I sit down to write this letter in response to another blogger's post entitled, "Ministry is a life lived together, Not "Your husbands job."
Mrs. Hilary Alan (author of the new book entitled, Sent) wrote her post as an open letter particularly to women who are both married and mothers and missionaries (I highly suggest you personally read her post before reading mine as my writing is specifically in response to hers).
I write this letter in the form of a personal response to Mrs. Alan but I intend it even as a letter of challenge and encouragement to the church as a whole, that we all may reconsider our opinions and philosophies of the role of the wife/mother on the mission field. I will be writing at times to women in general but mostly to wives and or mothers specifically.
For clarity’s sake, words that look like this are Mrs. Alan's words from her blog post.
First of all, I want to thank you. Thank you for the reminder to us women not to hide behind our God given roles of wife and mother. We often struggle to work out the balance of the many hats we wear and we often struggle to make the "First Things" the first things in these day-to-day decisions. Though I disagree with your assessment of what the real problem is, I appreciate your intention in aiding women in stepping out of their comfort zone and sharing the gospel.
Also, thank you for giving such a clear voice to the often subtle philosophy invading many churches and missions agencies today. Your letter voiced with great clarity what is often simply an undertone in the missions world. This opinion is often something wives/mothers feel the rub of, but have a hard time putting their finger on as to why it's "not working." I do wish you would have chosen a more gracious, less antagonistic tone, but being a passionate, sassy gal myself, I can understand how easily that tone can happen when writing with a conversational style.
Just for humility’s sake, I want to say that after my first read-through of your post, I did not handle my response with such a calm demeanor (remember how sassy I am?). I may or may not have physically bitten my iPhone in mid sentence. I may or may not have woken every rooster in the neighborhood had they not already been keeping me up at some ungodly hour, and ungodly I was, for I responded largely with personal offense. For that I owe you an apology. I ask your forgiveness for my initially defensive feelings. Thankfully, I have both a gracious husband and a gracious God who will talk me off the cliff and give me the space to repent. With that being said, I ask for the opportunity to keep the dialogue going on this topic, for I consider it one of the more important "missions conversations" that believers should be having.
I respect your lengthy and diverse experiences and have no doubt that you stand with greater experience than I to speak to the issue. But alas, I would prefer we look at the Bible for our stance on a wife/mother's role on the mission field than to look primarily, or ultimately, at our own experiences.
In your post, you begin by referencing a major problem with your agency among wives/mothers. You write:
The problem? The prevalence of families serving overseas who (in the organization’s words) “want to recreate a middle class American family existence overseas where the wife stays home and the husband does the ministry.” In short, they are finding that wives do not want to be held to the same expectations as their husband when it comes to learning language and sharing the Gospel. They want to have the freedom to stay at home to raise their children, be a housewife, and leave the “work” to their husbands.
I got the sense that both you and the leaders of your agency were greatly dismayed at this "problem."My first concern about this statement is that it assumes that a household where the wife spends the majority of her time caring for her home while the husband does full-time ministry or works a traditional job outside of the household is an American ideal. As a culture, Americans are pretty much split down the middle, with close to 60% of mothers working full-time and 40% of mothers staying at home (abcnews.go.com "Working Moms:The data and the Politics"). With that said, it is hard to argue it as an American ideal. In fact, I will argue that the whole "idea" of a woman working within her home comes not from America but from the Bible.
Titus 2:3-5 speaks to the actions of both younger and older women in the church,(underlined, added)...
3 Similarly, teach the older women to live in a way that honors God. They must not slander others or be heavy drinkers. Instead, they should teach others what is good. 4 These older women must train the younger women to love their husbands and their children, 5 to live wisely and be pure, to work in their homes, to do good, and to be submissive to their husbands. Then they will not bring shame on the word of God.(NLT)
Where did this idea of a woman doing work in her home come from in the first place?
Is it simply some American ideal from the 50's and "Leave it to Beaver?"
Is it JUST an excuse for those unwilling to do the gritty work of missions, sacrificing home and comfort and a Target Starbucks?
Or is it instead a way for a woman to "honor God" and "not bring shame on the word of God?"
The question that all women and all wives/mothers must ask themselves, especially in this conversation, with husbands in full-time ministry is, "What is my DISTINCTIVE role, as a woman/wife/mother in ministry?” In fact, as women, in all of the aspects of our lives, we have to constantly be sifting our actions through a biblical understanding of God's intention and design for womanhood. This does not change because you put the word "international" behind the word "church planting" or "ministry”. Instead, I fear we are simply importing into the international world a broken model to those to whom we minister. The decision about when/how/what a woman will do outside her home vocationally or in any other field, I contend, is always a matter for a married couple to decide along with the leadership of their local church.
In fact, as you (referring again to Mrs. Alan, as a matter of clarity for the post reader) point out, women, particularly within the agency to whom you refer, "...do not want to be held to the same expectation as their husband when it comes to learning language and sharing the Gospel."
I think you are exactly right.
They do not.
