Pursuing solutions for sustainable change

Pursuing solutions for sustainable change - Mergon

‘Beneath a culture’s surface lies much that shapes it, often unspoken perspectives and mindsets that influence our behaviour. There is an art to understanding how these underlying dynamics give meaning and direction to our lives.’

Charmaine Smith (Mergon Foundation forum member and founding director of Infundo Consulting) spoke to this idea during last month’s gathering with a handful of global peer foundations. Sharing from their own career and ministry experiences, she and others explored the unique nuances of funding within the African context. Charmaine specifically spoke to the value of systems thinking, explaining:

‘I see myself as a generalist working between things, rather than an expert who works within things, which has prompted me to adopt a lifelong learning approach that often asks the question, ‘Why do people think and act the way they do?’’ When we omit to consider the factors that shape behaviour we will assume our strategies will work, only to discover later that nothing has changed or we have created resistance through ineffective management of our intervention.’

‘The understanding of intergenerational trauma transfer and the study of epigenetics sheds light on the difficulties of bringing change when the past shapes not just culture, and perspective, but even the DNA which connects past generations to how people experience life and behave. In the context of Africa with 1500 different languages and with an average age of 19 the considerations of working in Africa must take this all into account.’

In her journey, she discovered systems thinking as a comprehensive and robust way of understanding human behaviour. Systems thinking, she explained, offers a wider range of choices when working with people, because it takes the interdependency of our actions into account: ‘There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when thinking systemically, because the choices we make will have an impact on the whole system, through its people. We can rather think of our decisions as a set of iterative decision-making points. As systems are impacted and shift through our presence and action, decisions need to be attuned to this shift and adjust accordingly.’

‘Dr Wayne Dyer said, ‘When you change the way you look at things; the things you look at, change.’’

‘What I have come to believe,’ Charmaine continued, ‘is that if we want to develop true partnerships with lasting social impact, we will need to think systemically, going beyond our cultural biases and assumptions to embrace a more holistic perspective on the problems we seek to solve and people we seek to understand.’

Embracing complexity

 She referenced author Michael Goodman, emphasising that the discipline of systems thinking is more than just a set of diagnostic tools and methodologies – it is an underlying philosophy:

‘Systems thinking’, writes Goodman, ‘is a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realisation that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to.’

Charmaine explained that when we think in systems, we are comfortable to work at the pace of the system, embracing the complexity that goes hand in hand with growing healthy communities. ‘We think more broadly around our solutions,’ she said, ‘considering the long-term impact of our decisions and the inherent causalities of the events that have gone before us.’

‘When it comes to social impact, this holistic approach enables us to move away from top-down funding models that sustain donor dependence and overlook the intrinsic value and dignity of the communities they serve. Instead, we consider how to learn from one another, and thus reshape the traditional paradigm into a relationship of equal value and partnership,’ said Charmaine.

Working consciously with power dynamics

 Charmaine noted that when a community’s system operates differently than ours, the (often unconscious) temptation is to perceive it as dysfunctional. ‘However,’ she shared, ‘I’ve always found that when you stop to consider the system, there is no dysfunction; all systems are in flow.’

‘Through my experience, I’ve learned that coming into a new community requires humility. It’s important not to presume we have all the answers or are starting something brand new. God has been working in that community long before our arrival. As community builders, our role is to figure out where He’s been working and to get behind it. This takes humility – a kind of ruthless curiosity to listen, learn – and un-learn old ways.’

‘When we enter the room, we need to ask ourselves, what comes with us? Do we come with a humble attitude, or do we feel burdened to have all the answers? Do we talk first, or do we speak last? What is most important to us – the relationships or the project deliverables?  How could some of our perspectives be at odds with the system we are working in? How does our entry into the system impact in ways which may not be overtly obvious to us; and what do we need to do, to give up, or shift in us, in order to find a new flow within this system?’

‘As funders and stewards of capital, it’s important to recognise the position of perceived power we inevitably carry – and we need to intentionally posture ourselves for relationship to re-balance these power dynamics.’ She added, ‘In my experience, I’ve found that vulnerability goes far – being honest about my own setbacks and disappointments has often invited others to be real about theirs, which then allows us to address the realities and challenges on the ground with honest and more effective solutions.’

