converted and many women fruitfully employed for the kingdom in this way.  

From the earliest days of the modern missionary movement, women have been heavily involved both as senders and as goers. From the earliest women who married dockside in order to accompany a missionary to the field, to the women’s sending agencies of the late 1800s, right on through to the present day, women have always been deeply invested in the work of the gospel in other countries. Whether it’s through translating and preaching in remote villages, bringing medical care to women and girls, starting orphanages and schools, teaching in seminaries, or integrating into the community through home and family, the faithful work of women over the centuries has brought the good news of salvation to thousands of people (men and women) the world over.

Obstacles to Integration
Why then do some churches and agencies today continue to send women overseas as missionaries while not fully supporting them as God’s harvest workers? There are several reasons commonly cited to explain why married women cannot be considered on the same footing as their male counterparts. Some are financial and practical: agencies may worry that they will lose some of their support base if they are perceived as acting in a liberal manner; and counting married women as employees may mean changes in tax, employment, and social security practices. Other obstacles mentioned may be the perception that the woman is primarily responsible to care for the family, a view that is not supported by scripture, which enjoins fathers to good parenting just as much as mothers, or that the missionary must submit to host culture views on the status and role of women in order to gain a hearing.  

This last is particularly difficult, since it requires the missionary to distinguish which values are biblical and which are cultural, and this not only regarding the host culture but the home culture as well. For some practices, such as suttee (a funeral practice in Hindu communities in which a recently widowed woman immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), it is quite easy to understand that this cultural practice violates scriptural principles; for others, it can be much more challenging. Can the floor be cleaned only by women? Or water drawn? Or dishes washed? Or whatever task it is that the culture assigns as women’s work? Again, a careful reading of scripture shows that Jesus, at least, was not willing to be limited by such cultural assignments for women. He had women travel with him, support him out of their private means, sit at his feet as disciples, and bear the first witness to his resurrection. He revealed his full divinity to both Martha and the Samaritan woman, who incidentally became one of the most effective evangelists recorded in the New Testament. For women missionaries today, the result of these mixed messages, confused definitions, and inconsistent practices can lead to a stressful state of ambiguity. Are they really missionaries or not? As one mission leader remarked when asked about what women do in his organization: “We have no formal limits on what women can do, yet we’re riddled with limits.”

Steps to Achieving Practical Change
For sending agencies and churches ready to begin the process of a paradigm shift in their practices, what are some practical first steps to begin the process of change? Following are some suggestions to help begin the process of full integration of women workers.  

Agencies. Do your homework; know who your women are and what they do.

• Be clear about what you expect your women to do and what work you are willing to support.

• Be consistent about carrying out policies and practices. While exceptions should always be an option, they should not be so common that they become the rule.

• Pay attention to what you fund. Make sure that training for women, work done by women, and participation of women in all aspects of mission life are adequately funded.   

• Be deliberate about placing women into leadership roles and positions of responsibility, and support them when they do their job.

• Offer job-sharing and flex-time arrangements to couples with children. Depending upon the number and ages of the children, couples could split one full-time job or one full-time and one part-time job, with both parents involved in both ministry and family care.

• Expand ministry definitions to recognize the relational type of work typically done by moms with small children.

• Be deliberate about empowering women workers and reaching women in the target audience. Encourage women to be deliberate about how they invest their time.  Communicate that what they do is important and strategic.

• Think carefully about your single women. Do they receive adequate attention and support? What happens if they get married? Is the husband required to join the organization? Does the expectation change if he is from the host country rather than the home country?  

• Think through legal and tax issues like social security, maternity leave, retirement accounts, health insurance, etc.

Churches. Do your homework; know the women you support and the agencies that send them.

• Ask the hard questions. Do your women feel supported? What do they need? What do they have to offer when back in the sending church? Are you prepared to give them the same freedom at home as you would overseas?

• Send clear messages. Make sure you take an interest in both people when they are with you. Know both their names, and ask about both their ministries. Ask both of them about their family.
Women. Do your homework; know the agency before you sign up. Know your own spiritual gifts, your calling, and your convictions.

• Correctly value your contribution. Work hard to combat messages that undervalue you. Instead, meditate on verses like these:

→ Romans 12:3. Think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.   

→ 1 Timothy 4:14. Do not neglect your gift.  

→ Titus 2:15. Do not let anyone despise you. Paul’s advice to young leaders is good advice for women, too.

• Politely but firmly resist inappropriate treatment and restrictions. Explain your position and your needs. If team meetings at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday are impossible for you because the 2-year-old is napping or the 10-year-old comes home starving, then 2:30 is an unacceptable time for the team meeting. Explain calmly but firmly that the team must meet at a different time when you can participate.

• Remember that you are not married to the ministry or any particular organization. If, despite all your attempts to develop an acceptable work environment, the church, ministry, or organization continues to restrict your use of spiritual gifts or to deny God’s calling in your life, a carefully considered move is an acceptable option.

Men. Do your homework; know your wife and the women on your team—their gifts, convictions, callings, and abilities.

• Work hard to distinguish between what is cultural and what is biblical. Suttee is easy to figure out; who will vacuum the floor less so.

• Be particularly vigilant if you are in a chauvinistic culture (such as some Latin and southern European ones) or in a religious environment that devalues women (such as Islam or Hinduism). It is easy to absorb, without meaning to, attitudes and practices that devalue the women on your team.

• Be the champion for your women colleagues. A woman who speaks up to defend herself runs the risk of being labeled with pejorative terms such as emotional, aggressive, or not submissive. Rather than doing this, encourage her to communicate her needs and desires, and pay attention when she does. Be diligent to honor the women God has called to the work, and help them belong to the team and participate fully.  

How do paradigm shifts come about? Do they just happen, or are they the product of thoughtful people steadily working to bring about change? A decision to change the way women missionaries are treated will require effort, some of it substantial. In some cases, re-training of thought patterns and attitudes will be necessary before practices can be addressed. The potential gains are well worth the effort, however. Close to two-thirds of the missionary force is women, as is half of the target audience in almost every culture. Empowering women harvest force workers to fulfill God’s calling in their lives can bear tremendous fruit for the gospel. And like the Samaritan woman, deliberately reaching women in the harvest field can also bring tremendous fruit for the kingdom. As an Indian co-worker likes to say, “Win a man for Christ and you’ve won the man; win a woman for Christ and you’ve won a family.”

Davis, Carol. 2007. “Intersecting Faith and Professions.” Accessed October 21, 2009 from

Gold, Nic. 2008. “A Biblical Primer on Women in Ministry.” In Grace and Truth to You by Wade Burleson. Accessed October 21, 2009 from -women-in-ministry_25.html.

Hassey, Janet. 2004. “Evangelical Women in Ministry a Century Ago: The 19th and Early 20th Centuries.” Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Eds. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, 39-57. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Robert, Dana L. 1997. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press.   

Tucker, Ruth A. and Walter Liefeld. 1987. Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.


Leanne Dzubinski has twenty years of cross-cultural experience in Europe, including Germany, Austria, and Spain. She holds a DMin in effective ministries to women from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary. 

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 150-156. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.



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