“This is What a Leader Looks Like” is a series adapted from an interview project on women in leadership conducted by Naomi Hall. Naomi recently served as a student intern with the Center for Transformation Leadership, a joint endeavor of the Free Methodist Church of Southern California and Azusa Pacific University.
Meet Natalia Álvarez.
Natalia is from Chile, married with two daughters, and serves as an Associate Pastor at Iglesia Confraternidad Cristiana (ICC). She has been involved in ministry for 11 years in Azusa, co-pastoring alongside her husband, Jonatan González. In addition to leading worship, Natalia also leads the women’s ministry and is very involved in providing help to Hispanic women who have been victims of abuse, domestic violence, drugs, divorce, and other situations that result in emotional conflict and turmoil in the family.
How were you called into this work/ministry? What influences came into your life to lead you to a leadership role?
My motivation for service in ministry started with the example I received from my grandparents and my parents. It was a great blessing for me to have been exposed to their leadership, seeing God’s intervention in the lives of the people they ministered to. There were transformed families, sick people being healed, and many in need were being comforted. God used all those things as a source of inspiration for my life, and it lead me to make the decision to follow in the same path.
Additionally, there were two key moments that reinforced this calling. First, at the age of 17 a missionary from Brazil told me that God would take me away from my country to minister to people of different nationalities who would have a great need of Jesus. I embraced the call of God and understood that it was God’s purpose for my life.
The second moment was at the age of 23, when I was already here in the United States planting a church with my husband in the city of Azusa. As we began to get familiar with the community and established connections with people, God pointed me to the vulnerable situation of Hispanic women and began to forge in me a sensible heart toward the many diverse problems they face. Every year, I have further developed my resources and found innovative strategies in order to be more effective in my labor as a minister.
What challenges did you face moving into this leadership position?
I faced many challenges. One of them was my age, having started my work in ministry at the age of only 23. There was constant prejudice from people. Being young was a synonym for inexperience, imprudence, and not being trustworthy. In the Hispanic context, prejudice towards youth is quite common and can be an obstacle and a constant battle. But I decided to see my youth as a strength not as an obstacle; a valuable asset that gave me the energy, the passion and the focus to serve God with excellence.
The second aspect was gender prejudice. A woman in leadership is not always accepted by some people. During the first years of ministry it was a very difficult battle, dealing with people’s opinions, their analysis and questioning, and their lack of receptivity. Even though it was a constant internal battle, the Word of God always kept me focused on my identity and the value I have in God. God always reminded me, “People’s opinions do not define you.”
Another challenge has been learning to relate to people of different cultures and nationalities. It is an enriching experience but a complex process. My college studies in Multicultural Education gave me the essential tools to work in a socially diverse context. However, despite this background and the fact that I really enjoy being a part of this multicultural reality, this remains a constant challenge for me.
What does female leadership look like to you?
I never had issues seeing women in leadership or in ministry. From childhood I saw my grandmother, mother, and aunt living out their pastoral ministries. It was not unusual to me. On the contrary, it was very normal. However, as I started to grow I was exposed to other contexts where a woman in leadership was considered inappropriate. I learned that some churches do not consider women a viable option for leadership and do not allow women to develop in ministry.
It’s unfortunate that there are still Christian contexts where there is no room for women in leadership of any kind. They can’t teach, they can’t lead, and much less be pastors. From my perspective there is no solid biblical support for this posture. I think it has to do with cultural prejudice, born of a chauvinist society, and mixed with poor interpretation of Scriptures.
Socially, even if people don’t admit to this, women are a great influence in their home and their environment. Biblically, there are records of women God used to bring blessing and to impact their families and society. Christ himself broke the patterns of cultural traditions to show the world with clarity that women are just as valuable and worthy, and competent to assume the responsibilities and ministry as well as men.