Going deep before going wide

Building authentic relationships takes time, a commodity often scarce in the fast-paced world of funding and project implementation. Charmaine noted, however, that relational integrity is the most critical aspect of any systems thinking worldview: ‘The complexity of people working together on a project, across different sectors and organisations, can be as complex as working with the community itself,’ she said. ‘It’s critical, therefore, to have the right people in the right positions, including those who work ‘between’ the elements of the project and act as ‘catalytic nodes’ that influence and collaborate with other stakeholders.’

‘When you take a systems thinking approach to community development, you let the community lead and move at the speed of trust. When the project emphasises depth, characterised by strong relationships and community ownership, it establishes a unique ‘heartbeat’ that can potentially yield significant impact. Only when there is a new flow at depth, can you consider scaling certain projects over time.’

She concluded: ‘Being a systems thinker demands curiosity, compassion and humility. In the world of social impact, where cross-sector collaboration is essential, it asks all of us to adopt a learning posture—listening, asking questions, and discovering solutions we might have otherwise overlooked, only made possible by viewing things through the lens of another culture or community. Africa is beautiful in all its diversity and complexity. May we continue to serve its people with solutions that are as beautiful, diverse, and complex as Africa itself.’

Through Infundo Consulting, Charmaine works extensively with communities and their leaders, corporate partners, government departments and other relevant bodies, focussing on systems thinking for sustainable change. Infundo has been able to position the confluence of social and business impact within their model of change; where through the interconnectedness of seemingly opposing agendas – that of business and social needs – they have created a new status quo of shared value within a system which can sustain both.

 

 

5 strengths of the African church

5 strengths of the African church - Mergon

Peter Tarantal is the Associate International Director of missions organisation, Operational Mobilisation, and a member of the Mergon Foundation forum. In this article, we explore some of the insights he shared in a recent talk.

‘God is at work in every community and in every nation across the world, and He is building His church in remarkable and unexpected ways,’ says Peter. ‘This isn’t just something I believe; it’s something I’ve seen first-hand over decades and many borders. In my travels throughout Africa, I have found this to be particularly true. Africa, in all its beauty and complexity, is a continent rich in faith, shaped by its unique culture and characteristics.’

Here are five distinctive attributes of the African church that Peter considers to be valuable strengths and gifts to the body of Christ.

1. A growing continental church

Over the last 100 years, Christianity has experienced a profound shift in its centre of gravity, relocating from the Global North (North America, Europe, and Australia) to the developing nations of the Global South. Once the primary mission field of the pre-21st century, Africa is now home to the world’s largest Christian population. Today conservatively there are 650 million Christians on this continent – an astonishing figure when compared to the mere 8 million in the year 1900.

Moreover, 60% of Africans are below the age of 25, making Africa the youngest continent on the planet.  Imagine the possibilities of the gospel laying hold of such a vast young generation. How could the church be built and strengthened if a groundswell of young Africans were discipled and equipped to lead, serve and uplift their communities and beyond? This presents a responsibility for us all in Africa, to actively partner and invest in the youth – but it also presents a unique opportunity for God to move in extraordinary ways.

2. Digital connectedness

For over a decade, Africa has been experiencing a profound digital transformation. A How we made it in Africa survey found that in 2021 there were over 840 million mobile subscribers in Africa, up from 400 million in 2010. The study also projected that, by 2026, over 140 million new mobile subscriptions will likely be added in Africa, accounting for one-quarter of global mobile subscriber growth.

Herein lies a profound opportunity for the African church to reach this surge of digitally connected people with the gospel, using media platforms as mission fields to convey the life-changing message of hope. Media has the potential to reach into uncharted spaces and make inroads amongst the unreached – bringing hope and salvation to those so desperately in need. As Africa continues to leapfrog and adopt the digital economy, we can trust God to enhance our creativity, discernment and digital strategies, so that we effectively leverage the power of media to strengthen believers and share the good news.

