by Fran Love
I am close to 60 years old, and for all those years – every single one of them — I have been involved in Christian leadership in the grand pursuit of fulfilling the Great Commission. I was born into a leadership family, married a leader, been a leader, worked on leadership teams, and have friends who are leaders.
I am also a woman. And an evangelical.
At times this has caused tension. Tension in me as I began to study scripture and experience the kingdom of God from another perspective. Tension in my marriage as I brought my husband into my struggle. And finally tension in our organization of which he was director as he and I together sought to bring to vote the proposal that women could be team leaders. The email discussion leading up to that vote generated more discussion than any other topic, much of it hurtful. In those days we didn’t understand that our computers were not to be hand held rockets firing off lethal email missiles.
I have experienced the effects of well intentioned Christians lopping off healthy leadership limbs of men-women partnerships in order to make the leadership more “biblical.” I see great conflict in and outside the church between men and women. The need for gender reconciliation is real, and critically vital to the flourishing of marriages, families and Jesus’ body, the church.
When I think of men and women partnering together in leadership, I tend to ask these types of questions: How godly are we when it comes to relating to the opposite gender? Are there biblical models that are more helpful than others? How is a marriage impacted when both the husband and wife are natural leaders? What is it like for a Priscilla leader to live in an Aquila world? Men, what would you like to say to women leaders? And women, what would you like to say to men leaders?
As Christian leaders we can choose to bridge the divides that exist between men and women leaders, whatever the causes, by strengthening our ties to each other. We can also bridge the perception divide that much of the world has about the church by modeling healthy, wholesome, attractive and powerful men-women leader partnerships.
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Partnership blessings: Let’s get back to the Garden
A long, long time ago God gave a mission to Adam and Eve:
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own
image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. (Genesis 1)
The mutuality of the partnership is quite evident, and received God’s blessing. As they were blessed to fulfill the mandate together, so they would be a blessing to the world: “May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him” (Ps. 67:6-7).
Notice that he did not say that multiplying was the woman’s job and ruling was the man’s job. These are not gender-exclusive domains. Both were to do both. Neither of them could do it without the other. Notice the progression of God’s perspective on his creation. He declared everything good, then admitted singular maleness was not good, created a woman, then declared this new partnership to be “very good.” Then they sinned, and messed it up. But God’s mission still stands. Jesus came to reverse the curse of the fall and its effects on men and women. The world still needs the blessing that comes through excellent men-women partnerships, through marriages certainly, but also through a church that models a unity that looks like this:
26 In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3)
What would it look like if men and women leaders partnered together in a kind of Creation Mandate to bless the world? I think it would look beautiful. Ruling together and multiplying growth by raising new leaders would certainly be healthy signs. As would dealing with the personal and organizational sins that would hinder it. Sin separates us, Jesus puts us together.
Healthy Men-Women partnerships practice godly interactions
Are we being godly in our relationships with the opposite sex?
Paul instructs Timothy, a young leader, to treat all women as if they were family members, older women as mothers and younger women as sisters (1 Tim. 5:2). Women had their share of admonition in how to relate to men. In gathered meetings, women were asked to show respect (1 Tim. 2:11-12). Women were admonished to be modest in dress and demeanor (1 Tim. 2:9-10). They were to “cosmeticize”
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(Greek word) their spirit, creating an inner beauty that matched the outer beauty (1 Peter 3:3-6). Obviously the well-being of the new Christian community depended on men treating women as cherished sisters and mothers, and on women being sensitive to men by being modest.
I think if men and women could figure out how to do these things in our cultural context, sensitive to the times we live in, we would see fewer problems in male-female leadership partnerships; indeed, we would see great benefits to the church and if we do our job well, then to the world.
What hinders men from treating women as sisters and mothers and what hinders women from modesty, not just in dress but in behavior as well? It’s not fair for the man to say, “I would be able to treat you like a sister if you stopped dressing that way.” And it’s equally unfair for the woman to say, “If I can’t get your respect then I’m going to try my hardest to get your attention.” Men, you are called to treat women as sisters even if they are immodest. And women, you are called to be modest even if men don’t respect you.
