A Woman of Influence

Why Elisa Morgan, CEO of MOPS International, is passionate about helping women see themselves as more than their roles.

Elisa Morgan has her audience eating out of her hand. Onstage, the petite dynamo with spiky hair and a warm grin regales the 5,000 women gathered in Nashville for the annual MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) International Convention with a hilarious anecdote about her preschool-aged grandson, Marcus, whom she unabashedly adores.

An engaging communicator, Elisa, 51, is the most recognizable face and voice of an international ministry that began in 1973 with a handful of moms in Colorado. The CEO of MOPS since 1989, Elisa has led MOPS, which empowers women to become the best parents they can be, through a period of expansive growth. Today MOPS boasts more than 4,000 groups in 36 countries and offers its membership a wide range of electronic and print resources, including books Elisa has authored or coauthored, such as What Every Mom Needs (Zondervan) and Twinkle (Revell). Get her talking about the future of MOPS, and her passion for a broader ministry reach to women is contagious. Elisa envisions a MOPS that maintains a lifelong connection with the women leaders who've "graduated" from the preschooler years. To meet this goal, in 2007 MOPS will launch events, online assessment tools and leadership training, as well as a new print publication called FullFill, for Christian women leaders, which debuts this spring. Elisa's hope, she says, is for women to become unapologetic about being "influencers."

Elisa's own influence may lead some to assume her life's been picture-perfect. Yet Elisa, mom to Eva, 22, and Ethan, 20, readily calls herself "Mother Inferior." Married 27 years to husband, Evan, Vice President of Ministries for RBC Ministries, Elisa acknowledges that a difficult childhood prepared her in unlikely ways for such a visible role. God, she'll tell you unequivocally, has shaped her deficits for his unique purposes. Here's what Elisa has to say to TCW about women in leadership, parenting in a less-than-perfect world, and wrestling with that elusive balance in life.

It sounds like you're entering an exciting phase for MOPS.

Yes, we've been blown away! God called us to look at our ministry with fresh eyes, and he used the parable of the talents in Matthew 25—with its message of stewarding what God's entrusted to us—to do that. He's impressed us with our responsibility to his kingdom for the many women who've been touched through the years by MOPS.

We believe at MOPS that every mom is a leader. And we believe we've been called to help her steward her influence in her world, in her community, and beyond for God's kingdom.

Hope grew in me when God told me, This is about a life, Elisa.

But that call isn't just true of moms.

I agree. All women are kingdom participants. We're eternal beings whom Jesus wants to mold in his image. We need to step up to that without apology, without fear, without compromise—and with great obedience to Christ. It starts with reframing how we see ourselves. You may be in a carpool. You're influencing the other children in your car. You may be in a grocery store. You're influencing the checkout person. You may be in corporate America. You're influencing those around you. You don't need to wait to become a woman of influence; you already are one.

Too often leadership can be a loaded word. Many women are uncomfortable being leaders; many men are uncomfortable with women being leaders. There are so many preconceived notions about what leadership means in our world or in the Bible. But it's really about making a difference, influencing, imparting, contributing, guiding, twinkling.

What do you mean by "twinkling"?

The concept for twinkling comes from Philippians 2:15. The apostle Paul talks about believers shining like stars in the universe. You can be in a completely dark room, turn on a flashlight, and suddenly you're not in darkness anymore. Even a tiny speck of twinkling light changes the very nature of darkness.

What's so freeing is that it's not our light. When we come into relationship with Jesus, his light comes into us. We can't fight it; God's light will shine out of us—even through the cracks in our humanity—to provide a source of hope and light for those around us.

It sounds as though your childhood may have caused some "cracks."

I like to say my mother's illness—her alcoholism—shaped my resilience. When we're raised in families of need, we develop overcompensating abilities. I'm not your typical "nice girl"; I can be in your face and assertive. But I turn on the charm if I need to because I learned, growing up, how to be on my toes. If my mom walked into a room unpredictably not sober, I had to cover for her.

You don't need to wait to become a woman of influence; you already are one.

My parents divorced when I was five, and I don't think my mother ever recovered from it. I vividly remember most mornings beginning with the sound of my mom's alarm clock going off down the hall. It was my job to get her up to go to work. So I'd pull back my covers, go into the kitchen, grab a couple chocolate chip cookies, plunk some ice cubes in a glass and pour Coca-Cola into it, and take them down the hall to my mom's bedroom. I'd put them on her nightstand, turn off her alarm, and begin the process of trying to wake her up.

It was a confusing time for me. I look back at it now with much less frustration and criticism. I realize my mother's illness wasn't any different than the illnesses of my sin. I just don't deal with it the way she did. But it was all so exaggerated in a child's eyes.

How did you come to Christ?

I became a Christian through the teen outreach ministry of Young Life at age 16. But I was coming to Christ a long time before then. From the beginning I was drawn to Jesus. I wanted him. I knew he loved me, and I loved him.

Not long after I became a Christian, my mom talked to me about my earthly father, who had left us when I was young. I was in belligerent teenager mode, saying, "I don't have a father." That night I dreamed I'd fallen off a cliff in slow motion. When I looked below me, I saw flesh-colored, jutting rocks and thought, I'm going to die! But when I hit them, I realized I wasn't falling into rocks but hands—God's hands. I heard him say in my dream, I'm your heavenly Father. I will never leave you or forsake you.

Control's a big issue for those from alcoholic homes. Have you struggled with that?

