Where are the Women Leaders?

Bonnie Pruett Wurzbacher may have come from a family of ministers but she studied teaching in college and found her calling in business. Rising to senior vice president at Coca-Cola she also found precious few peers or role models among women, much less among Christian women. Out of necessity, most of her mentors would turn out to be Christian men. From the often pioneering and sometimes bruised leading edge of a Christian woman in a high corporate seat, Bonnie Wurzbacher weighs in now on the importance of women leaders in business and church.

Bonnie, how do you define a professional calling, and when did you know you had one?

Growing up, I thought a calling meant full-time Christian service. I’ve since learned that any vocation can glorify God and that a calling is the intersection of your strengths and interests coupled with where God wants or need you most — a place that may change over the course of your life.

Sounds like there’s a story behind that last part…

Not really. Dr. Litfin, the president of Wheaton College, posed some interesting questions to me recently that helped me reflect on the idea that a calling may be about more than just a person’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, Moses didn’t want to do what God called him to do because he didn’t have speaking talent. Neither did Jonah. So while an element of your calling relates to your natural gifts and passions, there is also the component of where God most needs you at the time.

When did you know your calling?

As I realized I was good at business and drawn to it, I began to realize it was a calling. It took several more years to figure out how to serve God in it — how to glorify Him in it. Where once I thought a job should be “meaningful,” now I realize the worker brings meaning to the job.

Was there a moment or point when business acquired sacred meaning for you?

Not one particular moment, no. It was a series of things, from sermons on the theology of work to business experience over the years. Success in business usually starts out with performance. Then it expands to include managing relationships and, critically, the ability to lead others. I learned through difficult times and through interactions with other Christian business leaders. And in the process I developed a Christian worldview that included my professional life and my personal life. After all, work is where most of us spend most of our time.

As a woman and a high-placed exec at one of the globe’s largest companies, did you wake up one morning and say to yourself: I have no role models, I’m on uncharted ground?

[Laughs] I don’t know that I ever did that. But I’ll say there have been fewer and fewer women in leadership roles or even as peers as I’ve advanced. The world of Christian women in those roles is even smaller — which I suppose isn’t all that surprising.

I’m very passionate about two things in my professional life. First is the critical role and responsibility of business, how it advances the economic well-being of people around the world. How it allows every other institution to exist, including churches, schools, hospitals, and every not-for-profit organization by creating jobs, salaries, and taxes. It gives Christians an incredible place to honor God. When a business fails you see the impact on everything else and vice versa

My second passion is helping others, especially women, identify and use their gifts and talents in significant ways. Women are fully half of the professional workforce in Fortune 500 companies. Yet those percentages reflect in few leadership roles — not just in corporate America but in churches, in politics, and in many other fields, we are not fully benefiting from the talents of women. If 50 percent of the professional workforce is women, why aren’t 50 percent of the leaders women? That has a multi-faceted answer; but in large part it is a talent development failure. I believe this failure is evident in many churches as well.

The theologian N.T. Wright says the Bible’s account of Mary and Martha is not about “active” and “contemplative” styles of spirituality but the boundary-breaking call of Jesus. The real problem was not Mary’s absence in the kitchen; it was her behaving as a man — the public rooms were where men met. To sit at the feet of Jesus there was a decidedly male role.

I have a wonderful book on this subject, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender, by a man named John G. Stackhouse. Very often in Christian circles when this topic comes up, the stance is either extremely conservative or extremely liberal. But those are not the only choices. I would call myself a Christian feminist, if what it means is that women are equal in every way to men; not the same in every way, but equal in every way.

The book points out that Jesus befriended and taught women which was scandalous to the patriarchal culture of the time. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit was poured on both men and women. In Galatians 3, the church eliminates distinctions between Christians of any kind. In Romans and Corinthians and Ephesians, there is no distinguishing between spiritual gifts given to men and women. Paul writes of women in the early church in a wide range of roles as deacons, apostles, benefactors and teachers. 

On the other hand, the Bible has a pattern of patriarchy from Genesis 3 on. Christ and the Church are described in a patriarchal marriage analogy. Jesus’ twelve were clearly men, and Paul seems to teach that women shouldn’t teach in the church. John Stackhouse basically concludes that both God and Paul promote the temporary accommodation of Christianity to the patriarchy of the time because nothing is more important than advancing the gospel. And to do so in that time and place would likely have interfered with their purpose.

