An Open Letter to Women Who Lead

A while back, a colleague reached out with deep frustration over some incident or another that caused her gender to bump up against her calling. I felt her pain. It is amazing how quickly a moment like that can set us back. Because I’ve felt her story and heard it from too many others, I suspect that my response to her may resonate with others who find themselves frustrated by life in a fallen world.

Friend,

I suspect you already know the stuff we all know: that we live in a fallen world; that we will struggle to make partnerships out of hierarchies on this side of Genesis 3; that “standing” in the Ephesians 6 sense of that word is hard as heck but still the best option we have in a fallen world.

Given all that, this would be my advice to you in a sentence: After you’ve done all you can do, stand. That is your call. Stand.

And I get it … standing can be tiring. And holding an uncomfortable position can be uncomfortable. An yes, it can get old and after enough of it we would rather just do our small work and grow old and bitter than keep rubbing against the grain. That is our choice, of course. But that is not the call.

The call is to stand. After we’ve done all we can do, stand.

So when hard things happen, go ahead and blow off steam and be angry and sound off, but then get back at it. Get back to making your stand for Christ. Learn winsome ways to make your point and stay in the game. The call doesn’t disappear and I can assure you that it is so much more frustrating to avoid a call than to deal with the pressures that incubate inside of one.

Stay in it. Stand.

Be angry at injustice and at the enemy of our souls who has found a foothold in gender inequity, but don’t assume we can win that argument and defeat something nearly as old as humanity, that somehow if we just say it right the thing will go away. This is human fallenness we are battling! It is in our DNA. Be angry about what the enemy has done to humanity, but don’t settle for the cheap way out by blaming Hollywood or government or worse yet, men in general. Don’t give room to defensiveness. Make sure your arguments are biblical, theologically sound, practical and most of all, that they come from a whole and holy place.

Because this thing we deal with is a fact of the fall (have I said that yet?). I assume it will be here until Jesus comes back. Our challenge is to learn how to navigate past it so we can do the things we’re called to. How do we as women support each other without competing or belittling or forgetting, or worse, stoking unholy fires by projecting? How do we raise up men by encouraging them to love and respect us as partners in the work of lifting up Christ, without competing with or belittling them?

Ed Stetzer says church planters are 400% times more likely to succeed if they know what they are up against. The Small Business Administration says much the same thing about entrepreneurs. Realism is an ally. So on the point of women as leaders, here’s what you’re up against:

  • Sometimes you will experience condescending attitudes from men who have no idea they are being condescending.
  • Sometimes you will experience the jealousy or competitiveness of women who have no idea they are broken in that way.
  • Sometimes you will experience subtle and even overt sexual advances by men who know what they are doing and by men who got broken as boys.
  • Sometimes you will be passed over by churches because you are female, because they are gripped by the spirit of fear.
  • Sometimes you will be invited to speak/ sit on the platform/ write/ participate for no other reason than that you are female (take it … every time, take it and be grateful; never mind their motives).
  • Sometimes you will experience lack of success because you are female, and sometimes because you’re not that great of a leader. And it will be hard to know which is which.
  • Sometimes you will feel crazy because when you verbalize your experience of any of the above, others will deny or minimize what you’re feeling. They’ll tell you you’re doing “just fine.” And you will feel crazy because what you know to be true is not validated.

All those things will happen to a woman who chooses the path of leadership. And we’re not just talking about Christian leadership, but leadership in general. Hundreds of studies in multiple fields bear out the fact that you will have these things in your life. Which is not to say men have no challenges of their own. Men have other things to deal with and we ought to be careful to hear them, too.

But friend, these are our things and they are not necessarily because you are not good enough, though it is possible you have placed yourself into something you’re not ready for. Your pain is not necessarily because you are not called or gifted, but please be sure that you are. The call of God is not for the faint of heart.

If you are called and gifted, then hear me: sometimes this call will be hard, Some things just are, because we live on this side of Genesis 3. As Paul said, we’re not battling flesh and blood but powers and principalities that want to take us down.

So now you know, which means you are 400% more likely to succeed because you can be in this with eyes wide open. You are more likely to succeed if you will seek your own healing, stop apologizing your way into rooms, and trust that if you’ve been invited to a table then you belong there. You are more likely to succeed if you will take responsibility for your own gifts and hone them so you’re making the most of the moment.

And listen: You can’t lose if you will spend your energy lifting up Jesus. Let him take care of your reputation. Your job is to stand. Witness to your creation-call by being good at it. And if you sense you’ve been given a prophetic voice to speak into this arena more boldly, then pray desperately for humility enough to stay under the Lordship of Christ so the unholy fires don’t burn up your message.