3. A legacy of deep spirituality

In his book From Jerusalem to Timbuktu, author Brian Stiller looks at the transformation that has taken place over the past century, shifting the church’s centre from the Global North to the Global South. Amongst these nations that make up a thriving Christian epicentre, he has identified five common themes, or ‘drivers’, of a healthy church. Stiller asserts that the key factor contributing to this flourishing faith is ‘a church that has come to know and appreciate the person and gifts of the Holy Spirit.’

The rise of Pentecostalism across the African continent has excitedly resulted in Christians being much more open to the things of the Spirit and hence open to the supernatural. Most Africans are familiar with the spirit world and one of the questions often asked is, which God is stronger and is this God able to perform miracles? I have seen the childlike faith of many who believe unquestionably that God is able to heal. The God of the supernatural has proven to be attractive to many, hence contributing to the growth of the church across the continent.

4. The resilience of the African church

Africans are incredibly resilient by nature – a trait that has been shaped by time and adversity and has led to the most unexpected outcomes. Take the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. Despite early predictions of widespread devastation in Africa, the continent did not succumb to the dire forecasts. Instead, Africa pivoted and adapted, displaying remarkable unity and resilience.

Having endured hardship and exceptionally challenging circumstances, Africans have developed a remarkable ability to persevere. We not only see this resilience on the mission field; we also see it nurtured through the cultural, daily rhythms of community life.

Ubuntu is the idea that ‘your wellbeing is my wellbeing’, celebrating the interconnectedness of our humanity, and emphasising the responsibility we have to care for and look after one another. This state of interdependence affirms the kind of community we see in scripture – practical, accountable and loving relationships that build safety, identity and protection around its people.

5. A homegrown vision for the African continent

Today, more than ever, Africans are emerging as leaders within their communities, taking responsibility for the vision God has instilled in their hearts. The seeds of the gospel, sown by missionaries in the past century, are now bearing fruit in local contexts. According to Brian Stiller, this ‘revolutionary influence of locally grown leaders and ideas’ is growing across the African continent and stands as one of the key drivers in healthy church growth.

He adds, ‘Indigenous leadership has been critical not only for the astounding growth of the church but also for the church being able to read the gospel in context—that is, in a local language or vernacular that expresses what indigenous Christians believe.’ He asserts that when the gospel is preached and lived out in a way that is uniquely African, the church begins to operate in the full expression of what God intended.

I am excited about the prospect of the African church in the future. This continent’s unique strengths position its people to lead, shape, and influence the global church in a way that holds the promise of profound transformation for generations to come. It’s a vision that inspires me daily and one that I rejoice in pursuing with Christ.

The unseen link between organisational health and impact for non-profits

The unseen link between organisational health and impact for non-profits

Non-profit organisations operate within a complex ecosystem. They navigate many challenges and opportunities as they strive to achieve their missions. This complexity often poses hurdles for leaders, demanding a delicate balance between strategic growth and maintaining a healthy organisational culture. In this article, Mergon Foundation’s Ian Conolly discusses the critical link between the health of an organisation and its performance, shedding light on the importance of nurturing vibrant and healthy organisational practices.

Jim Collins, in the foreword of the book Engine of Impact, says ‘it is substantially more difficult to build a great social sector organisation than to build a great business corporation of similar scale. And that is why the best-run, most impactful non-profits stand as some of the most impressive enterprises in the world.’

‘The best non-profits are truly spectacular,’ said Kim Jonker in a conversation about this book. ‘They will take your breath away.’ ​And yet most non-profits limp along, operating far below their potential impact.​

Research shows that 80% of organisations perform better when they prioritise growing the health of their organisation. ‘Think about it for a moment,’ says Ian, ‘if you’re a vibrant organisation with teams that are united towards a common mission, a clear strategy and great leadership, a natural outflow will be an increase in performance.’

Higher engagement and productivity can result in many benefits. Funding is one such example. If an organisation approaches a donor for funding, and the donor experiences the organisation as one with a clear strategy, strong team dynamics, a healthy internal culture, and good governance, they are far more likely to see it as a good investment opportunity.

The challenges leaders face

If you’re a non-profit leader, chances are that you’ve shed some tears over the years. Leading is tough. Leaders get misunderstood, judged, hurt and exhausted. There is a need for revitalisation and a supportive community for non-profit leaders, especially because so many leaders are feeling isolated in their journey. Not only that, but they also have pressure from funders who want to see the numbers… the impact of the work on communities… and while this is well-intentioned, it often compels organisations to stretch their resources thin, potentially leading to unhealthy organisational environments.

