Women who serve full-time missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gain quality developmental tools that provide leadership skills in the workplace and other areas of life, according to a new study released Tuesday.
The first-of-its-kind study was released by Susan Madsen, a professor of organizational leadership at Utah Valley University’s Woodbury School of Business. Madsen founded the Utah Women and Leadership Project that released the study on the skills gained by women serving full-time missions.
“I’m a returned missionary and I’ve always been interested in the topic,” Madsen said. “There is a lot of leadership development you can get on a mission.”
She said she has spent nearly two decades looking for more depth on the topic of women in leadership. Madsen said nothing she has seen, or read, clarifies what her team has been able to research on the subject.
Madsen said she expected no more than 200 responses to the survey but was inundated with 687 responses, most of which were detailed.
“It was a huge study,” Madsen said. “I shut it down six weeks early there were so many participants.”
The study focused on three research questions:
– What are the leadership knowledge, skills and abilities women developed throughout the experience of serving?
– How are returned sister missionaries currently using these knowledge, skills and abilities?
– What other missionary experiences or opportunities do these women wish they would have had during their missions?
From the responses, a list of 38 competency categories was created and ranked by percentage of individual respondents who mentioned each.
The top five include public speaking, 40.2%; conflict management, 38.9%; courage, 37.6%; interpersonal skills, 35.3%; and problem solving, 33.5%.
From interpersonal and relationship skills to professional and practical skills, Madsen and her team compiled answers into five major themes.
“For many a mission was the first time respondents had been in close, often intense, relationships outside of their own families, including with their companions, other missionaries, those in their teaching pool, mission leaders, and other members of the church,” the research brief said.
Respondent’s ages ranged over several years with some having served missions decades ago to women who had recently returned.
Kylie Montano served from January 2014 to July 2015 in the Ventura California Mission — the typical 18 month mission length for sisters.
Montano said, for her, it was communication skills that have helped since coming home.
“From my mission I learned how to better communicate with others,” Montano said in a text message. “I learned how to use ‘I feel’ statements rather than ‘you did this’ so customers, spouses and others don’t feel attacked when problems arise.”
She added, “I also learned to really listen to what people are saying and their body language so I know how to better serve them and meet their needs.”
Ann Chumbley Snider, who served more than 30 years ago said, “I learned to use a planner weekly. I learned about companionship inventory and doing that in a marriage. I use the time management skills.”
Chumbley Snider said she still tries to keep the 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. sleep schedule.
“I didn’t grow up with sisters so going on a mission helped me navigate future leadership interactions.”
It has only been within the past decade that sister missionaries have been given more leadership responsibilities in their missions as sister training leaders.
The latest revision of the missionary handbook last year also lists ways sisters can be leaders and, most recently, the ability to be official witnesses at baptisms has added to those responsibilities.
The mission manual from the church states, “Two sisters are assigned to serve in a companionship as sister training leaders in one or more zones. They are responsible for the training and welfare of sister missionaries assigned to them. They also are members of districts and of zones and assist the mission president, zone leaders, and district leaders in training meetings and zone conferences.”
According to Robbyn Scribner, a member of the research team, women in the LDS Church don’t recognize their leadership skills.
“Some of these young women are just beginning to become the adults they are going to be,” Scribner said.
In discussing courage, survey participants reported that their missions had taught them to be brave, bold and assertive and to take risks by leaving their comfort zones.
One respondent said, “I learned it’s better to risk being turned down than to never know where a moment of courage could take me.”
Madsen works on occasion with leadership at the LDS Church’s Salt Lake City headquarters. She is hoping the study will be a useful tool for the church.
“We had a number of responders who said they wished the mission president’s wife had a title,” Madsen said.
Madsen added, “We need women to use their voices, to lead.”
The study showed there was a clear recognition by many that sisters had significantly fewer opportunities for leadership training than did elders, primarily because of less availability of formal leadership roles.
Many participants expressed a desire for more sister-only training, development and conferences.
After reading so many responses, Madsen said one of the important questions is: What can the church do better to provide leadership skills?
“The church seems to be fairly open with change,” Madsen said. “We need more women seeing themselves as leaders.”
Boys are socialized more than girls to be leaders, Madsen said. Young women need to see themselves as leaders and have confidence.
Recommendations from the survey noted that church leaders and other influencers who are invested in developing more women leaders can be more intentional and explicit in framing the numerous competencies missionaries gain as the leadership skills they are.
The survey said that church and mission leaders can carefully and critically consider which missionary roles can be expanded or created to include more formal and informal leadership positions and experience for sister missionaries.
“Unconscious bias workshops and gender trainings can provide mission presidents, area authorities, and their spouses opportunities to strengthen their capacity to provide more intentional, thoughtful and beneficial guidance and development for all missionaries, leaders and members serving within their areas of influence,” the study concludes.
Madsen said there is much more and much deeper information that is yet to be compiled from this project. It will be published later this year.