by Susan B. De Vries
There are many obstacles to fuller integration of women in mission work.
Picture the field leader of your mission in Outer Mosquitoland, tearing his hair in frustration over his "Catch 22" predicament. The directive from the home office said: "Discover the gifts of the women on your field and give them more opportunities for development, place them in positions with real authority, and encourage them in their career development. P.S. We’re sending out some new recruits and these women expect full integration with the men on your teams. See that they get it."
But listening to his field workers, he hears the scrape of dragging feet from the men on his field council, the skeptical sighs of burned-out single women workers, and the fearful door-slamming of young mothers who already have their hands full. The older married women respond, "What’s all the fuss? We’ve been doing mission work for years anyway, usually without credit or under the signature of our husbands." And the younger, more educated women charge, "Tokenism!"
WHAT’S A FIELD LEADER TO DO?
There are many obstacles to fuller integration of women in mission work. Some of those obstacles, such as young children in the family, cannot be eliminated. Other deterrents can; these include the attitudes of both women and men, the lack of accountability or rewards for women, low educational standards of acceptance for wives, and lack of long-range career planning for wives.
Many mission boards place heavy expectations for mission work on the wives; other missions are coming from an opposite position. In my own mission, Overseas Crusades, family is a stated priority. Our 1981 policy handbook states, "A missionary wife, although appointed as a missionary with her husband, is encouraged to make her first ministry her home. Well cared for children, hospitality, and the support she gives her husband in his work are in themselves a powerful statement of the power of the gospel. Beyond this, however, she may undertake outside ministries as God gives her ability and opportunity."
We appreciated this freedom of choice for the wife’s level of involvement, and it was one of the reasons we chose OC.
CHILDREN: A VALID HINDRANCE
A married woman in a missionary role is particularly unsettled because her life is constantly in change-patterns dictated by the arrival and special demands of her children. Men and single women do not experience these same primary responsibilities, so their job defines their role in a more consistent manner. Children, wonderful and indispensable as they are, make up one of the major roadblocks for the full utilization of married women in missions.
Missionary wives carry a double job description: they want to be a supermom and a super missionary at the same time.
An example of conflicting interests brought about by this dual role is found in the situation of one of my friends. Her mission’s stated policy and actual expectation is that mission work comes before family. Parents are forbidden to teach their children in the home or send them to local schools because the mother’s time available for ministry would be curtailed. "I’ve always considered myself a working mother," Sandi told me. She copes with full-time job, four children, a traveling husband, and cross-cultural stress.
Examine the guidelines suggested by Joy Turner Tuggy in her handbook, The Missionary Wife and Her Work. In chapter two, the missionary wife is exhorted to take on the following responsibilities: run the household, prepare nutritious meals, keep the family’s clothes in good order, assume the greater part of the burden of letter-writing, and share actively in many ways the ministry to which they have given themselves, "keeping always in the background."
To this the author adds the time-consuming ministry of hospitality and the wife’s primary responsibility for the children’s daily discipline and emotional well-being. Can you not empathize, then, with the door slammed in the face of the field director who comes offering the missionary wife a fulfilling career as field council secretary?
An ancient but still lively belief is the assumption that if the missionary couple puts the Lord’s work first in every case, they will find God obligated to keep their children from all harm. This belief guided Hudson Taylor, Jonathan Goforth, and many other missionary "greats." Yet sometimes this well-meaning philosophy had tragic and hidden results in bitter, broken-hearted children who rejected both God and his servants, their parents. No survey has been successful in counting the number of children of missionaries on whose hearts is written in indelible ink, "You are less important than the Work." Mission boards that insist on moms working full-time in ministry foster family tensions which often result in damaged kids.
RESISTANCE BY MEN
Another roadblock to the full utilization of women and their gifts in mission is men. R. Pierce Beaver points out in his book, American Protestant Women in World Mission, that objections usually do not come from the home office, but from the men in the field councils. This may take the form of a subtle, unconscious by-passing of women rather than outright discrimination.
Says Grace Frizen, editor of the IFMA News, "The kind of men who feel very threatened by women in mission leadership are usually the men who have a very domineering wife, or whose wives are more capable than they, or else men who are generally incompetent." She feels that most women have just accepted the fact that they will be by-passed for positions of leadership or teaching and have learned not to hope for any change in the status quo.
Sometimes the local culture will limit the degree of freedom that a woman may have to minister. But often a foreign woman is tolerated in an unusual role because she is already expected to be different. It is more likely to be the missionary men who resist her full participation.
