The Leadership Gap

Mission, at least where I serve, appears to be facing a ‘Leadership Gap’. Many of the ‘old-timers’, who went to the mission field for ‘life’, are retiring. These people went to the field, learnt the language and culture, served in locations where there was no church, and saw a church develop - maybe even a group of churches. In their later years, they have worked alongside the local church, helping the current and potential leaders develop the necessary skills to carry on the work. David and Mary* are a couple just like this. In addition, David served as a Regional Leader - helping other teams in similar ministries work out the best strategies for their situations. He also served on the Leadership Council, bringing an understanding of the ‘on-the-ground’ ministry to decisions affecting everyone.  When David spoke, people would listen, they all knew David had been there before, and knew what he was talking about. David and Mary have just retired, after 35 years on the mission field.  

It seems there is a shift to new members having a shorter commitment. For many, ‘long-term’ is just a few years, up to eight- if they like it. These people also take up the challenge of learning language and culture, and get ‘stuck-in’ to ministry. Patrick and Sarah* are in this newer generation of missionaries. When Patrick got the invitation to take up a leadership role, he was reluctant. He was just getting settled into ministry, and it wouldn’t be long before the family would leave, so he didn’t want to get ‘diverted’ to leadership, away from the ‘coal face’ of mission. For him, leadership was not an option that he would consider. 

In OMF, our process of choosing leaders differs from the business world. Everyone who would report to the new leader, everyone to whom they would report, and everyone in the same level of leadership, gets to nominate and vote for the new leader.  

The decision to ask Patrick to take on this role was made on the basis of his colleagues’ nomination. They felt that he would be the best person for the job, and they will have taken into account his experience in ministry, his character, and his demonstrated leadership potential.

So when Patrick said ‘no’, that created a dilemma. If the next highest nominee had a similar number of nominations, they would then be asked. A few years back, five people were asked, all said no, and in the end a deputy role was left vacant. That meant an extra burden for the leader, unable to share the load. In fact, this has happened numerous times. This kind of situation contributes to the leadership gap; no one was being trained up for future leadership.  

Why don’t people want leadership roles? For some, their desire is community involvement: social development or leading Bible studies. Anything beyond might not be considered ‘mission’ work. Others have home churches that won’t support them unless they are doing ‘frontline’ ministry. Another objection is the administrative side of leadership – keeping records, writing reports, or perhaps being asked to be part of a sub-committee can put people off. 

As one generation reaches retirement, and the next coming for shorter lengths of time, it gets difficult to find colleagues with ministry experience, committed to the vision of the organisation, and willing to serve in leadership roles. Lack of leaders at the regional level then has a knock-on effect for the higher levels of field and international leadership, where more experience is required. 

There is a plus side to leadership.  Having the joy of helping a colleague think through and overcome challenges in ministry, seeing the wider picture of how God is at work, and contributing to decisions that have the spread of the Gospel, and the best of members at their core, is rewarding work that makes the challenges worthwhile.

Pray with us that God will raise up willing, skilful labourers for his harvest field, and that some of these would be willing to step into leadership positions as well. Only then will the leadership gap be removed.

By Ruth Page
Personnel Manager OMF Philippines

*names changed 

For more information about the Philippines and the work of OMF check out https://pray.omf.org/philippin...

This article was originally published in OMF Serving Asia, August/September edition, and republished with permission.