Pornography is chewing up the church. Though it’s increasing among women, this is still primarily a male problem. It hinders Christian men from treating Christian women as sisters.
Immodest dress and behavior is equally destructive. But not just to men. That’s obvious. The less obvious and more insidious harm is towards other women. Let’s face it. Women are attracted to powerful men. There are only so many of those around. So they compete with other women for a man’s attention. Who feels threatened when a beautiful woman walks into the room? Other women. Women, how can we expect Christian men to treat women as sisters when we don’t even treat them as sisters?
Pornography and immodesty are Chernobyls in church sanctuaries and Hiroshimas in the heart of Christian leaders.
Some would say the way to avoid the problems brought on by a sexualized environment is to keep men and women separated. Men make up the leadership team, and with no women around, no problem. Women have their women’s meetings, and with no men around, no problem. Men hesitate to meet with women alone, signaling to women that they threaten men’s purity, further objectifying them and further “sexualizing” the situation. But it doesn’t help, women, when we roll our eyes and cynically say, “Men are such perverts.” That’s simply not true. The need to separate ourselves from the opposite sex wedges a divide between possible healthy male-female partnership. I think it is unhealthy, and I wish we could talk about this in a forthright manner.
Godly interactions between men and women presuppose healthy emotions. And let’s face it, most of us carry scars related to our sexual identity. Whether we were the 98 pound weakling that got bullied, or whether we were the victims of sexual abuse or harassment, or whether we have known fear walking home alone at night, or whether we were derided as not being “manly” enough because as a husband we could not produce sons (which my husband often was), it doesn’t matter if the incident seemed insignificant, we have all been sexually impacted, perhaps women more so than men. How can we help one another then? Simply, make it a priority to get inner healing. If you are a leader of a mixed gender team, then work on extending opportunities for this kind of healing. And offer to help pay for it.
Respect goes a long way in healing rifts between men and women, and even in ourselves. We all want to be respected, and we should talk to one another about what respect looks like. Men, on leadership retreats or meetings, do you assume the women will bring the lunch, make the coffee, clean
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up? And women, how can we show respect? One woman leader constantly challenged the leader in charge, who happened to be a man, because she did not believe he respected her. Another woman, also a leader, would at lunch time, with just women present, roll her eyes and come out with some disparaging comment if the issue of men came up. I regret to this day that I did not speak to her. I could have approached her gently, not assuming anything, to ask, “What’s going on?”
Healthy Men-Women partnerships practice kindness
In my initial studies of scripture on the issue of women and leadership, I also chewed through a steady diet of popular books on the topic. To my regret these books enflamed me. I lost respect for men. My spirit was bitter and angry, certainly not beautiful. During this time my husband took the brunt of my anger. He patiently listened to my grievances. He studied the same scripture passages and reasonably and calmly talked about what he was learning. His gentleness calmed me. It became increasingly clear that if I was to continue my study of scripture I would have to stop reading books that were not irenic in nature. Fortunately I came across Sarah Sumner’s book, Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership (2003). Sarah is theological and personal, communicating a gracious and peaceful spirit in the middle of tough exegesis.
Those were stormy years. But they gave me a vision for how men and women can work together.
I knew I wanted to be a part of a Christian organization where its leaders would be kind. The controversy about women in leadership was generally discussed as though women weren’t listening in. In waging war for truth, Christian leaders have to remember that though we wage war against dark powers and not against flesh and blood, we are all real flesh and blood people, and we hurt and get hurt in the process.
On our list of top leadership qualities do we put kindness there? I hope so. Kindness is a virtue that looks like love, and because love is primary, kindness becomes the Cinderella virtue, part of the family but overlooked. We have to move Cinderella away from kitchen duty and dress her up for the ball. Look at how beautiful she becomes in Scripture.
