by Karol Downey
While most missionary men and even single missionary women have well-defined roles, the constantly changing roles of married missionary women are often unclear.
Larry, Audrey and their two children were visiting one of their sending churches after a four-year term on the mission field. Both had spent two years studying the language and culture. Both had developed ministry plans and were planting a church. His gift was evangelism. She discipled believers. They were raising their young family.
Here’s how the pastor introduced them: “We are very pleased to have a missions report this morning. Larry is here to share with us about his ministry. His wife and two children were able to join him as well. Larry, come share with us what the Lord is doing in your ministry.”
Audrey is left to ponder the validity of her ministry. Where does she fit in?
Audrey isn’t the only one curious about the role of the missionary wife. After all, there is no “missionary husband.” A married missionary man is understood to have his career or ministry outside the home. Similar to the traditional American husband, he comes home to his wife and children. People see his job as something like a pastor whose wife may or may not work outside of the home, and may or may not help at the church.
But what is a missionary wife? By this description it is unclear whether she’s a missionary. It is conclusive, however, that she is a wife who takes care of her husband, children and home. But does this mean her husband is a missionary and she derives her identity or ministry only through him? How does she know whether God called her to this ministry? Did she inherit the call through her husband? Is she more of a wife than a missionary or vice-versa? Is she a fifty-fifty split?
Joyce Bowers notes the plight of women, both married and unmarried, on the mission field:
In virtually all mission situations, a husband’s work assignment takes priority over his wife’s, and single women are sometimes at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of status, recognition, and having one’s unique needs and gifts taken seriously. Often, stated mission policy gives men and women equal status in that both are commissioned and sent as full missionaries, but in many subtle ways women are given the message that they are subordinate or even inferior members of the mission team—but to complain about their “place” would be unspiritual. (O’Donnell and O’Donnell 1988, 482)
Still, while most missionary men and even single missionary women have well-defined roles, the constantly changing roles of married missionary women are often unclear. As she has children, her role changes. As her children grow and become more independent, her role changes yet again. Others, however, may not change their expectations of what they feel she should be doing. A married missionary woman may not have a job description that would help her focus on her ministries. Each woman has a different perception of her role and how much time she should put into different ministries.
And as seen with Larry and Audrey, these women may be little recognized for what they do. If the missionary woman is single, she is invited to share about her ministry in churches. If married, the husband is usually asked to describe their ministry in church. Even in debriefings at their sending center the husband usually talks about the ministry. She may be asked about their family.
It is generally expected that the married missionary woman begins as a student of the host country’s language and culture. It is recognized that if she doesn’t, the couple will probably leave the field. She is a homemaker and often also a mother. She is a team member with her husband and others working in the same area.
But she is a missionary. Her desire is to see people come to Christ, grow spiritually and become a part of an indigenous sending church. As a believer, she will be growing spiritually herself as she spends time regularly with the Lord.
Missionary couples know that supporters give sacrificially so they can serve abroad. They want to be wise in their use of time and faithful to God in their ministry. Others evaluate them as they self-evaluate: How much time was spent this week in language study, visits and ministering with nationals? The implication of such questions is clear: missionary work entails certain tasks others consider as legitimate work. Other things are seen as secondary or not valid as ministry.
Consider the first-term missionary man who spends thirty hours a week in language study and ten in visitation. This forty-hour work week is seen as acceptable ministry. As a husband and father he also spends time at home to help and spiritually lead his family. Thus his time outside the home is seen as ministry, but his role in the home is not.
Jana is a first-term married missionary woman with four children. She spends twenty-five hours a week in language study and about five hours in visitation. Even with weekly house help, she still must do the dishes, laundry, cooking, some house cleaning, caring for her children, baking for guests and serving them tea. Often her husband is unavailable to help. Some would say that she spent twenty-five to thirty hours in ministry. Others, however, don’t see her work at home as ministry. Jana sometimes feels guilty about how little time she can put into cross-cultural ministry in comparison to the time she devotes to being a wife and mother. When either is out of balance, life is more stressful. That balance between home and what has been traditionally seen as ministry is among questions prospective missionary women and current ones most often ask.
