Researcher Mary Lederleitner on the Difficulties That Women in Christian Leadership Face

What distinctive gifts do women have for the global church? Is the church helping or hindering women leaders? In Women in God’s Mission: Accepting the Invitation to Serve and Lead, missions researcher Mary Lederleitner describes both the particular obstacles women leaders face and the unique blessings they offer the body of Christ. Drawing upon two decades of personal experience and interviews with more than 90 women serving in roughly 30 different countries, Lederleitner outlines an emerging model of leadership that is faithful, connected, and holistic. Amy Peterson, adjunct professor at Taylor University and author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, spoke with Lederleitner about her research.

In your preface, you mention never having expected to write a book about women in leadership. What changed?

I’ve met a lot of women who are hurting because of divisive claims about what women can and can’t do in mission and ministry. The complementarian-egalitarian framework isn’t serving the global body of Christ well. Once you are in one or the other theological camp, the other group often wants little to do with you. Sometimes it seems like the two groups are enemies rather than people who are destined to live and serve God together for all eternity. I believe our Lord wants us to find a better way to dialogue about women in mission and ministry.

I’ve met women who are the first females to fill their leadership role in mission agencies, and they often feel so alone. Many are struggling to figure out how to lead effectively without the benefit of female role models.

What are you finding that men and women most appreciate from your research?

At a recent conference, a male leader came up and thanked me. He said, “In the past, every time this topic has been discussed, there has always been an edge to it. I appreciated the spirit of how you approach it, and that we can talk together in this way.” Often, men think it is only a women’s conversation, but without their active involvement, things never change.

But the response from women has surprised me the most. I’m caught off guard at how deeply my work seems to minister to them. Many have told me it finally gives them language to talk about issues that have been hurtful or confusing in mission and ministry workplaces. It seems to encourage hearts, whether a woman’s ministry is largely with children or as a top mission executive or church leader. I hope the Holy Spirit will do a deep work of healing through the stories and insights of the women in the book.

Are male and female leadership styles really that different? What do we gain from focusing on female leadership in mission?

Deborah Tannen is a renowned linguist who has done extensive research around unique challenges facing women in the workplace. She explains that images of male authority, like military terminology or sports metaphors, most often shape the topic of leadership.

She writes that a woman in leadership is “in a double bind.” If she is seen as assertive or aggressive, men might view her as a competent leader, but she might not be liked. Yet if she responds with more stereotypically female behaviors, she might be liked, but at the expense of seeming less competent. Although the women I’ve interviewed treat leading in God’s mission as a tremendous privilege, they readily acknowledge facing additional challenges because of their gender. They use metaphors like “walking a tightrope,” “doing gymnastics,” or performing “an evangelical tap dance so men will accept us.”

Another issue lies in workplace metaphors specific to women. Although they don’t do so explicitly, certain ministries and organizations have policies that communicate the idea that women are somehow temptresses who are prone to lead men astray. All kinds of restrictions are put into place to keep them separate from men. Most often these policies end up protecting men and facilitating their leadership development while marginalizing women’s gifts and contributions. There are promiscuous women in the world, but I have not seen women serving and leading in God’s mission with that motivation.

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Source: Christianity Today