Kindness is next to godliness, literally ” … applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence,
knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your
Men, fill in the blank: I know I am treating women as sisters when / if ____________________
Women, fill in the blank: I know I am being modest when / if ____________________________
Men: I would like to be respected in this way _________________________________________
Women: I would like to be respected in this way_______________________________________
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perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness,1 love. 8 For if these qualitiesare yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted …” 2 Peter 1:5-9, NASB.
Peter positions kindness one step above godliness and one step below love, valuing all equally, but differentiating them nevertheless.
The Holy Spirit graces us with kindness Kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control …” (Galatians 5:22, NASB). The fruit comes in one bunch. This means I can’t be truly loving towards someone if I am not also being kind. Or to put it differently, one way to know I am being loving to people who disagree with my opinion is if I show them kindness. What does that mean? Well, let’s take a look at how kindness works in a debate by looking at all the fruit. I am kind when I am exhibit patience by listening without interrupting those who disagree with me. I am kind when I can concede a point and do it with joy, grace, and good humor. I am kind when I inject tones of gentleness into a chorus of hostility. I am kind when I reign in my ego by controlling the number of times I speak. I am kind when rather than give someone a piece of my mind I give them peace of mind. I am kind when I faithfully follow the golden rule to do to others as I would want them to do to me.
It’s God’s kindness that changes us How do I know that kindness has the power to transform us? Because this is the way God does
it: “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (Romans 2:4, New Living).
The Church: A Kind of Army or an Army of the Kind? When it comes to issues on which we have strong convictions we too often make the mistake of letting nothing stand in the way of our views, not even kindness. Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and author, is one lone secular voice praising Christians for compassionately struggling to keep women healthy in Africa and Asia.2 But many don’t see us that way. They think the church is against women. They instinctively know that Christians should follow the example of Jesus Christ who laid down his life for the poor, the outcast, the sick, the captive, the oppressed, of whom most are women and children. So when they perceive us as people who try to keep women “in their place” – whatever that place is – they get confused. And I believe, disappointed.
They expect more from us. In the current political climate, women’s issues loom large. Turn on CNN and you will hear them talk about the “war on gender.” Author Andrew Sullivan in a recent Newsweek article practically begged Christians to be moderate in their politics. According to him we have lost our “ancient, moderate, pragmatic reasoning” and have become increasingly “rigid, fundamentalistic, and hostile to prudential balancing acts in the real, modern would we live in.” Our uncompromising intransigence has “failed to persuade anyone.”
1 NASB follows the King James by translating the Greek word filadelfi,a as brotherly kindness. Other translations render it as brotherly affection, mutual affection, warm friendliness. The New Living translates it, “As you live God- like, be kind to Christian brothers and love them.” 2 See Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (wife-husband team), Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2010).
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He has a point. How can we speak so that others will listen? How can we influence their thinking? How can we dare to believe that people will want to change because of our message? I don’t believe we can do it by appealing to reason only. Most people believe the truth of something because they experience the reality of it first. They get to the truth by going through us first. That contact had better be a kind one, a largeness of humility and moderation. Kindness is the language the blind can see and the deaf can hear, says Mark Twain. Kindness is love in action.
I literally ache for a world that expects more from the church, more from Christians.
Kindness must be demonstrated. When it comes to the issue of how men and women are going to partner together in leadership, I believe we can practice personal and organizational kindness and believe our convictions: “Stand firm in the faith …. Do it in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-4). First, we have to get over any notion that kindness is a wimpy virtue that serves only to smooth the road to the more important virtue, truth. Here are suggestions:
1. Be careful about what you read, watch or hear about a position or person from the other side. If you can’t hear from them directly to discern for yourself, then please assume that the one reporting on it has an agenda, and that you are listening to their selective perspective.
2. Get to know the person behind the perspective. In other words, find out about why they believe the way they do. Show interest in their personal history.
