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

The Role of Leadership in Missionary Effectiveness and Sustainability

Written by: on September 6, 2018

My research last semester threw me into an existential crisis.

After having pored over the data on missionary effectiveness and sustainability, I was overwhelmed by the amount of financial resources that are given to missions with little or no accountability for how those funds are truly being used to advance the cause of Christ. Whilst many believers willingly invest time and money in the Great Commission, few seem to be concerned about measuring outcomes. As a result, effective missionaries are leaving the field prematurely for preventable reasons, while some who fail to create thriving ministries remain on the field indefinitely. Dave Selvey rightly concludes, “As stewards of kingdom resources, churches, mission agencies and missionaries should be concerned about the financial losses resulting from missionary attrition and ineffective ministry.”[1]

As a cross-cultural missionary myself, I felt that my life’s work was suddenly on trial.

This semester, my research will focus on what has already been attempted to address the problem of missionary effectiveness and sustainability. I will explore trends such a contextualization[2], indigenization[3], the development of member care[4], and imbedding of apostolic teams[5]. My own mission agency has established leadership as a core value, believing that good leadership within the mission will enable missionaries to “reach their maximum individual God-given potential.”[6]

Has leadership contributed to missionary effectiveness and sustainability? While many agencies have prioritized leadership training and development over the past few decades, it is challenging to know whether this has worked. And then there are two ways to look at this—1) leadership at the organizational level and 2) the missionary as a leader in his or her context.

As a student of leadership, I obviously believe in its value. But the deeper I go in my study of leadership, the more I realize the extent to which the models of leadership vary, even within the realm of “Christian” leadership. In the book Weak Enough to Lead, James C. Howell writes, “The Harvard Business Review tried to explain ‘why more than 1000 studies have not produced a profile of an ideal leader.’ The answer, for all those interesting and exemplary leaders, is that ‘their leadership emerged from their life stories.’”[7] He explains that great leadership is always a mixture of “luck, unexpected twists and turns, a random phone call that changed everything, an illness that interrupted the schedule for weeks, ….”[8] In other words, there is no “one-size-fits-all” model. Howell’s conclusion? “What we need are leaders deeply immersed in the scriptures. The over-arching plot of the story of whatever leadership was in the Bible is that hope resides not in human ability or clever programs but in the love of God, which is relentless and refuses to let God’s purpose fall to the ground.”[9]

Of all the Christian leadership models out there, servant leadership has long been revered as a type of leadership exemplified by Christ—leadership clearly rooted in this love of God that Howell underlines. This is the foot-washing, child-welcoming, least and last type of leadership that seems to confound the powers that be in every culture and generation. Not a program as much as an attitude, servant leaders (as coined by Greenleaf) “are those who are first and foremost interested in serving those around them.”[10] According to Debby Thomas, “Servant leadership is presented as a form of leadership that is linked to ethics, virtues, and morality as well as a way to serve, rather than as a way to wield power over other people.”[11]

But even Christians struggle with this model. It is so counter-intuitive to our human understanding of power and authority that we don’t really believe that this type of leadership will produce the results we long to see. The Navigators propose a model of shepherd leadership over and above the idea of servant leadership, asserting that the shepherd is the “primary biblical metaphor”[12] for leadership, and that the activities of the shepherd leader can be sorted into three categories: leading, developing, and caring. I attended a training session on the Navigators’ model, and the presenter even said that servant leadership was not the model that Jesus used, that Jesus was a shepherd-leader. I wasn’t convinced.

Regardless of the leadership structures within mission organizations themselves, many organizations have offered leadership training and development for their missionaries, encouraging missionaries to see themselves as leaders within their ministry context. I’m not sure this has been the right approach—it could appear imperialistic from the receiving end. There’s an audacity to the idea that I, a foreigner and guest, should be running the show. I wonder if effectiveness would improve if missionaries were offered training and development in mutual submission, following, and support. Then perhaps, we’d learn to enter missions as my hero Amy Carmichael, who wrote:

“If I cannot in honest happiness take the second place (or the twentieth); if I cannot take the first without making a fuss about my unworthiness, then I know nothing of Calvary love.” –Amy Carmichael, If

[1]Dave Selvey, “The Truth of Missionary Attrition,” Faith Global Missions (blog), October 24, 2015, https://blogs.faithlafayette.org/missions/the-cost-of-missionary-attrition/.

[2] Adapting the Gospel message to the culture in which it is being preached.

[3] Sending funds (instead of missionaries) to native Christian ministers and empowering them to reach their own people with the Gospel.

[4] Many agencies have started offering “in-house” and “on the field” counselling and pastoral care for their missionaries.