While most women under evangelical mission agencies are appointed regular missionaries, the wives frequently do not receive a definite work assignment, nor do they turn in monthly reports. Women are usually forbidden to work outside the mission for additional income, yet the same rule is not applied to a pastor or a stateside mission administrator. We seem to have a double standard.
However equally the wife may contribute toward achieving mission goals, she is not likely to be given the opportunity of forming those goals. "There are a few women on our field council, generally the more passive, quiet type and always they are the singles," one wife told me.
This situation is not atypical. In the chapter updating the newest edition of American Protestant Women, R. Pierce Beaver states: "The governance of the nondenominational societies and the evangelical denominational boards, except for the few founded by women, is strictly male, and in some instances male domination has strengthened [since the 60’s]" (p. 213). "Out of 620 sending, supporting, and specialized agencies, only five of the older and larger ones had a woman president or chairwoman for at least part of the decade [of the 70′ s]. Women have seldom been admitted to major administrative posts in the nondenominational societies and evangelical denominational boards…" (p. 214).
In 1984, only 44.5 percent of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association member missions’ total workforce were male; yet I estimate that 95 percent of their personnel supervision, counseling, and arbitration of disputes is done by men. Experienced women could well serve in supervisory and counseling roles. This probably would prove less threatening to the newer men on the field and more comfortable for the women.
RESISTANCE BY THE WOMEN THEMSELVES TO ACCOUNTABLITY
What about job accountability? Do women really want this? Of course, single women have had accountability (monthly reports, job descriptions, and their own separate salary) for many years now. But seldom the missionary wives. Why not? Sometimes the reason given is that the wives were not required to devote their full time to ministry. When the children are young, this is often true.
I informally polled a group of 10 women, asking if any of the eight mission boards represented really didn’t expect any mission work from them. All were 35 or older and all responded that they were indeed full-time mission workers. Apart from a few mainline denominational mission boards, we couldn’t think of one board that did not require or expect the missionary wives to work, at least half-time.
Most of my missionary wife friends, however, seem happy with this status quo. They want to work quietly alongside their husbands. They feel equally called and commissioned to be missionaries in their own right. They don’t really want to be invited to field council meetings, nor to be made field chairman. (Well, maybe a few would. Some wives do have gifts in strategy planning and administration, and the ambition to use those gifts.)
Most women knew when they joined that they could expect a life with many demands in mission-related work, without separate salaries. But when I pin them down, they acknowledge that they don’t have much say in mission policy making. There are few women in positions of leadership, in personnel departments, or even in authority over women.
Perhaps equally wasteful of our resources is the fact that the women’s work is not always coordinated or integrated with the men’s overall field strategy. Even single women missionaries have long complained that they do not have any say in policy decisions affecting their own ministry or personnel placements.
LACK OF REWARDS OR RECOGNITION
Married (and single) women have found greater freedom to tackle non-traditional tasks and take initiative in mission work overseas than in their home sending countries, particularly in earlier years when Victorian society limited women’s roles severely. But what has been their reward? Primarily, the gratitude of their husbands and the sense of having pleased the Lord. Tangible rewards are rare. Few missionary wives even receive separate social security payments, much less their own paycheck.
We need the encouragement of recognition. The contributions of working missionary wives could be enhanced by things like office space, job titles with corresponding authority, the responsibility to help form and achieve team goals, and commendations when specific projects are completed.
The salary question will naturally raise righteous hackles. Admittedly, most mission boards do not consider the salaries of missionaries as equivalent payment for services rendered. Most men would be earning far more in a profession in the States utilizing their seven or eight years of post-secondary school education. These uniform salaries are more realistically called "living allowances." Both sending church and mission board assume that the couple who commit themselves to mission work overseas are virtually making a vow of poverty. (Whether this is right is another question.)
These "facts of missionary life" often come as a rude awakening to men recruits, especially those accustomed to a two-income lifestyle as well-educated professionals.
But the inevitable question arises: How on earth could we afford to compensate the working missionary wife? In faith missions, where the couple is responsible to raise the required support quota, the current allowance could be divided proportionately between husband and wife, depending on the amount of time they are each giving to mission work. Most families would likely pool both husband’s and wife’s income; the difference would be that both partners could feel equally responsible and compensated.
