by David L. Wickstrom
Survey reveals essential qualities for various positions.
The room became quiet as the chairperson called the meeting to order and the field representatives returned to their seats. Actually, the mood of the room could have been better described as somber, tinged with anxiety. Heads bowed in prayer, each person knew what was next. Most had been through the process before; those who were new had heard about the sometimes agonizing, deeply personal struggles that dominated this portion of the annual field council meetings.
It was time to make decisions about deployment and reassignment of missionaries. Many mission stations would be disrupted. Veteran missionaries would be asked to fill spots vacated by people going on furlough. Other positions would have to be filled because some missionaries had retired, some had taken medical leaves, and others had gone home for other reasons.
Nationals, many of whom had grown to love the missionaries, would also be affected. So it was with a heavy sense of responsibility that the leaders prayed for wisdom.
Missionaries across the field also were praying: "Lord, give the leaders wisdom. Help them to know your will. Show them who would best fill in for those who have left. And, Lord, if you have it in mind for me to move, give me a willing spirit, and give me the strength I need." Deep in their hearts, many missionaries added, "But please, dear Lord, don’t send me to the boarding school."
Some didn’t have to move at all. Others were moved and were highly fulfilled and successful in their new positions-often to their great surprise. Still others adamantly and vociferously refused to move, while a few moved with a sense that they should follow the leaders’ decision as being the will of God. And some not only moved, but moved to the boarding schools.
Of those placed there, many were well chosen and went willingly to serve effectively with the children. Some were well-suited for the tasks assigned but went resentfully, leaving behind a thriving work which they had built with much effort and many tears. These people often were effective and loved the children at the boarding school; often, however, the resentment colored their service at the school, and the children bore the brunt and burden of the missionaries’ unhappiness.
Then there were those who not only did not want to go to the boarding school; they were not suited for it at all. They were not trained for the job, did not like children, had deep hurts themselves, were angry about going – and the MKs paid the price.
As an MK who attended boarding school from the first grade through the 10th grade, I can remember staff from each of these groups. I can name those who wanted to be there and saw it as a valuable missionary service; I can also name some who were transferred kicking and screaming. I also know some who should never have been at the school, people who were completely unsuited for the job. I am not the only one. As a researcher I have heard other MKs relate tale after tale of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Why is staffing boarding schools so difficult? With so many missionary kids attending these types of schools (a recently conducted, but as yet unpublished, adult MK study found that 80 percent of those surveyed from a sampling of 10,000 had attended boarding school at some time in their lives), one would think that recruiting good staff would not only be a priority but would be relatively easy to do. Such is not the case, for several reasons.
First, educating missionary kids is often not seen as "true missionary work." Many people in the churches only view direct service to nationals-things like teaching, preaching, church planting, and medical work – as missionary work. Teaching missionary children or running a boarding school is often viewed as secondary. People who do those things find it harder to raise their support. If only people realized that caring for someone else’s children actually frees parentsto do their work, perhaps obtaining support would be less difficult for boarding school staff.
Second, working in a boarding school can be difficult, demanding work. Imagine being on call 24 hours a day to meet the needs of someone else’s children. Then imagine being one of only three staff members to take care of 100 boys-as sometimes happens. The wisdom, patience, motivation, and energy required are daunting, even for the most mature and dedicated soul. Not many wish to volunteer for the job; even fewer can handle it for long.
Third, many would-be missionary supporters do not support the concept of boarding schools. Often they know little or nothing about the schools, have heard traumatic stories, or simply believe that children should be the number one priority for parents and should not be cared for by other people. For many, this is a deeply held spiritual conviction.
Finally, mission organizations themselves often do not have a clear picture of the characteristics needed by boarding school staff members. They do not know the issues their staff face, are not sure of what personality characteristics make for effective staff members, and have even less understanding of the training needed and desired by potential candidates and appointees. The result often is a high turnover rate for boarding school personnel due to burn-out, personality clashes with other staff members, or simply disillusionment and discouragement with the job. Faced with the continuing problem of staffing their schools, in 1988 the mission organizations associated with MK-CART/CORE commissioned researchers to study a number of boarding schools worldwide.