[5]  The strategy in which foreign missionaries plant a church with the goal to hand it off to national leaders as soon as possible.

[6] “GEM’s Core Values – GEM Insider,” accessed September 6, 2018, https://sites.google.com/a/gemission.org/geminsider/home/positions-policies-and-guidelines/gem-s-core-values.

[7] James C. Howell, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us about Powerful Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017). Kindle loc 92.

[8] Howell. Kindle loc 83.

[9] Howell. Kindle loc 104. Emphasis mine.

[10] Debby Thomas, “Jesus’ Cross-Cultural Model of ‘Leader as Servant’ in Luke 22:24-39,” Theology of Leadership Journal 1, no. 1 (2018): 67–78.

[11] Thomas.

[12] Tom Yeakley, Core Model #1: Introduction, accessed September 6, 2018, https://www.learninganddevelopment.org/Resources/Leadership-Videos/CORE-Model.

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.

9 responses to “The Role of Leadership in Missionary Effectiveness and Sustainability”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn,

    I absolutely loved your focus on “sustainability” in missions leadership and I think it has hit the nail on the head. Furthermore, I think you backed it up with your statement, “This is the foot-washing, child-welcoming, least and last type of leadership that seems to confound the powers that be in every culture and generation.”

    One question for you, is turning the mission work eventually over to the locals an effective strategy in missions leadership sustainability?

    • If we take the servant/second place form the beginning, we never have leadership and therefore never have to relinquish it–it stays where it belongs, in the hands of locals.

      Many agencies have a vision to , for example, plant churches and then hand themover to locals. In my experience, this creates a lot of challenges. One, the lead pastor is often remiss to give up his/her position. Second, if a full-time pastor (funded from the States) establishes a church that is deêndent upon a full-time paid pastor, then when the missionary leaves, the church has to figureout how to budget for a full-time paid pastor. In France, average church size os 50-80 people. They can’t afford to pay a pastor, they can barely keep the lights on. So we have to consider the model, and is the model we establish sustainable.

  2. Great to be reading your posts again. I love how you have such practical insights to offer modern missionaries and I’m so excited for your training model to catch traction among missionaries organizations all over the world. The idea of taking second place behind the locals is brilliant.

  3. Jason Turbeville says:


    Man I love reading your posts. You pose a challenging question, should we be leading or as you wrote “mutual submission, following, and support”. I love your heart and I agree that although Jesus used the metaphor of a shepherd, it was a sacrificial servant use of the idea. You hit the mark, serving others is what Jesus did and as leaders is what we must do.


    • Thanks, Jason! Yes, I fear that the attraction of the shepherd model might be that it feels more dignified and self-important, things my flesh tries to cling to. I’m not sure servant leadership has actually, effectively been applied in many places (though se proclaim it). The truth is, the invitation of Christ is to “come and die.” Of course we die to live, but we’d like to skip the dying part. Death to self is a long, hard, slog!

  4. Greg says:

    First of all, I love how every book claims they know how Jesus lead. 🙂 . This makes me smile as I realize that we truly read into the Bible the things we are looking for. I want to say that I applaud you for already knowing what your research direction is for the semester. I was at a meeting recently and we were talking about resources, assets and budgets…exciting stuff…but relevant when planning the strategy for the year. What was never said but was obvious was that some had the ability to use funds in greater effectiveness than others. We removed a couple from an area because of their health and discovered that the area thrived because we removed this couple. (not a proponent to get rid of M’s) but trying to find the right balance of setting nationals free with accountability rather than doing everything ourselves. This might not directly relate to your blog but if got me thinking of effective ministry. Keep up the discussion!!

    • So yeah, I’ve been reading a lot about how Ms who are ineffective often stay on the field when they should go. M agencies need to find ways help those poeple gracefully (and without shame) repatriate. This should be seen as a “normal and acceptable” move or shift in a person’s life ministry trajectory, and not a failure.

      As for whether or not we need to “get rid” of Ms, I’m sure that is not the answer. In th ebook I recommended to you, McCullough asserts, “The gospel is not safe in any culture without a witness within that culture from beyond itself.” This is such an interesting assertion, but it makes sense. We are all going to read the gospel through our own cultral lenses, and insome ways we will inadvertantly conform it to our own image. Cross-cultural witness protects the integrity of the gospeL. Cool thought, huh?

  5. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, I am assuming servant leadership is the type of leadership you use within your ministry. Is that right? If so, how have you and your team incorporated servant leadership? I wonder if you could compare the effectiveness of the navigators ministry training (or the character of their disciples) with those who follow a servant leadership approach? This is all fascinating to me as it is the primary approach I have heard but I often see very different methods employed with leaders. I wonder if leaders always consider their philosophy of leadership when they disciple or train others.

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