Jesus radically changes the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor, and men and women. But He never sacrificed the equal relationship in Christ to the goal of advancing the gospel. New Testament writers expected the Lord’s return at any time and they taught a policy of social conservatism, though Paul talks over and over about our radical freedom in Christ.

Stackhouse concludes that we now may face the opposite problem in nations that no longer espouse patriarchal cultures. In other words, by not embracing women in leadership roles, the Western Church may actually be impairing the advancement of the gospel. He makes a compelling and biblically-based argument, and I heartily recommend reading it.

Which creates a bigger sense of pressure for you in the workplace — your faith or your gender?

I try to be open about my Christian faith at work whenever I can, which definitely puts more pressure on both my behavior and my performance. I better be doing my best and living out my values and treating others in a God-honoring way. I’m far from perfect, but if I let others know I’m Christian, I’m putting God’s reputation on the line, not just mine.

I also feel a responsibility to represent women well. A lot of men have never worked with a woman as a peer, much less for a woman. I feel under the microscope at times, I suppose, but it inspires me to be my best too.

Do you think the Church addresses the issues you face?

I’ve read that 50 percent of Christians have never heard a sermon on work and 70 percent have no theology of work. I believe many churches are irrelevant when it comes to work issues or how to integrate faith and work. My church, Peachtree Presbyterian in Atlanta, most definitely does — and I know there are others. 

It seems a lot of Christians view their work as a means of making a living rather than of honoring God in the world — and feel guilty for not being able to spend more time in church-related work. They need to learn to view work as a place to serve God as part of a holistic Christian worldview, and there’s definitely an opportunity for the Church to be more relevant to people’s day-to-day lives.

Nancy Pearcy in her book Total Truth talks about how many people separate their worlds between their personal values and belief systems and their professional lives — the world of science, economics, and facts. Christians tend to do that too. We’re not taught to view our vocations as a meaningful way to honor and serve God, or how to articulate a rational, compelling case for our faith, so we keep our faith private. I believe churches need to teach their congregations how to integrate faith and work — how to bring meaning to their work.

Do you consider yourself ambitious?

Yes. At least, I am driven to excel, so I view that as ambition. At times, I have to question my motives to make sure my priorities are not just my professional or personal goals but reflect God’s purpose on my life. That’s my favorite part of The Purpose-Driven Life: “life is not about you.” I try to use my work ambition to honor God. Of course, at times my ego gets in the way, so I ask for forgiveness and try to view my work from God’s perspective.

If you don’t have many female role models in business, where do you find role models for support?

I actually get a lot of support from the Christian men in my life, starting with my husband…but also my minister, some of my team members and associates at work, even some customers — especially those I know are Christians. Bill Pollard, currently chairman of the board at Wheaton, and retired chairman of Service Master, has been encouraging to me professionally. My Christian women friends mentor me in many ways. I find that the more I let others know of my faith, the more Christians I find in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.

My husband is my biggest cheerleader. And although he has his own career, he travels with me when he can, lifts me up when my spirits are down; I couldn’t have succeeded in my work as I have without him. I also try to mentor both men and women, and learn from them too. There’s an unbelievable amount of talented, energetic, ambitious, young Christian women and men out there in the business world when we begin to look for them. I do my best to encourage as many of them as I can.

What do you tell the young women you mentor?

I tell them they need to know who they are, their strengths, talents, and gifts, and not to confine themselves to traditional thinking. They can and should be leaders anywhere and everywhere. They should marry someone who sees them as their equal and encourages and inspires them to be the best they can be. I didn’t marry until I was 37, and boy did I marry the right person for me. God definitely knew what he was doing by having me wait for Steve.

I encourage them to be more confident. Women, more than men, seem to have a tendency to self doubt. I try to help them recognize their talents…and to trust God and wait for God’s timing in life’s big decisions…and to learn to integrate their faith and work. I also try to listen and learn from them. A lot of them feel they have no role models in their fields. So I feel called to help mentor other women most certainly.

Have you written a book?

I do have a full time job. One day, maybe…of course, my favorite saying is if you want to make God laugh, just tell Him your plans.
 

© 2001–2007 H. E. Butt Foundation. All rights reserved. 
Reprinted with permission from Laity Lodge and TheHighCalling.org.