Says Ian, ‘For us at Mergon there has been an increasing awareness of, and a focus on, the health of leaders and of organisations. We believe that healthy leaders leading healthy organisations have the most sustainable impact. We know that when an organisation is healthy the maximum energy can be focused outward on mission impact.’

3 core practices of healthy organisations

A few years ago, Mergon Foundation built the OSP Scan (Organisational Self-Perception Scan) as a tool to serve our partners. The question we asked is ‘What does a healthy organisation look like?’

After much research, we recognised three practices that healthy organisations do that help them to thrive, namely People Practices, Thinking Practices, and Governance Practices.

Building sustainable organisations - Mergon Foundation

‘The first thing you usually notice in a healthy organisation is a thriving team. There is great leadership and a clear mission, a sense that everyone is in it together,’ notes Ian.

‘In addition to having great people on your team, healthy organisations tend to have great strategy and clear thinking around where they want to go. If the team is strong, but your strategy and thinking are limited, your mission impact is going to be held back. On the other hand, if the strategy is clear but the team environment is toxic, you won’t achieve your impact potential, says Ian.’

He adds, ‘The third practice involves governance, which means using controls and measures to ensure accountability to all stakeholders for our decisions, to ensure we’re achieving our desired impact, and that we have external oversight enabling us to stay on track.’

When these three practices are strong, we see organisations start to thrive.

Nine core areas of healthy organisations

Ian explained that these three practices can be further divided into three core areas each, totalling nine in all.

People practices: Leadership, Mission & Vision and People, Teams & Values

Thinking practices: Communication & Identity, Funding & Strategy

Governance practices: Operations & Finance, Governance & Oversight and Impact Management

Hallmarks of healthy organisations

With these nine areas identified, the Mergon Foundation launched the OSP Scan. This tool has already guided 618 participants from 80 organisations through the process over the last three years, providing valuable data that enhances our ability to better address our partners’ needs moving forward.

The priority of growing healthy organisations

We conducted a survey of over 100 non-profit organisations from 21 different countries in Africa. We asked them to rate their current organisational health and how important growing a health organisation is for them. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with 94% saying that strengthening their organisation’s health is either growing in importance or already a work in progress.

We also asked what topics would be most helpful to the leaders for the growth of their organisations. Our survey found that developing a fundraising strategy, planning team capacity, and learning how to raise up great leaders were the top three areas, highlighting consistent needs across these organisations.

It is exciting to see that leaders of non-profit organisations are increasingly prioritising the growth of their people and organisational capability. As we gather data and understand the needs of leaders in a deeper way, we as funders can partner together to advance mission impact through healthy organisations.

Introducing FiftyFour

Now with a clearer view of their organisational strengths and areas requiring attention, leaders were left asking, ‘How do we take practically take the next step in growing our organisation’s health?’ Quite simply, ‘where to from here?’

As a team, we began imagining ways to support them in taking this critical next step on their journey. That’s when an idea of a learning platform started to emerge. We envisioned a place of connecting and learning from seasoned leaders and practitioners with specialist skills in a core area; people who, having gone before us, understand the challenges leaders face. It would be a space for practical equipping and capacity building, fostering a community of peers on a shared journey towards advancing their organisational health. It was in this collaborative vision that FiftyFour was born.

An online learning and capacity building platform, FiftyFour is designed to guide leaders towards growing healthy organisations that will have impact for generations to come. As a collaboration with the Mergon Foundation, MacClellan Foundation and 3W Foundation, the FiftyFour platform is currently undergoing substantial pilot testing and will be launching broadly to non-profit leaders in 2024.

Built to serve leaders to grow their organisations, the platform centres on four pillars: assessment tools, impactful courses, connection with other leaders, and data & research. These benefits provide leaders the opportunity to assess their needs, access applicable learning, learn from peers and understand data from their region that can inform their growth.

All this is free to leaders, wherever they may be around the world! So be sure to keep an eye out for announcements on the launch of this new platform.

