Integrating Women into Leadership in Mission Agencies

by Leanne Dzubinski

Half the world is female and more than half of our missionary workforce is female. Mission organizations simply cannot afford to ignore the diverse human resources God has entrusted to us as we work to carry out the Great Commission.

The world is diverse. When we think of world-class cities like New York, Singapore, Stockholm, and Amsterdam, we immediately know that they are multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. It is not, however, just large cities that are diverse. A small city near Girona, Spain, has a strong Moroccan presence, and my own block in a small city south of Barcelona has a number of Pakistani immigrants. Restaurants, an Internet café, and a grocery store are within walking distance of my apartment. We do not have to look far to see that the world’s peoples are moving around, and wherever we may live, they are likely right next door.

The world is also complex. Diversity is part of that complexity, bringing a multitude of values and practices together in one place. Missionaries are quite familiar with the need to adjust our lives and perspectives to those of our host culture, and as those cultures also change we work hard to keep pace.

New kinds of technology arrive constantly, and we incorporate them into our lives with barely a murmur. I got my first personal (as opposed to “family”) computer in 2004; now my preschool nieces and nephews play “Angry Birds” on an iPad with complete technological confidence. Virtually instant global communication means that an idea which took six months to sail around the world a century ago can now be communicated in sixty seconds.  

Our complex world needs diversity of thinking and experience on its leadership team. We need leadership that meets a new set of needs and circumstances. One easy and obvious step toward diversity is to incorporate women into all levels of organizational leadership, and particularly top leadership. Studies continue to show that gender diversity in leadership improves productivity and financial performance for businesses (Northouse 2007, 270); some studies show profit gains of thirty-five percent and more as women advance into senior management (Frankel 2007, 5).

With benefits like those, the reason to include women in business leadership is obvious. What about the mission organization? The complex, mobile, educated, and interconnected world context is the same. Missionaries around the world face challenging social questions and issues as they work to bring the light of the gospel to some who have never heard, some who have heard and rejected, and some who have been (as we say in Europe) “inoculated” against it.

What can women offer in those kinds of circumstances, and what might the results be if women’s voices were heard in top leadership levels of mission organizations?  

Women offer strong relational connections and are embedded in the host culture. Whether by nature or nurture, women are likely to form strong emotional ties with the people around them. Relational networks develop many ways, including through:

• Taking kids to school and interacting with other parents
• Bartering in the local market
• Teaching business skills to disadvantaged youth in the city
• A microloan program for local businesswomen

However we get there, women usually connect. This kind of connection gives women something akin to insider information which can be extremely useful to a mission organization as it sets strategy, makes plans, and chooses directions for the future.

Women bring an additional perspective to social and mission issues. Whether we realize it or not, life experience is frequently quite different for women and men. Girls grow up with one set of social expectations and boys with another. The school experience in the U.S. continues to be noticeably different for boys and girls, with boys encouraged to have a public voice and girls to remain in the background (McMinn 2007, 60).  

In other parts of the world the differences are even greater, with women and men living essentially parallel, but separate existences. Mission agencies with a desire to reach all people for Christ cannot afford to ignore the reality of half their workforce or target audience. Including women in positions of leadership can help broaden our understanding of the context and needs, and help the organization plan and set strategy to reach all the people of their host culture.  

Women who have leadership gifts will put those gifts to use, one way or another. Lois Frankel comments that in the past, women with leadership skills had three options: keep silent, work elsewhere, or leave business completely (Frankel 2007, 9). My investigations into women in mission organizations suggest that the same phenomenon is true today.

Organizations that do not deliberately create a space for women with leadership gifts to use those gifts for the good of all will lose those women’s contributions. The woman may stay silent for a time, trying to deny or suppress her passion. Often she will find another venue to use her gifts and passions. That may mean working with a different ministry organization or in a local business. It could mean seconding to another mission or changing organizations. Unfortunately, it may mean leaving missions altogether.

In every one of these cases, it is the sending organization that loses the benefit of her wisdom, experience, and passion. We are designed by God to use the gifts given us, and work according to our passions. Trying to be someone or something else is simply not sustainable long term and can lead to burn-out, depression, and leaving the field. It is important to notice that the problem is not the individual woman, but the environment that has no space for her to be as God made her.  

Where Are the Women Leaders and How Do We Get Them into Leadership?
Last September 2010, the North American Mission Leaders’ Conference addressed the topic of diversity in mission today. The theme was “Mosaic: Embracing the Beauty of Kingdom Diversity.” The conference was an excellent first step in bringing the necessity of diversity to the forefront of mission organization thinking. Yet even there, with a stated focus of addressing race, ethnicity, and gender as significant issues for the twenty-first century, women were seriously underrepresented.

Of the 275 conference attendees, 48 were women, and only two of those were mission executives. There were three plenary speakers representing diversity: one Asian-American, one Hispanic American, and one African-American, but no women. Many mission agencies appear simply to overlook their own valuable human resources: the women workers and leaders God has already placed in their organizations.

So here are a few tips for mission executives looking for capable and competent women.

Find them. The mission force continues to be sixty to sixty-five percent female, meaning that every agency already has an abundance of faithful women, some of whom have leadership gifts. Make a deliberate effort to find them and train them (Dzubinski 2010, 155). They probably will not look like their male counterparts. They may be single. If they are married, they may be ready to lead when their kids become teens. Or they may be ready to lead when the kids are small and may have already built a family structure that supports their leadership aspirations.

Train them. They may not sound as confident or assertive as their male colleagues, having been socialized to hold back. Create a safe, encouraging space for them to share their dreams and aspirations. Provide mentors for them—both male and female. Make sure women are participating in the organization’s leadership training, whatever form it takes.

Support them when they do their job. It can be doubly devastating for a woman who takes the risk of accepting a leadership job if she is not supported in doing it (Gascho 2008). Having chosen to put a woman leader in a position, do not change her title to make the men on her team more comfortable. If she is the leader, she leads, period. If married leaders’ spouses have reduced job expectations in order to carry increased family responsibilities, make sure that is just as true for a woman leader as for a man leader. Do not allow a double standard to creep in which undermines her confidence and her ability to do the job.

Whatever your convictions, be clear. If the organizational policy is that only men can lead, be clear about this from the first day of recruiting. Better to help a sister in Christ find an alternate place to use her God-given gifts than bring her in and cause frustration for her and the organization.   

A complex world means mission agencies need diversity of thinking and experience on their leadership teams. More importantly, a lost world means mission agencies need every person, male and female, fully engaged, using his or her gifts to the fullest for the cause of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

Half the world is female and more than half of our missionary workforce is female. Mission organizations simply cannot afford to ignore the diverse human resources God has entrusted to us as we work to carry out the Great Commission.

Dzubinski, Leanne. 2010. “Innovation in Mission: Women Workers in the Harvest Force.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 46(2): 150-156.  

Frankel, Lois. 2007. See Jane Lead: 99 Ways for Women to Take Charge at Work. New York: Warner Business Books.  
Gascho, Vicki. 2008. “Please Help Us: The Needs of Women in Organizational Leadership.” Impact Field Leadership Resources. Accessed February 9, 2011 from more-3.

McMinn, Lisa Graham. 2007. Growing Strong Daughters:  Encouraging Girls to Become All They’re Meant to Be. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.  

Northouse, Peter G. 2007. Leadership Theory and Practice. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.


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 in missions from Dallas Theological Seminary.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 356-359. Copyright  © 2011 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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