SEND's new US Director talks money and gender in missions
October 2017

After an extensive search, SEND International named Michelle Atwell as the organization’s US Director. Michelle has a master’s degree in public affairs and nonprofit management, and brings more than 18 years of experience working at ministries and nonprofits to the role. 

Here she discusses gender diversity in missions leadership, and shares her top tips for fund-raising, how she finds work/life balance, and what she would do with an unexpected $1 million. 

Click here to read her thoughts on SEND’s “Mount Everest” goals, why she wants to partner more closely with churches, and her desire to smash the roadblocks that keep people from becoming missionaries.

Q. How did you come to know Christ? 

I was a college student at Central Michigan University ending my freshman year when I was invited to attend a Christian retreat with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I was lost, frustrated with the campus party scene and had no purpose for my life.

That weekend I heard two messages back-to-back that drew me to my knees and led me to repentance. First, was Luke 15 where the Good Shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to find the one that has gone astray — that was me! The second message was about the Lordship of Jesus from Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

I realized that I really didn’t know God. And worse still, he didn’t know me. After hearing those two messages, I confessed my sins in my bunk bed and asked Jesus to save me and told him that I wanted Him to be Lord of my life. That weekend blossomed into a whole new life for me. 

Q. There aren’t a lot of women in executive positions in missions organizations in North America. What are your thoughts on that gap? 

I feel like I’m a trailblazer in some ways, which is a little bit scary to me. In the nonprofit world that I used to work in, women in executive leadership was normal.

I see SEND, with our women’s ministry program, really being intentional in creating a space for women to grow and learn, to be mentored to encourage one another. Many of our training tracks are geared toward women. I think our leadership is 110 percent on board with supporting women in leadership.

Throughout the missions world, I see more intentionality behind supporting women in leadership roles. I’m happy to be part of those conversations and to pour into other women who want to pursue executive leadership positions.

God has used women to plant churches. He has used women to do hard, amazing work. If women have made such fabulous contributions on the field, why not in the boardroom or in the corner office? The Great Commission doesn’t apply just to men, it applies to all of us. God has gifted women just as much as he’s gifted men.    

Q. What reactions have you gotten since you stepped into this role? 

Day 1 on the job, I came into my office, and there was a letter waiting for me. It said, “Greetings in the name of Jesus, Michelle. Thank God he placed you in your new position with SEND. When the mission began looking for someone to fill the US director role, I felt in my heart it would be filled by a woman. So, I began praying for you. We may never meet, as my husband and I are no longer able to attend conferences, but you will be in our prayers and thoughts. God bless you real good, Michelle. In his grace, Lois Taylor.”

Lois Taylor is a retired missionary who served in Japan decades ago and retired in 1998. To come in on Day 1 and read this letter from her? I was in tears. What an honor and a privilege and a humbling responsibility this role is.

Q. If SEND US unexpectedly was given $10,000, what do you think would be the most strategic way to spend it? 

As a fund-raiser, I love that question! My passion is to recruit more people to the field so that the unreached can hear the name of Jesus. So I would use that $10,000 to bring more attention and awareness to our ministry and the opportunities that we have.

Q. How about $1 million?  

If right now SEND is able to focus on engaging four new unreached people groups a year, with $1 million, I could probably bump that that number up to 10 unreached people groups. We could heavily invest in recruiting teams to go out to new areas; we could make a big impact in engaging the unreached with those dollars.

Image of a tree with John 15:5 written on it. "I am the vine; 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."
John 15:5 is Michelle’s favorite verse.

Q. SEND is committed to lifelong learning. How does that play out in your life? 

I had someone give me some good advice a long time ago: Don’t always read something that’s in your field of interest or based on your profession. Read something that is totally different so that you are continuing to expand your knowledge. So, I just bought the book “Hamilton” — that’s outside the box for me. It’s not related to missiology, leadership development, fund-raising, or management.

In order to be a good leader, you have to be a good learner and surround yourself with knowledge and experts and best practices. I think the Lord created us to learn and to be inquisitive, and I love that. And as the team in the US Office knows, I want to invest in people and in their professional development. It’s a way to make sure our minds are sharp and we have space to dream and grow and develop vision.  

Q. SEND believes that working together on teams — especially multicultural teams — is a highly effective way to engage unreached peoples. How have teams been crucial to your effectiveness in ministry? 

