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.”
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, indigenization, the development of member care, and imbedding of apostolic teams. 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.”
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.’” 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, ….” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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” 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
Dave Selvey, “The Truth of Missionary Attrition,” Faith Global Missions (blog), October 24, 2015, https://blogs.faithlafayette.org/missions/the-cost-of-missionary-attrition/.
 Adapting the Gospel message to the culture in which it is being preached.
 Sending funds (instead of missionaries) to native Christian ministers and empowering them to reach their own people with the Gospel.
 Many agencies have started offering “in-house” and “on the field” counselling and pastoral care for their missionaries.
 The strategy in which foreign missionaries plant a church with the goal to hand it off to national leaders as soon as possible.
 “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.
 James C. Howell, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us about Powerful Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017). Kindle loc 92.
 Howell. Kindle loc 83.
 Howell. Kindle loc 104. Emphasis mine.
 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.
 Tom Yeakley, Core Model #1: Introduction, accessed September 6, 2018, https://www.learninganddevelopment.org/Resources/Leadership-Videos/CORE-Model.