Pioneering Together: Creating Space for Authentic Relationships

This post is part three of a three-part series entitled Pioneering Together. Find the rest of the series here: 1) Welcoming a Female Minister, 2) Empowering Her Leadership Gifts

He walked into my office with a cup of coffee, sat down, and said, “I guess we should be friends.”

An elder called and said, “Bring the baby and meet me for lunch. I want to check on you and make sure you are okay.”

Another minister asked, “Would you like to have lunch and just catch up?”

He asked me to pray one night in a leadership meeting, for the first time, after many years of serving with this team.

In my first post in this series, I described how the female minister often has feelings of loneliness, uncertainty, and confusion, and may not have many mentoring experiences. (Male ministers experience similar feelings as well, but not because they are the only person of their gender on staff.) Each of the above experiences, recalled from my own experience, mean a great deal to me. Each one is an instance in my life when a male leader pioneered what it meant to have friendship with a minister of the opposite gender and created a path for honest and intentional friendship, mentoring, and shepherding.

When a woman hears, “We will treat you just like the male ministers,” she believes that it applies to interpersonal relationships. The relationships on a staff team provide more than friendship; they can be a safe place for authentic, holy, communal living. This authenticity and transparency are not always possible with members of the church, so staff and elders tend to rely on one another. Through these relationships, ministers are able to ask for advice from those in a different generation concerning their leadership, spiritual walk, family issues, or struggles with sin.

Women need mentors.                                                                            

I have always felt that mentoring is a God-given relationship to help spur a person to greater maturity and ability in his or her ministry. While we can intentionally seek out mentoring relationships, I think that the Spirit is at work in mentoring relationships and leads us to people we will click with. In her book Lean In, [1] Sheryl Sandberg says that “chasing or forcing that connection rarely works.” In addition, she says the “strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides.”

Elders and male ministers who invite a woman minister into a relationship can help her develop her leadership skills, learn to set wise boundaries that will help prevent burnout, and help her understand and work through the societal expectations that often hold back a female leader. In addition, the mentor will better understand the mentee, and be more proactive in adjusting the leadership team’s operations in order to accommodate her giftedness. Both male and female ministers need mentors, but female ministers, like their corporate world counterparts, are often not granted the gift of mentoring as easily as men.

Women need shepherding.

Sexual integrity is a difficult issue in our world. Too many churches have been rocked by scandals of ministers who crossed the line sexually with church members. Many believe that the best way to avoid temptation is for a man to never meet with a woman alone. A common expectation is that two men (or a married couple) will always meet with a woman. However, this practice will likely cut off authentic and transparent communication. It is intimidating to open up about spiritual experiences or painful issues! Consider doing this sitting across from two or three older men who are possibly the age of one’s father or grandfather.

When a female minister is hired, a plan should be put into place to help her have a confidant, a shepherd, whom she can call when times are tough or she feels spiritually vulnerable. Many male ministers have regular lunch appointments with elders, but most female ministers have never had this opportunity. Women need that connection with spiritual leaders, too. So what is the solution? Schedule meetings in public places. Let the church staff or your spouse know where you are and how long you will be. Talk on the phone. Drop the “two men to one woman” rule for personal conversations. Let her choose whom she connects with as a shepherd. And work with her to choose a shepherding couple so they can speak into her life through their common experiences.

Women need friendship.

Female ministers often feel left out. They don’t fit with the male ministry staff, and the female support staff rarely invites them into their fold. Friendship in the workplace is important to any healthy workplace environment. So build a friendship with the female minister. Ask her how she is doing. Listen to her heartfelt concerns. More importantly, though, nurture the relationship regularly. Just go in her office and ask her questions: “Hey, what sports team do you like?” “What did you have for dinner?” “What is your favorite TV show?” No doubt you will find common ground and be able to nurture a healthy friendship. Now, this is a two-way street, so she needs to initiate conversation with other ministers as well. And if you get stumped, here is any easy conversation-starter: “Who is your favorite Bible character and why?” Surely you will find common ground in that question.

Pioneering together a hospitable environment that will nurture spiritual friendships is essential to welcoming a female minister to your staff team. Pioneers must start with open communication that leads up to a plan to create the staff culture that they desire. If you have a female minister on staff, she may be hoping for the opportunity to create the positive changes discussed in this three-part series (read part one and part two here). And, if she forwarded you this blog, then she has already eliminated the guesswork and has gently invited you to pioneer together a better way of being a staff team.

As I conclude this series, I am curious about the practices on your staff teams. What strategies have you utilized to break down societal expectations? How have you pioneered empowering, authentic, and communal relationships within your staff team? I’d love to hear from you via email.

[1] Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf, 2013.
Shannon loves to help churches imagine ministry that invites children into the presence of God. After fifteen years of church ministry, she took a position as the Assistant Professor of Children’s Ministry at LCU in 2016. Shannon speaks at conferences on children’s ministry, the vocation and practice of ministry, contemplative practices for children and adults, and topics concerning women in ministry. Shannon directs Refresh: A Day of Nourishment for Women Who Minister and is an associate with Hope Network. Shannon, her husband David, and children River and Reese are actively involved at Tahoka Church of Christ.
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Author:  Publish Date: July 30, 2015

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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