3. In a conversation about women in leadership, or after an event where a male leader was promoted over a woman leader, or vice-versa, or where a decision had to be made that would negatively impact either the men or women, go out of your way to check in on how others are feeling. If you ask them and they answer, “Well, I think ….” gently ask again for their feelings. After an unfortunate incident in which a male pastor wrote a scathing public email that now that women were elected as regional overseers “we are putting ourselves on the slippery slope to ordaining homosexuals,” another male pastor in the region
wrote an email affirming women leaders. I wish though the men leaders would have talked to the women privately who were involved, encouraging them, letting them show hurt or frustration.
4. After a particularly difficult time of debate and argument approach the person you have most disagreed with, and ask him or her how it is between you, or ask them what they are thinking and feeling, and in some tangible way demonstrate love and concern.
5. Don’t assume that everything is okay if no one is talking about it. I am always amazed at how much hurt and resentment simmer under the surface in most Christian organizations. Leaders would be wise to talk occasionally with men and women they respect to see how they are doing and to get their perspective on possible tensions and problems in the organization. Husbands can get upset about how the organization treats their leader wives, and this unspoken resentment becomes a stumbling block in their relationships with other leaders. Godly communication may disturb the peace initially, but it will end frustration eventually.
6. Don’t ignore anyone’s reactions or comments. I have seen men get very uncomfortable when women get emotional in a leadership meeting. Rather than demonstrate kindness, they simply ignore it and move on to the next topic. A friend of mine, a woman leader, in a surprised tone of voice said to me, “Your husband actually listens to me. He solicits my input. Most men ignore me.”
7. Don’t stop a person from an emotional venting, but help him/her redirect it for a more appropriate time if necessary. Some of us have deep wounds that we struggle to confess, and it comes out often as anger, a good indicator that something is going on inside.
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Fill in the blank as it relates to men and women leader partnerships:
My organization shows kindness when / by ___________________.
I would like to see my organization grow in kindness by ________________________________.
Healthy Women-Men partnerships take cues from Scripture and integrate them into real time leading
I think we would all agree with this. But which scripture? What is the starting point from which you view women’s leadership? Traditionalists start with 1 Timothy 2:12. Charismatics prefer Acts 2:18 and Egalitarians see everything through the lens of Galatians 3:28. Whatever our starting point, we can’t stop there. We consider all scripture, and in the cultural context in which we find ourselves and the new insights we are continually learning in theology, being guided by the Spirit into all truth, we build upon what we know.
Years ago, I decided to study scripture around the theme of masculinity and femininity. Are these cultural constructs only? If not, and if there really is something that is intangibly feminine and intangibly masculine, what are they? The bible didn’t spell it out for me, but within a relatively short time I saw that injunctions for men more or less revolved around the theme of courage and strength, such as:
“Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be men of courage [or act like men, ESV], be strong, do everything in love” (1 Cor. 13-14, NIV).3 “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes” (Nehemiah 4:14, addressed to men builders)
Lord speaking to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous … Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged …” (Joshua 1:6-9)
When it came to women I had to infer again from the context what traits were most attributed to them. I had to look not only at texts explicitly referring to women (such as the ones I list below), but also at metaphors scripture uses for women, such as wisdom and folly — two women figures in the book of Proverbs, Israel as God’s Wife, and the Church and the New Jerusalem as Jesus’ Bride. It appears that the idea of beauty and purity (also known as discretion, modesty, graciousness) are what characterize these “women.” Proverbs 31:10 begins with a mother asking her son the question, “Who can find an
3 Although I prefer bible translations that use inclusive language, here is one example of how exclusive language gives shape to our ideas of who men are to be and how they are to act. In inclusive language translations, we lose this.
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excellent wife?” and then she proceeds to praise her virtues and skills, insisting at the end that a woman like this should be rewarded publicly for all that he has done.
