Learning from women’s experiences: Leadership, Innovation and Women

Melinda Cousins - Arrow 9 (2010 - 2011)
Biblical Studies Lecturer at Tabor Adelaide

As far as I can tell, much of what has been written about women and leadership in the church has been about the challenges they face or the perceived boundaries on their roles. One of the things I have most appreciated about Arrow is its strengths based approach – instead of zeroing in on the areas we struggle with, how can we appreciate what we are already doing well and build on that? So I thought it might be interesting to explore what might be some of the strengths that women can have in exercising leadership and what these might have to teach all of us about leadership innovation. Given that the vast majority of leaders in the church have been, and continue to be, men, is it possible that some of the ways we think about leadership have been dominated and even limited by that perspective? How might hearing the range of experiences and perspectives of our women leaders help us think through new ways to lead that can benefit all of us?

In Christian circles, discussions about women and leadership are also too easily polarised, with views at one end limiting the roles women can take on and those at the other sometimes appearing to disregard any differences between genders. Is there a more constructive way forward? Last year, I heard a speaker make a statement that resonated with me, and I have since found has resonated with many other women and men in Christian leadership. She said this: “For too long, men in the church have been denied the voice of women.”[1] What this statement attempts to capture is that men and women both have something to offer, that we need each other, that we can learn from one another, and that the full flourishing of both men and women is good for the gospel and good for the church.

A friend of mine had a “light-bulb” moment when he thought about how his wife’s voice has spoken into his life over 30-plus years of marriage. He said, “Without her perspective, I would have made quite a few more dumb decisions, and I would have missed out on a whole bunch of opportunities that I just didn’t see.” He recognised that a church or Christian organisation with only male leaders is operating with one hand tied behind its back, missing out on voices and perspectives that can lead to insight, wisdom, creativity and transformation.

Whether gender differences are inherent due to biology or constructed due to socialisation is a debate that will not be resolved any time soon, and again a more nuanced perspective might be helpful. Stereotypes are unhelpful as we find that it is impossible to put all men or all women in a box and say they are all “like this.” But the Christian gospel is an embodied gospel, and we live in the world as embodied beings. The fact that I enter the world each day as a woman, and experience the strengths and limits of this embodied experience and see the world from that perspective does shape how I respond to it. By virtue of their experience of living in the world as women, women have a different perspective than men. Research in the business world has shown that diversity in an organisation can be a key that unlocks innovation as different perspectives are conveyed, new ideas are heard, and creativity is fostered.[2] We have a God who delights in the diversity of His creation and calls us to listen to one another as we listen to Him. Allowing the perspectives of both men and women to inform our understanding of the world, the gospel, and leadership, can be innovative and transformative.

For example, whether by choice or by circumstance, many women who are in Christian leadership find themselves in part time roles, and a significant number in more than one role at a time. Many find that they enjoy the flexibility of combining roles, and that their leadership in the church, for example, is enhanced by their other experiences, whether they be raising children, working in the community, or volunteering in para-church organisations. Could it be that the dominant model of a full-time, single-focus church pastor means the leader misses out on the breadth of connections, experiences and perspectives that working more flexibly offers?

Similarly, most women find themselves working as members of a team of leaders, finding that they have something unique to bring, that they benefit from the diverse strengths of other team members, and enjoying the camaraderie and support of working with others. I know a number of women, myself included, who have been asked whether becoming a Senior Pastor (read “real pastor”) is their ultimate goal, and they are not quite sure how to answer. Is a top-of-the-tree model the only way? The best way? Or could it be that collaborating with others who see things differently is something all leaders should aspire to? Does there really have to be someone who has a “final say” in a community that already has a Head in Jesus? Church leadership models have been changing as we hear from those exploring new ways of expressing mission and community in contemporary culture. Perhaps the experience of our women leaders is another voice we can listen to in rethinking and reimagining what leadership in a body of believers can look like.

