As I listened to the pastor of my new church describe the insults and attacks he and the elders had endured after they made the decision to invite women onto the elder board, a weight lifted off my soul. For the first time in my life, I discovered what it felt like to have male leadership take the hit for me.
Prior to this, only one or two individual men had heralded my gifts. Finally, I knew what it meant to be part of a church body where I did not need to keep my mouth shut or squirm in my seat or disagree in silence whenever issues regarding women were addressed. Because that is my world for the most part.
While my own position concerning the role of women in the church has gradually changed, my work environment has not. I serve with my husband in a conservative mission agency where complementarianism is the default mode. I walk the tension between being considerate of my colleagues who don’t believe women should lead teams, preach, or hold high leadership positions and my own beliefs that we would be a healthier agency with more positive outcomes if we would not put such restrictions on our women.
I believe women have three choices when they find themselves in a dilemma like mine: 1) stay where they are and serve however they can, trusting that God sees and will reward their faithfulness; 2) stay where they are but be an agent for change and; 3) go where they can serve with all the fullness of their gifts.1 To date, I have not felt God’s okay to move out of my current circle and so I navigate between choices one and two. How do I manage this?
I study and read and then study some more.
At first, I studied all the theological arguments concerning the role of women in the church in order to stay true to God’s Word. Now I study so I can present my interpretation of Scripture using terms that will not scare off my colleagues but rather build bridges to common ground. I stick to topics like ezer kenegdo and the biblical examples of strong women. I suggest that there may be another interpretation for a complex text. I never want to be caught unable to respond with clarity and confidence to a commonly held belief.
I strive for excellence in my service.
While for many years I served anywhere I could, I now serve in the areas of my strength. I try to bring good ideas to the table, to research my suggestions, and to be helpful to those in leadership in order to gain credibility and respect. I want to demonstrate by example how the body is strengthened when women exercise their gifts.
I teach and lead whenever and however I can.
When God opens a door, it doesn’t matter who the audience is, if I can use my gifts. Even if the topic is outside my comfort zone, I take advantage of the opportunity to teach Biblical truth every time. If I am spearheading a new initiative, I confidently model the leadership capabilities of women.
I model the “blessed alliance” with my husband.
This phrase, coined by author Carolyn Custis James, beautifully describes how my husband, a department director, affirms me, welcomes my assistance, invites me into the discussion, and accepts my influence. When asked to give a devotional, he invites me to co-teach with him. He even goes a step further and speaks up on behalf of all women in our agency.
I don’t have a chip on my shoulder.
When women are overlooked because of a theological position, I remind myself this means we still have work to do, and I don’t take it personally. I don’t want my hurt to cloud the discussion when I am speaking up for and empowering other women. It helps that I have a naturally quiet voice, which lets me speak gently and non-threateningly (although I can be quite passionate) and yet be true to my character and personality.
I push the envelope where appropriate.
I nominate a female candidate for our board. I gently suggest we allow a woman to give a devotional from time to time. I throw my support behind a woman being considered for team leader. I ask for a title that is appropriate for my role (Assistant Director). I make suggestions to empower and enable our women to use their gifts fully and openly. When a controversial text is mentioned, I present a different opinion. Bottom line, I attempt to lead up through influence and collaboration, rather than power or position.
I look for external outlets.
Because I don’t have a lot of support internally, I read egalitarian authors who enforce my ideas and challenge me (such as The Junia Project). I attend an egalitarian church where I feel the burden of my beliefs lifted and I can witness women in high leadership positions. And I have found some soul sisters and brothers among my colleagues who encourage me to continue navigating these waters.
But I don’t always navigate them perfectly. At times I wonder how far to go. Should I be more vocal? Should I confront a director on his dismissal of the need for women on the board? Should I tell the president that relying on an agency-wide vote as God’s sovereign choice is not enough? Should I insist on teaching a devotional? Should I invite a woman to speak to a mixed group?
And so I pray.
I ask God to give me wisdom, discernment, kindness, and opportunities to influence. I invite God to show me when to speak up and when to be silent.
I began my journey with the choice to serve however I could and trusted that God would reward my faithfulness, and I have gradually seen God open the doors for me to influence change. Maybe one day I will be called to move on the third choice – to go where I can serve fully, using all my gifts.
1Adapted from Carol Becker, Leading Woman, Abington Press, 1996.