Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Meandering Thoughts on Flexibility vs. Guidance

The year was 1993 and I was not long out of college. While in school I’d earned a degree in journalism and graduated with honors, but what I really majored in was ministry. I led small group Bible studies, helped set the course for our campus ministry, and worked with others to plan our big group meetings, often emceeing those events. All this bore a great deal of fruit as more people on campus followed Jesus and grew in their faith. So I applied to join this ministry full-time.

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.


Megan Noel said...

hm. do i sense another book in you? you've already helped give women a voice - both missionaries and the people they are trying to reach out to-- are you not done yet?

i think i would agree that, even in a more traditional business world, my "wish list" is about the same - for equal respect for men being close to the top. i wonder what "wish list" men have? i am sure there are some things on a woman's list that most of them would never even think of. (though i know more respect is on jesse's list too.)

Marti said...

Since I'm more interested in exploring the different ideas and approaches that are out there than getting behind a specific one or inventing and promoting a new one, I'm not particularly publishable. Or at least I won't be writing any "here's how to think/act" books or articles. If someone wants to publish books/articles more along the lines of "here are some ways people think/act," I would have some things to say. I don't see much in black and white.

One of the reasons the quote about missionary women wanting respect caught my eye is that there's a common teaching in the circles I run in that what women really want is love, and what men want is respect. What do you think? Does that ring true?

Of course, I take with a grain of salt anything that says, 'this is what men want / this is what women want. This is what men are like / this is what women are like.' The ways all men are different from all women are few.

Dianne said...

Back to the first topic: The church I grew up attending on the east coast was "in front" of their missionaries. It was a large church with an active missions department, and they chose a specific country as their primary "target", for lack of a better term. They specifically recruited and sent people to this country, and it was hard for missionaries to be sent to any other place. Funding and support was primarily given to missionaries in this country and then secondly to the religious bloc this country was a part of. Thirdly they gave priority to members and where they wanted to go, as some members felt called to very different places but still wanted the support of the church.

As a wannabe missionary, during college I was sent on a summer internship to work with a family in this country. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, for many reasons.

Furthermore, the church tried to become its own missions agency to send missionaries to this county. I knew that if I wanted to return to this country long-term, and if I wanted the support of this church, I would have to be "sent" by this dysfunctional system, and so I ran in the opposite direction. After three families have been sent out and returned to the US broken, I don't think this sending-agency model still exists for the church.

On the other side, I felt completely unsupported by my church because I wasn't interested in returning to this country long-term. Even if I had come to them with a full vision and plan for a different place, it would have taken a LOT of convincing to get them to support me, even though I was a member of the church. (The church has a much higher attendance rate than membership rate, hence the emphasis on membership.) So my experience was almost opposite what you outlined here.

I honestly think a happy medium would be best: direction and support based on who the person/family is, and what strategic opportunities exist from the church's perspective.

Now, as a recent seminary graduate, I am asking the same questions. What am I doing next? Where can I be of most help? Where would my church like to send me? I am now living on the opposite coast, involved at a church that is almost the antithesis of the one described above.

I don't expect any answers of "Here's what I want you to do, and here's a salary to do it." But I do expect people that I trust to tell me what they could see me being successful in, or opportunities that they hear of that I could be a good fit for. So I am definitely still asking those questions, but not looking for hard answers. I want genuine feedback and strategic encouragement, but based on who I am, not the agenda of the church.

As for publishing something, Marti, I think you could successfully pull together a collection of theories and approaches to these issues, add your own commentary and theological and missiological perspective. I, for one, would LOVE a humble, honest approach rather than "I have all the right answers to this topic", and would love to read your book. You could approach it as an anthology with introductory and conclusion paragraphs. ;-)

Marti said...

Dianne, I cringe to read your experience... but there certainly are churches that have fully bought into the adopt-a-people-group, be-your-own-agency model. And I've helped sell it, though never without reservations. Well, I don't think "be your own agency" is such a great idea. But focusing your mission strategy, that has more to recommend it. And adopting unreached people groups. Still, there are lots of pitfalls. I have been relieved when the churches I'm actually part of have held back, have dabbled in a variety of things rather than forcefully committing themselves to a focused strategy, regardless of the human consequences.

Once a couple in my church in Denver came to a "people group adoption" workshop I was helping put on, and came back to the mission committee - which I was also part of - saying people-group adoption was THE THING God was doing and if we didn't want to be part of it they didn't want to be part of the church anymore. So they left. I felt guilty, responsible - but relieved to see them go. And we were able to keep treating our missionaries as real people in a real variety of ministries.

How does one balance focus, and flexibility? Consistently? Or will we always be swinging between one extreme and the other?