Sometimes women will ask the question, "How do I know if I am a leader?" My response is normally a combination of discussing their purpose, vocation, and calling, along with their passions and influence. The gift of leadership is also affirmed by a healthy community.
I was blessed to have my leadership gifts affirmed early in life. I gave a speech and was voted Student Body President in the eighth grade. I spent the next four years of high school lending a voice to the issues of my classmates, organizing community service projects, motivating the members of my track team, and gaining the respect of administrators, teachers, and peers. I ran a successful campaign and was voted Student Body President again during my senior year of high school.
This foundation of leadership led me to attend the United States Naval Academy, followed by six years of service as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. I also became a leader and trusted mentor in the professional arena. During those formative years of leadership in the military, I also became a wife and a mother, while serving as a mentor, small group leader, and Bible teacher in my church. In the midst of all this leadership training, I realized many voices were speaking into my life about women and their call to lead, except one critical voice: The church.
Wrestling with gender and leadership
Thankfully, my need to wrestle with the challenges and tension of women and their call to leadership from a biblical perspective was met by several devout Christians I encountered during my time in the military and professional worlds. Discussion has also been vibrant during my time as a student at Gordon-Conwell seminary, where I will receive a master's in Christian Leadership next May. As part of my program, I read a lot of books about leadership, most of them written by men. I was excited when I finally took the opportunity to read a leadership book by a woman—Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
While I appreciated Sheryl's perspectives—she honestly addresses the specific challenges women leaders face—as a Christian, African American, woman leader, I found there were many critical topics she didn't address, such as how biblical convictions impact the way women approach work, family, marriage, parenting, and even our relationships. Whether we are supporting our sisters and their choices or engaging those of the opposite sex, these are conversations well-suited to the church—ones we can engage in with our small groups, our women's ministries, and our church leadership teams.
Starting the conversation
As a young child, I did not set out to become a leader. I just led and people affirmed that calling on my life. Because I have witnessed God's hand at work in my own life and have listened to testimonies of other Christian women leaders, I believe we need to dialogue more about women and the gift of leadership. We can begin by asking questions like:
- If spiritual gifts are gender neutral, then how does the "gift" of leadership apply to women in the church, community, and culture?
- Can our theological understanding of this conversation be applied across the world? Why or why not?
- What happens when a woman understands her gift and accepts the calling of leadership?
- Should the church embrace a female's act of obedience to the call to leadership and offer her the same opportunities and training that they would her male counterparts?
- Is it automatically assumed that women leaders are threats to male leadership and authority, or is it possible that men are positively impacted by the godly influence and leadership of a woman?
- How do our theological convictions play out in our personal lives and in the future mission of the church?
We need to intentionally identify and train godly leaders, both male and female in the church. And part of that training includes asking the question, "How is God speaking to this generation, and how is he calling us to live out the gospel in our homes and through the work of our hands?" In addition to reading our Bibles, we need to read and discuss books like Sandberg's Lean In. Not every believer will agree with her opinions, but it provides context as we wrestle with the challenges of our day.
How to live theologically
I've discovered over the past few years that the way I lead, as a servant of God and a servant of his people, is really a matter of me living theologically. Theology is not simply what we know or believe about God. Theology is also what we practice. As a faithful student of God's Word who engages culture with the truth of the Gospel, I understand that it is not enough for me to defend my position or to end conversations by concluding that I simply agree or disagree with a particular point that has been presented to me.
In conversations with peers, mentors, and fellow women leaders, I carefully consider their statements: What did he or she say? Then I try to affirm that I understand the author's intent: What did he or she mean? Then I ask myself the question: What are the various ways that the Bible speaks into this issue or topic of discussion?
Then there is a time of prayerful discernment and application: How is God calling me to respond? The answer to the latter question may not be the same for every woman, Christian, or leader. However, we do need help navigating these waters, and that's why it is so important that we have these conversations in safe, non-judgmental communities in the church.
As a universal church, I think we are beyond the point of asking the question, "Can women lead?" When we take a serious look at American history, we see that women have been leading in various capacities for a long time. On the other hand, I do believe there are some places in the church that are still asking the questions: Should women lead? If not, then why not? If so, then how should they lead? And how does a woman's leadership impact those God has allowed her to influence and the other aspects of her life—particularly her marriage, children, her work, and the life of the church?
Regardless of your positions on these topics, I do hope that we can affirm the need for women to be celebrated as those created to reflect God's image on earth and to partner with their brothers in cultivating God's good creation. My encouragement is to start praying, start reading, and keep talking.
Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women's Mentoring Ministry Leader, writer with the Redbud Writers' Guild, and student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (M.A. Christian Leadership, May 2014). Connect with Natasha through her website, blog, Twitter @asistasjourney, and Facebook.