When Women Lead

In health and politics, women leaders are excelling. What about in our churches?

In the early days of the pandemic, governments had to decide: who will speak for us? In 10 key locations across Canada, women serving as public heath officers have taken on those increasingly public roles.  

“The women we’re seeing on the national stage during the pandemic are being celebrated for both their compassion and their calm under pressure,” write Andrea Gunraj and Jessica Howard from the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Their leadership comes, at times, through impartial statistical analysis, at other times through tears, a sense of humour or a motherly sternness.

Chrystia Freeland’s recent appointment to Finance Minister after successfully negotiating NAFTA is yet another example of a Canadian woman excelling at the forefront of crisis management. Globally, research shows that women have been especially effective in leadership during the pandemic. Countries led by women have tended to shut down more quickly and experience fewer deaths.

Of course, there are countless factors affecting a province or countries’ COVID-19 story. Leadership and gender may be a piece of this puzzle, but it’s still too early to tell. What we do know is that in a world where 90 percent of countries are run by men and here in Canada where 88 percent of our deans of medicine are men, this public health emergency is shining a unique spotlight on the powerful ways in which women lead in these male-dominated spheres.

Perhaps it’s time to turn our attention to our church context. Just as in politics and medicine, male leadership is often the norm in church communities. In the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), women have only been ordained to church office since 1995 and over a quarter of CRCs still do not have any women serving as elder, deacon or pastor. In the Presbyterian Church in Canada, women have been ordained since 1966. There is more gender parity in their leadership, yet larger multi-pastor churches are still more likely to be led by men; even in the last 10 years, women have only moderated the General Assembly twice.

How might this global crisis create an opportunity to highlight not only women’s leadership in health and politics, but also in our council rooms and congregations?

Vulnerable leadership

Some women in church leadership see direct parallels between their role and those of women in the public health spotlight. “I find their leadership styles very inspiring,” says Sharon Bandstra, chair of council at Terrace Christian Reformed Church in B.C. “They are knowledgeable yet show compassion, especially Dr. Bonnie Henry.”

Just like public health officials balancing emotion with information, women in church leadership also find themselves balancing empathy with vision and vulnerability with bravery.

“I want to show empathy for all the challenges,” explains Cara deHaan, lead pastor at Faith Church in Burlington, Ontario, “yet as a leader I also want to keep us clear on what our vision and mission are as a church.”

“I think my congregation would like me to tell them what this new thing is that God is doing. But I honestly don’t know,” admits Jane Porter, pastor of First CRC in Orillia, Ontario, after preaching on a passage from Isaiah 43. She says it felt vulnerable to tell her congregation that she needs their help to hear God, but she believes this is exactly how we are called to navigate these challenging times as church families.

Vulnerability in leadership doesn’t always mean speaking it from the pulpit. Jacqui Foxall pastors 500 families at Knox Presbyterian church in Oakville and she says that the early weeks of the pandemic were mostly about providing a strong non-anxious presence and speaking words of peace and hope. She called upon imagery of Moses standing over the battle of the Amalekites in Exodus 17. As long as Moses’ arms were raised, the Israelites were winning, so when his strength was gone Aaron and Hur stood by his side holding up his arms.

Foxall remembers leaning on close female friends in those early days. “Though my hands were still on the metaphorical staff of leadership, and my mouth was uttering the words of reassurance and faith, it was their strength that held me up. We led the congregation together.”

Pastors Jacqui Foxall, Amanda Currie, Amanda Bakale and Jane Porter

Coaching the congregation

The early days of the pandemic also called new leadership language out of Amanda Bakale, pastor of Community CRC in Kitchener, Ontario. Before the pandemic, she saw herself as a spiritual midwife acknowledging that “the Spirit is at work; I just get to be a joyful witness in the midst of that.” But now she feels more like a coach who is taking an active role in directing her congregation’s growth.

“We can’t just continue to say ‘this is hard’ every week,” laments Bakale. She has encouraged her congregation to approach the diverse challenges they face as a growing season and – like a good coach – Bakale has set up space for exercising spiritual muscles. Two Adirondack chairs sit beneath a tree in the church yard. She calls it the Visiting Tree. It’s a welcoming space where the community can grow in their capacity to reimagine reconnection.

But perhaps the pandemic isn’t the most significant crisis that our pastors have led us through. Amanda Currie, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Regina and Moderator of the 2019 General Assembly, says facilitating her denomination’s deliberations around same-sex marriage during the assembly was much more challenging.

“Preaching during the pandemic was not hard,” explains Currie, though “it was heart wrenching. But I never struggled with what to say.” She contrasts this with her experience moderating the 2019 General Assembly.

That “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” confesses Currie. As she called for unity with diversity throughout last year’s assembly, commissioners created a way for the church to hold up two parallel definitions of marriage (“Redefining Marriage” July 8, 2019, CC). Theological challenges in our churches may be the equivalent of public health emergencies in our world – calling forth empathetic, authentic and unwavering leadership.

Of course, both men and women leaders employ empathy, vulnerability and collaboration in their approaches to leadership. The stories these women shared are not unique to their gender. Yet research from the Canadian Women’s Foundation shows that “women and girls often count themselves out as leaders because they don’t see themselves fitting the stereotype: perfectly polished, top-down, all-knowing, unfeeling.”

Perhaps seeing how women have led us through this challenging season will broaden our perspectives on what makes a good leader, so that more girls and women will begin to imagine themselves in our council rooms, behind our pulpits and leading our denominations.


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