women in leadership - Rachel Murray

Today’s blog post is the start of a new series, introducing you to the female leaders in New Zealand’s mission, ministry and Christian Not-for-Profit Sector. 

The first of my guests is Rachel Murray. Rachel has been the General Director of the New Zealand Baptist Missionary Society, for three years.   NZBMS is the mission organisation of the Baptist Churches in NZ.

Christina: Tell me about your current role and what it involves?

Rachel: In my current role, I am the General Director of the NZ Baptist Missionary Society. We have four arms which are focussed on the different aspects of our mission and include development, personnel, mobilising & resourcing and business.  While each of those entities has its own manager, my role covers oversight and support of all of that and of the NZBMS staff team.  That includes lots of engagement with churches that we work with around the country and connection with the wider mission community.  I do lots of speaking in churches, in small groups and wherever else people want to know a little bit more about mission or NZBMS. 

Christina: How did God first call you to ministry?

Rachel: It depends on how you describe ministry, and what it means.  I see ministry as not just what I do now, or not just ‘Christian Ministry’ or the Christian job that you have.  Ministry is all of what you do. In my previous life, I was involved in administration. Prior to that, I was a laboratory research officer in horticultural and forestry science.  I go back even as far as that and think that was part of my ministry.  It was also a growing awareness, through the example of my parents and grandparents.  I learnt by watching the ways that they served and what Christian ministry looked like for them as laypeople in a church context. 

But if you are talking Christian work, like what I do now, I received a very specific call at the age of 15, to overseas Christian mission. The practical side of that didn’t come until I was about 26 when an Aunt of mine challenged me and said: “you had that call at 15; what are you doing about it?”  Which was a very good point, you get to 26 and it’s about time you did something with the call.  But nothing was wasted in the intervening years, it was all part of my training.  At that point, I went overseas and things just continued to evolve from there. On return, I furthered my training and became involved in other organisations. I never really went looking for anything; it came to me.

Receiving an initial call at 15 is also why I would never underplay how God uses young people.  

Christina: How did that call develop over time and lead to your current role?

Rachel: I spent 9 months in South Asia with Interserve. I had a strong sense that if this was to be my long-term overseas call (and I believed it was), I needed some further training and for me, that meant biblical/theological study. On my return to NZ, I ended up back in the same job I’d left in science before I went away. I started theological study by distance through Carey Baptist College, however, I got to a point where I couldn’t keep working full-time and trying to do the study almost full time. I ended up coming to Auckland and finished my theological degree on site full time.  During that season, I reconnected with the mission agency that I had gone overseas with and became involved as a volunteer. When I finished at Carey, they offered me a job as the short-term mission coordinator which I held for a couple of years.  That role engaged me in a deeper way with the mission community and helped me understand what this mission thing was all about. I then did some more administrative work in a different context, and then 7 years ago I was offered an opportunity here at the NZ Baptist Missionary Society.  It was a brand-new role focussed on resourcing and mobilising.  I remember a conversation with God at one point saying “but I thought I was going overseas!  Why am I not going overseas?” I am not sure I ever got a specific answer to that question, but these roles kept coming up in NZ. I’ve since concluded that the roles are still involved in mission and that it is still fulfilling the call that I had when I was 15.  But it’s now about facilitating others overseas rather than me going myself - that might change, but it’s just been one step after the other, building on what’s come before. I had 4 years in that resourcing and mobilising role before stepping into the role of General Director. 

Christina: How did you discover and first use or practice your leadership gifts?

Rachel:  Hard to know for sure, but I immediately go to my older teen years, through youth group opportunities and other organisations I was involved in, where I was offered opportunities to lead younger people.  I wouldn’t necessarily have put the leadership label on it at the time, although others might have.

Someone having the confidence to say “here look after this”, is often the start for young people.

Then in my early 20s after completing university, I re-engaged with a student exchange organisation that I had spent a year with in Central America. I wanted to give back and be a part of it because it had been such a major part of my life.  I spent about 6 months just helping out in the background and doing whatever I was could or was asked to do. The leader at that time had taken me under her wing and at 23, she saw something in me that I did not know was in myself. One day she simply stated, “I want you to be the next leader of this group.”  She was 50+ years of age and handing over the mantle of leadership of a whole range of people, to a 23-year-old who was very quiet, and certainly untried.  Although it was almost unprecedented to have someone that young taking over the leadership, she had confidence in me, But she also didn't leave, rather she stayed in the background and mentored me.  At the same time, there was another woman who said: “you can do this and we are right in behind you.”  They grew me to a point where years down the track I was able to do the same with others coming through. 

I am still not sure that I would label myself "a leader".  To be honest I'm not quite sure exactly what that word means and I think it gets used in all sorts of ways that can be very narrow.

Christina: Do you or have you ever identified as a feminist? Why or why not? 

Rachel: No, I wouldn’t label myself as that, because I wouldn’t know what to do with that concept.  I think it is a complex word, and if I am being completely honest I am not quite sure what it means.  I hear people use it in different ways and contexts which has just confused the issue more for me!

Christina: What problems or challenges have you run into as a leader?

