Clergywomen Lead Vital New Congregations

Candace Lewis, Florida Annual Conference

wellsprings_womensleadershipClergywomen are starting and leading new vital congregations. They make up almost fifteen percent (15%) of the 684 church planters serving United Methodist new congregations started between 2008 and 2012. We anticipate seeing an increase in the number of clergywomen starting new churches; more women are learning about the opportunity, being assessed, and receiving specialized training in church planting.

Many clergywomen who plant churches demonstrate a leadership style that is innovative and risk-taking, entrepreneurial and courageous, relational and collaborative. In my current role as executive director of the New Church Starts Division at the General Board of Discipleship, I serve across the denomination resourcing the work of church planting within annual conferences. I have the privilege of meeting and training young men and women who are starting new churches. In this article I would like to share my story and the stories of women church planters who exemplify innovative and risk-taking, entrepreneurial and courageous, relational and collaborative styles of leadership. These stories are all from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, highlighting its intentional focus on planting new churches, thus offering more opportunities for women to lead vital new congregations.

Innovative and Risk-taking Leadership Style

Upon graduating from seminary in 1996, my first pastoral appointment in the Florida Annual Conference was to plant a new church. I was excited and overwhelmed. I laughed and cried. I believed, and I prayed, “Lord, help my unbelief.” I was a twenty-eight-year-old, newly ordained elder in The United Methodist Church (UMC). I was also single, African American, and a woman with no experience as a senior pastor and no formal training in church planting. My only professional and personal experience was a good track record from college and seminary and a reputation as an innovative leader, risk-taker, and self-starter.

The goal of this church plant was to reach African American persons in the twenty-to-forty age range with an emphasis on children, youth, college students, and young families. The ministries were to include practical outreach and community development. These ministries would address the community’s social, political, educational, and economic issues. New Life UMC was started in June 1997 with seven people. After eleven years, the congregation grew to more than two hundred members. In our ninth year, New Life moved from leasing shopping-center space to purchasing and owning church property on six acres with a sanctuary, youth building, office space, classrooms, fellowship hall, and room for expansion.

Those early years of church planting taught me how to be an innovative and risk-taking leader. As a new church, we seized the opportunity to engage new people and to create new ways to be in ministry within our community. We were young and on fire for Jesus. We were not afraid to try new things. The leadership quickly learned to make mistakes, begin again, and to proceed more intelligently the next time.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, is the first book I encountered that described the leadership style and practice that I define as “entrepreneurial and risk-taking”—my leadership style at the time—as dangerous.[1] As a leader, I identified with the saying: “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” Many times while leading the church, I took risks, minimizing the danger alone and then forging ahead. In retrospect, I wish I had included others in naming the potential dangers. This would have enabled others on the leadership team to process and absorb more of the responsibilities, which are common in risk-taking leadership. I know that it is important to assess and manage risks in ministry. I learned to use prudent risk assessments, and I celebrated the fruitfulness that accompanies innovative, risk-taking leadership balanced with wisdom and risk assessments to help minimize the dangers and maximize the fruitfulness.

I am a graduate of the “school of church-planting hard knocks,” but I hope I’m the last. My current work is redemptive. It reminds me of God’s faithfulness. God has allowed me to learn many tough lessons, and develop and fine tune my innovative and risk-taking leadership style. Today I get to share the lessons I learned to help and support others, especially clergywomen, in their church planting journey.

Entrepreneurial and Courageous Leadership Style

The Rev. Amanda Garber,[2] a clergywoman in the Virginia Annual Conference was appointed as director of a Wesley Foundation in 2007. When she arrived, she found a ministry that, over the course of a few years, had turned inward, offering a dinner for students without engaging the larger campus and community. About forty students would attend dinner, and only a handful would remain for worship and spiritual formation. Amanda describes herself as struggling to discover ways to engage more students in spiritual formation and mission with and within the community. Amanda became pregnant with her second child while serving in this appointment and took off for maternity leave during a fall semester. When she returned, she describes herself as having a new “holy agitation” and a vision to create a more welcoming place for students to engage and integrate faith in their lives in today’s world. She returned with new vision, which was met with resistance among students. They began to ask her to “stop talking so much about Jesus.” Some explained that they enjoyed being with their friends and did not want to invite others.

After much prayer and talking to more students, Amanda decided to claim her calling as an entrepreneurial church planter and refused to be a student ministry housekeeper (like the character Mrs. Garrett, the house mother, from the old television show, The Facts of Life).

Since then, Rise: A New United Methodist Community of Faith, was born. It serves three colleges across the region. More than 180 people from the campus and the community worship together each week.

