Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Moving Missions into the Digital Age

Written by: on November 15, 2018

My research is focused on missionary effectiveness and sustainability in the 21st century, and I’m asking the question, “What do missionaries and missionary sending organization need to do differently in this century than they have been doing for the past 50-100 years?” I’m convinced that missionaries and mission organizations that want to see Kingdom movement for the glory of God must pay attention to what is going on in the world around them. We must be relevant to present age—for though our message is timeless, the means and methods of delivering that message must be adapted to the people and places that we are called to reach. Fritz Kling said it well in his book The Meeting of the Waters, asserting that modern missionaries need to be “relevant and orthodox, productive and faithful, current and grounded, innovative and contented.”[1]

In the book, The Leadership Mystique: Leading behavior in the Human Enterprise, author Manfred Kets de Vries describes the attributes that are critical to leading well in the “digital age.”[2] The essential leadership attributes that he identifies are: self-management, cognitive complexity, cultural relativity, action orientation, generativity, team-building skills, impression management, task-relevant knowledge, and the ability to inspire trust.[3]

Might those same attributes be applicable to missionary effectiveness as well?

I believe that Kets de Vries’ list could be divided into three categories in relation to missionary effectiveness in the digital age: Timeless Attributes, Lost Attributes, and 21st Century Attributes.

Timeless Attributes are attributes that have long been valued and incorporated into mission work and still are relevant in the digital age. In my opinion those would include self-management, action orientation, and team-building skills. Missionary heroes of the past, like Amy Carmichael and Hudson Taylor, were known for such abilities, while modern movement leader Ying Kai exemplifies what such skills look like in our time.

“It is no small comfort to me to know that God has called me to my work, putting me where I am and as I am. I have not sought the position, and I dare not leave it. He knows why He places me here-whether to do, or learn, or suffer. [4] –Hudson Taylor, 1899

Lost Attributes are those that were once highly valued among mission agencies, but seem to have fallen along the wayside. I agree with Kets de Vries, that these are needed for leaders in the digital age, and I would suggest that mission leaders look for ways to reincorporate these attributes into their ministry endeavors. The Lost Attributes are task-relevant knowledge and the ability to inspire trust. I often feel like missionaries could be compared to the toys that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer meets on the Island of Misfit Toys. Many of us didn’t quite fit in back in the States, and struggled to find our place in the world. Unfortunately, this can lead to misdirection and ineffectiveness on the mission field, particularly if one never really develops a skill or capacity for doing ministry. There is a lack of “task relevant knowledge” among many foreign missionaries, especially those who think that having a theology degree or preaching experience qualifies them for mission work. Knowledge that is relevant to the task of foreign missions includes language learning, cultural intelligence, and discipleship training, just for starters.

“Language-learning requires sustained hard work. Isolated posts demand extraordinary professional competence and self-reliance under pressure. The mission field is no place for lazy, undisciplined people.”[5] –Gerald E. Bates, 1977

As for the ability to inspire trust, this too is lacking but needed. Because missionaries are dependent upon the donations of others, there is a strong tendency to exaggerate the truth our even lie about what’s actually happening on the field. Such behaviors might raise funds, but they don’t inspire trust. Trust requires transparency, authenticity, and a willingness for genuine accountability.

“I well remember the time when the men…with our mission met on a retreat in South Africa where we talked about these issues and looked each other in the eyes and asked painful questions about obedience and failure. That’s good and missionaries need that. I certainly do. Home churches need to do that with the missionaries they send out.”—David Wegener, 2013

I’m particularly interested in those attributes that represent a change from the way things have been done in the past to the way things must be done now, given the present realities of global connectivity, millennial mindsets, the shift of the global center of Christianity, and the changing funding priorities of donors. These would be the traits that fall into the third category—the one I’ve labeled 21st Century Attributes, and would include what Kets de Vries’ calls managing cognitive complexity, cultural relativity, generativity, and impression management. I’d like to briefly explain why I believe each of these are particularly relevant to missionary effectiveness in the 21st Century.

Managing cognitive complexity is a skill that people either have or don’t have, according to Kets de Vries. It is the ability to “quickly grasp the essence of a complex idea” and then “simplify it for others.”[6] Mission agencies that do not have leaders who can manage cognitive complexities will not be able to keep up with the challenges of our modern world.

Cultural relativity is a freedom from ethnocentrism. Mission work must be free of any hint of colonialism in the present age.

Generativity is about “getting pleasure out of dealing with the next generation,”[7] or in a nutshell, mentoring. According the Forbes Magazine, mentoring is critical to retaining millennials. “Among millennials, there is a collective shout to employers to develop them, mentor them, and give them opportunities to lead.”[8] We can assume that millennial missionaries desire the same.

Impression management is the ability to “positively reframe difficult situations”[9] and includes storytelling. In a world where social media makes communication accessible and possible 24/7/365, missionaries and mission agencies MUST know how to communicate effectively both within their ministry context and back home to supporters.

I will be exploring all of these concepts deeper in my dissertation.

[1] Fritz Kling, The Meeting of the Waters: 7 Global Currents That Will Propel the Future Church, 1st ed (Colorado Springs, Colo: David C. Cook, 2010). 26

[2] Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise, 2nd ed (Harlow, England ; New York: Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 2006). 237.

[3] Kets de Vries. 239-241.

[4] “The 15 Best James Hudson Taylor Quotes – Leadership Resources,” October 14, 2013, https://www.leadershipresources.org/the-15-best-james-hudson-taylor-quotes/.

