Women helping women

I know a lot of clergywomen. I run in different networks designed for them. I coach them. I am one myself. And I cannot think of a single one that is not creative, smart, and committed. Why, then, aren’t more clergywomen serving as senior pastors in big pulpits or leading middle judicatories or denominations?

Some of the reasons  are cultural and structural. Women, socialized for humility, are more likely to be shamed (by men and women) for assertively sharing their successes and ideas. Women’s contributions are sometimes co-opted by men, who repeat and get credit for what women have said, sometimes just moments before. Women often have smaller spheres of influence because of the ministry roles to which they are called, giving them less exposure for big steeple pastor searches and elections to leadership on a larger platform. That’s why I piloted a cohort called Trinit-A this fall to help the participants become more comfortable and confident sharing their successes and innovations, celebrate each other’s gifts and accomplishments in ways that encourage continued growth, and go to bat for one another and themselves in spaces dominated by male voices.

During the first session, I asked the members of the cohort what their personal hopes for our time together would be. The group named a desire to share what we learned with others. One of our chosen methods was a blog post. And so, with the cohort’s blessing, I would like to name some of the themes that emerged from our conversations.

Affirm specifics. The group members noted that often they hear their male counterparts celebrated for specific talents and tasks, while they are generally – even generically – referred to as “great,” “sweet,” or “wonderful.” They encouraged affirming in others and in ourselves particular gifts or accomplishments. That makes it more likely that the clergywoman in question will stick in hearers’/observers’ minds and will stand out more in search processes.

Re-write your bio. When we guest preach or speak or lead a retreat, we are inevitably asked for a bio to put in the bulletin and other marketing pieces. Look at yours. In what ways have you undersold your credentials? (If you’re unsure, consult with one of your biggest cheerleaders.) Then take another run at a bio that captures the fullness of your track record and abilities.

Take your rightful seat at the table. Sometimes we’re invited to the table. More often we have to invite ourselves. Either way, it’s important to show up to leadership conversations, reframing, questioning, challenging, and offering our insight on our own behalf and others.’

Network to connect others. For some, networking is still a dirty word. For others it’s not, but it feels awkward. Networking, done right, is intended to benefit both parties. But there’s a way to make it not just win-win, but win-win-win as Michael Scott would say. Consider how you can use your relationships to introduce people who would be of interest to one another but might not meet without your help. Then those people (and the ones they serve) have benefitted, and you lodge in others’ brains as someone who is connected and generous and wise about potential collaborations.

Link hands across denominational lines. Some denominations have more women in ministry than others. Regardless if you’re a pioneer or a third wave clergywoman, though, it helps to have relationships and sounding boards among female clergy in other denominations. These spaces offer perspective, a greater pool of support, and opportunities to share more honestly than is sometimes possible in small denominational worlds. They also lay the groundwork for multi-denominational collaboration.

Highlight positive voices. This fall a certain (male) evangelical leader made a big hubbub about telling a certain (female) author, speaker, and Bible teacher to return to her domicile, among other offensive statements. That incident got a lot of play on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, but it didn’t do much for women other than accentuate how entrenched the patriarchy remains. Instead of giving men who belittle women a bigger platform, the cohort advocated for pushing the voices of women and their allies. It’s just as easy to click share or retweet if you see a clergywoman doing something good or saying something insightful as it is to pass along outrageous content.

Keep track of all you do. The cohort was built on the participants’ willingness to announce recent accomplishments. There were long pauses on the first couple of calls, though, as the members scrolled through their days to remember something worth sharing. After a couple of weeks, one of the women suggested keeping a running list between calls. That shifted the conversation. Responses included, “I didn’t realize how much I do!” and “I thought this was something everyone did. It never occurred to me before now that it is a legit accomplishment.” We’re better prepared to talk about ourselves when we acknowledge all that we do.

Know that your success is my success, and vice versa. We’ve probably all heard a congregation say, “Well, we tried having a woman pastor, and it just didn’t work.” It might be decades before that church is willing to call a woman again, even though the issue was likely not the minister herself but the fit or the church’s lack of support. On the other hand, you might have also heard, “We had a woman pastor, and she was amazing. Let’s call another one.” When one of us succeeds, we broaden the path for all our colleagues.

If we announce our accomplishments and affirm and amplify each other, our whispers of giftedness and faithfulness become shouts that skeptics can’t ignore.

Thank you to this pilot cohort of Trinit-A. I enjoyed being with and learning from you so much.

If you are interested in a future Trinit-A cohort, contact me.

Image courtesy of The Young Clergy Women Project/Young Clergy Women International.