A few months ago, I was at a retreat with a group of colleagues and a guest speaker spoke about the need to raise up more leaders for various areas of ministry. As I complained about the need to start again and raise up new leaders for vacant staff roles the speaker looked me in the eye and said, ‘That’s just what you do, isn’t it?’ Everyone else around the room nodded and the conversation continued. I was quietened by that comment and took some time to process it, ‘is raising up new leaders really what I do?’
Two weeks later in a coaching conversation, the same comment was repeated. I sensed that God might have been trying to get my attention on this one!
I never set out intentionally to raise women into leadership, I am extraverted, and an external processor. I bring others with me because I prefer not to be alone! The two separate comments made to me whilst at the conference awakened in me a passion that was already there, but perhaps not consciously at the front of my mind.
My own process of realisation is illustrative. I’m sure these weren’t the first two people to comment that God had gifted me in this area. I’ve seen many women who I discipled as teenagers’ step into Christianity and I have coached many other youth pastors over the years, all women, who have gone onto significant ministry. Yet, it took these two voices speaking the same truth again, for me to take note and respond.
I have always been passionate about seeing women move into spaces where their gifts could be used, their voice could be heard, and the influence stewarded for Kingdom impact. As a woman who could join the “me too” movement after a particularly poor experience of church leadership that’s not surprising. But there was something about this moment. It was the realisation that this was a core part of who I am, not just out of the brokenness of my own experience, but out of the wholeness of who God has created me to be. I love raising risk-taking missional leaders who seek God’s Kingdom on earth, and I’m even more passionate if they are women!
As I reflected on those experiences I came to realise that leaders are developed by communities, not individuals.
I hadn’t raised up leaders. I’d participated, I’d supported, I’d encouraged, I’d advocated, I’d grieved with, I’d celebrated, but so have many other people. It reminded me of Paul’s words, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Cor 3:6) Raising leaders happens when communities of people gather to support and encourage, to identify giftedness, to give space for experimentation, learning and growth, and to participate with what God is doing in a woman (or man).
Specifically for women, the presence of a community of voices in their lives seemed to be critical for longevity in leadership.
In my experience there are four groups of voices that work together to raise women into leadership:
These are the people who cheer you on at every turn. Friends, family, colleagues who you know will always be standing with you. So much of what women in leadership encounter is critical resistance so having a cheer squad to encourage you to keep taking one more step is life-giving. Supporters inspire courage and resilience.However, your supporters are not always the best place to go for constructive feedback. They are more likely to tell you how well you are doing than point out a potential blind spot or pitfall in your path. They will encourage women in leadership, but on they don’t always help them to grow or move forward.
Sponsors are one of the most overlooked supports that women stepping into leadership need. Sponsors are those who will go before you, open doors for you and speak for you in contexts where you don’t have a voice. Sponsors are those ahead of you, either relationally or positionally, and they use their voice and power to raise yours. They speak with, and for those they sponsor. They are those in leadership that speak positively of you in the senior staff meeting, even when you are not present.There are so many contexts in which conversations happen where women cannot advocate for themselves. Sponsors stand in these spaces. They may even make spaces available, whether that’s opportunities at work, relational connections or sharing their platform. It takes incredible courage in some organisations to act in this way for a woman, especially for a man who might be accused of having ulterior motives for such actions of support. Sponsors can be men or women, but they play a key role in making leadership opportunities available to women, without them many doors may simply never open.
3. Mentors / Spiritual Directors
Some of the key issues women face are what Kadi Cole describes as ‘sticky floors’, the issues in our own minds that cause us to hold back from putting ourselves forward. Mentors and spiritual directors help us to step out of ourselves, evaluate and process what God is calling us into and help us to deal with the many roadblocks we face. They help us to see the character flaws and blind spots, to understand our capacity and to live within it, and to have confidence in our calling.Mentors have a whole of life approach while Spiritual Directors are more focused on helping discern what God might be calling us into, but both are key in different seasons. Without these people, women can lack the confidence in the calling and the maturity of character to last the distance in a leadership role.
Coaching has long been undervalued for women in leadership. We settle with what we can gain for free, some advice here or there, without being willing to invest in our development as leaders in an intentional way. For those with families, there are always other good uses for that little bit (or not so little bit) of money it takes to employ a coach. If I had to choose between a house cleaner or a leadership coach now, I’d choose (and do choose) a leadership coach every time!Not only do they provide a holistic approach like a mentor, but they actively help you learn to think through, and solve your own leadership challenges. They teach you to question, respond and reflect in ways that will set you up for lifelong leadership. They provide great accountability, upskilling at times, and are action-focused. If you want a new opportunity, they will help you create a plan to step into it. Coaches can be men or women, depending on the context and type of coaching needed, and are action orientated. Without coaches, there could be a lot of good ideas without any courageous action to follow.
The old African Proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” is just as true for raising leaders. We can’t expect that one woman in our organisation would raise up a new generation of other women, however passionate they might be. Communities raise leaders, and whether we are male or female, a friend or a colleague, we all can play a role.In the coming weeks, I will share some other posts about how the presence of these four groups of people in a leader’s life can help combat some of the typical challenges women face as they step into leadership!
Bree Mills is currently the Senior Associate Pastor at Glen Waverley Anglican Church. She is a Ridley Graduate who has been worked in youth ministry for 12 years at various churches, until moving into her current role in 2013, overseeing missional discipleship at GWAC. She is undertaking Postgraduate study at Morling College in the area of Missional Leadership, with a focus on congregational change, and is involved with various missional movements around Australia. She has worked with both large and small churches to reinvigorate youth ministries, and launch missional communities. She is passionate about equipping the church to engage with the local community, encouraging women in leadership, and building healthy and sustainable teams.