Two studies were conducted by MK-CORE (the researchers of MK-CART/CORE) to investigate the qualities boarding school personnel possessed and qualities they deemed ideal for staff members to have. In the first study, a pilot for the more extensive research described on pages 378-381, questionnaires were mailed to 180 people, 60 of whom were adult MKs who had attended boarding school. Another 60 were parents of MKs who had attended or were currently attending boarding school, and 60 were individuals who had been or were currently serving as staff members at boarding schools. The staff positions were identified as administrators, teachers, and boarding home parents. The questionnaire basically asked the people to describe the skills, personality traits, and preparation required to be an effective boarding school teacher, administrator, or boarding home parent. Sixty-seven questionnaires were returned with thoughtful and fascinating answers.
In the second study, the personnel from 20 schools in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the American republics were selected. Researchers from MK-CORE traveled to each of the participating schools and administered extensive questionnaires and standardized tests (five hours of testing) to the staffs of the schools. Out of the total sample of 579 staff members, 54 were administrators, 337 were teachers, 107 were boarding home parents, and 81 were identified as "others," generally support staff.
For each of the personnel groups five general traits or qualities were described as being desirable. First, each staff member should have the basic professional knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill the requirements of the position. Second, personnel needed to have a healthy and growing spiritual life. Third, the effective staff member is one whose "walk matches his/her talk." Fourth, staff need a strong commitment to the community, expressed by their willingness to be available, to encourage balanced living, to be aware of the needs of others, and to attempt to help when appropriate. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of call was viewed as crucial, not only to missionary work in general, but to boarding school ministry specifically. Respondents felt this to be especially true of boarding home parents.
QUALITIES OF ADMINISTRATORS
Many of the traits desired for all three positions, but particularly for administrators in these studies, parallel the traits of "overseers" as delineated by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In 1 Timothy we read that the overseer should be "irreproachable…calm, dispassionate and circumspect, sober-minded, one whose life is in accord with the position he holds,…a skilled teacher. . . not pugnacious but sweetly reasonable, being satisfied with less than his due,…not contentious,…not a new convert,…having an excellent testimony." In Titus, Paul expands his description further to include such traits as "…not self-willed, not irascible, . . . fond of showing hospitality, fond of that which is good,…just, holy and self-controlled,…able both to be exhorting in the teaching which is sound and to be convicting those who are opposing." These traits can be found in the descriptions to follow.
Respondents described the ideal administrator as someone who is effective and comfortable in relationships, while also being competent and capable vocationally. The key here is balance. The ideal administrator communicates well and listens well, encourages people to try new things and to enhance skills, is flexible with people, and is willing to change when necessary. This flexibility is balanced by consistency, maintaining traditional values and working for stability in the school. A key trait mentioned frequently is that of identification with the staff. This quality leads an administrator to help others develop a sense of belonging and value in the organization by taking a personal interest in them and assisting them in growth intellectually, spiritually, socially, and emotionally.
Another desirable quality of a person in an administrative position is that of strong leadership skills. These skills include the ability to be assertive when necessary, to work hard to set goals and accomplish them, and to be attentive to duty. Of course, these qualities and skills pre-suppose a great deal of experience both in teaching and in administration as preparation for the job. An administrator is one who sets the tone for the school; therefore, he or she must be mature, balanced, and not new to the job, at least not in experience.
QUALITIES OF TEACHERS
Teachers, according to the two studies, have many characteristics of the administrator, with a few differences. For one thing, the teachers-both actual and ideal in these studies-while having similar qualities, scored lower on the values described. For example, while hard work and goal orientation were important in order to be an effective teacher, they were more important for an administrator. While consistency and stability were very important for administrators, they were less so for teachers, who could tolerate change, variety, and spontaneity better than could the administrators. While teachers valued logical and analytical thinking, self-discipline and long-range planning, administrators needed to be stronger in these areas than did the teachers.
There are several other qualities desirable in teachers. The effective teacher in a missionary boarding school is well-prepared for the task-and in some unexpected ways. Respondents indicated that to be effective the teacher should have not only basic knowledge of credentialing and teaching methodology, but also extensive understanding of the host culture and be comfortable in it.
In addition, the ideal teacher is aware of the mission fields represented by the students, is cognizant of the vocations of their parents, and has an appreciation of the impact on the students of the separation from the parents and the context in which the parents work. The effective teacher is also able to integrate his or her faith into the course work being presented, both theoretically and practically, by living out deep Christian character. Maturity and experience areimportant qualities, especially as they relate to understanding the developmental issues and needs of students.