Three ways to pursue in-Christ leadership

Three ways to pursue in-Christ leadership - Johan Beukes

‘One of the greatest legacies leaders can leave is to invest in the depth of one’s relationships with God and one another,’ says leadership coach and Mergon Foundation board member, Johan Beukes.

Over the past year, Johan has contributed a wealth of insights about in-Christ leadership and played an integral role in crafting and co-facilitating a Mergon Foundation initiative called the Healthy Leaders Journey. This curated journey allows leaders to reflect on and grow in four key relationships: with God, with self, with team/family and with the world. This blueprint empowers leaders to weave these dimensions together, contributing to their overall leadership health and well-being.

In his work, Johan has found that many believers arrive at a place where their business, leadership and life are not integrated, or experienced that way. In this guest blog post, he unpacks the basis of in-Christ leadership which proposes a life-giving, holistic and integrated approach to leadership as an alternative. He gives Christian leaders a powerful perspective on the importance of continuously pursuing Christ and leading others into their God-given potential and explores three practical ways to embrace in-Christ leadership within your organisation.

The basis of in-Christ leadership: life-giving, holistic, integrated

According to Johan, in-Christ leadership is first of all life-giving. ‘Romans 8 is considered by many believers to be the Good News of the gospel summarised in one chapter. The assumption is that the Good News is also sustainably life-giving,’ explains Johan.

‘…Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.’ Romans 8:1-2 (MSG)

‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.’ Romans 8:1-2 (ESV)

‘This is the core idea of in-Christ leadership: you are in Christ which enables your leadership to be sustainably life-giving,’ he explains. ‘Leaders can however be rooted in many other things (what we seek) – things which are not necessarily life-giving. It’s good to become aware of these things and bring them before God.’

Tim Keller explains it like this:

WHAT WE SEEK

Price Willing to Pay

Greatest Nightmare

Others Often Feel

Problem Emotion

CONTROL

(self-discipline, certainty, standards)

Loneliness, spontaneity

Uncertainty, chaos

Condemned

Worry

COMFORT (privacy, lack of stress, freedom)

Reduced productivity

Stress, demands

Hurt

Boredom

APPROVAL (affirmation, love, relationship)

Less independence

Rejection

Smothered

Cowardice

POWER (success, winning influence)

Being burdened, responsibility 

Humiliation

Used

Anger

Secondly, in-Christ leadership considers the holistic nature of people. Johan explains that the dimensions of life (e.g. spiritual, physical, social, emotional etc.) are understood within the context of four primary relationships:

  1. Relationship with God: shapes the spiritual and physical dimensions.
  2. Relationship with self: forms the emotional and mental dimensions.
  3. Relationship with others: forms the social dimension.
  4. Relationship with the world: shapes the career, financial and meaning dimensions.

Says Johan, ‘When leaders are formed holistically, in the image of Christ, we see leaders with a life-giving conscience, life-giving character, life-giving care as well as life-giving compassion.’

Thirdly, in-Christ leadership is an integrated approach to leadership. He explains:

‘The assumption is that spiritual formation is the foundation. According to Prof Marius Nel, Paul referred to believers who received the Holy Spirit as ‘spiritual’ pneumatikoi (Gal 6:1; 1 Cor 2:13-15) to indicate that they were transformed by the Spirit. Secondly, he repeatedly refers to the spiritual transformation of believers by linking various words to the Greek noun ‘morph’ which refers to the ‘form’ of something. Thus, he expects in Philippians 3:21 that the humble bodies of believers will be conformed (summorphos) to the glorified body of Jesus. God has destined believers, according to Paul, to be conformed (summorphos) to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). They will finally be transformed (metamorphoumetha) into the image of God when they behold his glory (2 Cor 3:18). Thirdly, the idea of being spiritually formed is also expressed by Paul through concepts such as being holy and blameless (1 Thess 3:13).

Johan reiterates that this formation is not an individual matter. ‘For me, leadership formation is rooted in spiritual formation, along with others. In my in-Christ leadership work with organisations for example, when we talk about teams, we use the term ‘Beyond Teamwork’. The reason for this is that it is a community of people who are becoming more and more aware of Christ’s life-giving presence among them. His presence inspires them to witness life-changing (metanoia) impact (fruit) wherever they pray and work. The result is life-giving cultures and organisations where different departments function in a life-giving way.’

