Sandra L. Steiner Ball, Bishop, West Virginia Conference
“God rounded you up from all over the place, from the four winds, from the seven seas” (Ps. 107:3 MSG). God has been rounding people up since the beginning of time, calling them, and empowering them to be God’s change agents in this world. Clearly this calling is not, and has never been, limited to men. Both the Old and New Testaments include women. The recorders of biblical history have shared their stories habitually from the perspective of the dominant culture, and most often from a distinctly male perspective and understanding of the world. The fact that women appear in Scripture in and of itself is indeed one of God’s miracles in a world where leadership has been predominantly male.
Biblical women run the gamut, portraying who women were, could be, should be, and should not be. They were wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, single, married, prostitutes, businesswomen, and widows. The New Testament in particular espouses women of great faith and great hope: women who were leaders. For example, Anna, whom society would never have recognized as a person with priestly position or proclamation, announced the promise of a Messiah fulfilled. The woman with the issue of blood was seeking a miracle and was willing to risk being in a place where society said she should never have been. She trusted that her life would be changed. Mary, a woman so faithful and so dedicated to acting on the importance of what she believed, was first at the tomb and first to share the good news of the risen Christ. These women, called by God, were willing to risk and to change their lives to answer that call. They navigated the societal barriers and persisted over time, searching and seeking in hope and faith.
And let us not forget Mary, the mother of Jesus. This story serves to empower the leadership not only of women, but of any who find themselves at the margins of society. Mary was the very first to learn of the coming of Christ. A teenage girl, pregnant and unwed, who was not a woman of means or position, was engaged to a man who was not the father of her child. This girl was chosen to take on the greatest responsibility of all time—to bear and raise a Son who would ultimately be sacrificed, so that all God’s people would have access to eternal life. She was chosen, yes. She was called, yes. But what leadership it took for her to accept this responsibility! There are no gender, age, or class restrictions on call or leadership. A woman, no matter what her age or status, who answers a call, can change the world. Mary’s story leaves no doubt about that.
Today it is not hard to identify women who are successfully engaging in a variety of leadership roles in and outside of the church. More and more women are gaining access to leadership roles in places that have been restricted to men. While we celebrate this, we must recognize that in order to go into these places, women have had to change their lives and many have risked their safety—societal and sometimes physical—to accept the responsibility to which they have been called. While these sacrifices have been real, the world would like to magnify the stories of challenge and sacrifice so as to discourage and disempower women from being leaders. I often wonder just how many women have been threatened and discouraged from answering their call to serve in a variety of ways throughout the world. This media-crazy world has been very good at reminding women continually of the “costs” of stepping out of what society still inherently feels is the appropriate role for women.
However, I believe there is a greater cost for the world when women do not become the leaders God calls them to be. Those biblical women who believed and hoped against all odds, who changed their lives and in turn enabled others to be transformed, challenge us all to listen for our own call, to say yes, and to live the yes we speak with our lips in the actions of our lives. Like these women, we must reflect upon and evaluate our own calling, and in so doing encourage and empower others to find their callings.
So, what does it mean to encourage and empower women for leadership? How do those of us who are leaders help other women develop their leadership style?
I believe that helping, encouraging, and empowering women for leadership begins with self-awareness or self-reflection and modeling the discipline of this way of living and being for others. Every moment holds potential teaching and empowering for leadership, both in the world and for the church. Leadership is about influence and people. How we as women think and act influences, directly and indirectly, the culture in which we find ourselves. By word, action, and example, women have shown they know how to accomplish something by focusing on who they are, instead of being defined by the tasks they do or the titles they may have.
Women throughout time have taught other women the importance of self-reflection. Time spent in self-reflection will truly reveal what matters most, where true passion lies. The world tries to tell women what should be important to them, the things or issues about which they should be passionate. Identity is not found in tasks performed. To attempt to find value and identity this way brings vulnerability and captivity to others’ expectations or to a need to justify achievement and seek approval. To accept the world’s vision of value, of skills, of what are “women’s” jobs or issues, is to be limited to the world’s definition of identity, gifts, and call, instead of engaging in and discovering the value, the gifts, and the call that have been given by God.
