By Vicki Brown
Word&Way News Writer
"I have a firm conviction that Missouri WMU might be the one place in Missouri Baptist life where different opinions and voices can come together and focus on missions and all get along. I believe that to the core of my being."
That strongly held conviction enabled Debbie Miller to guide Woman's Missionary Union through changes made during her five-year tenure as president. Her service ended with the final gavel at WMU's annual meeting April 23-24 at Poplar Bluff.
The Oklahoma native's professional tie to Missouri WMU began shortly after she graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a master of religious education degree. She became the WMU worker for St. Louis Baptist Mission Board (now St. Louis Metro Baptist Association), where she ministered for about two years. She also served on the state WMU board as the Baptist Young Women representative.
Tapped as Baptist Women/Baptist Young Women director, Miller joined the Missouri Baptist Convention staff in 1978. Mission support was added to her job description in the 1980s.
In the 1990s, the MBC moved to a team-based organizational structure. Miller was serving on the missions education and ministry team when she resigned at the end of 1995. From a financial point of view, the decision to resign was difficult, she said. But the emotional reward outweighed material considerations. A mission trip to Belarus helped focus God's leading.
"It was a big decision to leave convention employ. Olin [her son] came along, and the job just required too much traveling," she said.
"I had just come off a mission trip to Belarus, and I realized that you can have contentment without a lot of things… What really matters is a relationship with the Lord and with family, not things. Our Belarussian sisters led such a simple life. They were such an inspiration to me. It made the transition from being a two-income family to a one-income family a little easier."
When WMU nominating committee members approached her about leading the organization as president, Miller sought God's will and examined the personal journey He had provided.
"I guess I looked at my past experience and the Lord seemed to say, 'What are you going to do with all this?' I knew it would be a time of transition [for WMU] and felt the Lord wanted me to do this," Miller explained.
Taking the helm in 1999, Miller guided the organization through the process to become a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation in 2001, which entailed an overhaul of the body's bylaws.
Miller helped WMU weather controversy when then WMU director Kathy Scott lost her job. The convention eliminated her position when it downsized its organization in January 2003. MBC leaders also began to question WMU bylaws that govern the mission organization's relationship to the MBC and the Southern Baptist Convention.
The WMU leader noted that the tensions often made her work difficult, but she credited phone calls and notes from WMU members, family and friends for encouragement just when she needed it most.
And the reward for hard work often was unity. "I have seen them [WMUers] come together from all across the spectrum," she said.
One of WMU's goals, at both the national and state levels, is to promote living a missions lifestyle. Miller said the most meaningful aspect of her presidency has been to see women and girls adopt that lifestyle.
"The most meaningful has been seeing individuals get excited about missions and seeing it make a difference in their lives," she said.
Asked the direction her life might take now, Miller responded, "I don't know what God has for me, but I know He has something."
She added that this time He may place her among non-Christians. Because most of her career has involved working closely with believers, she sometimes felt isolated from the world. The Lord put her in a playgroup that included some non-Christians shortly after she left convention employ.
"Now I think God has something for me outside the 'churchy' things."