Rachel: When I first took on those leadership roles as a 23-year-old, the biggest challenge was around my age.  That was in a secular environment and included people from an incredibly broad range of backgrounds, ages and stages.  I think at the time, there were people who said: “how can you let a 23-year-old run this part of the organisation?”  I had to deal with everything including managing people, dealing with conflict issues, teams and with parents who were very protective of their teens. A number of people said “you are too young to deal with this, what experience do you have? How does that possibly work?”  But I very quickly learnt not to buy into that and to put my head down and do the job that was given me to do but to do so with support. 

I had others around me, men and women, who were incredibly good and were my sounding boards.

They didn’t take the roles off me they just allowed me to talk it through.  So, I put my head down did the job and gained the respect that I needed to then get over those hurdles.  

One of the other challenges I have had is that I have been compared to predecessors in the different roles that I have had – across a range of contexts.  Perhaps unintentionally and it’s a natural thing for people to do.  The most challenging was one specific context because the comparison just wouldn’t go away. I had to be really intentional about putting my head down, doing the job, being me and not being that other person – and to ignore the comments to some extent, rather than challenge them. Vocalising the frustration was not the helpful thing to do.

I have also had one or two occasions when I was told that I was not leading properly. On clarification, it became apparent that my style of leadership was different from what they would expect. They thought leadership would be quite authoritarian even to some degree dictatorial.  That is not how I operate. I am far more consultative and inclusive in decision making. That was a real challenge for me and I wondered for a time if this issue would be the tipping point for me.  I’ve moved on from that matter!

Christina: In your Christian leadership roles, have you run into any problems because you are a woman? 

Rachel: No, for which I am very grateful. I am not 100% sure why I haven’t had issues where I know many others have. It’s difficult to know the reason for that but I think partly for me it is that I have had the privilege/advantage of being known before I have taken on a number of the roles I’ve had. People have worked with me or seen me operate in different circles before, so they knew what they were getting. If there has been push-back it has never come to me. I may have been shielded from it by others – who knows! 

I have also been very intentional about putting my head down, doing what has been given me to do and getting on with it. Every situation though is different and I can only speak to mine.

Christina:  Have you got any advice you would like to share with young women who may be exploring their call to leadership in ministry or mission settings?

Rachel:  If you believe you are called to leadership or in fact any situation – understand how you define that first.

If God is calling you to something and it’s affirmed by others who know you best, then stick to your guns, follow it through because actually, you are doing that in obedience to God.

God's called you, do what God's called you to, be obedient.  I don't believe any pathway to any leadership role will necessarily be smooth. There are probably going to be some hurdles at some point. 

Be cautious to not expect things to fall into place in front of you because you are female, or that you should get a role because you are female.  Actually, it might not be the right thing for you or the organisation/context, and if it’s not the right thing then there is going to be another position that could be even better.  Expect the challenges and if you don't get a role be careful about how you challenge that because there may be stuff that you are not aware of and nor do you need to know about it.  Challenge, but challenge carefully.

The other thing I would say is to be cautious how you support others.  If there are other women who are journeying with you who want to get grumpy about something or want you to get upset with them in solidarity, be careful what train you jump on. 

There is a right time and place to challenge and to push against the system, just as there is a wrong one. Get advice. Pick your battles. 

A final piece of advice I would give is to find good men around you, who can support you, mentor you in leadership and champion you. Good men are out there  - older and younger. If you get the right men in your corner, I think you will go a lot further. 

Christina:  Women have a unique place in leading the church into the future, because we are not so invested in the status quo, the way things are and I think that gives us a unique insight.  So is there anything that you feel that the Holy Spirit is saying to mission or the church today? What sort of vision do you think the Holy Spirit is building in you?

Rachel: Whether this is the Holy Spirit or me, I'm not sure, but one of the things I have been thinking about and talking about a lot is what change within a mission context and the church looks like. We know that there is change in society and that the Church and mission contexts can be influenced by what happens in society good, bad or ugly.  But the conversation for me is around how much should we actually change; do we need to put some strong stakes in the ground around what we believe?  In society, anything goes these days, there's a broader sense of acceptance of who you are and that's not necessarily a bad thing. However the Church can easily take on those traits of ‘anything goes, anything is acceptable’.  I am not sure any longer that we have a strong sense of our stakes in the ground some issues. So, I have been thinking, what are those stakes for us as a mission organisation and as the Church?    

I often tell young people that you don't have to be so relevant to society that you lose the salt and light you’re called to be in society. If you are a follower of Jesus that is what you are called to.  As an example, mission enquirers of a range of ages, will come and talk to us about what they want to do, how they want to go and ‘change’ or serve the world. But there may not be any articulation around Jesus. That's a concern - that is a stake in the ground that is no longer there.  So, we need to find a balance between change, going with what the trends are, and not changing.  We need to know who are we and what makes us different. 

You may like to reflect on these questions that are prompted by what Rachel has shared:

Are there young people around you to whom you could say "here look after this?"

Who are you mentoring or championing? Who is mentoring or championing you?

What is leadership? How would you define it? Are you being called to leadership?

Do you know when to challenge the sytem and when to let things go?

What are your stakes in the ground as you interact with a changing society?