You also reference the great women who have gone before us who would essentially turn in their graves if they saw us all aproned up, changing diapers and wiping snotty noses in the name of Jesus instead of taking it to the streets with all of the language we have acquired in our 20+ hours of language learning. Not your words exactly; though you did write:
And think about the great mothers who have gone before us all…Ann Judson, Elisabeth Elliot, Maria Taylor, Betty Stam, just to name a few...were they sitting at home while their husbands did the work? Definitely not.
One of those great women/wives/mothers, Elisabeth Elliot, writes something in her book, Let Me Be a Woman, that I think gives a bit more clarity to the balance of work/home/ministry. It also speaks to what I believe many mission's agencies are doing with a wife/mother's role on the mission field. She says:
“In every society there have been expectations which have been understood to apply to each sex. Of course these expectations may vary from time to time and from place to place, but the distinctiveness of maleness and femaleness has throughout history been constant. It is only in our society that there is an attempt to erase this distinctiveness, to encourage women to do what men do. Man’s work, no matter how boring, unpleasant, or difficult is generally regarded as of more value than women’s. “Equal opportunity” nearly always implies that women want to do what men do, not that men want to do what women do, which indicates that prestige is attached to men’s work but not to women’s. Women’s work, particularly the task assigned by Creation exclusively to women, that of bearing and nurturing children, is regarded not only as of lesser value but even degrading and “animal like.” This is a hideous distortion of the truth, and an attempt to judge women by the criteria of men, to force then into an alien mold, to rob them of the very gifts that make them what they were meant to be. To subject femininity to the criteria of masculinity is as foolish as it would be to judge meat by the standards of potatoes. Meat would fail every test. For women to assume an ersatz masculinity means that they will always lose.”
The question has to be asked, “Why aren’t we using creativity to create a role for the wife/mother on the mission field that honors God’s design for her instead of simply expecting that she and her husband would deliver the exact same product in ministry or be “held to the same expectations.” Also, we do God’s design a great injustice by creating a job position for woman by simply reproducing the job position of a man. I fear that when this is done, in the words of Elisabeth Elliot, “women will always lose”.
And, ultimately, so will the Gospel message.
As Titus 2:5 reminds us, when we women do not prioritize the ministry within our home (which will look different for all women but will always require "work at home") it is not just our "position" as an employee of a para-church organization that is at risk. It is the weightier issues, some that you even articulate:
“I want to model for my children what I hope to see them do: make disciples. That is not “Dad’s job,” it’s who we are as a family.”
But isn't it entirely likely that women all over the world are laying the discipleship of their own children at the altar of "missions" and "unreached people groups" simply because they cannot "do it all", and for years, it's been implied that this is the godly sacrifice one must make for the sake of the lost, all the while their own lost children are being neglected for the sake of language study and "ministry”?
In a number of different places in your post, you write of women using the work in their home as an excuse.
In one place you wrote:
"Although I still have a child at home, who is homeschooled, I don’t use that as an excuse not to join my husband in the work God has called us to do."
And in another:
"If you make excuses about being too busy or tired with the kids to learn, then you are taking money for a job you were hired to do that you aren’t doing."
A dear friend, who has been on the field for eight years with an agency with similar philosophies and practices as you mention in your post, wrote to me:
"I would argue that we NEVER have to make “excuses” to be with our children, because they are our God given first priority. I would much rather excuse my lesser ability to be involved in outside ministry in order to disciple my children than excuse my lack of involvement with my children in order to be involved in outside ministry. While the Bible alone is enough to support this, there are tons of resources out there on how abandoned missionary kids have felt over the years when parents put the work over them, whether by sending them to boarding school, or just being emotionally absent from their home life, overworking, etc."
This is a humbling, sobering reality that we should take very seriously.
...Are you going overseas willing to do whatever God asks you to do so that unreached, unengaged people groups can hear the Gospel? ...So learn the language and culture and share the Gospel because ministry is not “your husband’s job.”
It's not ONLY your husband’s job but also each of your job descriptions that should look different.
You also point out:
“No one financially gives so you can transplant your American life overseas, brag about being “bilingual” to your friends back home, and post exotic photos on your blog.”
But I am assuming that you wrote this to imply that all of those missionary/mothers who are not spending as much time on language acquisition or in "vocational ministry" as their husbands are doing so because they are busy on Instagram and Facebook. I dare say this is quite an assumption. Don't you think it's more likely that the mothers who want to be held to a different standard than their husbands can simply do math better than most. They know that they simply do not have the same amount of time and resources as their spouse, and yet are being expected to produce the same product.
I do also want to speak to the inconsistencies in regards to recreating "American life" overseas. I think we must be honest about some inconsistencies in agencies that demand that a mother not work at home full-time for it is too "American" yet spends countless dollars on expensive regional conferences, boarding school for the kids, and upper middle class lifestyles that are often disproportionate to those to whom they are seeking to minister. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things; they simple tend to be American/Western luxuries, much more so than simply being a stay at home mom.
