Emboldened - A Book Review (2 Parts)
PART ONE: EMBOLDENED WOMEN
I thought Emboldened was going to be a battle cry, but it was more like a warm hug. I expected more to be doing more fist-pumping, fewer moments of eyes filled with tears of comfort and gratitude. With part one entitled ‘Emboldened Women’, and part two ‘A Vision for an Emboldened Church’, this book is both a love letter to women in the body of Christ, and a pep talk to male leaders who want to embolden women. I’ll be giving my attention to part one, and Bree Mills will review part two.
Emboldened is written for convinced egalitarians. That’s not the category I find myself in, mainly because I find the polarisation of the debate troubling. But the idea is that plenty of ink has been spilled about what nature women’s leadership should take, and yet even professed egalitarian churches find that women are marginalised within them. If women are to be emboldened in the church, they will need more than permission. They will need inspiration, confidence, role models, advocates, and comforters.
The opening chapter highlights a few women from church history who were emboldened. Tara Beth positions herself alongside them and invites the reader into this lineage. Over and again she says, “this, my dear sisters, is our story.” My heart swelled at these uplifting words.
Even when women are encouraged to pursue ministry and leadership, we can end up feeling like imposters because the prevailing leadership culture relies on male models. Anxiety over the ‘feminisation of the church’ further contributes to the perception that feminine traits are a liability rather than an asset. Women are faced with either eschewing their femininity, or feeling like a fraud when in leadership.
Yet, says Tara Beth, “God has given you a voice that is your voice.” (p.47) As you live into your gifting, you discover that you are not an imposter, but the one God has gifted for the work he has given you. After many years of experimenting with the ministry models that were the norm, Tara Beth found hers: “although I am not a funny storyteller or a jokester, I am an emotive preacher; and although I don’t engage people through sports, I do engage them as a nurturing pastor; and although I am not an authoritative leader, I am a relational leader.” (p.49) She is interested neither in gender stereotyping nor in genderlessness. Gender identity is mysterious, but we are nevertheless able to include the full gamut of our experiences in our leadership, femininity included. She says, “My sermon illustrations are often laced with maternal imagery, and I’ve learned to embrace the fact that my preaching leans in that direction.”
In the face of opposition, and crises of confidence, it has been Tara Beth’s sense of God’s call on her life that has sustained her. She is not ambitious so much as compelled: “My role as the senior pastor of this church is not just a job or a career aspiration, but an outflow of a deep, abiding love for King Jesus, the bride, and the mission of God.” (p.30) This is one of the areas I would have appreciated a little more detail. Calling is a notoriously slippery term, and if they do not have a vision or other supernatural phenomenon, many people find it hard to identify.
However, one of the strengths of her emphasis on calling, is the way it drives the discussion towards faithfulness, and the audience of One: “My calling, not anger keeps me in the pulpit in the face of opposition.” (p.76) We know Paul’s instruction “be angry but do not sin” (Eph 4:26) but Tara Beth says, “I’m not sure how to get angry and not act on my anger.” For her, decoupling anger from defensiveness and bitterness is fraught, and so she rejects anger as a go-to response or banner. Instead, she pursues love, grace and hospitality, even for those who oppose and hurt her. She’s able to do so because it is King Jesus who sits on the throne, so even her calling is not hers to behold or control (p.75). I found her courage and peace deeply challenging.
Ego takes a back seat in Tara Beth’s vision for women’s leadership. She paints a picture of a sisterhood of women who encourage and support one another rather than competing, and tells of how beneficial such relationships have been for her. This plurality of Christian women’s voices is something I’ve loved about being a contributor to Fixing Her Eyes, and one of the things I hope you appreciate as a reader! Jesus believes in you, Tara Beth says (p.42), and as we encourage one another to fix our eyes on Him, perhaps we can begin to believe that too.
PART TWO: AN EMBOLDENED CHURCH In Emboldened, Tara Beth Leach has done an incredible job painting a picture of a church engaged in God’s mission, and shining brightly for the world to see as men and women work together. She is a woman of vision, imagination, and passion to see the people of God living out God’s fullness for all to see. In the second half of her book Emboldened she shifts her focus from emboldening women to a picture of the emboldened church. In line with her vision and passion, she doesn’t see women’s involvement in ministry as an issue of rights or fairness, a battle to be won, but about the mission of God. She implores readers, “as long as women are held back in the church, I believe the church will continue to miss out on the fullness of mission we have been invited to participate in”(p129). For Tara Beth Leach, this is rightly a ‘mission’ issue not just a ‘justice’ issue. She is one of few writers to encourage those of us engaged in the debate to hold this broader perspective, and in the trenches, I believe its an important perspective to hold onto. Tara Beth Leach joins many other writers in highlighting the importance of the visibility of women in ministry. The old saying ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ summarises some of her key ideas. In particular, she suggests that the future of the church will be impacted by what children see today as they sit within congregations or ministries, not only what they hear spoken by those in leadership. One of her unique contributions to the importance of highlighting the visibility of women in leadership, is that belief that it open’s people’s imagination. When women see other women in leadership in front of them, it forces those sitting in churches to consider their own gifts, to realise their potential, and to dream about how God might want to use them in His mission in the world. When women are not visible in leadership, many women are allowed to be comfortable in a more consumer mentality. Tara Beth Leach goes to great length to highlight that “A church, when truly emboldened is one where there are no spectators, but everyone has an instrument and sings the emboldened song” (p174). We are all called to be colabourers in God’s mission, the women in our churches today need to know and see it demonstrated, and the next generation is relying on us to it open their imaginations to see new possibilities. I think one of the strengths of Emboldened is that it is not only addressed to women, but to men. Tara Beth Leach acknowledges that for men and women to become co-labourers we need courageous men who will make a way for women. I was encouraged by her story of stepping into ministry, and the men who took risks, taught and mentored her along the way. Not only does she call men to see the damage the ‘Billy Graham rule’ has done to the church, and to step into mentor women with appropriate boundaries, she calls men to take risks, keep women visible, and to actively teach on the theology of women in leadership. She is appropriately practical as she sets boundaries for mentoring, and steps for pastors to pursue to seek to empower women in ministry. As a women who has been in some very hard ministry contexts, and some very empowering ones, I think this is perhaps one of the most helpful books written on the topic, for both men and women. So many books seek to empower women, but don’t address men. They fail to realise that in many contexts men still hold so much of the power, that even if a woman wanted to be empowered and lead, preach, teach, coach, she couldn’t, unless someone made a way. To empower women we need men who are aware of the power and influence they hold, and seek to reach out and share their visibility, share their influence, share their platform. It is much harder for women to reach and grasp for visibility and influence, than it is for men to move aside and make room for that visibility and influence to be shared. Tara Beth Leach acknowledges this, and for this I am incredibly thankful. Emboldened is a book that could be a source of great encourage for both men and women, and should certainly be read by all senior pastors, male and female!
Tamie Davis hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). Read more from Tamie on her blog.
Bree Mills is currently the 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.