Susan B. DeVries writes, “Missionary wives carry a double job description: they want to be a supermom and a super missionary at the same time” (O’Donnell and O’Donnell 1988, 490). This may come from the have-it-all notion prevalent among Western women. It may be because no clear job description exists for either role so she feels she must excel at both. Note in the quote that women themselves create the impossible job description. No one wants to do a lousy job at either.
Married missionary women must come up with a better solution than trying to do it all and failing at one or both. To achieve this solution, the following four things must happen.
1. A CLEARER DEFINITION OF MINISTRY
This must be developed to clarify the spheres of ministry for married missionary women.
What would be a clearer definition of ministry? Are there secular and spiritual spheres in which believers live and serve? Is some of Christians’ daily activity done for God and the rest for themselves, others or the world? If someone washes dishes as an act of service, is that less worthy than someone reading Scripture? How would one distinguish between earthly service and spiritual service? Is it the action itself? Would it be the attitude with which the action was done? What constitutes ministry?
Scripture is clear in its teaching, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col. 3:23-24). It is appropriate to say that all we do, whether washing dishes or reading Scripture, is to be done for God’s glory.
Dorothy Patterson writes,
The best way to make homemaking a joyous task is to offer it as unto the Lord, the only way to avoid the drudgery in such mundane tasks is to bathe the tasks with prayer and catch a vision of the divine challenge in making and nurturing a home. (Piper and Grudem 1991, 368)
She sites Brother Lawrence as a prime example of one who sought to serve the Lord washing pots and pans in the kitchen. Of this he said, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer.”
Married missionary women are involved in ministry as they serve their families within their homes and as they serve as church planters in evangelizing or discipling national friends.
Maxwell quotes A. T. Pierson and writes:
Woman goes abroad as teacher, nurse and medical missionary, and in endurance and endeavor rivals the most patient and valiant; or as a wife and mother, shows what Christ makes of her sex; and not only joins her husband in work, but sometimes equals and even outdoes him in service. One-third of the unevangelized can best be reached by women, and a large part of them can be reached by her only as they are inaccessible to man. (1987, 148)
These are simply two spheres of these women’s ministry. When a husband babysits the children so that his wife can go out, when he vacuums or grocery shops, he is ministering in a different sphere from cross-cultural work. Ministry is life in action as believers seek to serve God in every area of their lives.
The men and women who followed Jesus performed acts of service for him. He sent disciples ahead to arrange the upper room for their Passover meal (Luke 22). Women who traveled with Jesus waited on him and supported him financially (Luke 8). When widows were not being fed, the apostles devoted themselves to the word and prayer, and the congregation found others who were Spirit-filled to wait tables (Acts 6). Neither role was superior to the other. Both were done for God’s glory and benefit and edification of the body of Christ. Both roles were vital for the body to function smoothly and the church to grow. Both brought glory to God.
When a layperson goes to work and does it well and with integrity, she is involved in ministry. As her light shines in the workplace, she has opportunities to witness and brings honor to God through her life and actions. When a homemaker takes care of her children and home, she is involved in ministry. When a missionary wife spends hours getting the house ready for guests, she is involved in ministry, just as she is when she is serving tea and interacting with her guests. Home schooling children can be a great sphere of ministry as mothers and fathers invest in the lives of their children and in the future of the next generation. Each married missionary man and woman has ministry in several spheres within the home and outside of the home. They also have ministry among their team members, extended family and sending churches.
2. BALANCE IN HOME AND MINISTRY
This is not a gender issue, it is for both men and women. We must examine both roles of husband and wife in that balancing act within the different spheres of ministry.
Women should evaluate the time spent in each of their ministry spheres at least annually. Balancing ministry in and out of the home is stressful and never easy, but it has traditionally been seen as a woman’s issue. How can she handle both roles? How can she make wise use of her time? How can she balance these spheres of ministry in which she is involved?
Another question must be posed: Why is the responsibility of finding balance hers alone, when it is an issue for the couple? Both men and women need to be involved in caring for the home. Each couple needs to discuss what needs to be done around the house and who would be better suited to do the different tasks. In America, most married women who work outside of the home still do most of the housework and childcare. Valian states, “Married women who work for pay average about thirty-three hours of housework per week—about two-thirds of the total household work” (1999, 39).
