Minerva G. Carcaño, Bishop, Desert Southwest Annual Conference
A beloved aunt of mine recently reminded me that when I was in high school, she had told me that wherever I led, all my cousins in my large extended family would follow me. There was a tone of responsibility in her statement, and it made me shudder. I vaguely remembered it, and began to immediately think about whether I had led well. I was, in my head, going through my relationships with the long list of my cousins when she continued, saying in a pensive way, “I wish they had followed you . . .”
It was a moment of deep awareness for me. The fact that my aunt had early on thought that I could lead others was humbling. While since then I have had the opportunity to serve in many leadership positions, that someone as close to me as her had expected me to lead in my life left me reflecting deeply and prayerfully on leadership.
Women have been the primary role models for leadership in my life. They have not been the traditional role models that society or the church would necessarily look upon and say, “That’s a leader.” My grandmother Sofia to this day is the strongest leader I have ever known. She is the one whose witness always stirs within my heart when I struggle to be an effective leader.
Sofia was the mother of nine children, a hardworking sharecropper’s wife. As a young adult she became a Methodist after experiencing the love of Christ Jesus at a gathering of new Christians under the branches of a mesquite tree in South Texas. She led her family to the feet of Christ, and to this day, several generations later, we are active Christians. My grandfather Rafael had suffered a debilitating stroke at a relatively young age, and my grandmother had assumed the leadership of her family; not an easy task for a Hispanic woman of her generation.
Culturally, it was expected that she be subservient to her husband, but her husband needed her care and her guidance, as did her family. As a young Methodist and particularly as a woman, she was expected by her church to serve in supportive roles as well. Every Sunday she sat in the second pew to the left side of the sanctuary, closest to the pulpit, because she loved to hear good preaching. However, she would not step foot in the chancel of the sanctuary because she had learned along the way that the chancel was for the spiritual leaders of the church, who were always men. She was a leader, though, remembered in our family and in our home church as a Christian leader. Even today I call upon her to mentor and accompany me.
There were some consistent leadership characteristics that Sofia bore that I have learned much from. She led through prayer, the study of Scripture, and by seeking to understand the context of the moment, and the human heart. Prayer was foundational for her. She prayed several times a day, including a set-apart time every morning from Monday through Friday. She read Holy Scripture without fail. It was the way her day started and ended. She was in tune with the suffering as well as the joys of her family, her church, her community, and her world. She listened attentively to the voices of the ones around her. Were they burdened? were they rejoicing? were they honest and true, or hiding some conscious sin, or about to step out on the wrong foot? Her small transistor radio and later a black-and-white television kept her daily informed of the greater world. In her own way and in what always seemed to be the right moment, she would speak her words of wisdom for her family, her church, and for the world. She was a woman of the reign of God who wove all her encounters with others into her spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, and leadership, for her life was about figuring out how to be faithful to God and God’s vision of the world as it should be.
It was Grandmother Sofia who taught me to read. One evening she handed me her well-worn Spanish-language Bible and told me she was going to teach me to read. I had not yet started public school and was excited about learning how to read. In retrospect I see the intentionality of her actions. She could have chosen a more traditional beginner’s reading book, and a much easier book to teach me how to read, but she chose the Bible. I am glad she did. From that night on until she determined I could really read, I would sit by her as she taught me to read. She taught me the Spanish alphabet, some basics about language and reading, and then she opened her Bible, placed it on my lap, and invited me to read. At first I would stumble through the words, but she was ever patient. Eventually I found my own rhythm as I began to read, but it was my grandmother who taught me how to truly read the Scriptures of life.
After reading a passage from the Bible, we would sit in silence. She would usually be mending worn shirts or darning torn socks. While she knew how to live in the silence, it took me a while to understand and receive it. I came to learn that the silence was a waiting upon the Lord to speak to us through the Holy Word. After a while Grandmother Sofia would break the silence with some probing questions. What was God telling us through the passage? What did the passage teach us? How would we do what God was teaching us? Even today I depend on her questions as I study Scripture.
When I first declared that I believed I had a call to leadership through ordained ministry, I was told that such a call was not possible because women could not interpret Scripture or preach. I was frightened and even discouraged by this challenge, but I quickly remembered my grandmother Sofia. She had been able to interpret Scripture and to preach through her living, and if I had learned anything from her, it was that through the power of the Holy Spirit, so could I. It was, in fact, my responsibility to faithfully follow wherever God was leading me. Considering her convictions about who had access to the chancel of God’s house and who did not, I suspect my grandmother would have been troubled by my declaration about being called to ordained ministry, but I believe she would have encouraged me to faithfully seek God’s will for my life above all things.
Grandmother Sofia represents the generations of women who have taught us the sacred lessons of Christian leadership. I believe she stands in the lineage of the women of the Bible who were leaders before their time: women like Deborah, Ruth, Lois, and Eunice. They have taught us those eternal lessons that should guide our steps as Christian leaders. Christian leadership is always about going where God leads us out of love for God’s people, and because it is God who is our primary leader, our leadership must be a servant leadership in the name of Christ Jesus. While we will continue to learn much about the world God has created, our leadership must always be grounded in those ancient disciplines of prayer and the study of Holy Scripture. Our leadership must be relevant to life, or it is useless. This will take attentive listening and being willing to be present and honest with others and with ourselves about the state of life, about what is right and what is wrong, and most of all, about what God is telling us, teaching us, and expecting of us.
One day our pastor came to consult with my grandmother. His leadership at our church was being challenged, and he was tired and weary. Tears streamed down his face as he shared his struggles with my grandmother. What advice did my grandmother have for him? He needed her guidance. In silence and in awe, I sat in a corner of the living room of our home, observing this amazing scene. This great man of God was seeking my grandmother’s leadership. I was a child, but I knew that it was a sacred moment. I do not remember all that my grandmother said to our pastor, but I do remember her listening patiently and being present for him. And I will never forget that at the end of their conversation, she said to him, “Trust God, for God is always faithful.” In our leadership may we trust God, who is indeed ever faithful.