Entrusted with the Sent: The key issues for leadership

Leadership development has always been at the heart of God’s redemption plan.

James E. Plueddeman

A century or more ago Hudson Taylor, Rowland Bingham, John Newton, Lady Mary Kinnaird, Howard Guinness and others were out in the world doing risky, seemingly crazy things to share the gospel in hard places, mobilising others to follow their vision and laying the foundation for organisations that are still mobilising, sending and supporting faithful servants seeking to see the gospel spread to this day. Those mission and ministry organisations, where workers raise financial support through churches and individuals, have grown exponentially. There are so many reasons why this is a good and necessary model. It frees people up to focus on things that might not otherwise be funded, or to do things that are hard and risky that might not deliver quick results. It allows organisations to place more workers because they tie into personal connections for support-raising and spreads the fundraising load across the whole organisation. It allows churches to participate in global mission while being confident that the people they raise up and send out will be well cared for and supported. Run well these organisations can enable people to really buy into a shared vision and benefit from community which makes doing risky and challenging work easier. The complexity of these organisations, the members that make them up and the contexts in which they serve create unique challenges for leadership which, if unaddressed, leave workers feeling confused, unsupported, overworked or mired in conflict. 

The observations which follow are based on a six month project including interviews with 20 leaders from five different organisations. In these interviews a number of common threads emerged leading me to identify three things which create unique challenges for mission and other support-raised ministry organisations. In these interviews I met so many faithful leaders, some reluctant, all feeling the responsibility of leading the people that God had entrusted to them. I am grateful for their wisdom and honesty, for the examples they shared with me of God at work forming leadership character in them and those they served with.

1. Stories (narrative identity and the organisational story)

Christian workers have a very public story. In order to raise prayer and financial support they need to speak at churches, send out newsletters, maintain a blog to share their story. They share who they are, the need they see, and their heart or gifting to serve. Their organisations also have story, a history, a way to talk internally and externally about where they have been and where they are going.

In our own hearts or with the people we love and trust, everyone has a narrative identity, stories about our past and future by which we come to terms with our selves and our place in the world. Sometimes the public stories, while not the same as our narrative identity, help form and influence our narrative identity. These stories, these identities hold a special place and create special challenges for support-raised organisations. Most people don’t need to talk about themselves anywhere near as much as a missionary does. It is not having stories that is unusual it’s the sacred space they seem to hold and they extent to which they form our behaviour as leaders and followers

Leaders in these organisations bear the weight of these stories, entrusted with other people’s lives and callings while also carrying the weight of the organisational story; the legacy of the founders, the vision of the whole fellowship and the expectations of the churches that entrust their people as they go out into the world. 

These stories are important, but they can also make for reluctant leaders and reluctant followers. The people I interviewed shared many examples. In some case leadership was seen as leaving real ministry. People felt they were giving up on something they were passionate about and gifted for to do management or administration. People were nervous about whether people would continue to support them if they weren’t directly involved in the ministry they had initially raised support to do. People who did step into leadership roles found followers who were more committed to their individual vision than to the needs of the team or organisation. Followers saw leaders who avoided parts of the job that they felt they weren’t gifted for or called to.

My interviewees also talked a lot about the power of stories. What began with one person’s individual vision for a new type of ministry or new region for ministry eventually impacted an entire organisation’s vision giving it new life and direction. Understanding the place of the individual story as one part of the long history of the organisation and its future vision helped make workers more resilient and collaborative. Understanding all of this within God’s grand narrative built humility and dependence into the leadership character of the whole. 

2. Complexity (fellowship and partnership)

Support-raising organisations can be endlessly complex with many people raising support through one organisation and then sent to work in a wide range of ministry contexts. Some people may be working exclusively with people from the same organisation, seconded to another organisation or institution or working with people from a range of different organisations. Organisations themselves are usually a fellowship: a patchwork of different legal entities with overlapping functions, held together by commitment to a common vision. 

People in senior leadership roles spoke of the need to be influencers rather than decision makers. Many shared that they couldn’t force compliance across different parts of the fellowship, they had to rely on continually sharing vision, on being the “Chief Reminding Officer”. One leader was blunt: “If one part of the organisation doesn’t want to follow, there isn’t much I can do other than keep trying to persuade them.”