This usually carries over to the mission field. A benefit many missionaries may access is inexpensive house help, which is common in some developing countries. Not only does the house help clean or cook, he or she can also help with language and cultural acquisition. Such help frees the married missionary couple to be more involved in other aspects of ministry. And children can help clean house, babysit and run errands. Delegating tasks to children fulfills three purposes. It helps them develop responsibility, frees parents to do other things and gives the children a sense of cooperating with the family in God’s call on their lives for ministry.
Scripture clearly teaches that raising children is a job for both parents. Mothers and fathers are to teach, love and discipline their children. Ruth Haley Barton notes:
I do not need a support group; I need my husband, the father of these children, to participate fully with me in this great call of God upon our lives. I need to hear him say with words and with action, “You are not alone. These children are just as much my responsibility as they are yours. Yes, I have my own vocational calling and you have yours, but together we have received the high call of parenting.” (1978, 179)
Some mission agencies state in their policy manuals that a woman’s first priority is her family. After family needs are met, she is free to invest her time in other spheres of ministry. In reality, though, shouldn’t the family also be the first priority for men? After one’s walk with God, doesn’t family come before outside ministry? Parenting was not meant to be done by just one person. This does not mean that both parents need to stay home full-time to care for the children. But fathers may become so involved in ministry outside the home where they are acclaimed, that they miss their high call of ministering in the home, an often-ignored sphere of ministry. Lorry Lutz wrote, “The best of all worlds would be to work in partnership with your husband, sharing the joys and burdens in the ministry and in the home” (1997, 211).
3. MISSION AGENCIES’ RECOGNITION
Mission agencies must recognize the value of women members and seek not only to more effectively train them but give them latitude to minister effectively and acknowledge them when they do. As mission agencies and churches recognize women’s contributions, married missionary women will make greater progress and make valuable contributions to winning the lost.
Mission agencies’ views of women have changed from the early 1800s. Beaver writes of that era,
Although the wife was considered indispensable, she got little recognition. It was her husband who was appointed ”missionary” and handed the instructions. She was long designated only “assistant missionary.” (1968, 53)
Bowers writes of mission agencies,
Critically important are the attitudes, awareness, and sensitivity of the men in top administrative positions who are able to recognize and encourage the development of women’s gifts. (487)
As each person in the body of Christ is gifted and each gift is necessary to the smooth functioning of the body, it is tragic not to empower women to use their gifts. The wise leader enables others to use their gifts without bias to their gender.
Women have distinctive viewpoints on mission trends and issues. Women want to enhance and improve their mission agencies. Agencies must listen to their views and use their ideas. Women must be given freedom to minister and to use their God-given gifts whether their gift is evangelism, teaching or administration.
Mission agencies should help husbands and wives set long-term goals for their development and training. To avert surprises on all sides, the three should discuss a married woman’s role even before candidacy. The couple and agency should clearly communicate their expectations.
Both husbands and wives must share their ministries in church presentations. Husbands must take the initiative to include their wives. Husbands must publicly honor their wives for their partnership in ministry. Husbands and wives must each take part in writing prayer letters so that their full ministry is represented to their supporters. Churches are increasingly supportive of couples in ministry overseas.
4. WOMEN TRAINING WOMEN
Experienced married missionary women must seek to mentor and train the younger generation of missionary women.
The experience that women gain in balancing their spheres of ministry must be passed on to others just launching their journeys. Lutz writes of Robyn Claydon:
A major focus for me in the last couple of years has been the motivating, enabling and nurturing of younger women. We, as the current leaders of the church worldwide, are in the process of handing the baton to those coming up behind us…We need to run alongside those whom God is calling to lead the church in its ongoing response to the Great Commission. (211)
A major emphasis for women missionaries today must be to benefit those of tomorrow. A deep love for God and his heart for the nations must be evident in the lives of missionary women. Through writing and speaking, missionary women must train, teach and encourage those who follow God’s call to missions. Sponsoring leadership and training conferences for these women will help blaze the trail. By accepting positions of leadership and using their gifts and abilities, missionary women will make the missions community more accessible and inviting to newer members.