For denominational boards, providing salaries for the wives who choose to work would increase the cost of personnel. But then, it is possible that mission boards have been receiving two workers for the cost of one for many years now.
The Lutheran Church in America is experimenting with changes in "wifestyles." Depending on individual preferences and life situations, their missionary families are free to choose among four levels of involvement and are compensated proportionately. Joyce M. Bowers reports on this new policy for the LCA in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (January 1984).
STANDARDS OF ACCEPTANCE
If wives are going to be full co-workers and held more strictly accountable-and this is the trend in missions today-their qualifications must be more nearly equal to the men.
Many mission boards require only two years of college (which must include 30 hours of Bible courses) for a married woman applicant, whereas a single woman often is required to have a college degree plus professional training of some sort. For men, the minimum requirement in many boards is a college degree, a seminary degree, and ordination. This discrepancy is too large.
For highly educated men to accept as a peer women with only a high school diploma or a year or two of college is difficult. It is short-sighted to accept women without any special training; their productive years with the mission after the children begin school and/or leave home are often double the number of years when they will focus on just their house and children. Though few may appreciate the delay in getting to the field, most women will be thankful later on.
We should also increase their access to furlough or on-field study programs (Azusa Pacific College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School offer extension courses convenient to some, for example), as well as motivate them to participate. There are still too many roadblocks.
When our girls had all started school, my husband felt it would be a good time for me to pursue graduate studies on our furlough, to increase my proficiency for future ministry. Several missionary wives have whispered to me, "My husband would never dream of devoting a furlough to my schooling." When we reported the hefty expenses of tuition on our income tax report, however, our accountant informed us that it was not a legitimate educational deduction, since I am not officially employed by the mission.
VARIETY OF VIEWPOINTS AND WIFESTYLES
I wish to make my assumption very clear: 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.
SUGGESTIONS FOR MISSION PERSONNEL DIRECTORS
1. Begin at the very start of the family’s association with the mission to make long-range plans for both partners’ development as mature missionary workers. Set target dates that can be adapted to family needs. This would give women a sense of direction, of self-worth, and perhaps motivate them to more diligent language learning and occasional educational coursework.
Discuss career options for all women within the mission, both older women and incoming recruits. This would have to include possible accommodation to a very male-dominated culture where the family is working, particularly when the wife would have national men as co-workers.
2. Make it very clear to all that the mission regards homemaking and child-care as high priorities; thus, it will be the norm (with very few exceptions) for a wife with preschool-age children not to be involved in any formal mission activity. If we are serious about our witness as strong family role models, we need to allocate our manpower (mothers!) to full involvement when the nurturing of children is most crucial. This means that younger mothers should not be assigned mission work while they have any children at home under six years of age, or while they are teaching their children at home. Work that can be done in the home, such as hospitality, correspondence, home Bible studies, or work for her husband might be allowed as her time and health permit.
3. After the children begin school and require less time, it should be time for a discussion between the husband, the wife, and the field director as to just how much of her time she is able to give to mission work. The couple should be allowed several options, from part-time to full-time separate ministry for the wife. At that time, the wife should be supervised, evaluated, and given opportunity for monthly reporting, involvement in decision and policy making, and advancement to positions of administration or leadership if she has those abilities.
It would also be helpful to divide their paycheck and issue the amounts in their two separate names. Remember, a job without accountability and reward is only a volunteer position.
4. To increase communication and lessen friction between the men, the married women, and the singles in every mission, we need more frequent discussion concerning women’s changing roles. We need to schedule group discussions on women’s roles in annual field conferences and in leadership training with national co-workers as well.
5. Another help to the administrator in understanding how to be a better leader to all his missionaries, both male and female, would be the use of the Myers-Briggs personality indicator. This tool could help the field leader know when and how to use motivational techniques. For example, some of us respond best to structured roles, commendation, and check lists; others are self-starters who need freedom and just occasional guidance. While not all women are alike, there are some typical patterns of male and female interactions which any administrator needs to know.
I have explored several obstacles to women’s full involvement in missions: some, such as children, can’t be changed. Their nurture is too crucial to make it secondary to a woman’s ministry. Other obstacles can be changed. These include an attitude of superiority or disdain on the part of men, resistance to accountability on the part of women, the lack of recognition and reward for women’s work, and ignorance of what a woman could and would like to do with her skills and gifts.
Long-range career planning for wives, higher standards of acceptance, and promotion of qualified women to positions of leadership should be the pattern for missions in the next decade.
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