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Women: Don’t Bury Your Leadership Gifts

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In her book I Am a Leader: When Women Discover the Joy of Their Calling, Angie Ward shares her own struggle of questioning whether her leadership bent was a gift or a fatal feminine flaw. It is a familiar tension women face when they do not feel affirmed or encouraged by those in authority in their system. They end up either questioning their gift and their calling or questioning the system and the perspective of those in authority.

For a while, Ward tried to not take charge and even prayed to be more meek and gentle. After a long season of prayer and anguish, she realized that the problem was not that she was a leader or a woman, but that she was denying who God had created her to be. Leadership is an essential part of her calling. She sees herself not as a woman who happens to have a leadership role but a leader who happens to be a woman. Vowing not to bury her gifts and her calling again, Ward wrote words in her journal that became the title and subject of this book: “I AM A LEADER.”

A Lifelong Journey

There are plenty of books that deal with theological views of the roles of women in congregational ministry. (Examples include Two Views of Women in Ministry from Zondervan’s Counterpoints series and Women in Ministry: Four Views, published by IVP Academic.) I Am a Leader, however, does not tackle this particular issue. Instead, the purpose of Ward’s book is to help women see themselves as leaders and live out their callings regardless of their theological positions or cultural contexts.

Ward recognizes that some women may sense individual callings or hold perspectives on women in leadership that clash with prevailing views inside their organizations. For women in these situations, she lays out the options and accompanying challenges to consider in deciding whether to follow one’s calling within less favorable confines or move on to a more supportive environment. However, she does not address how best to stay in an adverse situation while functioning as an agent for change. The book takes an individualistic focus on personal calling rather than advocating for systemic change in places where women do not hold positions of leadership.

Ward discusses different ways of defining calling, but for the purposes of this book she boils it down to “a God-given conviction about your life’s direction.” She examines the different aspects of calling, from how to discern it to how to live it out during different seasons of life. Ward defines leadership as “influence on people to movement toward a vision.” She challenges readers to think of leadership as a matter of exercising influence rather than holding a certain position or job title. While each of us has influence, not every woman is cognizant of or intentional about employing it. “The question,” Ward writes, “is not whether you have influence; the questions are, where you have influence and how are you using that influence to bring honor and glory to God.”

One of the biggest hindrances to our calling, as Ward sees it, comes from our own doubts about how we might work it out—which can cause us to begin questioning the calling itself. What should women do when they find themselves in environments that create (or aggravate) feelings of doubt? Looking back at my own ministry work, I often felt like my teaching and speaking gifts were undervalued and underdeveloped, relative to men, because I didn’t enjoy the same opportunities to exercise them in the Body of Christ. Over time, this dampened my confidence and sense of worth. It takes faith and perseverance to hear God’s call and affirmation over the unsupportive messages one may receive within one’s environment.

Ward sees following your calling as a lifelong journey. Her book devotes chapters to various factors—such as family relationships, seasons of life, and financial burdens—that can affect the pace and trajectory of this journey. As Ward makes clear, your calling and season of life do not always fit neatly together. At every stage, you will experience questions and points of tension. There will be times of waiting, greater surrender, questioning, and costly obedience. But God is always at work, and he does not waste anything. “Even if our experiences do not directly translate to our calling,” Ward writes, “they become part of our story and shape who we are, which in turn shapes how we live out our calling.” In the midst of the mystery and waiting, we can make a regular habit of reading God’s Word and listening to his voice, tuning our ear to what he has already revealed. As we trust in his goodness and timing, he will mold and guide us as we walk with him step by step.

Ward does not shy away from addressing challenges you may experience on the calling journey, such as spiritually dry seasons when God appears to be silent. We should not immediately interpret these challenges as open or closed doors. They can serve as a means for discipleship, loosening our grip on idols and forming us more completely into the likeness of Christ. Ward also cautions against equating our calling with identity, which can foster a slavish devotion to work that exponentially increases the likelihood of burnout, spiritual dryness, and emotional codependence.

Even though Ward disavows any rigid sacred-secular divide, stating explicitly that all work counts as some form of ministry, her book does not include many examples of those striving to live out the gospel in the context of the marketplace. As a result, it is likeliest to resonate with women who feel called to vocational Christian ministry. However, the book draws on the wisdom of a broad range of women representing different ages, ethnicities, and geographic locations. As their perspectives show, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to any of these complicated issues.

A Beautiful and Powerful Sisterhood

The tone of I Am a Leader is one of solidarity. Even though we are unique, we are not alone. As you read the stories of a broad range of women, you gain a sense of the beautiful and powerful sisterhood we share as women ministry leaders. The book lifts up all kinds of ministry without a sense of comparing, helping readers of all sorts discover a unique calling. While much wisdom can be gleaned by reading this book individually, it lends itself being studied and discussed in the setting of a women’s small group. Each chapter ends with a “What Now?” section (where Ward provides truths to remember and points the reader back to trusting God) and “Continue the Conversation” questions to consider individually or in small-group discussion.

In my own calling journey, I have experienced many detours (at least that’s how I perceived them at the time). But I am discovering that the detours may not be setbacks after all, because God has used the curves and bumps along the way to help me trust him more deeply. I Am a Leader is a helpful companion to women, like myself, who need encouragement to live out their leadership callings and walk intimately with God in the process.

Joyce Koo Dalrymple is a wife and mother, a pastor of discipleship, and a former attorney.

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