by Carole Maines
Career counseling is vital for personal growth, important contributions to ministry, and for changes brought about by time and tragedies.
We had just returned home on furlough when we received word of the death of one of our coworkers, a long-time personal friend. As I began to sort through my feelings of unbelief and sorrow, I realized that I could only rejoice that Jim was with the Lord, whom he had served with such dedication and satisfaction. I envisioned Jim explaining to his heavenly Father just how the accident had happened (a mystery never fully revealed to the rest of us), and experiencing the fellowship of his eternal home.
My grief was not for Jim, but for Donna and the boys, not only for their present loss, but for their future. What would Donna do now? I wondered. What would I do if I were in her place?
Her commitment to serving the Lord was foundational and had enabled her to support her husband’s decision to serve the church through missions. Basic Bible and liberal arts education were required by the mission when they were candidates, but the skills she utilized overseas were primarily domestic and church involvements, not exactly the sort of thing one could take out into the marketplace and provide a livelihood for one’s family. Of course, there was insurance. The mission itself (which would support Donna in many ways) and friends and family were eager to help. Still, the question remained, What would a young woman like Donna do with her life now?
Although Donna’s situation is perhaps the most difficult, there are many career dilemmas faced by missionary wives. Often a health problem suddenly changes the course of events, or an unstable political situation, or the educational needs of a child. Sometimes it’s a change in the husband’s assignment. Children leaving for boarding school or reaching independence can completely change a wife’s environment, as well as the amount of time she has available for other responsibilities. For these reasons, and others, the missionary wife is frequently called to change, adjust, and realign her future and her ministry.
Choosing a career in our culture has traditionally been perceived as a once-in-a-lifetime event occuring in late adolescence or early adulthood. We ask little children, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" We continue the same sort of inquiry with college students, "Have you declared a major yet?" Missionaries in particular are expected to have one lifetime career. Anything else would be a step down, right? We assume that once a person has committed himself or herself to be a missionary, there really isn’t any further need for career counseling. This logic has been detrimental both to the mission agencies and to their missionary wives.
Career counseling is increasingly needed as a lifelong process. Statistics now show that those who enter the job market in the 1980s can be expected to change jobs between 12 and 15 times during their working lives, and to make from four to five career changes.
Missions are limited by lack of personnel and lack of funds. Therefore, mission leaders must utilize the resources available in missionary wives. It is poor stewardship not to use each individual fully in the task of reaching the world for Jesus Christ. However, a missionary wife often is a "diamond in the rough." To use her gifts fully will require a new sense of awareness and a willingness to invest. It is a wise investment to provide a program and resources to enable each wife to make good decisions throughout her missionary career.
All too often the mission approaches a wife who may have been trained in an area beyond the scope of the mission’s activity with the attitude that her skills are just not applicable. Career counseling can analyze her basic interests and aptitudes. After a time of retraining, she can provide the mission with greatly needed, experienced help. Most missionary wives are not unemployed by their missions, but many of them are sadly underemployed.
Specific things can be done for missionary wives, so they are appreciated as unique individuals, considered an integral part of the mission’s human resources, and given help through difficult transition times. This cannot be accomplished with a one-shot lecture. It requires careful planning and implementation during time of entry to the mission, during furlough times, and during times of crisis and change.
At the time of application, generally a rather substantial battery of tests is taken by candidates. , These tests could also be used as a starting point for career planning. They provide personality and preference information which, when combined with educational background, help identify areas of interest and aptitude. With this basic information, counseling could clarify areas of potential contribution. Is she a communicator, a techni-can? Does she have leadership abilities? What are her goals, both now and for the future? These are just a few of the questions that should be asked initially. The mission must take the initiative in establishing this foundation for growth.
Gaining "mission entry" may have been a long and arduous process, so it is no surprise that many young wives feel at this stage that they have arrived. They are investing a large percentage of their time managing their homes and nurturing their children. They may have a feeling of isolation, finding that their home responsibilities cut them off from adult activities and relationships. Career decisions may seem irrelevant in the midst of full-time mothering, but often this is when they are most needed in terms of encouraging long-range development.