Men and women were created with equal value, rights, and privileges before God. Under this premise there should not be rivalry, nor marginality, or any type of discrimination. There should be a full understanding that God can use any person, no matter their gender, nationality, or social status (Gal. 3:28). More specifically, a woman can be used by God to impact this generation by leading in social and Christian contexts.
I believe that feminine leadership is not only necessary; it complements masculine leadership. Our children and youth need to be exposed to both; they need both references to be inspired and motivated to grow integrally as people. They need to project and identify themselves as men or women who can make a difference in this society and lift high the name of Jesus.
What is the toughest part of your job, as a woman ? What challenges do you face in your job that are unique to being a woman leader?
The toughest part for me is maintaining a balance between the time I need to dedicate to my family and the time I dedicate to the ministry. I have the conviction in my heart that my home comes first, and I can’t neglect my role as a mother and as a wife. In recent years I have noticed that one of the things that affects our society is the absence of parents in the home. The priorities are completely out of order; work comes before quality time with the family. I constantly find myself helping people who are dealing with this, and it’s unfortunate to see how families are destroyed for this very reason.
This area of coordinating my time is a permanent challenge for me, not only because my family needs me, but because I also have a responsibility before God, to be a role model to other women and reflect that it is possible to have a balanced home. It’s difficult, but when achieved it brings great blessing and fulfillment to your life.
What advice could you offer to younger women working toward leadership roles within the church?
Well, I could say many things but I want to focus on 4 aspects that I consider essential and practical for leadership in the church context.
First, consider that more than a filling a position, leadership is being an influence. When we see our leadership as a position we can’t establish a close relationship of fellowship with the people we minister to. The model Jesus showed us was based on serving others, not manipulating them, and the best way to influence others is by serving them.
Second, assume that leadership is not a position but a disposition. Being assigned a position does not guarantee leadership, it comes from our character. Our leadership will have little impact if it’s coming from the title itself. We have to have the disposition to develop a Christ-like character and the humility to see that being a leader does not exempt us from making mistakes. God is not seeking perfection but a life that renders itself ready to be molded.
Third, develop prudency. Leadership requires us to work with people and exposes us to situations that can be very unpleasant. It is important to act with prudency in giving opinions and discerning how to proceed, to maintain calm, to provide solutions to conflicts. Prudency is wisdom in action that allows us to have control of our emotions and impulses, and to act with temperance and edify and bless the people around us.
And last but not least, develop resilience to be able to bounce back from adversity. As leaders, we are not exempt from making mistakes or facing adversity. Every leader faces personal battles as well as ministry battles; however, there is something that is essential to remaining calm and constant in our calling. We need to learn to trust God and rest in his love. Trust in God is not achieved through affirmations, but by cultivating intimacy with Him.
The more we know God, the more we will trust him, and the faster we will recover strength to recover from adversity. Resting in the love of God is a powerful antidote that energizes us to come back victorious. When the love of Christ is our support, we can bounce back from pain, face adversity, grow, and have access to a more blessed life. Never forget that we are not alone, God is with us!
I enjoy serving the Lord, I and I feel fulfilled as I see all the things He has given me and has allowed me to build so far. If given the option, I would not hesitate to choose this same path!
From the author: “This project aims to broaden the horizons of what women in Christian leadership look like in our world today. When you search Google for female leader, women in leadership, or women in ministry not much comes up. But let me tell you, there are amazing women out there who deserve to be highlighted who are representative of women in similar roles”. Previous posts include Seminary Professor Edition and Back Country Edition.
Photo Credits: Naomi Hall
I thoroughly enjoyed Natalia’s story, especially when she says, “I never had issues seeing women in leadership or in ministry. From childhood I saw my grandmother, mother, and aunt living out their pastoral ministries. It was not unusual to me. On the contrary, it was very normal.” When something is part of our experience, we expect it. Yet when we go out into the world and see that not everyone shares our world view, it can become discouraging. On the flip side, Natalia’s story can encourage other women who aspire to become leaders in the Church but may have problems seeking out examples of female leadership.