“A beautiful woman who lacks discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout” (Prov. 11:22). “Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised. Reward her for all she has done. Let her deeds publicly declare her praise” (Prov 31:30). “Women should adorn (literally, to make beautiful) themselves in respectable apparel” (1 Tim. 2:9, ESV). “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty … You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit which is so precious to God” (1 Pet. 3:3-4, New Living).
I realize the topic of masculinity and femininity is a sensitive one because some of us really struggle with our sexual identity. And type-casting like this has unfortunately been used negatively. One leader I knew refused to hire a man, even though he was well qualified, because the man was “too effeminate.” And women can get intimidated when joining an almost all male leadership team unless she’s confident she can appeal to them by acting like a lady and thinking like a man, ala Steve Harvey’s popular book with that same title. Also, the distinctions are not always that apparent. Men in scripture are also described as beautiful and women are praised for their courage. So, I don’t want to belabor the point.
Nevertheless, when we are working together as men and women, it would benefit us to appreciate the differences, but not presume upon them. I have been in situations where I deferred to the male leadership to do something that required a man’s presence because of the need for boldness. And male leaders have deferred to me and other women to help set a tone of graciousness to soften tense situations. We should celebrate maleness and femaleness. We need to be better at affirming these things in each other.
As a woman I want to say this to you men: Be courageous. Go ahead, be bold. I love men who have strength of character. I love it when you protect us, when you fight for us. Thank you.
A biblical model of mutuality: Esther and Mordecai
Surprisingly perhaps to some, I have chosen the relationship between Esther and Mordecai as an example of mutuality in leadership. Their relationship started out as an unequal one, Esther the adopted daughter of her cousin Mordecai. As God worked behind the scenes to establish the context for both of their leadership, we see Esther growing into her role of Queen, using her authority to work with Mordecai, until both of them are favored by the King. Follow the progression of who does what when:
Mordecai adopts Esther and she did what he told her, “Esther did what Mordecai told her as she had done when under his care,” 2:20.
Men: I celebrate women’s ___________________________________________________
Women: I celebrate men’s ___________________________________________________
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Mordecai commands her not to let her Jewish identity be known when she went into the King’s harem, Esther complies, see 2:20, and favor increases towards her, 2:9,15,17.
Mordecai continually checks in on her, 2:11. Mordecai uncovers an assassination plot against the King and has to work through Esther to get
the word to the King, and Esther tells the King in Mordecai’s name, 2:22-23. Esther learns that Mordecai is acting in a bizarre manner, and orders her eunuch to check on
him, 4:5. Mordecai orders Esther to intervene with the King, 4:8, she initially refuses, 4:9, and then
complies 4:16. Esther conceives a plan and commands Mordecai to carry it out, 4:17. Esther uses her authority to give Mordecai authority over Haman’s house, 8:2. Esther and Mordecai together write the letter overturning Haman’s law, 8:7-8 Esther uses her authority to increase the punishment against Jewish enemies, 9:13. Esther establishes Purim, “wrote with full authority” (9:29) and “at the command of Esther”
(9:32). Mordecai is second only to the King, 10:3.
Integrating the model into real-time leading First, just as Mordecai and Esther served the King and worked together for a common good, so
too we serve a sovereign God and work together to achieve his purposes for the common good. Esther and Mordecai lived in different worlds but shared a common purpose, and they were able to work together. We ask our women-men leadership teams (usually couples) to make a list with four columns: What are the leadership task? Who will take the lead? What are her/his responsibilities? What are the responsibilities of the “second in command?” And then they have to communicate that to the team, staff, and organization. This exercise has saved many from unnecessary pain.
Second, authority is fluid and grows as people mature in chronological age and character. Initially we see Mordecai making the decisions and assuming care for Esther. She remains obedient. Then a crisis occurs, signalling a shift in their relationship as now Esther assumes care for Mordecai, and together they partner to save the Jewish people. As the crisis deepens and as victory is assured, Esther takes on more of the lead role.