Three ways to pursue in-Christ leadership

1. Growing deeper in Christ

As a Christian leader, it is critical to remain rooted in Christ. In John 15:15 Jesus says, ‘I am the Vine and you are the branches. If you remain in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in Me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in Me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be My disciples.’

Johan explains that being constantly connected to the Vine will influence your mindset, perspective and approach as you lead through various seasons and organisational life stages. ‘An in-Christ leader doesn’t simply ascribe to Christian principles or moral standards. Instead, as you grow deeper into Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will become even more evident in your life and leadership, differentiating you as a leader who reflects the nature of Jesus. As you follow Christ, your leadership and example will become an invitation for others to follow Him too,’ he notes.

‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.’ Romans 8:1-2

2. Bearing the fruit of the Spirit

Johan notes that an in-Christ leader leads by example and bears the fruit of the Spirit, just as Jesus did. ‘This will never be possible in your own strength as a leader. It will be a challenging and refining process as you are faced with situations where you have to ask the Holy Spirit for strength so that His fruit can be evident in your leadership,’ he explains.

‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.’ Galatians 5:22 (NIV)

3. Staying in touch with reality

‘In-Christ leaders understand that they are ‘in the world, but not of it’,’ says Johan. We can’t separate ourselves from what’s happening in the world, but we can decide through which lens we look at it, and how we respond to it.

‘In an ever-evolving world, it is crucial for leaders to become even more compassionate. While you as a Christian leader may know much about applying the Bible to your daily life, it is your responsibility and a wonderful opportunity to guide future leaders through their own leadership suffering in order for them to build capacity for compassion,’ he says.

‘Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.’ Matthew 15:32 (NIV)

In conclusion, in-Christ leadership is a transformative journey that benefits not only you as a leader but also those around you. Remaining rooted in Christ shapes your character and leadership, providing a meaningful example for your team, family, and community. Your connection to the Vine and the lens of faith through which you view the world will infuse your leadership and personal life with compassion and understanding. This has the potential to serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for those you lead, encouraging them to follow in your footsteps and embrace the life-giving essence of this holistic and integrated approach.

Strength in resilience: African women entrepreneurs

During their last At the Lake event, Ziwani’s community delved into the topic of female entrepreneurship, exploring both the challenges and opportunities that face women in Africa’s marketplace. The conversation was so rich that it led to a follow up podcast interview with At the Lake panelist and legal professional, Sylvia Kithiniji.

In this podcast, she shares her personal perspectives with Ziwani’s Keri-Leigh Paschal on the challenges, and specifically the underlying bias that women face in Africa’s workplace, shaped by a complex interplay of culture and worldviews.

As a partner and head of corporate and commercial law at Ashitiva Associates LLP, Sylvia offers valuable insights, particularly in the context of Kenya’s legal profession. With her extensive experience leading a team of lawyers serving a diverse client base ranging from government to non-profit, private equity firms to multinational corporations, Sylvia provides a unique and rich perspective on the subject. This article gives an overview of the conversation.

Unearthing gender bias in the workplace

Keri kicked off the conversation by asking Sylvia how she developed a passion for this subject. Whilst not dismissing the issue of gender bias in the workplace, Sylvia explained, she initially paid little attention to it, having grown up believing that ‘gender should not be an excuse.’ However, over time, she realised ‘the issue is not that simple.’ Years of experience revealed to Sylvia that an entrenched and unconscious bias faces women in Africa’s workplace, shaped by a complex interplay of culture and worldviews. The key to addressing this bias, she believes, is open dialogue and conversation, asserting that ‘change does not originate from policy or the systemic level, but rather from you and me, and the individuals we interact with daily.’

Navigating the challenges of Kenya’s legal landscape

Keri asked Sylvia to revisit an interesting point she had raised during the previous At the Lake event, where Sylvia had shared: ‘Currently 44% of legal professionals in Kenya are women’ – and I believe that number is rising. But the thing that is missing,’ she went on to say, ‘is women in positions that count. I am not speaking primarily about seniority but about influence; about having the authority to make decisions and influence appropriately, bringing all their strengths to bear.’