Carolyn Mahaney reminds us in her book, Feminine Appeal, what real ministry looks like, and I argue this is not a "stateside" truth but a biblical one...for any country...and any job position:
“The challenge of ministry in our home is that we do not always feel very “spiritual” when we wash our dishes. It hardly feels significant to scrub our toilet and we can feel that we are truly ministering when the Lord uses us to communicate a word of wisdom to someone, or He provides an opportunity to share the gospel with our neighbor. That seems like real ministry. And that is real ministry to be sure! But no more so than when we are wiping runny noses or cleaning the bathroom. That is because we have a very narrow view of true spirituality... The Lord wants to help us see the significance of ministry at home. He also wants to expand our vision for the multiple opportunities that we have for ministry in the home. Let’s ask the LORD to help us gain a biblical perspective of our ministry at home.”
Why does this truth change when you decide God is calling you to share the gospel in the context of another country?
Isn't it true that what a wife/mother does WITHIN the four walls of her home is much, much more than “busy work” that keeps her from doing “real ministry?”
Is it possible that when we strip her of the "freedom to stay at home to raise their children, be a housewife, and leave the “work” to their husbands," we strip something away from God's design to display the Gospel in the home and through the woman?
Did God not do more than simply provide man and woman with tasks to keep each busy in their own little worlds?
Isn’t it likely that these “cups of cold water to the least of these”(Matt 10:42) are done SO THAT "we would not bring shame on the word of God." (Titus 2:5)
What we MUST keep in our perspective is that God never intended the service of a woman to her family to be a hindrance to the Great Commission, but instead it is intended to further the Great Commission.
Do we really believe this? Or do we affirm that mission work now a career opportunity for the working woman, in the name of God?
Have we considered the possibility that in our fervor for reaching the lost, we have begun to see the family's role in spreading the gospel as a simple business opportunity?
Are agencies and leaders simply considering a family as a package deal, wherein you can get 2 full-time employees with 1 paycheck and 1 W-2 but equal expectations on 2 adults?
...Instead of employing a MAN and A WOMAN, both uniquely designed by God for different roles within ministry and the family.
Mrs. Alan, an agency like the one you worked for may be a great fit for some, but please do not think it is the only way to be a missionary or even the best way to be a missionary. We must admit that we all have a long way to go when it comes to developing best practices in regards to international missions. Which is, of course, why I consider this discussion such an important one to have.
On that note, my last point is a warning written to those considering going to work for a mission agency that will fully fund you but require some things that are inconsistent with a biblical view of men and women's roles.
As Mrs. Alan writes:
“One thing was the same no matter where I worked: employees don’t get to pick and choose what part of their job they will do. They call those people, ‘former employees.’”
As I have spoken to many women within agencies like this, the resounding message I hear is that the job expectations of the wives/mothers are not clearly laid out before arrival in-country.
I have interacted with many women, some of whom have come home early for this very reason; some of whom are still on the field but really struggling, and some of whom never went for fear of this problem. By far, almost all of them have said that no one was clear with them about these expectations until it was virtually too late. In reality, they were hired for one job, then expected to do an entirely different one. They were then subsequently threatened with the loss of their job, if expectations went unmet.
This is unacceptable.
And seems dishonest.
So, as a word of caution to families considering going with mission agencies overseas to do mission work, beware. Ask many questions, specific questions. Then, get in touch with multiple families on the field who are living it out and confirm with them.
Interview agencies as diligently as they interview you.
This problem is, quite honestly, bigger than this post can hold. But for now, let it just be said. All the information about a wife/mother’s role within these agencies is not being honestly and openly communicated during the interview process.
I can fully attest to the challenges that raising your own financial support and going overseas without an agency brings. I currently sit as a "missionary" at a makeshift desk on a humid night in the Dominican Republic, with the smell of burning trash and sugar cane in my nostrils only about 30% funded. There are many unknowns. But I would not trade it in any day. For with it, we as a family have gained the freedom to primarily submit to our God, His word, and the local church. We have gained the freedom to minister to Haitian's in the Dominican Republic the way that we have decided will be fruitful through years of experience and relationships among the Haitians. I, as a wife and mother to four young children, do not feel a tension between my "work" as a missionary and my "work" as a mother. I am a better missionary for being a wife and mother and I am a better wife and mother for being a missionary. At the risk of sounding like a Mastercard commercial...
Raising our own support = really tough; explaining to people that we are "real missionaries" though we are sent by our church and not some major agency = at times, discouraging; the freedom for Noah and I and our local church to write my job description= priceless.
The question asked at agency meetings should not be, "What are these women doing wrong?" but, "What are we as a church doing wrong?”
This method to employ a couple for one paycheck is not working. We need to be willing to accept feedback from these families and be willing to build some margin into job positions so that there is a welcome place for families (God's idea) and Wives/mothers (also God's idea) on the mission field (God’s idea).
Please, Mrs. Alan,
Let's keep talking about this. It's time to stop pretending that we're all on the same page. We're not. And that's ok. But let's keep talking.
Openly .Honestly . Biblically .Humbly . Graciously.
This blog post was graciously edited by a close friend, Rachel Mount, who is much smarter than me and can be found at www.rachelinraleigh.com