I remember the first time I found “my people.” I had been invited to present several workshops at a conference for women ministry leaders. It was the first time I was exposed to a group of people just like me. Women! And not just women, but women who were leaders! In ministry! In the large group sessions, in the workshops, and in the speakers’ room—these were my people! I left the conference with a full heart, my spirit buoyed by the heart-to-heart conversations, like-minded camaraderie, and new friendships. I didn’t know how thirsty I was until I found a well.
Then I went back home, back to my male-heavy world of ministry. I knew I needed to develop a better support community for myself as a female leader, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. As women ministry leaders, we need a support network, but it can be challenging to find that support when there aren’t a lot of our species in the population. It has taken me 25 years of trial and error to learn how to develop a solid web of supportive relationships.
The Challenges of Finding Community
Ministry leaders—both male and female—are subject to a construct called “power distance.” This means that most members of the general congregation view those in authority as special or separate from the rank-and-file. Even if you are a leader who tries to be more “of the people” and down-to-earth in your interactions, many under your leadership will still view you as somehow separate. It’s hard to build true community with those who put you on a pedestal. Some in your ministry may also have trouble dealing with the reality that leaders have struggles, too.
Another difficult dynamic is that “power distance” can also result in the opposite: people are attracted to those in authority to be identified as part of your inner circle to increase their own prestige or sense of self-worth. These types of people may promise friendship and support, but are actually “fans” and not true friends.
The most natural source of community would seem to be fellow leaders in your organization or ministry area, however, even in these relationships there is often a power dynamic. Either you are subject to the authority of these leaders, or you have some type of authority over them. A former pastor I worked for said he was taught in seminary to never become friends with his staff members because one day he might have to fire them. This perspective is partly generational and I know many churches where the staff enjoy deep relationships, but it is still true that power dynamics complicate relationships.
Even if you manage to find friends in your church who view you as an equal, those friends could still one day decide to leave your church, thus potentially changing the friendship as well. I have had several close friendships that have changed significantly when these friends left my church. They didn’t have a problem with my husband or me, but their departure changed the dynamics of our friendship because we didn’t see each other as often and no longer had the same church community.
Form a Community Around You
How do you go about finding safe community when there may not be many women leaders in your church in the first place, and the relationships you do find are subject to organizational dynamics?
This principle is the most important. Do not put all of your support and relational eggs into one basket. This was my biggest, most harmful mistake in my early ministry. I thought I would find one or two friendships from within my church that could provide all the support I needed. I found out the hard way that this was a very unfair and unhealthy expectation.
So, diversify. Your primary support network should come from outside your current ministry. Look for leaders from other ministries in your town, and look beyond your current locale. Build enough strands into your support web so that if one strand breaks, you still have plenty of support. You may find support people from among those who know you from previous ministry, from other ministries around the country, or from seminary or college. The majority of people in my support community know me as just “Angie” and not as “Pastor” or “Leader” or “Boss.” What happens in my ministry has no bearing on whether they will remain my friends or supporters. I do have a few support people within my current ministry, but the majority of the weight is carried by those outside.
2. Be Creative.
In addition to looking in a variety of places for your support network, be creative about how you connect with those people. Face-to-face conversations are always preferable but not always possible. Use Skype or FaceTime, texting, email, or old-fashioned phone calls. A relationship with one of my mentors has been developed and maintained primarily via email, our conversation continuing via long electronic letters every few weeks. When I worked at a Christian camp in the middle of the wilderness, our director’s lifeline was a monthly phone call with three other camp directors around the country who had met at a camping conference. Go places where you can meet other women leaders, and figure out creative ways to stay in touch.
3. Be Intentional.
Even though women tend to be very good at developing friendships, don’t assume you will find the right type of community without some effort. Any time I move into a new ministry, I identify a few people who might become part of my closer circle. I initiate conversations, coffee, and lunch dates to get to know them. This often feels like throwing spaghetti against a wall to see if it will stick. Sometimes there is no connection or chemistry. Sometimes a person ends up being a friend but not a close support person. But once in a while a deep, mutually supportive relationship will emerge.
I am also very picky with my husband about choosing our own small group at church. In the past, we joined whatever group had an opening, or we issued a blanket invitation for anyone who wanted to join a group we were starting. In both cases, we ended up in groups that were probably supportive for the other members, but not for us. As a result, we now take some time to get to know people casually, then ask a few to join us in intentional community. We also give an off-ramp in the form of a regular interval when group members, ourselves included, can reevaluate and either re-up or leave the group.
4. Be Patient.
It takes some time to discern who is safe and supportive without a hidden agenda for your ministry or for their own emotional needs. Let relationships emerge, rather than forcing them too quickly. For example, I have been at my current church for five years. The women who are now my closest friends and support community (and part of my small group) did not become so until I had been here for nearly two years. I enjoyed the process of building these friendships, but I would not have immediately considered them to be part of my inner circle. During those early months, I relied more heavily on my support network outside of my current ministry.
If you’ve been burned in relationships or ministry before (and really, who hasn’t), it can be tempting to give up or to go it alone. Resist that temptation and continue to invest and nurture intentional relationships, trusting that the right people will emerge in the right time.
5. Be Healthy.
While every leader needs a support network, no one else should be expected to carry the burden of your emotional health. Use your community for encouragement, accountability, and as a sounding board. Don’t expect them to meet all your emotional needs or to take up an offense on your behalf. Beware of becoming toxic to your friends or potential friends because you live only in your pain. Work through your own emotional wounds from your early life, your family, and your ministry. The healthier you are, the easier it will be for you to develop mutually supportive relationships. In addition, be a good friend to others. Be generous in your support, giving without expectation. Be on the lookout for women leaders who are struggling.
In some ways, it helps to view myself as a sort of foreign missionary. Just as a missionary develops a support base outside of her ministry assignment, I too have worked to develop outside support, even in ministry contexts in my own culture. Any community I find within my ministry is a bonus. A strong support network is a necessity for women leaders. Make sure to set aside time to build your own even as you are ministering to others.
Angie Ward is a leadership teacher, writer, and coach. She and her pastor-husband, two teenaged sons, and one very spoiled beagle live just outside Indianapolis.