Invest and Cultivate: Tools for Empowering Women Leaders

by Jo Saxton | June 05, 2012

When I look at the Bible,
When I look at the global church 
throughout history and today, 
When I look at women and their ongoing 
contribution to society in such a wide range 
of ways, I have no doubt that God calls 
women to leadership and influence.

But it wasn’t always that way; doubt had a way of stalking my dreams and my call. It whispered fear into my heart and mind. Like so many of us, the ground I stand on was not found quickly or easily. Responding to God’s call to leadership has come with pain, scars, and sacrifice. In my college years, I once wept over my biblical studies essays on women in leadership, examining the Greek text and shouting at God, “I can see all the women in here, why did you allow it to be so hard for us to be seen or heard?” There were the lonely days of insecurity, hoping that God didn’t doubt me as much as I doubted myself. There was anger and bitterness about how judged I felt on occasion for believing God called me to lead—as if I would willingly pursue the risk of rejection, I’d mutter to myself. Sometimes the internal wrestling overflowed into my everyday life. Friendships drifted apart when it became clear that the only way we could be at peace with one another about women in leadership was to simply refrain from discussing the issue. The silence widened the gap between us, until finally we were too far apart to even see one another. 

Some of these experiences were purely the cost of a calling, true for any man or woman. Nonetheless, leadership evoked both passion and terror within me in equal measure. Regardless of the fruit I saw in my first tentative steps into leadership, and despite the encouragement from great leaders, I still wrestled in my heart. 

Just because I believed in women leaders didn’t automatically make me feel like one. Just because I sensed there was a calling from which I couldn’t escape (and believe me, I tried!) didn’t mean I knew what to do with it. So much time and emotional energy had been given to reaching the point where I could embrace women in leadership, that I wasn’t sure how to occupy the space when I arrived! 

Often I wish there was a fail-safe, “put-it-in-a-box” list to empower every woman who is called to leadership. But since life refuses to work in such formulas, what I offer is something a bit more rustic: two simple concepts to help women dig deeper into that growing sense of call—invest and cultivate. 

Invest

Invest time in exploring your God-given identity.

There are multiple voices in our culture declaring what determines a woman’s worth, value, and potential. Invest time and energy in exploring how God made you. We as a church have spent much time dwelling on Eve, but I often wonder, Why have we spent so much time defining women by Eve’s mistakes rather than our potential in Christ? I thought our Redeemer lives!

Eve gives us insight into women’s potential in two key areas:

  1. In Genesis 1:28–31, we see that God not only designed Adam and Eve to have close relationship with him, but also commissioned them both to take responsibility and represent him in the world he had made—with no comment about hierarchy. 
  2. In Genesis 2:18, God describes Eve as helper, ezer—a word meaning to rescue and to be strong, a word with military connotations, and a word largely used in Scripture to describe God rescuing his people from their enemies.

These two insights are important for women leaders today because humanity struggles to live or lead beyond what we believe about ourselves. Our thoughts can either paralyze us or liberate us. When we understand that God has always had women in mind to represent him on earth, and that made in his image we share something of his strength, it attends to some of that nagging sense that we need permission from someone to even explore our calling. Why are women still seeking permission when we have been created with a commission?

Another wise investment is to spend time recovering our spiritual heritage. Eve. Miriam. Deborah. Esther. Huldah. Mary. Lois. Eunice. Lydia. Priscilla. Junia. Phoebe. Just a few of the women on the pages of the Bible who show us what being an influential woman can look like. We are empowered when we read their stories and when we hear them included in sermons alongside David and Moses and Paul. Their lives provide instruction for our own because their stories still speak to us. Throughout church history, we also find female martyrs and movement leaders, abbesses and mystics, preachers and reformers. And, around the world today in places like China, India, and across Africa, we see women leading movements and churches that are transforming entire communities. Encountering these women’s stories is empowering because when we see their example, we realize we can be it too. We need to be awakened to our heritage and our family likeness.

Invest time in discovering your gifts and passions. 

After attending to the big picture, it’s also important to get down to some details. Once you have reconnected with your identity, recovered your heritage, and caught a glimpse of your sisters around the world, what is next?

