Honest Dialogue with Our Shepherding Organizations

Honest Dialogue with Our Shepherding Organizations

I gently pushed the contract across the table and asked for some revisions.

It wasn’t easy, as the only woman in a room full of older men. I’m not sure they were used to meeting with many women in their office space, but I am sure they didn’t quite know what to do with me.

My husband and I were preparing to move abroad and we were developing a very meaningful relationship with our sending fellowship.

As I read through the draft of our proposed contract together, however, I reached the last page where I was supposed to sign above the line that read “Cross-cultural Worker’s Wife.” That’s where I paused.

I begged the leaders of our sending fellowship to hold me to the same level of accountability that they had promised my husband. I asked them to shepherd my heart and my faith in the same ways that they invested in my husband.

I read the same Good Book my husband does, I said, and I hope that when you call him in SE Asia to ask how he’s being obedient to this book, you’ll ask me the same question.

Maybe they had grown accustomed to pastoring men in the congregation who would then assume the role of pastoring their own wives. Or, maybe they were not accustomed to members of the flock actually asking to be shepherded.

But something cracked open some doors that day, and I began to develop a relationship with several men who would take seriously the task of my care while I was on the field.

I believe it is our honesty as women – speaking up for our needs and walking obediently in our own discipleship – that will transform traditional forms of member care into more equitable models from our sending organizations.

***

I reached out to my Instagram community in preparation for this post, asking those with sending organizations to share their perspectives as women on the field.

Of the dozens who responded, there was a wide array of experiences regarding sending organizations. About half the respondents felt supported by women in leadership in their organizations. The other half saw little to no women in leadership, and felt their role was often treated as secondary to that of their male teammates.

I heard stories of great support for mental health services and others of complete isolation in times of stress.

I heard stories of hope and gender equality from executive leadership and of absolute heartbreak as women were still healing from fresh wounds caused by their sending organizations.

If I could sum up the comments I received from women serving abroad, I would share this list to sending organizations to consider as they continue evolving in their supportive role to female field workers:

  1. Mental health advocacy and support is absolutely critical to longevity on the field. I wrote this post years ago to highlight the stresses of living cross-culturally, and we are still understanding how a global pandemic has compounded the stressors of our field staff.
  • Single women tend to have more leadership opportunities than married women. It would seem appropriate to reconsider the conflicting constructs we have for married and unmarried women, and assess if women are treated differently within the organization according to their marital status.

  • Sending organizations have caused harm by not honoring field workers’ marriages to host country nationals, and have missed some incredible opportunities to employ these nationals from within the organization. So many women shared how their marriage led to their unfortunate parting with their organization because a) the organization was not supportive of the marriage, b) the organization refused to engage her husband, or c) the organization considered her role on the field suddenly different as a married woman.

  • Involving women in leadership roles and on member care teams is something female field staff are begging to see. They feel more understood and more supported by their organizations when their experiences as women can be affirmed from someone in leadership within the organization.

  • Women on the field desire to be seen as whole persons. They welcome the identity of mothers and nurturers and gatherers of community. But even if they are responsible for education and organizing the home, they want to be included in the details of ministry and want to participate in the eternal works of the Kingdom outside their homes, as well.

What about you—what would you add to this list? What does your sending organization do well that you can share with us? What do you wish your organization would do more of to grow in support of you and/or your work?

I’d love for the comment thread below to serve as a testimony to sending organizations today. As women, what would you like to share that can move the needle towards a more holistic support of your fellow females on the field?

Photo by Pedro Dias on Unsplash

3 Comments

  1. Kathleen Smith August 20, 2021

    Perhaps the most challenging part of this dialogue is that women seem to be the ones having to initiate it even today. My aunt, a Baptist missionary (not mentioning the sending organisation ) was never considered to be the missionary. My uncle was well known, and she was to just raise children and support him in his work. The problem was, the little bible study she started in her kitchen eventually became a church with over a thousand members and is still going fifty years later. She didn’t always handle the lack of emotional support well, but then there was no one she could really talk to, and she had to toughen up!
    Perhaps we could do things differently in this generation, but I still see the married women as the silent ones. A controlling husband is not a pastoring husband and often husbands seek to control as a way of pastoring. They aren’t receiving the training they need to lead a whole family on mission. I am not trying to advertise, but that is why I am starting a new mentoring program in the fall, for women working overseas who need confidentiality from the sending organisation. One goal will be to prepare communication with the sending organisation.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann August 20, 2021

      Kathleen, I love that story of your aunt and the church she started out of her kitchen. 🙂 So many things to ponder from what you said!

  2. Danielle Wheeler August 26, 2021

    Thanks so much for compiling this list, Lauren. So helpful. I see incredible value when organizations challenge/encourage husbands to share the household responsibilities to enable wives to study language and engage in ministry. And I’ve seen the detriment when that is not part of an organization’s DNA. One organization leader I know gave the men he trained cooking lessons!

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