Married missionary women must teach their younger peers that ministry doesn’t just take place outside of the home. It also takes place within the home. Flexibility is key as women serve in various ways.
When my children were small, I used so much energy in ministering within my home that I had less energy to put into other spheres of ministry. As my children went to school, my energy was able to flow to other ministries. Now that my children are leaving home, I see different doors of ministry opening up outside my home, while still maintaining an ever-shrinking sphere for ministry within my home.
Older missionaries encouraged me through those years and now I intentionally try to do the same with younger missionary women. We are involved in ministry and that ministry takes place in different spheres. Some women may excel in ministries outside of the home and others may choose to focus and develop ministries within their homes. It is never a responsibility for women to shoulder alone.
Grace must abound as missionaries themselves relate to each other and discover each other’s boundaries and roles. There is no set formula for success or set number of hours for effectiveness in any given sphere of ministry. Susan DeVries points out her assumption on the freedom families have to choose how to divide their spheres of ministry:
Namely, that each family should be free to choose its own role for the wife, just as they are free to choose the number of children they will have. Full missionary careers will never be mandatory nor desirable for every missionary wife. In this transition period there will be much variance; we need tolerance for a plurality of viewpoints and lifestyles.
Special care needs to be taken that everyone on a particular station is informed of the limits of each wife’s commitment. One of the ripest areas for resentment and discord on a station is the disparity between contributions of work time made by the various women. (O’Donnell and O’Donnell 1988, 495)
Married missionary women must have freedom to choose how to minister within and outside their homes. Other missionaries must accept and understand the views and roles of their married teammates. Husbands must seek their own balance and help their wives find their balance in ministering within and outside of the home. Mission agencies must see the short-term and long-term benefits of respecting and working with married missionary women.
Missionary wives are both missionaries and wives. May women like Audrey grasp true ministry. May they be encouraged by their husbands who are committed to helping them balance their roles as well as balancing their own. May they feel valued and empowered by their mission agencies to flourish. May they mentor other missionary women along the way. As a result, the gospel will be proclaimed inside their homes and to the ends of the earth. Whether it is their children sitting on their laps, or a national friend hearing the gospel for the first time, may the lost of the world find saving grace in Jesus Christ through their ministries.
Here’s How Mission Agencies Can Show Respect for Their Female Members
- Encourage and provide further training for both men and women, provide child care when necessary.
- Have women missionaries, not just men, from the sending agency regularly visit missionary women in their areas of service.
- Seek their ideas for mission policies and strategies.
- Invite a married missionary woman to describe her ministry when she and her husband visit the sending agency.
- Encourage them to write what they have learned and share their experience with others, especially newer missionaries and candidates.
- Validate ministry within and outside their homes.
- Help them set goals and develop ministry plans and hold them accountable.
- Place women who are gifted leaders in leadership positions.
- Encourage the ministry of women to other missionary women in their countries.
- Encourage husbands to champion their wives in ministry and further training, not to compete with them.
- Coach husbands to balance their ministry within and outside the home.
- Write prayer letters sharing how the married missionary woman has been used by God.
- Pray with awareness of their needs and ministries.
- Provide women counselors to help them deal with sensitive issues.
Barton, Ruth Haley. 1998. ��Equal to the Task. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Beaver, R. Pierce. 1968. American Protestant Women in World Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Lutz, Lorry. 1997. Women as Risk-Takers for God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Maxwell, L.E. 1987. Women in Ministry. Camp Hill, Pa.: Christian Publications.
O’Donnell, Kelly S. and Michele Lewis O’Donnell, eds. 1988. Helping Missionaries Grow: Reading in Mental Health and Missions. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Piper, John and Wayne Grudem, eds. 1991. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Valian, Virginia. 1999. Why So Slow? Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Karol Downey (pseudonym) and her husband are members of Christar. They have four children. She works in the International Ministries Department with Women’s Ministry.
EMQ, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 66-74. Copyright © 2005 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.