by Rhesa Higgins –
Calligraphied on a pink plaque surrounded by hearts and flowers, this statement hung on my bedroom wall from infancy. As I entered high school, other plaques that representing successes in debate tournaments soon surrounded it. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the irony.
Little girls in the United States, and especially in the South, are taught from an early age to be nice. A simple google search of “socialization of girls in America” brings up more than 200,000,000 hits. To oversimplify the massive amount of information, girls are taught to find value in helping others, use quiet voices, display refined Victorian manners, and defer to authority. In addition to this secular consensus, women in churches are also taught to submit to men as rightful leaders, that women are more susceptible to temptations (see Genesis 3), to see “goodness” (defined here as adhering to the rules) as spiritual maturity, and that her silence is golden.
When you hire a woman to be part of your ministry staff, all of these messages lay beneath her consciousness… waiting. You see, she is breaking many of these molds simply by being a minister. No matter what duties your church body deems her role to be, she feels the tension in merely existing as a minister.
A minister is a person of spiritual authority—she was taught to defer to others authority.
A minister is a leader—she was taught to follow men as leaders.
A minister speaks into the spiritual lives of those in her care—she was taught to be silent.
Even if this is a role she has long desired to fill, the tensions nevertheless remain. Even if she doesn’t fully articulate these tensions, they nag at her. Even if she doesn’t endorse or like these expectations, she is aware of them and knows she’s breaking them.
A ministry staff or elders meeting provides an easy example of where these tensions manifest themselves. When someone asks, “What does everyone think about ________?”, she feels an internal tug-of-war. She has opinions but also knows that her silence is golden. She has been hired to do a job and the discussion affects that job. Yet, she has been taught to defer to authority.
Sometimes, women in this setting will simply listen. Some people may assume that she is uninterested, ignorant, or snobbish if she takes a position of listening. But this risk is, at times, worth it as it quells her internal struggle. When a woman on your staff is quiet in a discussion that needs her input, ask her directly what she thinks. You are giving her permission to engage, ensuring her that she has a seat at the table of leadership. If this seems like handholding or indulging her insecurities to you, I can understand your concern. I might invite you to see this as a coaching technique to be used for a season as she gains confidence in her role and battles the underlying tensions she is experiencing.
At other times, a woman will clearly speak her mind. Some people might assume that she is domineering, pushy, or power-hungry when she takes a vocal stance. She is taking a risk, defying the ways she has been taught to see rule-following as spiritual maturity. When a woman on your staff shares her requested opinion, praise her for contributing like the valued team member that she is. If this seems like handholding or indulging her insecurities to you, I can understand your concern. I might invite you to see this as a coaching technique to be used for a season as she grows in confidence in the role you hired her to fill.
Both of these scenarios assume that you have hired a woman who is genuinely pursuing spiritual and personal maturity. If that is not the case, you have an entirely different set of coaching techniques to employ not relevant to this discussion.
The women in ministry that I have the privilege to know and serve describe the above scenarios as a “catch 22”. It is truly a no-win situation. If they are too outspoken, they have defied the expectations of a good Christian woman. If they are too quiet, they aren’t doing their job well. This tension results in them weighing every single word that they speak, usually looking for the least harmful way out of the situation. They rarely, if ever, feel free to fully express their opinions. Even when seated around a table with other women in ministry, it takes hours of time together before they begin to feel safe enough to let those concerns fall away.
Carefully listening, seeking her input, and praising her outspokenness can go a very long way. These purposeful actions by male co-workers, and especially bosses, allow her to feel valued and heard so that she meets ALL of the expectations that came with hiring her.