Jo Saxton: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

“Where are the women leaders? I wish there were more out there…”

“I just wish there more coming through, but there don’t seem to be any anywhere”

“What’s happening?”

Ever been part of a conversation like this? It’s a conversation that I’ve had with men and women across the US, around Europe, across the generations. It happens over coffee, online, on a conference call, in a hangout and in print. Sometimes the conversation is tinged with angst and longing, sometimes hurt, something incredulity, like something simply doesn’t add up.

It’s not that women in the church have disappeared (at least not yet!). In reality women are shaping and influencing their world in a  broad  range of ways. They’re engaging with the imbalances & injustices of the world, advocating, fundraising, adopting, fostering, making dresses for children who go without, knitting quilts for women in shelters, writing letters to troops and sponsoring children. Some are investing their gifts and talents and as they establish their homes and raise their children. Their gifts are predominantly expressed at the school gate, on the PTA,   with girl scouts and sports teams, in the local neighborhood. It’s a high calling, being salt and light in the local community – world changing in fact. Some women are leading and loving it in the workplace; they’ve been equipped, empowered and their leadership gifts have come alive. It’s an incredible opportunity. Like Esther they’re called for such a time as this, like Joseph and Daniel this is where their ministry unfolds. Other women are realizing their potential as they support others – their bosses, their spouse, their friends, their teams. Its not a subjugation thing, nor a lack of confidence. These women know who they are and where they are called to be, and they thrive.

Perhaps on one level, our definition of leadership and influence has been too narrow, too one dimensional. These stories are different from the ones we often hear; maybe they seem a little ordinary. But in the hands of an extraordinary God, these women do amazing things.  Their stories in all their glorious diversity should be told and heard, seen and valued. They help us see what we can be. They must be invested in and equipped in order to realize their potential in the place God’s already placed them.

Still there is another group of women, different ages, life stages, colors and cultures. Same conversation.

“Where are the women leaders?”

“I wish there were more out there…”

“I just wish there more coming through, but there don’t seem to be any anywhere”

“What’s happening?”

Like their sisters they feel called to serve,  but as leaders within the church. To lead churches, to exegete the Scriptures, to lead teams, to preach, to lead worship, to train leaders, to lead prayer movements,  to share strategic insights, to pioneer ministries, plant churches, to pursue missional frontiers. Sometimes it’s like a quiet persistent hum in the background, sometimes its like a raging fire in their bones. There’s a conviction, a passion, a calling.  They’re just not sure what this calling looks like beyond their passions and their dreams…

“Where are the women leaders?”

They’re asking because they can’t be what they can’t see. They’re asking because they need to see whom they could be.  There’s been so much controversy, so much debate, that at times its cut deep into their sense of identity and relationship with God.  They’ve questioned repeatedly whether they are just too proud, just ambitious, not feminine enough. They’ve prayed, wept and  walked away, only to find that  the restless nagging sense of call won’t leave them alone. Oh, they’ve tried to not be called, because that would be so much easier, far less costly.  But they’ve flown away on the wings of the morning, settled on the far side of the sea, dug themselves into the dark shadows  – and He was there. Loving, affirming, but still commissioning. Calling.  And when they’ve dared to respond, dared to whisper yes… they felt alive.

Seeing helps. Seeing the lives of the women of the Scriptures –  Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Junia, Priscilla, Lydia, Mary, Phoebe, Elizabeth. Hearing their names, understanding their lives helps. Seeing Christian women through the ages helps. The martyrs of the early churches like Perpetua and Felicity.  Leaders in the Celtic Church like Hilda of Whitby. The women through the ages Susanna Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Booth, Sojourner Truth, Mother Theresa, Jackie Pullinger.  As mentioned in a previous post, you cannot underestimate the power of what you can’t see. What we see (or don’t see) speaks incredibly loudly about what is possible.  Seeing inspires from afar, seeing ignites possibility.  But I believe that to equip and empower women who sense a call to leadership they’ll need some things that are much, much closer.

They need leaders who can show them how to explore and engage with their call to leadership. Leaders who will assure and reassure them it’s OK to be called, that its more than OK and though it may be difficult at times, it is possible. They need leaders who can show them through the illustration of their lives, through their testimonies, and their presence out there.

They need leaders who can tell them their stories, their whole stories, their successes and failures, their devotional lives. They need leaders who can open their time and hearts and help them understand what it means for God to work on your character. Who can share their stories of stress, suffering and struggle  and also faith, hope and love.

They need to experience leaders who will train them. Who will sharpen their skills, cultivate  their gifts and  give them regular tangible opportunities, walking them through success but also failure. These women need people who will apprentice them. They need leaders who are secure enough to open doors for them to go through, willing to launch these women into a future that might be even greater than their own…Now obviously male leaders can and have trained female leaders. My hope and prayer is that more would, because we need to see healthy teams of men and women who’ve worked out before God how to work alongside one another. We’ve got to commit to the vehicles that help that process.

They also need to be in  community. They need to have an extended family. Because we’re not one dimensional beings whose lives have to revolve around a job or  a task.  We are also friends, sisters, daughters, mothers,aunties, wives. So we need people to do life with, because when your immersed in a community, its easier to be grounded. Its easier to be normal and not take ourselves to seriously. It’s easier to find support and encouragement to keep going. It’s easier to cultivate relationships with people we can confide in or trust to ask the difficult questions.

Can a fresh generation of female leaders come through without it? Are they?

In truth they are – but it’s more difficult, it’s lonelier, and women are not realizing their potential. That’s a challenging enough thought in itself. But let’s think beyond these leaders and think of the places where God’s sending them. Think about the communities and cities, the people groups yet to be transformed by the love of Jesus Christ, yet to see the Light of the Gospel.  What potential lay unrealized there because we’ve not raised up the next generation?

This is not a clarion call for every woman to be a leader, though I hope that every Christian man and woman would have a vision for being salt and light wherever they are, and leading someone to Christ. We’ve all been called to make disciples, all been called to play our role in the Great Commission. But it is a call to those of us who do feel called to leadership, who have wrestled and agonized, who have run away from God’s call or toned things down to be more acceptable – to reengage with the call of God on our lives.

What do you need to see to be all that God’s called you to be?

Jo Saxton
Jo Saxton

Jo Saxton is a speaker, author, podcast host, executive director of The 25 at Bethel University, and founder of the Ezer Collective.