She pointed out that what contributes to this reality is the competitive and generally patriarchal landscape of the legal profession in Kenya. For women to take on an entrepreneurial venture, she noted, they need to have an exceptionally high appetite for risk. Without this appetite, it’s even more challenging to establish one’s footing and authentic voice within a male-dominated marketplace.

Sylvia highlighted another critical point: in the legal profession in Kenya, women often find themselves directed toward specific roles that are assumed to be ‘a better fit’. For instance, she noted, ‘it’s more likely that a man is given an energy transaction, whilst his female associate is assigned to a family matter, even if she has no interest in that field of law.’ Due to these unconscious biases underpinning the industry, women are held back in many ways from diversifying their skills and discovering their full potential.

Mastering the balance act of work and family

Sylvia and Keri recognised that there is an added complexity that comes with raising a family while investing in your career. ‘Climbing the corporate ladder and climbing the ‘family ladder’ tend to happen at the same time,’ said Sylvia. ‘At some point women start asking themselves, do I have the bandwidth to spend a significant amount of time at work and be able to do it effectively while still managing my responsibilities at home? A difficult decision is often made at this point – and normally that decision is to take up a lesser role or even leave the profession altogether to be there for the family.’

‘In my mind, there has to be balance,’ she added, ‘a way that women can do what is fulfilling for them career-wise while at the same time, serving their families well.’

How can we facilitate this and move towards achieving this balance for those women who aspire to, asked Keri?

Within her own capacity as a law partner and team leader, Sylvia believes it starts with listening to her employees – seeking to understand their unique challenges and needs – and then complementing this insight with flexible HR that enable effective management and help women to thrive, both at home and in the workplace. ‘Support will look different for each woman,’ she explained. ‘It could include flexible hours, childcare or custom maternity leave. Maybe a woman is going through a major career or life change, and having access to a counsellor could help her navigate the season. My role is to understand what’s needed and support them through this process.’

Recognising the gift of diversity in leadership

Sylvia emphasised the importance of having diverse leadership styles on the team, stating, ‘There are times when a more assertive style of leadership is effective; other times an empathetic culture is required. Of course, men and women can embrace both styles – but there is a certain empathetic nature and relational strength that women tend to bring to a business environment. Knowing when to deploy which leadership style is crucial.’

She recognised the need for intuitive and open-minded leadership. ‘There is a reason why each of us was born into this world conditioned with a specific disposition,’ she reflected. ‘So, if business leaders look at these different styles in terms of strengths generally, and not weaknesses, we’ll start unlocking the best in one another.’

Sylvia added, ‘Oswald Chambers once said, ‘All of God’s people are ordinary people’. This means that all people – both men and women – who are everyday, ordinary people, have the potential to do extraordinary things through God’s grace and leading. This happens when there is dignity, and when we feel free to be all God has designed us to be.’ 

Listen to the full podcast here.

Biblical training fosters healthy African churches

Africa’s population is unquestionably on the rise, so much so that by 2050, projections suggest that roughly a quarter of the global population will be African. Within this continental groundswell, nearly 60% of its people are expected to be under the age of 25, firmly establishing the continent as the youngest globally. Moreover, Africa is home to nearly 685 million Christians, with 760 million expected by 2025 – making it the continent with the most Christians in the world.  

Herein lies an extraordinary opportunity for the church: by investing in this vast population of next generation leaders, we have a chance to shape not only the future of the continent but also the trajectory of global missions and the church worldwide.  

The question then begs asking, is the church in Africa equipped to do so?  

Dr. Stuart Sheehan, CEO of World Hope Ministries International, suggests that we answer this question by evaluating the authenticity of the gospel being shared. A gospel that is undiluted and free, and comprehensive in its presentation, will catapult the African church to be a ‘missional, hope-exporting enterprise’ to the world. A gospel that is ‘marred and spiritually compromising’, on the other hand, will hinder the church’s ability to fulfil this crucial mission, ultimately limiting its impact.  