A number of women who have entered ministry leadership roles after years spent raising a family have commented how helpful their experience of leading their children has been, and yet it is not usually considered relevant work experience in formal terms. Could it be that their experience brings a new perspective to other leadership situations that others of us may not have thought about? Women are also more likely to be faced with the “having it all” question, pitting family and career against one another. Many today would agree that having it all is a myth: we have to make choices, trade-offs and sacrifices. But isn’t this true for all of us, male or female, parents or non-parents? Could it be that the questions we sometimes ask only of working mothers are questions we should all be asking ourselves as well? Annabel Crabb suggests that our culture forces men to accept the untenable assumption that leadership in their careers means sacrificing their children and families.[3] Doesn’t Jesus call us to a different way?

Some women have also experienced perceptions or pressures from those they lead that have made it difficult or impossible for them to lead in a direct or hierarchical manner. They have been given all the responsibilities and expectations of leadership roles, without the authority or respect that usually comes with them. They have had to learn to be collaborative, to establish consensus, to lead not from positions of strength or power, but from positions of weakness, patiently building trust and confidence from their communities as they faithfully serve. There is some research suggesting women may be more likely to be “transformational” leaders, that is those who establish themselves as role models by gaining the trust and confidence of followers, rather than “transactional” leaders, who manage followers more traditionally by reward and correction.[4] Could it be that in these women we are reminded of Jesus’ call to a different kind of leadership than most practice, not leading as rulers or lords but as humble servants?

My experience tells me that as I listen to the stories of diverse women in Christian leadership – old and young, wives, mothers and single women, professionals and volunteers – I realise that the structures of leadership that our churches and organisations have set up often do not “fit” for them. That as they find their voices and listen to the voice of Jesus, they are asking some really good questions about what leadership is and whether it has to look the way they have assumed or been told it should. Perhaps without even realising they are doing it, by questioning paradigms and expectations, they are innovating.

Finally, as I think about the bigger picture of our world, and the desperate need for innovative ways to live out the gospel in all its fullness, I am reminded of the unfortunate reality that we all tend to be more likely to notice and empathise with those who are in some way like us, and we can overlook challenges that do not affect those like us. I believe the church is called to take a lead in bringing God’s reconciliation and wholeness to a broken and hurting world. If women are not speaking up or sitting at the leadership table, perhaps it should not really surprise us that some of the issues in our world that disproportionately affect women have not always being taken seriously or addressed well. Over 65 million girls are excluded from education. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women.[5] Three quarters of those in slavery around the world are women and girls.[6] One in three women will experience sexual assault or rape in her lifetime.[7] In Australia this year, close to 2 women a week have been killed by their partners. In every measure of global health and wellbeing, women trail behind men.[8] Former US President Jimmy Carter has called the mistreatment of women the number one human rights issue in the world.[9] And yet too often the church has been viewed as silent on these issues. Is it because we genuinely don’t know what to say, or could it be that we have not heard the voices of those amongst us who see what others of us don’t see, who have experiences that we don’t all have, and who have ideas that we have not yet thought of? We need our women to step up, speak up, and lead us in seeing and listening. It is good for them, good for the church, and for the good of the world.

Find out what you can do to empower and equip more leaders like Melinda.

[1] Ellen Charry, Professor of Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary.

[2] See C. R. Østergaard, B. Timmermans & K. Kristinsson, “Does a Different View Create Something New? The Effect of Employee Diversity on Innovation” 40 (3) Research Policy 2011; S. A. Hewlett, M. Marshall & L. Sherbin, “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation” Harvard Business Review, December 2013. 

[3] Annabel Crabb, The Wife Drought (Random House Australia, 2014)

[4] A. H. Eagly, M. C. Johannesen-Schmidt & M. L. van Engen, “Transformational, Transactional, and Laessex-Fair Leadership Styles: A Meta-Analysus Comparing Women and Men” 129 (4) Psychological Bulletin 2003.