Empowering Women for Leadership

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Two women reared in the church—and taught early that God calls, empowers, and leads—ponder the question, “why are there so few women in places of leadership?”


Ponder with us some important questions that concern both the Church of the Nazarene and the broader world. Both of us were privileged to attend a Nazarene college, and among our fellow students we clearly recognized many gifted, talented women with growing leadership abilities. Yet as we attend and observe gatherings of leaders in lay and ministerial levels of the church and beyond, we notice that women are scarce. Reflecting on these realities, we ask ourselves, “Why are there so few women in these places of leadership?” All of us have to ask, “What kind of impact is this absence having on the church’s fulfillment of its call?”


To know either of us is to know we are not maverick risk-takers. We are simply women reared in a church that taught us early that God calls, empowers, and leads, and that “yes” is the only appropriate answer to His call. Others were taught theses lessons as well. Comparing our lives, the two of us discovered that we also learned from women within our families who were in leadership and that we had been mentored by men who were willing to work with us at pivotal times in our professional development.


Despite the fact that women are being trained in numbers equivalent to men, women do not occupy positions of leadership in corresponding ratios in either society or the church. Many cultural messages and expectations have an impact on women as we enter the new century. Despite advances worldwide, leadership and power tend to be male arenas. When women consider positions of leadership, they carry many ambivalent messages with them. It is difficult for a woman’s competency and ability to attract attention. If she is too assertive, society frowns. If she remains quiet and works hard, she is easily overlooked and ignored. Women often feel the weight of negative cultural stereotypes, and consequently the range of acceptable behavior seems very narrow for women who seek out leadership opportunities.


What are the expectations of the Church of the Nazarene? Do we value women in leadership positions? Are some levels acceptable while others are deemed out of reach? This is not essentially a women’s rights issue; this is a Kingdom issue. It is, therefore, a core issue. The Church is to reflect the kingdom of God. To be fully fleshed out, the kingdom of God cries out for all Christians, male and female, to have the opportunity to practice the gifts and graces given to them as God’s children.


Historically, the Church of the Nazarene settled the issue from the beginning of its organization by welcoming the ordination of women into the elder ranks and by publicly supporting women in leadership. Nevertheless, the number of women with access to positions of leadership and power seems limited even within the Church of the Nazarene.


When James and John asked to sit next to Jesus as He exercised His power, Jesus responded with a challenging glimpse into His vision for leadership and power. Christ called them to serve rather than dominate, to build up the Kingdom by lifting others up (Mark 10). This is not the typical picture of leadership, a power-over model that emphasized hierarchical lines of power. It is instead a power-with model that seeks to draw more people into the challenge of servant leadership rather than to draw lines to keep people out.


As we encounter Jesus throughout the Gospels, we see One who has a firm sense of vision and a desire to empower those around Him to do the work of the Kingdom. This kind of empowering leadership involves intentional development of another person’s resources, abilities, and power. Rather than diminishing a person’s own power, as if there were only a limited supply, empowering another person enhances the power and growth opportunities for both. Jesus’ leadership model can help us conceptualize ways to encourage women and other groups underrepresented in leadership roles to move into positions of leadership and power. With that in mind, the first step toward empowering women for leadership inside and outside the church is to recognize that servant-leaders must look for ways to share access to positions of leadership and power.


We have all benefited from role models whom we observed over time. These are people whose lives blazed the path before us so that we could learn from their wisdom and share in their experience. Many in our society do not want the responsibility of being a role model. We need more men and women who stand in their places with integrity so that other scan grow in their shadows. For both of us, the example of strong women in our families who paved the way in ministry and service has been pivotal to our own sense of vision for what God can do in committed lives.


Another avenue for intentional empowerment is mentoring. Women mentoring women can be an enriching, encouraging, and ultimately empowering experience. We suggest there are important aspects when men mentor women as well. When we are dealing with facilitating more women in leadership positions, it is important not to barricade women from being mentored by those who are already in positions of leadership and who have networks and the potential of opening up opportunities. A good mentoring relationship can help a woman objectively identify strengths as well as weaknesses, serve as a sounding board and a source of encouragement as she steps out into new arenas, and sometimes be instrumental in opening up opportunities to move into new roles.


The first step toward empowering women for leadership inside and outside the church is to recognize that servant-leaders must look for ways to share access to positions of leadership and power.


Both of us have benefited from this kind of mentoring. It was essential for Mary that a senior pastor was willing to provide a place of ministry, supervision, and encouragement. Gary Jones’s willingness to serve as a mentor was essential to her development as pastor and leader. He not only paved a way for local ministry but also was an advocate through the district credentials process. In Jan’s case, the opportunities to coauthor a book with Cecil Paul and work with him on the faculty and administration of a Nazarene college gave her an invaluable combination of feedback, encouragement, and intentional opportunities to test leadership roles.


When we mention men mentoring women, however, an immediate reaction of fear wells up in many ranks. We absolutely believe that integrity of relationships is vital to this process. Cross-gender mentoring demands establishing boundaries, both physical and emotional. “Planting hedges” is important, but building obstacles is neither biblical nor good for the church if it wants to reflect Kingdom values. There are some important basic assumptions. For mentors who are married, the marriage relationship must be committed, intact, solid, and primary before any mentoring relationship, male or female, can be considered. Mentoring relationships should be conducted openly, with the scope and purpose of meetings established and known. Empowering women through appropriate mentoring relationships must occur in the context of full commitment to the Lordship of Christ in our lives, full commitment to existing marriages, and full commitment to a vision that gives all of God’s children opportunities to develop gifts and abilities.


How are we falling short of the kingdom of God by not encouraging all people to develop their gifts? How are we falling short of the kingdom of God by not listening to many different voices? How are we falling short of the kingdom of God by not intentionally creating spaces for underrepresented groups to move into positions of leadership? The Kingdom mission is too important, the vision is too grand, and the call is too compelling not to welcome all to participate and some to lead.


—Mary Rearick Paul is senior pastor of the Bethel Church of the Nazarene in Quincy, Massachusetts. Jan Simonson Lanham is professor of psychology at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, a licensed therapist in private practice, and a member of the General Board of the Church of the Nazarene.


Lanham, Jan Simonson and Mary Rearick Paul. (March 2000). Empowering Women for Leadership. Holiness Today, 10-12.


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