‘Therefore,’ says Mergon Foundation’s De Wet Spies, ‘the question we need to be asking is: how healthy is the church, and how can we ensure that new churches are being built on a healthy theological foundation? The church was God’s idea, after all – it is His primary plan for displaying and preserving the gospel for the generations to come. The scriptures are clear about Him coming back for His church, His bride… Not a fancy building or stately individuals, but a healthy body of people who are devoted to Him, have a love for His Word, who display the love of Christ to others, and who worship Him in Spirit and in truth,’ he adds. 

‘Our goal must be an Africa, trained and ready to reach the nations,’ says Sheehan. Whether we reach that goal, he asserts, ‘depends on the theological training of African pastors and ministry leaders across the continent.’ 

This is why, in the sub-Saharan region, one of the areas the Mergon Foundation focusses on, is equipping leaders in the indigenous church to be servant leaders with sound theology, a missional mindset, and vision for holistic transformation. Here is a deeper dive into our focus on biblical training: the rationale behind it and the approach we have taken to address its need.  

The need for formal theological training in Africa  

Within the context of predominantly rural and highly communal cultures in Africa, church growth unfolds organically. Small gatherings often engage in discovery Bible studies, reading scripture portions and reflecting on practical applications. However, as these groups expand into house churches or larger congregations, a pressing need emerges: the demand for equipping leaders with fundamental theological knowledge and pastoral skills. 

This has resulted in a surge of Christian leaders without formal training to adequately shepherd their people, accounting for a significant majority – roughly 90% of all church leaders across the continent.  

 ‘The need for true gospel-based training, resources and access to discipleship could not be more vital for Africa’s future,’ says De Wet. Real transformation can only take place when our leaders have a true grasp of the gospel – along with the tools and networks – to love God’s people well and share this love with their people and communities.’ 

Our partnership criteria for ministries engaged in theological training  

To address this significant need, the Mergon Foundation partners with a number of ministries who work into the theological training space.  

When choosing partners, we consider a few things:  

  • Where they are serving? Is it an under-resourced area where there isn’t access to training?  
  • What is their model and is it contextually relevant? 
  • Is the model catalytic in the sense that it can be reproduced? 
  • Are the trainers speaking ‘at’ the people or is there a healthy participation of people discovering for themselves? Just training for the sake of training has no lasting impact if they aren’t really getting to the heart issues of what people are grappling with. 
  • Discernment from the Holy Spirit.  

This approach has led us to incredible relationships with people who understand the need on the ground… who take the training to the pastors, recognising that the barriers that keep people from being theologically trained are usually finances, proximity and literacy. These partners are also aware of the fact that many pastors are running their own businesses to support themselves, so they keep it practical. They would typically do a short week or two-week module after which they are sent home for six weeks. They then come back to give feedback and start another module of training before they go back home again for six weeks. 

Some of the incredible ministries with whom we partner include The Word Transforms, Reconciled World, New Harvest Ministries International, Re-Forma and Judea Harvest, among others.  

The growing importance of theological training  

Theological training is becoming increasingly essential as more and more African countries are requiring pastors to have some form of certification in order to do their work. Some of these countries include Benin, Kenya, Rwanda with talks about it in Nigeria and South Africa. This list will likely keep expanding into the future.  

‘Oftentimes theological training unfortunately isn’t certified – especially in the challenging areas where our partners work,’ says De Wet. ‘To this end, we are working with one of our partners, Re-Forma, who is responding to the crisis of a lack of trained church leaders. Founded on outcome and impact-based assessment, Re-Forma provides recognised benchmarks for informal and non-formal biblically-based ministry through a programme which provides guidelines for evaluating the thousands of existing training programmes. We are exploring an opportunity where, if the training institutions are able to show certain outcomes, then Re-Forma is willing to award them with a Certificate of Biblical Training for Ministry. Underwritten by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), this certificate provides the first-ever global standard for non-formal ministry training.’ 

 ‘Tackling the task of training this vast number of pastors across the continent is not easy, yet it is an incredible opportunity. And as a foundation that believes in the role and the power of the church as Christ’s body, we support ministries that work towards this end. Our desire is truly to see the church healthy and thriving across the African continent and we believe it well within reach,’ De Wet concludes.