As a woman church planter with an entrepreneurial leadership style, Amanda sees herself as a “chief instigator.” She believes entrepreneurs ask questions, seeking to discover “where new life can emerge.” Entrepreneurial leaders are courageous in asking questions; yet they understand that new questions make people uncomfortable and can be met with resistance. This leadership style is not satisfied with the status quo. Amanda believes that Christ calls us not to conform but to be transformed and work and serve in mending God’s creation, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Amanda describes her leadership style as “caffeinated.” She helps bring a “jolt” to an existing program and system. She shares honestly that she had to give up her dream of being “Ms. Congeniality.” She struggled with wanting to be liked, but learned that the new ideas she presented would be challenged and not always readily accepted. As she embraces and walks in this leadership style, Amanda has found acceptance and approval in her relationship with Christ. She has grown as a leader through the support of a coach and a spiritual director and by sharing in the transformed lives now being affected by the Rise Church.

Relational and Collaborative Leadership Style

The Rev. Rachel Gilmore[3] was appointed to start a new church in 2009, in the Virginia Annual Conference. This was her first appointment out of seminary. She had not been assessed or received any training in church planting. She initially declined the opportunity to start a new church and advised the district superintendent that she was interested in accepting an appointment as an associate pastor at a large church, serving as the director of Family Ministries. The superintendent, however, wanted to hear only a “yes to the church-planting appointment,” and Rachel finally agreed and began her appointment as a church planter in July 2009. Prior to attending seminary, Rachel served in the Peace Corp, 2004–2006. At her closing ceremony, a Peace Corp director described her as “the sweetest general you will ever love.” She is a courageous, entrepreneurial leader who is not afraid to make tough decisions. She also has an excellent relational and collaborative leadership style. Rachel regularly meets with leaders, sharing vision, tasks, and objectives; empowers leaders to build teams; and delegates responsibility well.

Rachel found out she was pregnant with her second child the day before the new church, the Gathering Church, launched public worship in Virginia Beach, VA.  Her first year included maternity leave, and during that time she realized the church was being built on Christ as the center; it was not a personality-centered congregation. The church survived and thrived while Rachel was away. This was due, in part, to healthy relationships being built and having a clear vision. When I asked Rachel how the Gathering grew, she explained that it grew through a Bible study she started with stay-at-home moms. Rachel explained that she visited playgrounds and parks and scheduled online play dates to connect with other mothers and children. Many mothers in this military town expressed feelings of isolation, and they welcomed this new opportunity to be a part of a new community. Rachel’s relational leadership style enabled the moms to feel comfortable connecting with the new church and with new people.

Collaborative leadership was required for the next phase of new church development. After experiencing steady growth by reaching out to new moms, Rachel found she was also a new mom of two small children, as well as a church planter. In response to her own need and the needs of other moms, she started a group to collaborate about an opportunity to address this need by starting a preschool at the new church. They reached out to working moms, and, within a year, launched Beach Gathering Montessori preschool, providing high quality Christian education and childcare to their community. The first year, they started with twenty-three students and ended with seventy students and a waiting list. Sixty percent of the children attend with a discount, which the church offers to support and meet the needs of young families in the community. New families continue to join the church through association with the preschool. The church serves a diverse group of children and has a diverse teaching staff. As of summer 2014, the Gathering Church has about one hundred seventy-five in regular worship attendance. Eighteen babies were born within the congregation in the last couple of years, and the church continues to serve the needs of young families.

Rachel believes that having a relational and collaborative leadership style is important. She values building relationships to reach out to others. She also values relationships that strengthen her leadership as a pastor. She values listening and hearing the perspectives of others. She also encourages and helps people in the church to network and collaborate with people who are like them and people who are different from them, to strengthen and accomplish the overall mission and ministries of the church. Rachel sees church planting as an incredible network of relationships with a focus on and purpose of helping people connect with God, one another, and the community they are called to serve. She has seen the strength and depth of relationships enable members of the church to stay together as the church grows and moves through transitions.

Conclusion

God uniquely creates and calls women to lead in every aspect of our society. Women effectively lead families, businesses, governments, and churches. The Journal of Strategic Leadership reports “women bring to the exercise of leadership an arsenal of strengths, which increasingly are received to benefit the entities they lead on a local, national and global levels.”[4] This article reflects on the unique strengths, gifts, and leadership styles exercised by women leading vital new church congregations. These women have passion and commitment to start and to lead new diverse congregations into the future. The different leadership styles of the women church planters shared in this article remind us that women possess and share a variety of leadership styles. One thing all of these woman church planters have in common is their commitment to make disciples and see the world transformed. I believe that is happening in each of their ministry settings

 

 


[1] Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (New York: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

[2] August 2014 interview. Information and quotations used by permission.

[3] August 2014 Interview. Information used by permission.

[4] Diane Chandler, “What Women Bring to the Exercise of Leadership,” The Journal of Strategic Leadership 3 (Winter 2011): 1–2.

 

 

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