Leadership seems to follow a different timeline for women than it does for men. This is due in part to different biological clocks, men enter into leadership ranks at the time many women are having babies and raising children. For instance, in our organization women leaders had to postpone leadership training events and opportunities in order to care for the families. This increased the gap between men and women leaders, resulting in alot of catch-up when women were finally able to join the men. One way to reduce the leadership deficit is to provide paid child care so women can attend training events, knowing that some women will take the opportunity while others won’t. Husbands may need to take personal time off or give up holiday time in order to free up their wives for the training they need and deserve. In order for this to happen, it has to be part of your organization’s ethos.
There is yet another aspect of differing time lines for men and women. Richard Rohr, popular for his series on male spirituality, describes how men move from “wild man to wise man” over the course of
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their lives.4 They move from heroism to intimacy. I think this is why we see men expressing more emotions as they get older. Wise people are emotionally healthy people.
Women, on the other hand, begin life craving and cultivating intimacy, and move into heroism as they age. Older women are more confident, and more willing to take risks than their younger counter parts. There’s not much we can do to speed up this process, only slow it down. But it’s important to recognize this because leadership is shaped by age. There is “younger” leadership and “older” leadership. Young leaders would do well to seek out older wise guides and mentors that are able to work across gender lines. I believe that older men can work with younger women and
older women can work with younger men. Find those men and women that can relate well to both genders.
Third, both Mordecai and Esther wear the royal robes of authority (5:1, Esther; 6:7, Mordecai). So too men and women leaders must wear the mantle of authority, not clinging to it, yet assuming full responsibility for what they can do when it is needed. Do your leaders members know their assignments and understand their authority to carry out that assignments? A wonderful friend of mine continually bumps into this problem. She is given leadership roles and carries them out, but time and again gets slapped on the wrist for over-extending her authority, a problem she says that does not extend to male leaders. There could be various reasons for this, but I think most of the problem lies with the urgency with which leaders approach their assignments, resulting in a need to get things done quickly, and questions such as “What is my authority here exactly?” get left unanswered. When men and women work together in leadership, we are going to have to slow things down and take time to discuss, set parameters, and check in with each other on a regular basis, just like Mordecai and Esther did.
Fourth, Esther and Mordecai worked within their cultural context, she from inside and he from outside. By working from the inside Esther was able to wield her authority to open doors for Mordecai with the king. It is Mordecai, not Esther, who becomes second in power to the king. Both Mordecai and Esther found favor with the king, though that favor looked different for both of them. The king honors Mordecai, he loves Esther. He displays Mordecai, he protects Esther.
Mordecai’s rise to power and not Esther’s may seem unfair to some of us, but in that context this is the only thing that could have happened. In certain cultures, men need to protect the women. The men have to represent the women in events. Women leaders influence from behind the gender curtain. This is true especially of male-dominated societies (by male-dominated I mean they are the ones in places of authority, this is not a pejorative term, it simply reflects the reality of how many men have positional authority vs. women). As women leaders are we willing to exhibit the more submissive attitude and allow men to protect us by representing us in public, if that is what is called for in your specific culture? Or conversely, are we willing to step out and speak up in intimidating situations?
“I think women are hyper sensitive and it’s easy for them to feel like they’re not important, and hard for them to step out, ”said by a 23 year old woman I mentor in a recent skype conversation. I want to hug women like this, envelop them with as much love, encouragement and affirmation I can give, and say, “Come on, no shrinking back, let’s do this together.”
4 Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality. St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.
