Jennifer Lau is the new executive director of CBM (Canadian Baptist Ministries), the 150-year-old Canadian mission organization. She spoke with Faith Today’s Karen Stiller about her calling, the weight of words, and what it means to go and learn.
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Faith Today: One announcement about your appointment as executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries noted that you were the first woman executive director and the first layperson in that role. Is that significant?
Jennifer Lau: It is meaningful. A number of my female colleagues have pointed out to me that when they heard the news that I’d been appointed, they actually said, “Oh, I’m so proud to be working for CBM, that being a woman is not a barrier to leadership here.”
So I think because it’s meaningful to my colleagues, it’s definitely increased its meaningfulness to me. I think also just in the number of young women that I have relationships with, I’ve heard over the years that they don’t see a lot of women in leadership, or not at the highest levels of leadership in a lot of the more traditional evangelical organizations. They have asked themselves the question, “Is there a future for me here? Or do I reach a ceiling?”
And I think seeing that there are possibilities for women to go into the highest levels of leadership is significant for them. So in that way I think it has been very meaningful.
FT: What are your plans? Are there some changes on the horizon?
JL: I’m a marketer and I think that probably scares some people, and they’re like, “Oh, we have a marketer who’s leading our traditional mission organization.” But I actually think that at this juncture, and in CBM’s life, that’s going to be a huge plus.
I look at the world maybe a little bit differently than if I had come from a pastoral background. I’ve always been very engaged in current trends and what’s happening in the world. That’s going to be very beneficial to CBM as we try to be proactive in an ever-changing world, and through this whole pandemic situation.
We’ve seen how that ability to be nimble – to be agile, and flexible and pivot our strategy quickly – has been very beneficial, and I hope that’s something I would be able to continue to push forward for all of our staff, the ability to change course when we need to.
FT: Tell me about more of those pivots that need to happen with mission organizations.
JL: Well, one of my hopes is that we no longer become the hub, and you know that sounds very counterintuitive to some people who think you should be pushing the organization forward more and raising your profile more. But I actually don’t want us to be the hub of all of our international partners. I want us to be a partner.
I want us to be one of the forces that brings people together, but I don’t think everything has to centre around CBM, and I certainly don’t think decision making needs to centre at CBM.
And so one of the things we have really felt strongly about is being able to network our partners together so that they can help build each other’s capacity, and it’s not always coming from CBM. We’ve been able to see success in this, particularly in Africa where we brought all of our African partners together who previously had no relationship, who previously didn’t know each other. They’ve been able to find commonalities and places of learning together without us. We do have a role. But it might be a slightly different role than what traditional mission organizations did from the West.
I think we would see our role as engaging well. We want to be the people who will walk alongside the local church anywhere in the world and help them to engage well. We have 150 years of experience. I do think that experience still means something. We have always walked alongside as partners.
FT: Can you speak more on the importance of the reciprocity of relationship?
JL: One of the things we really have accentuated over the last few years is the experience of actually going and walking alongside our partners, and actually experiencing what life is like. So it’s not going to do stuff and to tell people what to do. Not to be crass, but some people have the idea that they go with the intention of, "I want to go and save this number of people when I go on my short-term mission trip." So we have moved away from any kind of experience like that, which emphasizes what I’m going to go do to I’m going to go and learn, and there is incredible value in those experiences. We call them Sent experiences.
Nothing replaces that relationship that is built when you’re actually there. So for us that is still a very valuable part of being engaged in global mission, actually going there and expressing your solidarity in person. And so that is something we’re trying to help educate Canadian Baptists on, that nothing replaces relationship.
FT: This idea of shifting from going to do something to going to learn something feels so honest to me because we all know that anyone who goes on a short-term mission trip, or is part of that, realizes that is actually what ends up happening.
JL: Yes. We’re very upfront and we say, "If you’re going there with your own agenda, this is not the trip you want, and you probably don’t want to go with us."
We’ve learned that sometimes it isn’t a good fit if people have a certain agenda, and so CBM is not the organization you want to go with. You need to go in a learner’s posture if you’re going to go with us.
FT: I appreciate that you are a person who understands the power of words and language, and so let’s consider the weight of words like evangelical and even Baptist.
JL: We actually moved away from calling ourselves Canadian Baptist Ministries many years ago. I say CBM. We pretty much only use the full name when we have to do something formal, like a press release or something like that. Those words have become so charged in our culture, and it’s sad because we see all the good sides of the organizations that are related to those words. There are amazing, incredible things that are happening locally and globally everywhere that Baptists are engaged in, but unfortunately in many circles if you say the word Baptist, that shuts the door.
We don’t want language to become a barrier to engagement. We’ve had people who have gone with us on Sent trips who are not Baptists because they actually don’t even realize it’s a Baptist organization. It’s a Sent experience and that is the brand in itself.
We don’t want language to be a barrier. Now, on the other hand, we also want to infuse good things associated with the word Baptist so we hope that through the things we do well, people will say, "Oh, that’s a Baptist organization. Oh, they’re actually not that bad."
I think it would be the same probably for the word evangelical, which has become so charged, which is unfortunate. If you use that word, people immediately might get their back up and think, Oh, they’re trying to convert me. Unfortunately that word has a negative connotation now. It’s a challenging time.
FT: You’ve travelled widely, and visited projects around the world, and seen the Church really living out its faith in probably very difficult settings. Could you share how that has impacted your own faith and worldview?
JL: I think my very first trip with CBM was to Kenya and that was in 2003, and I never knew really what poverty was until that trip. I’ve experienced it here locally, and I don’t want to minimize the poverty that does exist here locally as well as across our own country, and I think we all know that it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with that hasn’t been solved. But it broke my heart in a different way on that first trip.
And I realized God calls us to serve the poor. I think people might be thinking, Well of course, God’s called us to serve the poor. But I don’t think I knew that He had called me to do it.
Nothing beats relationship. And so when I went, and I was actually able to sit down and meet with a group of widows who were taking care of their grandchildren who were AIDS orphans, nothing can beat that experience. Nothing will touch your heart like an experience where you actually get to hear people’s stories of what has happened in their life.
You feel the call in a very different way. And I did. I could hear God saying, "What are you going to do out of this experience? What have you learned? What are you going to do differently when you go back?"
I’d only been at CBM for about six months and I enjoyed my job, but I thought it was just another job. And after that trip I remember thinking, This is not a job. This is a calling.
FT: Thank you, Jennifer.
Listen to our full interview with Jennifer Lau at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts. Photo of Jennifer Lau courtesy Canadian Baptist Ministries.