What distinctive gifts do women have for the global church? Is the church helping or hindering women leaders? In Women in God’s Mission: Accepting the Invitation to Serve and Lead, missions researcher Mary Lederleitner describes both the particular obstacles women leaders face and the unique blessings they offer the body of Christ. Drawing upon two decades of personal experience and interviews with more than 90 women serving in roughly 30 different countries, Lederleitner outlines an emerging model of leadership that is faithful, connected, and holistic. Amy Peterson, adjunct professor at Taylor University and author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, spoke with Lederleitner about her research.
In your preface, you mention never having expected to write a book about women in leadership. What changed?
I’ve met a lot of women who are hurting because of divisive claims about what women can and can’t do in mission and ministry. The complementarian-egalitarian framework isn’t serving the global body of Christ well. Once you are in one or the other theological camp, the other group often wants little to do with you. Sometimes it seems like the two groups are enemies rather than people who are destined to live and serve God together for all eternity. I believe our Lord wants us to find a better way to dialogue about women in mission and ministry.
I’ve met women who are the first females to fill their leadership role in mission agencies, and they often feel so alone. Many are struggling to figure out how to lead effectively without the benefit of female role models.
What are you finding that men and women most appreciate from your research?
At a recent conference, a male leader came up and thanked me. He said, “In the past, every time this topic has been discussed, there has always been an edge to it. I appreciated the spirit of how you approach it, and that we can talk together in this way.” Often, men think it is only a women’s conversation, but without their active involvement, things never change.
But the response from women has surprised me the most. I’m caught off guard at how deeply my work seems to minister to them. Many have told me it finally gives them language to talk about issues that have been hurtful or confusing in mission and ministry workplaces. It seems to encourage hearts, whether a woman’s ministry is largely with children or as a top mission executive or church leader. I hope the Holy Spirit will do a deep work of healing through the stories and insights of the women in the book.
Are male and female leadership styles really that different? What do we gain from focusing on female leadership in mission?
Deborah Tannen is a renowned linguist who has done extensive research around unique challenges facing women in the workplace. She explains that images of male authority, like military terminology or sports metaphors, most often shape the topic of leadership.
She writes that a woman in leadership is “in a double bind.” If she is seen as assertive or aggressive, men might view her as a competent leader, but she might not be liked. Yet if she responds with more stereotypically female behaviors, she might be liked, but at the expense of seeming less competent. Although the women I’ve interviewed treat leading in God’s mission as a tremendous privilege, they readily acknowledge facing additional challenges because of their gender. They use metaphors like “walking a tightrope,” “doing gymnastics,” or performing “an evangelical tap dance so men will accept us.”
Another issue lies in workplace metaphors specific to women. Although they don’t do so explicitly, certain ministries and organizations have policies that communicate the idea that women are somehow temptresses who are prone to lead men astray. All kinds of restrictions are put into place to keep them separate from men. Most often these policies end up protecting men and facilitating their leadership development while marginalizing women’s gifts and contributions. There are promiscuous women in the world, but I have not seen women serving and leading in God’s mission with that motivation.
Tell me about the “new model” of leadership you observed and what it might offer the church.
Most leadership models were created by men, and women try to find their place in them. As a woman, I’ve appreciated many of the leadership models that men have proposed. Over the course of my research, I discovered an emerging model that I call “The Faithful Connected Leader,” because those were the two terms that best captured the emphases that women mentioned.
At a time when the Strong Man Leader model seems to be growing around the world, this is the exact opposite approach. Rather than focusing on the leader’s personality, power, resources, or prestige, it emphasizes God’s character, power, capacity, and glory. The women prioritized faithfulness to God over exerting their own power to benefit themselves or those closest to them.
What kind of work counts as “mission” work? Did your perspective change as you conducted interviews?
Because many proclamation-only ministries are less available to women, along with a number of formal mission roles in many settings, I used the phrase “influencing others towards God’s purposes.” The women I spoke with were serving in more diverse capacities than I had expected, mainly because of the many forms of brokenness they were encountering around the globe. They were engaging in mission more holistically, yet they were not advancing a social gospel. They cared deeply about communicating the truth of the gospel and seeing people come to faith in Christ.
However, they reported seeing things their brothers in Christ sometimes missed. And they were worried about these oversights distorting the message of the gospel in a way that obscured God’s character and purposes.
How can men best support female leaders in mission?
The first step is slowing down and taking the time to understand what women in your life and ministry are facing. Women in my research were doing everything in their power to be responsible and faithful with the things within their control. But many things will never change if the men in their lives are unwilling to listen or exert effort to make things better.
It’s important to realize how much women simply absorb in any given week or month. There are women who stopped talking about their frustrations long ago because no one really listened or tried to address their concerns. Sometimes, men can think that if the women they care about aren’t complaining, then everything is good. That might not be the case. Perhaps they don’t think it’s safe to speak up because it hasn’t been in the past.
So they just absorb it, over and over again. Women need safe places to talk with male colleagues, and they need to know that the men in their workplaces genuinely have their backs.
What advice would you give to a young woman beginning a career in mission?
Follow God and love him with all your heart. If he is asking you to do something, there is a good reason. People somewhere need you to step up, and you are likely part of God’s answer to their prayers. You might not fully understand why until much later in life, but you can trust his character and goodness.
Don’t be afraid to trust God. Take heart that he will never leave you or forsake you. That’s the promise he gives to all great men and women of faith.
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