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Fifth, Esther and Mordecai use leadership differently. He tells her to do something about the massacre, and she gathers her allies and tells Mordecai to do the same. A recent study on how stress impacts men and women shows that women are able to employ a survival mechanism beyond the flight- fight syndrome. Stress releases the hormone oxytocin, and when coupled with women’s estrogen, increases a woman’s need for nurturing and propels her to her friends. “Women are much more social in the way they cope with stress,” says Shelley E. Taylor, author of “The Tending Instinct” and a social neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Men are more likely to deal with stress with a ‘fight or flight’ reaction — with aggression or withdrawal. But aggression and withdrawal take a physiological toll, and friendship brings comfort that mitigates the ill effects of stress,” Taylor says.5
What does this mean for women leaders? Every time we get overly busy with work and family, the first thing we do is let go of friendships with other women. We push them to the back burner. That’s really a mistake because women are such a source of strength to each other. We nurture one another. And we need to have unpressured space in which we can do the special kind of talk that women do when they’re with other women. It’s a very healing experience. So, women, tend to your friendships.
It’s interesting that Esther’s tactic was to invite the king and Haman to 3 meals. What were her reasons? Perhaps she hoped that the nurturing and intimate act of eating together would help towards peace-making. The fact that Haman accosted her was out of her control, but that’s what pushed the king to protect her and her people. We can learn from Esther’s style of leadership. When leadership struggles arise, let’s allow the more pastoral and nurturing people to come forward. Maybe we should have less meetings and more meals together.
Numerous leadership studies of how men lead vs. how women lead show significant differences. Women’s leadership styles focus more on influencing, networking, being inclusive, and caring for the whole person (she realizes that a woman leader can be effected by personal issues and will take time to address that). Men are more hierarchical, directive, exclusive and more prepared to make unpopular decisions. Both styles are needed. Will you appreciate both styles? And will you accept your personal style of leadership and grow in it?
I struggled to accept my leadership style, striving to emulate the more strategic, quick-decision making leadership of the men in my team. A consultant called me out on it, urging me to change my style to reflect who he saw I was. He wanted me to use my influence to nurture the group. But it was too late, I had for too long seen that type of leadership style as weakness. I acted like a Mordecai when I
should have acted like an Esther. I was worn out trying to fit a mantle that did not suit me. I projected an image of someone I was not. I eventually had to get counseling to discover who I was.
Sixth, Esther’s character is above reproach. Time and again she found favor with everyone, but she never presumed upon it or demanded it. She exhibited respect by prefacing her requests to the king with, “If it pleases the king, and if I have found favor, and if it seems right to you,” recorded 5 times in the book of Esther. This speaks of a gracious attitude, a willingness to use authority without usurping it, assuming responsibility and showing respect. Favor may be related to personality, but it is also related to attitude. A person can do a lot to develop a positive attitude in any situation. Betsy Glanville, in her
5 “Science confirms that women reap health benefits from friendships,” by Melissa Healy, in the Seattle Times, June 15, 2005, http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20050615&slug=healthwomenfriends15
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Ph.D. tutorial, A Study Of Feminine Leadership Styles In The Marketplace And In The Church, noted that women who focus on specific gender issues often become discouraged and burned-out, unable to really accomplish what they desired. By focusing on ministry first (rather than gender) women found that they gained respect over time. The king kept extending more favor and more authority to Esther. Leadership should not be kept back from women, but at the same time women earn it through character as well as competency, just as men do.
Seventh, Esther and her husband, the king, formed a formidable leadership team. What happens when a husband and wife lead together, especially when the power differential is markedly different? My journey into leadership as the wife of a well established leader roller-coastered me from peak to pit. On some days I accepted the leadership openings others gave me because I was their leader’s wife: I sat on leadership teams, I gave oversight to others, spoke and wrote to the entire organization on many occasions. On other days, I resented it, trying to hide my shame in being a tag- along-wife. On really bad days I vowed verbally to my husband and myself, “I will never travel with you to events if I have to sit in the back and knit, only if I am asked to do something.” Surprisingly, other wives of mission agency CEOs my age go through the same struggle. “So why are we being invited to the CEO gathering of the largest mission agencies in America?” we would ask. If we held recognized leadership roles in the organization we would feel better about going with our husbands.