At this stage the candidate wife of the 1980s comes to her mission involvement with a background much influenced by the changes that have taken place in our society relative to women during the past 15 years. Often she has trained for a profession and views herself much more independently than ever before. Technology has made homemaking a part-time job and she has prepared to be involved in other areas of ministry. While these changing dynamics should be considered an asset and not a liability, they do require a greater awareness of each individual’s presuppositions and expectations. In this climate of change, it is essential for the mission to make its philosophy of women and their role in the ministry clear, so there is mutual understanding at the outset.
This entry period is the ideal time for "bonding" between the organization and the individual. The new missionary wife has made a serious commitment to the Lord’s service with the mission, but she may still be unsure about the practical application of that commitment. If at this point mission leaders do not recognize and affirm her unique abilities and share with her how they can be applied to the task, disappointment begins to replace enthusiasm. She senses that no reciprocal commitment has been made by the mission to her as an individual; consequently, a "second class citizen" mentality often begins to develop.
Evaluating a wife’s skills and training at entry makes her aware of how she can make a contribution to the mission, as time allows. It heightens her sense of self-esteem and her personal sense of worth and belonging. It provides time to decide on a plan for developing basic skills, or upgrading education to meet mission needs, as well as for establishing an understanding of what mission resources are available to implement long-range career goals.
Field leaders should continue to supervise and review the plan on a regular basis. They should give attention to experience, job description, and developing strengths and weaknesses.
This time of rest and renewal is an ideal opportunity to build upon the foundation set at entry. Vocational interest and aptitude tests should be added to whatever psychological or evaluative instruments are generally used by the mission. This is the time to reevaluate previous goals in the light of the missionary wife’s overseas experience, as well as to encourage planning for what she anticipates her role will be during the next term. Depending upon her family situation, this may be the time for upgrading, refreshing, or beginning a program of training in an area in which the mission needs skilled staff.
In Mission Aviation Fellowship, for example, some funds are designated at each furlough to both the husband and wife for "professional upgrading." Often, however, the wives don’t use these funds because they don’t consider themselves "professionals," or they just do not have any planned program for their own development.
The staggering array of options may be overwhelming. Combined with pressures of time and deputation, this generally results in no choice. Often the funds are not used, or they are used randomly. So, while the mission is to be commended for making the funds available, it must also give the guidance and affirmation necessary to use those funds to best advantage.
Training or development may be extended beyond furlough by means of overseas extension programs (there are some excellent ones available in nursing and education), correspondence courses, or on-the-job training. Such training could be continued through each subsequent furlough.
There are times of crisis and great change when career counseling really pays off. If through the years the mission has established a continuous record of each individual wife’s experiences, training, and preferences, while encouraging her long-range development through both funds and guidance, both the wife and the mission are better prepared to deal with times of change, whether planned or unplanned. The mission knows what resources are available and is in a better position to plan for their use. For the wives, adjustment is minimized and potential is maximized.
The authors of a contemporary book about women categorize them in four rather self-explanatory ways: (1) planners; (2) recasters; (3) adapters; and, (4) unsettled. Too many missionary wives find themselves during transition times in the last category. Their plans have gone awry, they are fumbling, searching, and feeling discontented. A woman who has not been encouraged by her mission to develop and grow all too often feels like the unfaithful servant in Matthew 25:14-20, who hid his talent. On the other hand, if her development has been completely at her own initiative, she sees no relationship or further ministry through the mission.
What will happen if mission boards maintain the status quo, neglecting the professional development of their missionary wives, and allowing a major percentage of them to remain largely uninvolved? Missionary wives will no doubt continue to serve in their homes and with their families, as well as be supportive of the mission during their "at home" years. When the children grow up and leave home, however, and their time becomes discretionary (with the trend toward smaller families this stage in a woman’s life is generally coming earlier), missionary wives will find their own ministries. Some will go back into the work force; they will resume old careers or begin new ones. They will fee! as though there is really nothing they can contribute to the task of their mission, and thus will become a lost resource to its ministry just when they have the most to give.
Providing counseling and encouragement for missionary wives will demonstrate that mission boards really do give priority to personal growth and that they treasure the possibility for excellence in each individual.
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