No one person has all the gifts — that was Jesus. So, teaming is absolutely critical. Every person brings different skill sets to the job and you learn from one another. Teams create an environment where you have to humble yourself, see other people as valuable, see things from their perspective. I know I can’t do it all by myself, but you can accomplish incredible things when you work together with other people.

I’ve led several short-term teams from our church to Chernobyl, Ukraine, and I’ve seen how teamwork plays out in a cross-cultural setting. We struggled with language, with working with another culture, with needing to set aside our spreadsheets and our careful planning. We learned to work with our counterparts who live in Ukraine, who know the culture better. These experiences gave me a broader understanding of how important working on teams is for our on-field workers.

Q. Many of our readers are involved in fund-raising. Do you have any tips for them?

Be a good listener. It’s important to be able to share the vision, but sometimes we don’t do a good job of listening to donors and asking the right questions. Giving is an exchange — it’s matching someone’s heart with the opportunities you present. Listen for the cues that clue you in to the heart of the person that you’re talking to, and then draw that out by asking deeper questions.

But you can’t be a good listener if you’re not touching base with your donors! So if you’re on the field, be intentional about communicating with your supporters often. I would say a minimum of seven times a year — whether it’s a newsletter, or reaching out to somebody on Facebook, or a text message. Nowadays, there are a lot of creative ways to stay in touch with your donors. It’s hard. Everyone’s busy. But these are people who are investing in your work, so take the time to keep the lines of communication open. It can even be something as simple as letting them know, “Hey, I’m praying for you today.”

Q. Other readers financially support missionaries. Do you have any advice for them?

People are used to asking missionaries, “How can we pray for you?” — which is very important. But I would encourage donors to also ask strategic questions, and dig a little bit deeper into the heart of the missionary. Our missionaries have the opportunity to touch lives in really unique ways that might be hard to capture in a newsletter. So don’t be shy about asking deeper questions.

Q. You have two children and a husband, Joe, who works as an engineer. How do you balance family life with a job that requires a lot of travel?

When I worked at the Red Cross, I traveled all of the time, so my family is used to it. I have a “rescue squad” that consists of my awesome mom and wonderful in-laws. I’m blessed with a great support network that is journeying with me.

We have a busy family, but we treasure time together. Our weekends are mostly spent at home. We don’t do a lot of going here, going there, because time is a commodity that you can’t get back. So, we just try to lay low on the weekends and be together as a family.

Q. Why would you encourage someone interested in missions to consider joining SEND? 

When you join SEND, you’re not just joining an organization, you’re joining a family. It’s a family with a rich and deep legacy of Kingdom impact. You’re joining a ministry that cares about you as an individual, not just the gifts and talents that you bring to the organization. You’re joining an agency that will care about you and love you, encourage you and walk with you as you live out God’s call for your life.

Q. What are you excited about in this role?

I’m excited about engaging our partners with SEND. My desire is to spend about 30 percent of my time outside the office, meeting with churches, community leaders and donors, and sharing the work our missionaries are engaged in on the field. The work we are doing is powerful. God is moving in some mighty ways, and I want to tell those stories to our North American audience.

I’m also excited about our vision and our focus on church-planting, on reaching the unreached. That is my passion and what has drawn me to the work of SEND. Our mission is powerful because it’s God’s mission to bring glory to his name among all of the nations.

Let’s close with some quick questions:

  • How do you take your coffee? Lots of cream and sugar. 
  • If you had one free day, what would you doI would head to the beach, and just spend all day staring at the water and reading my Bible and probably another book or two. If it were in the winter, I would spend it in a cabin in the woods, with my Bible, journaling, spending time with the Lord.
  • Cats or dogs? Dogs, 100 percent. I’ve got two: Calvin (a Yellow Lab) and Clementine (a rescue dog).
  • Favorite Bible verse? John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

SEND teams serve in more than 20 countries around the world. Explore our ministry guides to learn about the cultures and people groups we serve.
Explore our ministry guides
• Our total commitment to Jesus Christ fuels all that we do. Read SEND’s statement of faith.

• Learn about SEND International's mission, focus, and values


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Josie Oldenburg
Josie and her family served in Ukraine for 12 years before she joined the SEND US Communications Team.