I was so discouraged when the rejection letter came. They told me they thought it would be better for me to find a ministry where I “wouldn’t be working with people.” I wasn’t sure how to take that. In a way, though, I was relieved. I’d never been blind to the ways I was an odd fit for the ministry’s organizational culture. Surely there was something better out there, a ministry that might embrace me without so many reservations? How would I find it? I didn’t have a plan B and wasn’t sure where to look.
So I asked my church for help. After all, people there knew me pretty well, and I’d been serving on the mission committee and helping out the mission pastor for some time. "Where would you like to send me?" I tried asking. But from the way people responded, I might have been asking them to find me a husband or tell me how to wear my hair. Apparently there are some things it’s just better to do for yourself. One thing I appreciated is that they helped me let go of the condemnation I felt from the ministry that had rejected me. They helped me hold onto hope and not give up.
But I came to realize that the church – at least my church – doesn’t find people ministries in which to serve. They may put out a menu of options and ideas, but they won’t make assignments, and are hesitant to make recommendations. Oh, they know they need people to work in the nursery or manage the foodbank, but it's different with missionaries, at least long-term ones. Few churches will decide they want to be involved in a certain ministry and then look for someone to send; they want prospective missionaries to come to them with a call, with a fit already picked out, saying, “Here’s what I want to do and where I want to go. Can you get behind me?” They might say no, but they aren't likely to be the ones making the proposal.
What would it look like if the church were not behind its missionaries, but, well, in front of them? Could that work? Why or why not?
It seems a little funny to me but many mission agencies seem to work the same way. Certainly the one I'm part of does. I'm given flexibility more freely than I'm given direction. There’s nobody I can call to say, “Here I am! Can you put me to work?” It might work in some situations. But generally I gather they’d rather have the candidate come to them with a strong sense of direction and call.
For our field workers, feeling isolated and ill-prepared comes with the territory. After all, they are pioneers. Many are going "where no one has gone before." It takes a certain kind of strength and courage to do that. Even the best of agencies cannot do much to reduce the ambiguity and take care of their people. Circumstances often conspire to keep what may seem a good strategy from working for very long. You find a great team and learn how to work together, and then something happens and the team falls apart, and you have to start all over. Happens all the time. Luckily, there's grace and freedom to keep trying, to try new things.
Is the business world like that, happier to give "flexibility" and "freedom" than "direction"? I guess sometimes it is; American business cultures may place a high value on people who know where they are going and are ready to take charge and do whatever it takes. If you are looking at a position very far up the corporate ladder, the interviewer will want to know "what would you do if you had this job?" and "what makes you right for this job?" and might look askance at someone who asked "how would you want me to handle this job if you gave it to me?" or "what kind of job would you want to give someone like me?" Someone who wants others to tell them what to do may be seen as not very smart, not very capable.
Well, even though I'm still exploring what's next and feeling some of these tensions, I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I'm going to be fine. And even if I see the dark or discouraging side of "freedom," I'm grateful for it as well. I'm not really at the point where I want to be "directed" overmuch - though I have some friends who really need that. I'm not at that place, and not quite open enough to say, "Here am I, send me - anywhere! to do anything!"
I wonder what would happen if I did? If I said that to my church, or my agency? What would they do with me?
Having quite a bit of experience as well as being articulate and self-aware are a huge help in charting a course through the sea of opportunities. Also being single; that does make things simpler.
One way in which mission agencies are quite different from other employers is how they treat married people, especially married women. Generally if you raise support it’s supposed to cover all the needs of a family; that’s how the budgets are written. It’s up to you to decide what you "give back” for that support, whether both spouses will “work” or just one. A wife may serve full-time in the ministry work; she may get an additional job (and make some extra money) or she may choose to stay home with the kids. That she’s not punished, financially, for doing so, is supposed to show respect and value for the family and sensitivity to the needs of mothers and children, which is great.
But sometimes it backfires. In most traditional societies the involvement of missionary women is crucial for the ministry to succeed among half the people they are trying to reach (where men can’t reach women) - and still, their active involvement is considered “optional”? And while heavy expectations and little flexibility might be a bigger burden, being under no expectations at all and given too much flexibility can be strangely demoralizing. It's as if what you do doesn't matter. Your ministry is optional.
In some sense, of course, we are all in that boat. Woe to men and women who see themselves as indispensable, as if God "needs" them.
In her book Expectations and Burnout, Sue E. writes about what missionary women want from their sending agencies:
"In a questionnaire conducted only within my own agency in 2005, one of the top five needs missionary women have is to feel respected. …This need for respect is closely followed by the need for encouragement, mentoring, and to be heard, and wisdom as well as freedom in balancing roles.”If what the missionary woman does doesn't show up on ministry plans and reports, if whether she gets training or participates in meetings and setting direction is a matter of convenience or preference, it's as if it doesn't matter:
"If there is no reporting from women to their leaders, they feel as if their ministry (both in the home and out of the home) is devalued and not appreciated by their mission agency. If there is no guidance, how can a missionary woman determine if she is being as effective as possible in any of her roles? It is true that a woman needs freedom in determining where to invest her time; but she also needs and wants accountability.” (p. 76)I think this is something my agency has been working on. I'm not really part of the inner circle to see how it's going, but I believe efforts are being made to "count" what women do and treat them as full members of the mission - even while recognizing that their ministries may not look like those of their husbands and others.