I have worked for a predominantly white evangelical college ministry for 17 years. I love it. And I was often mentored and supervised by white men, which went well for the most part. They saw leadership gifts in me, encouraged me, and passed speaking and teaching opportunities my way. But they never talked to me about how male dominated Christian ministry is and how to navigate that world. And I don’t think they knew how deeply the intersection of being a woman of color would affect my experience as a leader. They were a great support to me as an individual, but they didn’t have a lens towards preparing me for the white male world of evangelical Christianity. So for all those brothers out there mentoring women of color, bravo! Here are some reflections that could help you invest in the next generation of women leaders even better. Men make up the majority of leadership in the church, especially those who are paid to lead. It is important that you mentor women, especially women of color. (Love Billy Graham, but it is actually OK for men and women to meet together.) And if you are a young woman leader, especially woman of color, here are things that I wish someone had told me, things I wish someone had talked about with me in my twenties.
And though it should go without saying (but the internet is a place of madness), I know that my experiences may not be true for all woman.
Men build careers and women pursue their passion
When I first became a student leader with InterVarsity, it all seemed so egalitarian. There were more female than male students on the leadership team. I was mentored by male staff, and their supervisor was a woman. When I graduated, a big group of us came on as interns at the same time. Gender did not seem to be a factor in our development. But by the time I hit 30, I noticed that a major divide had happened. Many of the men had moved up in management, gotten degrees, or were pastoring churches. And almost none of the women had made similar moves. And now that I’m 40 the divide is even more extreme. I realized that men had been building careers, where I had just been glad to pursue my passions. And I saw women around me doing the same thing. They leaned away from taking on more responsibility or bigger roles. They saw ministry as an opportunity to live out their values, but held back from promotion. This difference in attitude didn’t manifest itself in significant ways in my twenties, but it had major impact on trajectory over time.
Lift More Weight
I wish that someone had helped me see that Christian ministry is a very very male world and that I should be savvy, wise and strategic about that. I saw getting a degree or building intentional about building a career as ambitious and suspect, especially because this was ministry.
That is fleshly!
Ambition shouldn’t be a part of ministry life!
Trying to seize opportunities is ego driven.
Opportunity will come to me if I work hard and prove myself.
I wish that someone had helped me tease apart this perspective. I watched again and again as women held back from positions that they didn’t feel fully qualified for, and men stepped into positions that they had to grow into. I once heard an example about how men and women approach weight lifting differently, and I think it’s a good analogy for ministry. When it comes to weight lifting women will often lift less weight than they can, because they want to maintain good form. Men will lift more weight than they should, because they are willing to sacrifice technique. I see this in ministry. Women don’t think of applying for a job if they see any flat sides or shortcomings in their skill set. Many men are comfortable stepping into roles that they aren’t fully qualified for, but they have a powerful fake it ‘til you make it ethic. They can envision themselves in the role, because 99% of the time, the person who had it before them was a man.
I didn’t get a degree because I didn’t want to be a pastor. I didn’t have anyone help me work through the fact that I didn’t want to be a pastor, because as a 20 something Korean American woman, I simply could not envision myself in a role held almost exclusively by older Korean men. I wasn’t motivated to get a degree because I didn’t see its usefulness, there are such limited options in the church. But then again, neither of my parents went to college. They couldn’t tell me that sometimes a degree is an important part of the job you may want in your thirties or forties. And none of the men who mentored me knew to tell me that, as a woman of color in ministry, a degree would be crucial if I wanted to work anywhere other than InterVarsity. It’s so much easier for men to leave a parachurch organization and move into church ministry. Men get their degrees and write their books and gain influence outside of the organization, and that makes them look more appealing for in house promotion and outside hire.
The exception to this landscape of male leadership was African American women. The African American church is where I saw women preaching behind the pulpit, being head pastors, and pursuing higher education. I didn’t understand what I was seeing or how to get there. But I want to express gratitude to the African American women leaders who stood as models not just for their communities, but for a young Korean American woman as well.
Lastly, I wish someone had told me that the male ego is as much a part of the world of Christianity as it is every other field of work. This might seem absurdly niave, but I was so idealistic when I started ministry. (I love that about my twenties.) It never occurred to me that I would see Wall Street hustler like ambition from someone in ministry. For every humble brother (and I work closely with many) I’ve met, I’ve met some arrogant, self promoting men whose drive to be successful and “build a platform” far outshines their character or desire to serve. I watched men be self promoting, inflating the narrative of their ministry, and disrespecting their peers and getting ahead for it! They got the job, they got respect, they became well respected. I wasn’t sure if I should try to be more like them, or “stay true to myself” whatever that means. Neither are satisfying options.
Its More of an Issue Not Less
I don’t think my mentors could have told me, because I don’t think they knew, that gender dynamics become more of an issue over time, not less. Things are very relational on the ground, but as you move up, things become more organizational. The upper levels of most ministries are men and that sets a culture. I wish men in upper management knew that they needed ongoing and more sophisticated training around race and gender. I wish they knew that the values that they held ten years ago and their good intentions are not nearly enough.
I was at a conference a couple years ago and I ran into a woman in the bathroom. She was very pregnant. We got to talking, because women’s bathrooms are an exciting place of dialogue. ( I’m joking.) She told me that she was a pastor of a church. I had to hold back from just grabbing her belly and emoting over her in that bathroom which casually had some great tiling work they did with this excellent information here. Though I didn’t say it out loud my brain was screaming “Good God woman! You are your twenties, you’re a head pastor, and you’re pregnant as all get out! You are a unicorn! The embodiment of something I never ever saw, and absolutely could never could have envisioned. You’re such a pregnant pastor. I love it!” I love that the generation behind her will have the picture of a woman pastor and mother. I am glad that both men and women will have experienced her leadership, and what she embodies.
I always feel like a late bloomer. And I don’t say that mournfully. I pursued music in my thirties, my masters in my forties. I’m the opposite of a child prodigy. Middle aged averagocity. I feel like my life can help take some of the pressure off. You really really don’t have to figure it all out in college or in your twenties. And it is my delight to share whatever wisdom and experience I can with younger leaders, that is what is fun about getting older. Lived experience really does count for something. I hope my lessons and experience can help the generation of leaders behind me. I’m already challenged and inspired by how they walk in a kind of freedom I didn’t have at their age.