Now I am chagrined thinking of my disdain for tag-along-wives-who-knitted-in-the-back. How arrogant! Here was a husband who wanted his wife along for companionship, and a wife who loved being with him. Why did I find that humiliating? I think it was because I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t accept myself. It had nothing to do with men’s lack of respect for me, I didn’t respect myself. A friend and wife of a denominational leader showed me how she tackled this problem. Tired of being a tag-along-wife, she explored what the teams they visited needed, and she got training for it. She is now a certified spiritual director and certified coach, so everywhere she goes she has spiritual direction and coaching appointments.
Yet challenges remain for husband and wife leadership teams. I can think of two scenarios: the first is when one of the spouses is the more naturally gifted leader, and when the husband and wife have different personalities and leadership styles.
When one or the other of the spouses is the more natural leader. A wife who is the more naturally gifted leader faces obstacles her husband doesn’t in the reverse situation – when he is the more natural leader. Men don’t like to lose to women or appear weaker. She’s going to have to be sensitive about showing honor, while at the same time being a sister in Christ to him and calling him out on arrogant sin patterns. A husband who is the more naturally gifted leader can unconsciously exude a strength that pushes away the softer dimensions of his wife’s leadership. The other women on the team may follow along, and mute their voices. He is going to have to be sensitive to his strength and as a brother in Christ call out the sin patterns of fear and intimidation.
When leadership styles differ. What about the wife and husband leadership team where they differ in leadership styles? That’s fine as long as it does not bring confusion to the team and tensions to the marriage. However, that’s easier said than done. Most of the time when you have two equally gifted but different leadership styles on a team, problems will emerge, if not on the team then in the marriage, or vice-versa.
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In cases where this tension poses a problem, my default is to save the marriage, even if that means one of the spouses needs to back off long enough for them to get coaching. Organizations should be spending good money on coaching wife and husband leadership teams, checking in on how they are doing and how the team is doing. My advice would be to support a united leadership front and divide responsibilities. We dare not dismiss the emotional component of leadership, so organizations may find it necessary to help the wife-husband leadership team get counseling along with the coaching.
Wife and husband leadership teams can also practice these disciplines: Read the verses too.
1. Develop a plan for how to honor one another when you disagree strongly with something the other is saying in public. Choose carefully whether or not you need to disagree with them in public. This goes a long way in building public confidence in your shared leadership and your love for your spouse. (Col. 3:18- 19, Proverbs 31:11-2, Proverbs 11:29a, Proverbs 12:4)
2. Affirm one another publicly. My husband is so good at this that people comment to me, “Your husband sure thinks the world of you.” (Prov.31:28-9) 3. Model mutual submission and respect. (Ephesians 5:21) 4. Do not make public statements about decisions, problem solving, and priorities until you have taken counsel with each other. Here’s what could go wrong otherwise. Decisions: “When did we decide that?” Problem solving: “I
never said I would do that.” Priorities: “I think we should do this first.” (Proverbs 14:1 along with 24:3) 5. As needed, communicate what hat you are wearing when you speak. Are you speaking as just one of the staff or team, or are you speaking as the wife/husband, or are you speaking as the leader? (Proverbs 15:2) 6. Defend one another. You can be played one against the other, so be careful. Also, especially for you husbands, when someone tries to sabotage or even question your wife’s leadership, even though your shared leadership with your wife is already agreed upon and accepted, do two things: talk to the person privately, gently and firmly, and then restate your wife’s authority to lead, even in public if the issue has got that far. (Rom. 12:10, literally “outdo one another in showing honor”) 7. Keep moving forward despite setbacks. Two profitable and equally fun ways to do this: Indulge in the friendship of another couple who totally believe in you, who love you not because of your leadership, but who just love you. Learn by watching a couple who leads well, either by asking to hang out with them for a week (that takes guts!) or by reading their material if they can only be “passive” mentors to you. (Proverbs 11:14)
Lord, what are you saying to me?
What do I have to lay down, and what do I have to pick up?
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