Mid-level leaders found it a challenge to navigate who they were accountable to and when. More than one said something to the effect of “I have three bosses”. In creative or restricted contexts I heard “Leaders don’t have time to do leadership as well as they would like because they need to have another full-time job to have a visa or an identity.” In organisations that prioritised partnership with other ministries and didn’t run their own teams I heard “Nobody other than the leaders actually ‘work’ for the organisation”.

New leaders who were grappling with these issues for the first time shared “I care about my ministry but I don’t really care about my organisation” and “It’s more important for me to keep my financial partners happy than it is to keep my supervisor happy.”

These are just some of the things I heard and they reflect individual contexts, but they all speak to the same issue that support-raised organisations have much more complex internal relationships than most other organisations. 

The basic assumption of most leadership and management literature is that people in senior leadership positions have a high degree control over the make-up and the goals of their team whether a small business, a large corporation or a local church. In support-raised organisations, so much depends on the individuals who express an interest in joining and on the opportunities that arise with local partnerships. Recruitment, placement and role crafting is a collaborative process between sending and receiving functions, partner organisations and individual workers. It normally takes a long time. Identified needs may never be filled or opportunities may have changed by the time a worker has applied, raised support and learnt language. 

Leadership and management have a lot of unique challenges in organisations driven by partnership. A leader might have a team that consists of a doctor working in a local hospital, the principal of a school, a social worker working with an NGO that deals with street kids, a church planter working with a remote community several hours from you, and the only foreign lecturer in a bible college. A leadership role in a sending office will have responsibility to find, recruit, train and support those people, will be legally their employer even though workers are sent overseas to come under the authority of someone else. That someone else may or may not share vision, culture or even organisational affiliation. 

Doing this research during a global pandemic cast this issue into sharp relief. Several leaders talked about how much the crisis tested decision-making processes and raised questions of accountability and responsibility. Sending office directors found themselves having to more directive, despite a normal preference for locally-led decision making. Members had to decide which contingency plan or crisis response advice to follow. Did they turn to their sending organisation or to the leadership of the ministry they were seconded to or organisation they partnered with?

There is beauty in this complexity, there are opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be pursued and God works in surprising ways through this. But managing this reality in organisations with a partnership and fellowship model requires recognition of the challenges this creates. 

3. Accountability (being sent)

The most distinctive feature of support-raised ministry and mission organisations is the fact that workers are “support-raised”. Leaders in support-raised organisations don’t just sit down and work out what roles would be the best use of the financial resources they have and go out and find the best people for those roles. They are dependent on God putting a vision into people’s hearts then making it possible for them to serve. Mission and other ministry organisations exist to help the local church fulfill the Great Commission beyond their local area. A leader’s direct reports will also have a strong sense of accountability to the churches and individuals who provide financial support. Whether those financial partners want to have a say in worker’s lives or not, there is an inevitable need to keep meeting their expectations. Individual workers rely on close personal connections to raise support and those financial partners don’t always understand or align with the organisation’s values. Many leaders admitted that if a worker changed organisations, the majority of their support would change with them without hesitation. This depth of commitment to an individual over an organisation is a potential source of conflict but managed well the senders can complement the role of leaders in the lives of individual workers.

Different sending contexts will bring with them very different expectations from financial partners. Many leaders shared with me the steep learning curve they experienced as they helped people from cultures other than their own know how to plan and develop their ministry in a way that both aligned with the organisations values and met the expectations of their senders. As the number of new sending contexts grows, particularly as organisations try and mobilise workers from less affluent contexts, navigating these accountability relationships will only become more complex. 

Workers really benefit from healthy and supportive relationships with their sending churches and individual financial partners. In many cases they see themselves as an extension of the church’s ministry. Many have close personal relationships where they can be authentic and vulnerable and where the senders play a key role in member care. Lots of organisations are working with sending churches to improve their understanding of the importance of their role beyond pure financial support. A key part of financial partnership development is growing a vision with local churches and Christians, growing their missiology, and helping them engage and care as true partners in the gospel.

The way forward

The leaders I spoke to and the leadership literature I read offered so many ideas and suggestions. There are nine suggestions I have to build truly transformative and flourishing communities. Each of these nine areas is probably deserving of a research project in its own right.

