Serving Together: Diversity in unity on women in leadership in OMF

Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, advised some single missionaries who were considering marriage: ‘Unless you intend your wife to be a true missionary, not merely a wife, homemaker and friend, do not join us.’ From the very beginnings of our organisation, women, including single women, were actively recruited and sent to remote regions of China. Hudson Taylor described women as ‘the most powerful agency’ for carrying the gospel into China’s homes.

For David & Sue Pickard, knowing that both husband and wife were expected to be individually suited and qualified for cross-cultural ministry was important when they joined OMF in 1970. This continued to be a theme of their ministry together. They would go on to spend 25 years in leadership, first in Thailand and later in Singapore, where David served as General Director of OMF International from 1991 to 2001.

Sue has served through different seasons of ministry life as a mother, doctor, and leader’s wife. She used her gifts and skills whilst contributing to and supporting David’s leadership responsibilities. Her understanding of the challenge for women to engage in ministry in an equal way led her to research the experiences of wives of leaders at a time when all married leaders in OMF were men. Sue’s 1987 paper ‘The Couple in Leadership’ showed that while some women felt satisfied in their balanced contribution to life and ministry, others were frustrated when their own gifts were side-lined. Sue explains: ‘I felt a need to clarify the importance that gifted women, wives, married to leaders could exercise an appropriate ministry together with their spouse.’ This impactful paper provoked a wide discussion of the role of women in leadership. When the OMF directors affirmed the contents of the paper, Sue says women across the organisation ‘had a sense of great gratitude to the Lord with much joy and gladness’.

Gaining missing perspectives

In Thailand as a church planter, field leader and later in Singapore as General Director, David served alongside many women whose ‘absolutely outstanding’ contributions left a deep impression. As a field leader, David says he valued not only their contributions in ministry but also their insights in decision making that ‘we were not getting because we were men missing these [perspectives].’ From his time as General Director, he reflects that Stroma Beattie and Rosemary Aldis in particular were ‘two outstanding women whose ways of discussing and constructing arguments and the ways they would phrase the things we ought to do were actually hugely valuable. The way in which they presented the arguments were not just rounded but they allowed other things to intervene in the rather hard-line directions that men tend to set.’

During their time in leadership David & Sue saw OMF grow into a more intercultural and diverse community. From a predominantly Western organisation it began to include many more people from East Asian countries and cultures. This diversity of voices within the organisation, and non-Western male leaders and theologians beyond OMF, opened many new areas of thought. One such area was women in leadership, which had become a vital topic to address. As David explains, ‘it is undeniable that God has given gifts to women, and in OMF we have had the astonishing benefit of many, many gifted women capable of leadership in OMF.’

I was curious to find out how David approached the issue of women in leadership, especially since, as General Director, he led the 2001 International Council in introducing a statement on the matter. I am aware there was and continues to be, a challenge in discussing women in leadership as an area of theology and mission practice where there are a wide variety of perspectives. And, as an interdenominational organisation, OMF brings together workers and churches from different theological views to serve together in mission.

So how was OMF’s value of celebrating diversity in unity worked out in this discussion? David shared a helpful image that shaped how the International Council worked on the statement: they aimed to define a circle within which people could comfortably work together and respect different positions rather than trying to all agree on a small dot. He explained that there was a deliberate emphasis on consensus, working hard to have everyone ‘sign up’ even without complete agreement. They sought an attitude of ‘maintaining unity in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4.3).

Moving forward together

OMF International’s statement on women in leadership has been adapted since 2001. The current statement includes the following:

‘We affirm that God created men and women to work together in equal, complementary partnership, to fulfil their God-given ministries. We also affirm our need to maintain the unity of the Spirit within OMF, and our calling as servants within the Asian church. We recognise that divine calling and gifting should be more important than gender in the selection of members for leadership within the Fellowship. While we acknowledge that members, supporting churches, and receiving churches may differ on the role of women in the church, we affirm that leadership within the Fellowship should include both men and women. We will therefore give due consideration to one’s calling and giftedness when making appointments to leadership, with the aim of maintaining unity within the Fellowship and being culturally appropriate in the local church context.’

As a woman recently appointed to a senior leadership role in OMF, I was encouraged and affirmed by talking to David & Sue. The legacy of their thoughtful work means I am able to fully use the gifts, skills and experience God has given me. Their journey reminds me to also be committed to recognise and create opportunities for my colleagues in OMF, whether women or men, to also have the freedom to serve according to their calling and gifting – for the glory of Jesus Christ.

Sarah Hoskins OMF International Director for Africa and Europe

Read a reflection from Charissa Bulos, Co-Executive Director of the Philippine Home Council of OMF, on celebrating diversity in unity in OMF today here.

Written by Sarah Hoskins

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