In selecting a mission agency, how much do leadership style and organizational culture matter?

“Organizational culture matters.”

Leadership style, decision-making processes, and organizational culture matter a great deal. Until you spend some time on the field, though, it’s hard to have a clear sense of what things are most important to you, what you’re really looking for, and what things are “deal breakers.” 

Keep the following in mind:

1. There’s not just one right way for ministries to operate.

Consider, for example, the question of diversity or breadth. Some ministries offer a lot of freedom and attract people who may have very different backgrounds, values, and ministry strategies. The good news is, there’s probably a place for you! On the other hand, it means you’ll be working alongside people who may be very different from you. Other ministries are more focused. They may attract a certain type of people with a more narrow set of values, qualifications, or ministry goals. Don’t fit the profile? You may struggle to adapt and be effective. If you do, though, teamwork may come easier.

Uncover these things by asking a lot of questions about the ministry. Imagine joining their “tribe.” What would you like about it? What would be hard for you? Be honest about your struggles and how open you are (or aren’t) to different ways of operating. 

Run your impression by someone who knows you well and is more experienced than you are, perhaps leaders of your church. The more life and ministry experience you have, the more you will be able to recognize potential clashes and discern ways God may work through you, whether in a diverse ministry or a more focused one.

2. What the home office says about how the ministry operates may not be reflected in the field.

Organizational leaders, communications staff, and recruiters/mobilizers may paint an idealized or “aspirational” picture of organization culture, values, and procedures not (or not yet) reflected on the field. Missionary newsletters and presentations may also inadvertently gloss over struggles or potential difficulties. So, take what you hear with a grain of salt.

The best way to pick up the organizational culture may be to see it in action. Attend the agency’s “get acquainted” workshop, arrange a field visit, or participate in a ministry-sponsored short-term mission project. You can’t know everything about a ministry before making a decision, but face-to-face contact can really help you get a sense of what they’re all about.

3. Ministries can change without notice, especially at the team level.

The culture of your team will have a huge impact on your satisfaction and effectiveness, but don’t count on things staying the same. Things like illnesses, emergencies back home, and visa or work permit denials can remove people who never planned to leave.

Many young missionaries who anticipate a long season of service and mentoring under respected leaders arrive on the field only to find the leaders they loved leaving and often have to pick up the mantle of leadership themselves long before they feel ready. 

If you have your heart set on working alongside a leader, team, or family you really love, but the organizational culture seems a poor fit otherwise, be cautious. Many find it more helpful to take the time to discover an organization that really suits them for the long term rather than ignoring organizational culture clashes and pegging their hopes on one or two relationships with people who may not be there in years to come. 

Of course, navigating disappointment and change can help you grow in flexibility and resilience: two of the key characteristics you’ll need to help make your ministry the best it can be.

Answer from staff.

“Absolutely, this is important.”

Research this topic as thoroughly as you can, preferably by speaking candidly with people who serve “on the field” with the organization. You may see one thing at a home office that plays out very differently on the field, especially if your chosen organization is large and geographically diverse.

Another thing to think about, if you and your spouse are planning on being full-time team members, is how you both relate to various leadership styles. One person might be totally fine with how an organization runs while the other person might be left frustrated. So, if you are both going to be fully involved in ministry planning and execution, that’s something to think about.

Finally, think about how some very real power dynamics can play out in regards to being under leadership and facing potential problems. You as the field missionary will face a lot of the responsibility of answering for decisions made by leadership while you may not always have the authority to make certain important decisions for yourself.

Pray and consider how you feel able to respond in those situations, and know your limits. Burning out under difficult leadership situations isn’t good for anyone.

Answer from Rebekah in Pennsylvania, who has served with Child Evangelism Fellowship in the US and Puerto Rico for eight years.

“It depends on you!”

How much experience do you have being in an organization or following a leader? If you have some good and some bad experiences (as most of us do), then that would indicate that leadership style and organizational culture means a lot to you. If you’ve had any *very good* or *very bad* experiences, then that means these topics actually are very meaningful to you and you should be very careful about what you choose.

And you wouldn’t be the only one. Conflicts within leadership/organization are often the number-one cause missionaries leave the field, and so this is something you should consider carefully so that you don’t become just one more number in the statistic.

First, you should determine what you *need* (or what you look for) in order to be led well by someone else, or what you *need* (or look for) in order to have a good experience in a ministry or organization. Do your best to put these attributes in a bullet-point list or clear and concise 1-2 paragraphs.

You should be up-front with the potential team/leadership or potential organization about this list; don’t wait for them to ask! And just because a recruiter says they’ll meet your needs, or a receiving region says they agree with you about leadership, it doesn’t mean the ministry team you’re joining will feel the same way.

If you have hopes/expectations for leadership, it’s best to share them with every level of leadership you’ll be responsible to before committing to join any one team. And if they hesitate to tell you your leadership hopes/expectations will be met, then you have one of two choices:

1) Look elsewhere. If you won’t be satisfied with certain types of leadership, then neither will you feel fruitful in your work and nor will your leader feel fruitful. Your presence may, in fact, drag down the fruitfulness of the whole ministry. And don’t underplay this “being satisfied” either! If this is your first time on the mission field, it’s better for you to be “safe” than “sorry” in choosing your leadership/organizational style, rather than risk leaving bitter or risk compromising an ongoing (or just-getting-started) ministry.

2) Submit to God and to your local leader. If you believe he’s strongly leading you to this organization or ministry team, then that means even with a different leadership or organizational style, your responsibility is to *submit*. If you realize later that maybe God didn’t lead you to this place/organization, then your responsibility is to go elsewhere as soon as possible. Being outside the will of God in a place where you’re dissatisfied with the leadership/organization is bad for you and it’s bad for the ministry. Ultimately, if you believe you’re where God wants you, then you are *required* to submit to the leadership that’s over you. If you’re not sure but you’re there anyway, then submit. That’s what we’re called to do with our leadership, not because we’re honoring them or because they’re perfect, but because we’re honoring God who brought us under their authority.

At the end of the day, you have to determine between yourself and God where he wants you and *you* have to adapt to the situation you find yourself in. If you lose focus and lose heart that you’re where God wants you, better to move on and see if he’s calling you elsewhere. What this means is that in all things, turn to God, seek him, seek his will, and trust that he’s guiding you into the right place.

The circumstances (including the style of our leader or organization) might not always fulfill our needs or satisfy us, but if God brought you there, it’s because he has something to teach you through it all and he has a work he wants you to do with him. So you submit. It’s incredibly unlikely he brought you there to forcefully change the style of your leadership or organization.

Though if you have the opportunity, it’s always good to share your opinions, perspectives, or personal “needs” with those who lead you, letting them know ways in which you think they can lead you better. If they’re unwilling or incapable of doing what you’d like, but if you believe God wants you there, then ask God for the grace to submit and pursue him without worrying or grumbling about your leadership or organization.

In honesty, God often has more to teach us when we submit to difficult things and things we don’t like, than when things work out the way he hoped for. It’s never bad to look past the challenges and give God a chance to teach us.

Answer from Adam in Arkansas, who has served in Madagascar and South Africa with YWAM Madagascar and Africa Inland Mission for eight years.

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