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Shaping Fearless & Faithful Disciples

Strategies for Every Age

I was twenty years old when God called me to pastoral ministry. At the time I was a theatre major hoping to build a career as a stage actress. My backup plan was stage management, not ministry. Though raised by supportive parents, I grew up in a denomination that had a very narrow view of women’s roles in the church and the world. I saw few women leading in any capacity at church and had never seen a female pastor in action. So when God called me, there were moments of panic and weeks of bafflement when I asked, “Who am I to do this work?” I had enough trust in God to say yes to ministry but it took several years, two theological degrees, successful ministry experience, and tons of affirmation before I could say yes to myself as a pastor and leader in the church.

One of my primary concerns as a pastor is to nurture the faith of women and girls in such a way that the call of God will be met like a warm, welcome sunrise. Not all of us will be called to pastoral ministry or to fill leadership positions, but each of us, male or female, is called to use our unique spirit, our spiritual gifts, and our talents to benefit God’s kingdom. I believe that as a pastor, I am called to join in God’s work of shaping women of all ages into fearless and faithful disciples. I want our women to be ready and willing, and to freely serve, wherever and however God calls them.

The responsibility of shaping female disciples does not belong to pastors alone, but to parents and grandparents; to teachers, mentors, and employers; to aunts and uncles; and to family friends and coaches. Over the years, I’ve developed what I call affirmation strategies that I fold into the discipleship process. I share these with you, some for every developmental age, and invite you to join in the work.

In Childhood

In my work with children, I’ve noticed that girls are most often praised for their physical appearance, while boys are praised for their physical abilities. There’s nothing wrong with complimenting a girl’s outfit, hair, or beautiful face, but if this is the only affirmation she hears as she grows, we risk teaching her that outward beauty determines her value. If we believe that girls are created equal in the image of God, then we must intentionally affirm more than their beauty. We must affirm their whole being.

Acknowledge her uniqueness and cultivate her strengths. Keenly observe the girl(s) in your life. What makes her unique? What strengths do you see? Was there a moment when her spirit, words, or actions brought light to a dark time or place? Compliment these things. Help her notice her unique ways and talents. As this becomes habit in your relationship, talk about simple ways she is able to bless her family, neighbors, friends, and classmates. Ultimately, how can you help her understand that freely sharing her uniqueness with the world blesses God?

Broaden her imagination. What children see in everyday life shapes their vision for the future. When I ask my nieces what they want to be when they grow up, they usually say a princess or a gymnast. That’s not surprising because princesses are everywhere: crowding toy aisles, decorating birthday cakes, starring in books and movies, and stamped on backpacks and barrettes. My nieces are learning gymnastics just like their mother did as a girl; they own more leotards than I own dishes. A preoccupation with princesses and gymnastics may not harm them, but it does eclipse their vision for the future.

Today women are thriving in a vast number of roles across a wide spectrum of occupations. How can we help our girls dream big, but root their dreams in real options? Look around your community. What women surround you in everyday life? Who is doing something new, courageous, or unexpected? Maybe there are female firefighters in your community or a female mayor, plumber, artist, minister, or principal. Point these women out to the girls in your life. Encourage them to notice the way these women serve and lead, and the skills they need to do their work well. What of their character could you encourage your girls to emulate? Fold these questions and conversations into everyday moments and the watch your girls imagine great things for themselves.

In Adolescence

I once worked with a college junior who hadn’t declared a major. When I asked her what she was interested in, she shrugged. When I asked what she was good at, she got tearful. Unfortunately, I’ve worked with many college women who are deeply insecure and uncertain about what they have to offer the world. What causes this state is likely a jumble of personal experiences and perceptions, but a lack of affirmation and guidance in the teenage years are certainly part of the jumble.

Encourage mentoring.  Teen girls often feel awkward and invisible, even when it doesn’t show. Many are searching for their voice. Others don’t realize they can have a voice. It’s also a critical time for those who’ve been raised in the church; many reexamine the beliefs their parents taught them and consider whether they really want to be disciples of Jesus. A trustworthy, wise mentor can be a calming presence in these turbulent years.

I had a mentor throughout most of high school. Though her life was full—she had a successful nursing career, served every week at church, and a family of her own to tend—she generously shared time with me every week. She listened to my concerns, validated my feelings, asked challenging questions, and prayed for me. It was an extraordinary thing to know that this godly woman was genuinely interested in my life. Paired with the encouragement of my parents, my mentor’s support helped my faith flourish and increased my confidence.

Help her discern and exercise her spiritual gifts. If we do a good job of affirming a child’s strengths, and help her see how she is uniquely and wonderfully made, then her teenage years can be a fruitful time to explore spiritual gifts. Parents, mentors, and youth pastors have a special opportunity to guide this critical portion of development. One on one, as a family, or as a youth group, you might study these passages: 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12:1–8, Ephesians 4:1–16, and 1 Peter 4:1–11. A faithful study should examine:

The nature and purpose of spiritual gifts

The range of spiritual gifts

The resounding theme of the body of Christ

The Holy Spirit as the giver of the gifts

The implications this teaching has for all Christians, but particularly for women

Pair a careful study of these passages with practical actions steps. Ask your girls keep an eye out for spiritual gifts at work in everyday life. Discuss the impact spiritual gifts have on those receiving their ministry—individuals, the church, and the world. Talk to individual girls about their unique strengths. Where does she receive the most affirmation? Toward which gifts might her strengths, skills, and talents point? Do her personality and sense of motivation “fit” a certain type of gift?

As you begin this discernment process together, look for ways she can put potential gifts into action in her home, at church, school, and beyond. If you have trouble finding opportunities, then it’s time for you, the mature believer, to speak up and collaborate with your community leaders to create opportunities.

In Young Adulthood

College is a time when women’s identity and faith development should move beyond thinking, teaching and discussion to tangible and significant experiences. Those in positions of influence, depending on our context, should work to ensure that young women have the same access to scholarships, internships, jobs, mentors and leadership roles. Do women have equal access and opportunity in your context? What are you doing well? What are the roadblocks for women and how might you remove them? Here are some practical suggestions for leaders in specific contexts:

Pastors: Be strategic about inviting young women to read Scripture, lead singing, write and speak prayers, and share testimonies during services. Enhance ministry teams in your church by appointing young women to serve with their unique gifts, skills, and voice. Whether official or grassroots, make sure there are ministries and mentors ready to nurture the faith of young women.

College Administrators: Many colleges and universities do a great job at offering leadership positions for students. Where women’s development is a priority, I often see co-leader positions filled with one male and one female. This promotes mutual respect and teamwork as well as equality. It’s always a good idea to do an assessment or demographic study to make sure female students have equal opportunity to lead on your campus. Hosting occasional focus groups will also help you keep tabs on issues that women encounter on your campus, especially in majors or groups where they are the minority or may be met with resistance.

Employers: Create internship positions for young adults hoping to enter your field. If you only have one intern position, create a second and actively recruit female candidates to fill one of your positions. If your company doesn’t have room for interns, start a job shadowing program and get the word out to churches and universities in your area.

Together, if we thoughtfully nurture the faith, identity, and equality of the girls and young women in our lives, they will be more ready than I was to serve as God calls. And we will joyfully watch as their faith strengthens the church and expands the reach of God’s kingdom.

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Barring women from using their God-given talents is an injustice that diminishes the gospel and its impact in the world. CBE International works to inspire and mobilize Christians with the Bible’s call for women and men to co-lead and co-serve as equals.

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