  • Know your context: Support-raised workers should be intentionally missiological and anthropological, whether crossing a national barrier or cultural barriers within a country. We should apply this same rigour and desire for contextual understanding to our organisational contexts. Knowing these three unique features of the support-raised organisational context will go a long way to better crafting leadership development and better recruiting, integrating and supporting workers. Every organisation and every team within the organisation has a unique history and culture. Leaders, and ultimately all workers, should get to know this first.
  • Make space for stories: Knowing the importance of stories should prompt us to make space for the right kind of stories. Individual workers should understand their story in light of the organisational story and organisations should make space for individual stories to influence and grow the overall story. Empower workers to tell humble stories of being rather than doing, to tell their stories in their own culturally appropriate way, to emphasise the contribution of others to their story and to understand all stories in the context of God’s grand narrative. 
  • Equip the middle: Middle management is normally the hardest. The challenges for new and mid-level leaders are even more intense in a fellowship organisation where each part of the organisation has a reasonably high degree of autonomy, is separated by geographical and cultural divides, and where the role of international offices is one of influence and support rather than authority and command. In many contexts, workers take on a leadership role on top of their primary job or ministry role or are supporting workers with multiple accountabilities. We must recognise these challenges, train and support the middle to be shepherds who know they are also sheep.
  • Value leadership: Help workers and their supporters see the value of leadership roles. Tell celebratory stories. But make sure it is the right kind of leadership. Leadership that aligns with the many images we have in the bible of leaders as servants, shepherds and stewards. Leadership that is oriented to influence recognising both the beauty and contraints of an organisation built on fellowship and partnership. Engage with both biblical and best practice secular leadership theory. Create communities of practice for leadership, a network of advisors, mentors, peers and followers who challenge, grow, inspire and love us.
  • Embrace reluctant leaders: While it’s important to create a culture that values leadership, so many of the leaders I talked to were initially reluctant to take on leadership. I believe there is much to be gained by embracing and encouraging reluctant leaders. Whether they don’t think people like them normally lead, or they are reluctant to step away from the frontline ministry they have been involved in, or they truly see the sacrifice involved in leading, these reluctant leaders bring valuable experience and understanding as they seek to shepherd other workers. 
  • Think about the off-ramp as well as the on-ramp: Two key moments that influence team and organisational culture are when people join and when people leave. We rightly put a lot of effort into mobilising, equipping and orientating new workers. However so many workers seem to feel a sense of failure as well as the inevitable sense of loss that comes with leaving. The time required just to join a ministry (years of study, applications, support-raising, language learning) while necessary for thriving, appropriate witness can contribute to this sense as does the weight of the stories and the expectations of supporters. There is more to be done in thinking about the end right from the beginning and providing a smoother and more celebratory off-ramp.
  • Make space for differing and dissenting voices: All the organisations I talked to whether global missions or domestic ministries were embracing and encouraging diversity in their teams. They were encouraged by seeing the beauty and breadth of the global church reflected in the teams they were beginning to build even if they were nervous about how to equip leaders to help these teams thrive. To create true inclusion and belonging people need to feel that their voices are heard and valued especially if they bring different perspectives. Helping leaders to value dissent and promote psychological safety will move teams up the inclusion dial.
  • Provide clarity: One leader told me “Clarity is the most loving thing you can do”. So many leaders spoke of the need to provide more clarity to individual workers around values, expectations and accountability particularly in a context of complexity driven by partnership and fellowship. It is also important to provide clarity for teams, particularly multicultural or multi-skilled ones, establishing explicit team norms can help navigate conflict and cultural difference and contribute to psychological safety. Certainty is unhelpful and perhaps impossible but clarity is not. Certainty is a one-size-fits-all approach, but clarity is a worker knowing there is a process by which they will be known.
  • Grow tolerance for ambiguity: While clarity is critical at the beginning, situations change and relationships develop. With all the complexity in our organisations, our people and the world we serve, a tolerance for ambiguity will be one of the most critical components for the flourishing of both individuals and organisations. 

There is so much more to be said and so much more thinking to be done. As James Plueddemann says in Leading Across Cultures “The final evaluation of leadership and organizations is to ask, Did our efforts, programs, finances, structures and leadership style bring glory to God? Did they help people to know and love God.” Above all we need to thank God for the organisations and ministries he has given us in his mercy. Let us turn to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4 and not lose heart. May these individuals and organisations, but weak jars of clay, be full of the power of God. May the grace that is reaching more and more people cause thanksgiving.  

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