If my thoughts don’t settle well with you, then do your own research, find your own message … but either way, keep pursuing healing because the Kingdom is starving for warriors like Deborah — both women and men who are whole and holy, courageous and ready. And keep pursuing healing for your own wounds because healing is freedom. Whatever has happened to us, Jesus can return our souls to a place of peace. It has been liberating, after too many years of being fearful and defensive, to simply be at peace as a woman who loves Jesus and finds joy in leadership within His church. Praise God for the healing grace of Jesus that brought me this far and please, God! Heal me some more because I’m not nearly who You’ve designed me to be. Not yet. But I’m a Methodist, so I absolutely believe I’m getting there. And so are you, my friend. So are you. 

In all things may Jesus be praised! 

— Carolyn

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“Mama, can boys be preachers, too?”

One day as we were driving, my daughter called out this question from the back seat. “Mama, can boys be preachers, too?”

She was five years old at the time (she’s 24 now). We were in the car on the road from Lexington to Wilmore, Kentucky, where our family lived while I was in seminary. In the year prior to our move I was beginning to preach, so for virtually all her life a “preacher mama” is all my daughter has known. Our closest seminary friends at the time happened to be a couple with a make-up much like ours: the wife a preacher, the husband a public school teacher.

“Mama, can boys be preachers, too?”

clergy-barbi4My daughter could not have known how unique a question that is. For centuries, the Christian church has been concerned with the other question: Can girls be preachers, too? Does God’s design allow for women to be part of spreading this story of grace?

The answer is in the story itself. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb and first to be told, “Go and tell.” Priscilla, Junia, Tabitha, Lydia — all were leaders in this new movement of God. Any woman who preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ stands in that great tradition. It is not a call reserved for one gender or 50% of us. It is the great commission of all God’s people: “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

So what does this mean for both men and women?

1. All of us are empowered to share the story. All of us. Steve Jobs was once talking with a group of high-ranking officials in Egypt. He was sharing business principles with them and at some point, someone asked him if he thought Egypt could ever be a viable world leader. Jobs response was, “Not as long as you are using only half your population.”¹

Of course, God can do anything he wants with whomever he chooses but sometimes I wonder if he looks at the Christian Church, hears our prayers for the Kingdom to come and thinks, “Not as long as you’re using only half the population.”

Earlier this year in India, a few hundred girls went through a re-naming ceremony. These girls all carried the Hindu name Nakusa. It means “Unwanted,” a common name among girls in India. Someone decided to issue an invitation to girls carrying that name, offering them the chance to choose a new name. Literally hundreds of girls showed up for that ceremony — girls tired of being called “Unwanted.”

This seems to be part of our unredeemed nature. In many places in the world, cultures oppressclergy-barbi3 girls. In many places, females are made to feel like runners-up in the gender contest. This is not a Christian teaching. Paul said, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”

As followers of the gospel of Jesus, we believe everyone is wanted and gifted in some way for sharing the good news. John Wesley once said, “God owns women in the conversion of sinners, and who am I that I should withstand God?”

2. We have a unique call. After years of dealing with my own insecurities, I now claim God’s call to take authority and preach the gospel. God is using me because of how I’m made, not in spite of it, to be demonstration of the Kingdom. I am not a runner-up. I am God’s choice, called to serve a world that desperately needs Jesus in all the ways and through all the people Jesus can be shared.

3. Engage the real question. The real question is not, “Should women lead or preach in churches?” That is a freedom question but ultimately, that is not a salvation question. The real question is: “How many people does God want to reach, and how many people is he willing to use to reach them?” What if all God’s people who are equipped for the work are called to humbly proclaim Jesus to a lost and hurting world?

All his people … including you.

“Mama, can boys be preachers, too?”

It is a beautiful question, reflecting the movement of God who has given all kinds of people the call to preach, who has given every one of us a platform to suit our spiritual gifts. This is great news! Because Jesus sets people free, he is able to redeem us from the pits we’ve dug for ourselves so he can call us forth to spread the good news of freedom through Christ. As we come, He is able to present us before His glorious presence without fault.

He is able to present us before His glorious presence with great joy!

He is the only God, our Savior. He is glorious. He is majestic. He is powerful. He has authority in this world and in the world to come. He is our Master and our Redeemer. He Who Is, Who Was and Who Is To Come is Truth Eternal.

Who wouldn’t want to share that news? And who wouldn’t want to hear it?

 

1. Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2013.

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When Women Plant Churches

I am grateful to Seedbed for their partnership in producing the things I’m passionate about. This time, they are letting me talk about the barriers women church planters face. This is the subject of my doctoral dissertation, so I’ve been putting a little reading time into it lately (gotta love deadlines!).

My project asserts that the original design for men and women is partnership, not hierarchy. Given that assumption, the focus is not on the question of whether or not women ought to preach or lead men, but rather to explore that intersection of human design with human fallenness — that point at which fallenness distorts and stunts female leadership, especially in the arena of church planting. The goal is to discover the pathways that negotiate that intersection so that those called to lead as church planters can reclaim the joy and meaning of their created design.

Here’s a beginning on that work:

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