To discover the identity, gifts, and call of God is to uncover who you really are: someone who is loved, accepted, forgiven, valuable, and enabled to define life by God’s love for who she is and is called to be. Self-reflection paves the way for this kind of self-discovery and self-knowledge. I have heard someone say, “If you do not know yourself, you cannot lead yourself. If you cannot lead yourself, then how can you lead others?” In a world that continues to attempt to limit the leadership of women by glass ceilings and gender stereotypes, self-reflection and self-awareness are essential to the leadership that women can give and are called to give. When you know yourself as God knows you, and you discover what is important to you and why, activity begins to be transformed into productivity, productivity that uses God-given gifts to do the right things for the right reasons.
As women discover and practice the discipline of self-reflection and become convinced of their God-given value, uncovering what is truly important for them, they will be empowered to bring growth and positive change while working with others. They will be leaders who do the right things and make a difference in this world, who can confront, challenge, support, admonish, and encourage—without fear of rejection or need for affirmation. Sure of what they are and of their God-given call, they will be able to confront with compassion the maltreatment that sometimes comes with leadership. They will also be able to receive praise with true humility.
Practicing self-awareness can bring integrity, vulnerability, and trust to leadership. Leaders who are self-aware tend to be comfortable in their own skin; they appreciate who they are and their gifts and realize that they do not have all the answers, and do not have to. Being comfortable in one’s own skin helps one to appreciate the contributions of others and to do away with the fear of inviting them to be part of a team, thus offering openness to exploring and working toward understanding of all sides of an issue. By intentionally seeking input from others, including opposing opinions, a leader gains a larger view that can enable decisions that align both with who she is and what she believes is truly important.
Self-reflection helps women in leadership to have an awareness of what they do and do not know. In this realization a leader needs to appreciate strengths, skills, and accomplishments, but also needs to be aware of the areas where further growth and development are needed. This is part of what it means to be self-confident. Self-confident leaders know themselves, their strengths and gifts, and intentionally pull together teams that include people who have complementary strengths, especially in the areas where the leader needs further development and growth. This practice builds responsibility and ownership of direction that is mutually shaped.
Lastly, leadership and humility go hand in hand. Leadership is not about the leader. It is God who has gathered us up from all over the place. God is in control. God has called us. God has empowered us and given us gifts. Humility keeps leaders grounded. Humility is that characteristic that reminds leaders that they are no better or no worse than anyone else, that all people are due respect, and that a leader should not treat one differently than another just because of a job title or status. Humility causes leaders to value the contributions of others. When a leader is able to live in and with humility, those around her will respect the direction given, the decisions that are made.
A leader is someone to whom people look because she knows how to influence and motivate them. Self-reflection that brings deep self-knowledge; deep self-awareness and discovery of God-given gifts; the ability to genuinely invite other people and perspectives into conversations; self-confidence; and authentic humility all contribute to making great leaders. Leadership is not about title, status, or gender. It is about listening deeply and discovering and accepting yourself as the person God created and designed you to be: a person holy, beloved, and valuable, who has something she is called to contribute to the growth and well-being of the world.
Biblical women like Anna, the woman who touched Jesus’ hem, Mary, and the mother of Jesus display this style of leadership, and their stories stand as examples of empowerment for women today. God has called women from all over the place to be leaders. A woman was first to know of the coming of Christ. A woman was also first to proclaim publicly at the temple that the promise of a Messiah had been fulfilled, and a woman was the first to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and the gift of eternal life. I want you to notice one important thing about these women: the word “can’t” is never mentioned in their stories.
God continues to call and empower women today. Women have the gift of being able to listen deeply despite all the other noise around them. Women are able to get in touch with an inner strength, where their circumstances or positions do not define who they are or who they are to become. Women can understand that God-given spiritual gifts are to be used on behalf of others and not to advance self. How do we empower women to develop their leadership style? We keep the stories of the biblical women alive, and we tell our own stories of how God gathers us up and calls us and values us!
So tell the story! Share the good news of Jesus Christ and how God empowers women—and has empowered you—to take leadership in showing who Christ is, and proclaiming that gift. Women, tell your story! Leadership is about the growth and positive change that can be brought about while working with others. Tell your stories of growth. Share what is important to you, and invite others to join you to do the right things for the right reasons. Tell the stories of how God has gathered and called you, and what God has empowered you to do. Share your stories of dynamic, transforming life. Women are leading now in all kinds of ways to do the right things, the important things, that make a difference in people’s lives, in all kinds of organizations, and in the world. Women, tell your stories, so other women may come to discover that they have been called to be leaders too!