Finally, the ideal teacher enjoys being with students and is available to meet with them not only in the classroom, but outside. Sensitivity to social needs, a good sense of humor, and the ability to laugh and talk with students, balanced by loving firmness, fairness, and flexibility, are crucial. The teacher truly plays a pivotal role.
QUALITIES OF BOARDING HOME PARENTS
Three primary qualities describe the effective boarding home parent: (1) the ability to provide a strongly nurturing atmosphere; (2) infinite patience; and (3) balance. Providing a nurturing atmosphere means that the boarding home parent provides order, consistency, and stability, all grounded in a deep spiritual life and commitment to Christ. At the same time they must have a strong commitment to children, enjoy them, be aware of their feelings, and understand their developmental needs. This understanding can be acquired through both educational and extensive personal experience. In addition, a committed, loving, joyful, and mature marriage relationship, which models stability and enjoyment of life, fosters the nurturing environment.
Houseparents must model infinite patience by being slow to anger, spending time with children to help them work out solutions to their problems, and putting aside their own tasks to do these things. Taking time to listen to children requires discipline and patience. These qualities can be developed in boarding school parents, but they may also be natural traits that come easily to some people, but not others.
A final quality can be summarized by the following comments from respondents. Desirable characteristics for boarding home parents include "transparency, not being easily threatened, people rather than task oriented, ability to live in a cross-cultural and multi-national situation, ability to know where to draw the line between strictness and laxity, and being a teamwork person. This person is understanding, able to make jokes of hard situations, demonstrates care and affection, doesn’t talk down to youngsters, accepts them as persons of worth, tries to emphasize the positive qualities in them, and tries to build them up."
In this context, the vital importance of preparation, selection, and training was mentioned. Courses in psychology, counseling, and child development theory are desirable training for the boarding home parent. In addition, supervised experience in child-care facilities, children’s activities, and group leadership are significant training grounds prior to appointment for overseas service.
Several important implications emerged. First, mission boards responsible for the care of MKs in mission-sponsored boarding schools have a heavy burden at several different levels. Appropriate selection and appointment of the most effective school personnel require that mission decision makers know the qualities and experience necessary for each staff position. In the case of those applicants who do not possess the necessary qualifications-including a sense of call-leaders may have to do additional recruiting rather than appoint unqualified applicants.
This is a difficult decision to make, especially when a vacancy desperately needs to be filled. Fortunately, there are alternatives. One is to wait for applicants to gain necessary experience and education before appointment. Another is to require all boarding school appointees to attend pre-field orientation and training (PFOT) programs for boarding school personnel. There they would receive valuable screening and education.
Another implication is the importance of continuing training and evaluation. To be most effective, boarding schools should re-evaluate the current staff and either reassign those who are not suited for their particular positions, or give them further opportunities for growth and development. Those who have been screened well and who are working effectively also need on-field encouragement and opportunities for growth and refreshment. Those who have worked in a boarding environment know how easy it is to burn out and how vital it is to have breaks.
Finally, missions and supporting churches need to realize the significant role boarding school staff play in the work of Christian missions overseas. In every respect staff members are missionaries and should be treated and supported as such because of the influence they exert on MKs-who often become missionaries themselves-and because of the freedom they grant to other missionaries who would otherwise have to find another, perhaps less viable educational alternative.
If, as the studies recommend, the boarding school staff members take the time to understand and interact with the local people of their country of service, their missionary influence will extend even further. Now is the time to recognize the vital role of missionary boarding schools overseas and staff them with the best-qualified people.
1. MK-CART/CORE is a consortium of evangelical mission organizations and researchers committed to conducting research on various topics related to the development of missionary children. Those wishing to know more should contact Dr. Leslie Andrews, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky. 40390.
2. Kenneth S. Wuest, The New Testament: An Expanded Translation (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1941). Both passages are quoted from this translation.
3. This quote and more extensive statistical data regarding these studies can be found in the following articles. Powell, J.R. and L.A. Andrews, "Qualities desired in MK boarding school personnel: a preliminary study," and Wickstrom, D.L. and L.A. Andrews, "Personality characteristics of staff members at selected overseas missionary boarding schools," in Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1993, Vol. 21, No. 1.
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