  • Consider trying personality type assessments like Myers Briggs or Strength Finders as a means to explore the way you have been wired and the contribution you can make to the world. 
  • Utilize tools and questionnaires to help explore your spiritual gifts and uncover your passions.
  • Talk to a trusted friend about the gifts and abilities they see in you. Sometimes people recognize qualities in us that we struggle to value in ourselves. Be sure to listen to what they say!
  • Reflect on topics that you are already passionate about or already invested in. What grabs your attention, makes you cry, gets you angry?
  • Reflect on your day-to-day life: your job, your role at church, your key relationships. What would you do differently if you sensed they were your calling?
  • Pray about your calling…and listen diligently for God’s response. Perhaps there will be no divine visitation or an immediate answer, but in the days, weeks, and months to follow , pay attention to what God may be speaking to you. 
  • Stumble into something significant by serving. I wonder how many of our favorite Bible characters really knew the significance of what they were doing. We see God’s power redeeming Israel in the lives of Esther and Ruth even though God is not specifically mentioned in these books. Sometimes the call is to be faithful, to find a place to serve, and to commit to it. 
  • Once you have discovered your gifts, unwrap them! Develop your skills and seek out training in order to be the best you can be. Because God is worth it! What other investments do you need to make to empower yourself for leadership? Theological study? Specific training courses? 

Invest in a healthy life. 

Remember your character is more important than your gifts. Remember you are a person, not just a role or a task. Don’t just invest in who you are on the outside. Healthy leaders are healthy inside and out. Some of us carry wounds from the past. Some of us feel disqualified from leadership because of our addictions and secrets. Some of us are workaholics, desperate for approval. Wherever you are, be honest with yourself. Then consider what you need. Do you need to seek a counselor, a support group, or someone to pray with regularly? Don’t be ashamed, be free

Cultivate

Our God, who in his very being is relational, designed humans with relationship in mind. It is no surprise then that when it comes to leadership, there is only so much we can accomplish on our own. The community in which we are rooted can have a transformative effect on our leadership call. We need an environment that encourages women leaders, that wants to hear our voices and see our gifts at work, glorifying Jesus. That is the kind of place we can call home. And to stay connected to home, it is important that we take the time to cultivate some key relationships:

Accountable friendships. 

Actually, everyone needs accountable friendships, leader or not. We need to cultivate the kind of friends who are secure enough to celebrate in our successes but are also able to ask us the difficult questions about who we are when no one is watching. Good accountability friends ask us about how we eat and drink, about how hard we are working and why, about our hurts and hopes, and about the stellar ideas we have but have felt too inadequate to share with anyone yet. We need the kind of friends who will be sisters, who will laugh at us, cry with us, and pray for us. Sometimes we look to mentors for all of these relationship needs, but we often talk differently to our friends than we do to our mentors. It’s one thing to look up to someone. It’s another thing entirely to look someone eyeball to eyeball. Don’t waste energies comparing or competing with your peers. Cultivate, and do so by being that kind of friend to others, too.

Discipling relationships.

That is not to say, however, that we should not find people to look up to. It is important to put ourselves into positions where we can learn and grow. I believe prayerfully seeking out mentors is one way to do this. We need the living examples of men and women who have gone ahead of us in leadership and in life, who can share their insights and life lessons. Often I’ve noticed women wait to be chosen to be mentored, as though being selected is a confirmation of their value. But we are already valuable, and that people cannot read our minds and cannot know our hearts’ desires. Look for disciplers in your church, or seek out leadership coaches. One caveat: Do not be too prescriptive about your disciple’s background and personality. You may not know exactly what you need in a disciple, and God might just surprise you. When I met Sally Breen (who has discipled me for years), I was stepping out into worship leading and preaching, and she was at home raising a young family. We have very different backgrounds and are different ethnicities. But her input has been life changing and continues to shape the leader I am growing into.

Consider too, who you are discipling. Who has access to your life to learn from you? Who is benefiting from the skills and life lessons you have had? We know we have all been commissioned to make disciples, but sometimes that call slips into the distance. Look around your community and church, and prayerfully consider who God is calling you to pour into.

There is no doubt in my mind that God has called women to know him and represent him in today’s world, whether that is in church, in the workplace, in our communities, or at home. But we need to be ready. It’s time to pick up our tools. Take a deep breath and be courageous. Invest and cultivate.

And then lead.