[5] “Who Is Qualified to Be Called as a Missionary?,” accessed November 15, 2018, https://missionexus.org/who-is-qualified-to-be-called-as-a-missionary/.

[6] Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique. 239.

[7] Kets de Vries. 239.

[8] Kaytie Zimmerman, “Modern Mentoring Is The Key To Retaining Millennials,” Forbes, accessed November 15, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kaytiezimmerman/2016/07/18/modern-mentoring-is-the-key-to-retaining-millennials/.

[9] Kets de Vries, The Leadership Mystique. 240.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

11 responses to “Moving Missions into the Digital Age”

  1. Jenn,

    Thanks for creatively applying Kets de Vries’ leadership principles to missionary effectiveness.

    Task-relevant knowledge is an interesting point. Sometimes I fear the missionary enterprise is operating from a modern approach that divorces sacred from secular, and creates silos for work and spirituality. We send people out who are experts in theology, but lack any meaningful skill to create a sustainable life in the new country. (I know, I was one of them!)

    I like your approach to release your husband to upgrade his pilot skills – with that decision you are able to bring sustainability to your ministry AND be a faithful presence in France.

    So, sometime task-relevant knowledge includes knowing about wind shear and cargo loads.

    • I agree! In fact real-life job skills need to be a mondern missionary’s CV, in my opinion. Being able to hold down a “real” job, to work on a team, to solve problems, to punch a time clock, for heaven’s sake, these things are missing in missionary thinking. And YES! Thinking of earning an income as a way of funding missions is part of the answer. But even as I stay in “full time mission” mode, I need to have skills that pertain to the actual ministry work I am doing. Theological education informs that work, but it does not define it.

  2. Great post as usual Jenn! I really resonated with your statement: “According the Forbes Magazine, mentoring is critical to retaining millennials. “Among millennials, there is a collective shout to employers to develop them, mentor them, and give them opportunities to lead.” This is right in line with my research in terms of what women need in order to be advanced and have increased leadership opportunities. Your work in advancing missions organizations is great.

  3. Great post, Jenn!

    I love that you pose the question, “What do missionaries and missionary sending organization need to do differently in this century than they have been doing for the past 50-100 years?” It reminded me of the statement by Kets De Vries where he wrote, “Success can be maintained only if an organization is able to adapt to change” (Kets De Vries 2006, 51). Do you find that your mission organization is willing to approach this question alongside of you? Are they willing to adapt? How can effective leadership evolve in a cross-cultural/multigenerational context, such as missions?

    You mention that, “Mentoring is critical to retaining Millennials.” With the influx of technology and the idea of flat level organizational leadership, how has mentorship changed?

    • Unfortunately, most misison agencies have their heads in the sand about this! I’m still getting a lot of resistance. But our French partners are certianly on board and eager to welcome missionaries who are wanting to move into the next century of mission work.

      I am a big proponent of flat leadership. What that means is that mentoring is now a two-way street. While one person may have more experience or power, both are open to learning from the other.

  4. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn!

    I needed this quote today, desperately!

    “It is no small comfort to me to know that God has called me to my work, putting me where I am and as I am. I have not sought the position, and I dare not leave it. He knows why He places me here-whether to do, or learn, or suffer. [4] –Hudson Taylor, 1899

    Thank you so much for sharing. Please know your Blog was more than just a academic assignment, it was a ministry, and God has used it for encouragement.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Jean Ollis says:

    I love how you connected this text directly to your research. Well done! An additional question, how will you connect this leadership model directly to your own ministry work?

  6. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hi Jenn,
    So a quick response to your blog. I am so glad to read about the research you are doing and to have a touch-point back into the world of missionaries (of old) and present day. You mentioned one of your heroes being Amy Carmichael, so I looked her up. I found a great quote from her… “It is a safe thing to trust Him to fulfill the desire that He creates.” Somehow, that really speaks to me. Thanks for the rabbit trail 🙂

  7. Greg says:

    Wow….I hate to admit that I have seen some of these short coming…integrity issues and creative story telling for what I assume is financial gain or prestige is just the start.I think you are writing these blog for me… I am sitting in a factory taking a break from checking the safety of life vests and thought I would read your blog….little did I know that I needed to hear the Hudson Taylor quote reminding me that I am doing what God has called me to do and am working where he wants me to work…sometimes as you know that is hard….especially when we are working and living outside what we thought we would do. Preach it! Thanks for your

  8. Chris Pritchett says:

    This is really well done and helpful (wish I could’ve read it before reading the book in fact) and your posts are consistently thoughtful and academic. I appreciate you beginning with your research with great clarity. It’s so good to know this is what you continue to refine. I wonder if you are primarily focusing on North American missionaries to Europe and other places, and perhaps your experience in France offers such a wealth of knowledge, reflection, evaluation, and even solutions. I wonder if the questions are the same for missionaries from the global south, let’s say Kenya or Colombia (these two come to mind because of mutual ministry partnerships that have led to Colombian and Kenyan missionaries to the United States: Seattle and Southern California to be specific). It seems as though we are the ones who need to be “evangelized” in a sense, by the global south in particular, to show us what God is doing in these unexpected places of suffering or persecution, and frankly to wake up the church in the U.S. I wonder if you share my concern and whether your dissertation points in this direction as well. You are a brilliant writer and will make an excellent contribution to your field, no doubt.

Leave a Reply