You bet. I'm very uncomfortable with unpredictability. When something unexpected happens, it throws me. Change I totally love. I like to lead it, though.

Because then you're in control.

Exactly! {Smiles.} Or at least I'm in control of the process.

Through the years, God's helped me to better understand the spiritual quality of being yielded. Through extensive study of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, I learned the word gentleness, for instance, literally means yieldedness.

How do we relinquish control?

Chuck Swindoll once said God can't put things into hands that are already full. That's a powerful visual. If I'm always grasping for control, or clinging onto something too tightly, there's no room for what God wants to entrust to me. However, I've had to rethink what "God bringing all things to good" looks like.

Why?

I've had no control over so much of what's happened in the last five to six years. When Eva was 17, she ended up in an abusive relationship with a man seven years older than she. When she was 18, she was driving and had an accident with tragic consequences for her and for others. Then, after her accident, Eva got pregnant. Our son, Ethan, struggled with substance abuse, for which he received counseling. I actually remember walking down the hall at MOPS at one point thinking, If I quit, will Satan leave my kids alone? As if that would have changed all that had happened!

How did you cope?

I held it together with God and the deep support of people who loved us. Eva gave her life back to God after the accident, moved home, had her baby, and lived with us until May of 2006. Now she's engaged to be married. And Ethan's home with us now, evaluating what's next for him.

I'm sure Evan and I could have been better parents, but we are good parents. We went through a six-year period marked by such suffering. Yet the process has been unexpectedly rich.

What do you mean?

I was with Eva in the doctor's office when she discovered she was pregnant. Afterwards, she went off to work and I went home. For some reason I couldn't reach Evan or a friend by phone, so I was home alone for about six hours, crying, What have I done wrong? In that time God started speaking to me, telling me, This is about a life, Elisa. Hope grew inside me as I understood this was a beginning, not the end. And our grandson, Marcus, who's almost three now, has brought me great joy. God's so gracious to have given me, as CEO of MOPS, a new view into this season of parenting though him and his mom.

How do moms deal with guilt when their kids make poor choices?

There's an old adage that says: "God wasn't everywhere, so he invented mothers." What an incredible burden to live under! We have to be someplace God isn't?

Some guilt may be legitimate. We all make mistakes. But I think we get mixed up in what we're responsible for. We're not responsible for how our child turns out. Instead, God invites us to influence our child. Of course that means we need to be as godly and yielded to him as possible. But we're responsible for how we influence our child, not for how he turns out, and that's freeing.

What hope would you pass on to someone struggling with a prodigal?

I remember being incredibly judgmental over a third grader who watched some TV show I didn't let my kids watch. I had no idea how arrogant I was toward others: Well, if they just would do like I do it, their kid would be fine. That was until I realized I'd done all those things, and my kids still made painful choices. I hung my head in shame.

The time Eva wasn't with us was torturous emotionally. Yet I knew we had to let her go, like the prodigal son was let go by his father. And in the years where Ethan has struggled—and sometimes still does—Evan and I wrestle with how much help we should offer. I don't have those answers.

I guess what I want to scream is, We're all the same! When you look at another person, you don't know what's going on beneath the surface. So let's be compassionate toward each other and, as much as we can, share our needs with others.

Why is it important for older women to reach out to moms of preschoolers?

It's a mentoring opportunity. You have something to offer, even if you're only a few months further down the road in parenting. But

I think the younger generations have so much to teach us. There's such mutuality in mentoring.

I want our world to remember the importance of those early mothering years. The purpose of those developmental tasks, those close bonds we forge with our children, is to be able to launch individuals—ourselves included—who can make a wider investment in God's kingdom.

Can we experience a balanced life while we're so busy influencing others?

Balance is a great theme for magazines, but I'm not quite sure it's possible. {Sighs and smiles.} There's no formula for it.

For me balance is all about the ebb and flow of this life with God. We dupe ourselves into thinking, If I'm really obedient, life will fall in little categories, just the right half a cup of this and half a cup of that. Not! You get an ocean full of this and a drop of that.

I had a season where I had a son who was here, there, and everywhere, and a pregnant daughter who ended up a single mom—all as I'm leading an international nonprofit. I have a husband who travels for his job. Well, what does obedience to Christ look like? Quitting everything? Quitting something? Doing everything? Doing nothing? My best friend got cancer, a key staff member resigned, my daughter couldn't drive for a season of time, and I needed to help her get around. I couldn't go, Well, I don't want to do that, or I quit. None of those options worked.

Maybe "balance" is a myth?

It's important to think about, but maybe it's not attainable. What matters most, I believe, is today. Today it matters that I spend time with my friend who has cancer. Or today it matters that I drive my daughter. Or today it matters that I step in because my staff needs a leader. Maybe tomorrow I will deal with house and home.

Today is where I am. And Jesus is always with me. I don't have to be ethereal about it; I just know it. And the way I love him is to be loved by him.

I read in Luke 7 of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus's feet. Everybody at Simon's house was so offended that she put oil on him and dried his feet with her hair. But Jesus asked, who loves me more? The person who's been forgiven, or the person who's been forgiven a lot?

How many times I've held off owning my sin because I somehow felt it distanced me from God's love! I'm discovering, however, the reality that the more sinful I realize I am, the more I'm able to receive God's forgiveness—and his love.

For information on how to start a MOPS group in your church, visit www.MOPS.org.


Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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