“Study Scripture. Paul did not allow women to teach or preach in the churches. Keep studying, God is not liberal.”
It’s unsettling to get this Facebook message from a total stranger. It’s even more unsettling to receive it six times in one day. The unfortunate truth is that most women in ministry receive some version of this in their inboxes on a regular basis. In the face of such criticism and hate, how can we choose to embrace our calling with confidence?
When I first became a lead pastor, these kinds of comments made me retreat to my education, willpower, and gifts to justify my position. But none of these things gave sustainable peace in the face of opposition. As I’ve learned, this lasting peace only comes from embracing the true source of my authority.
The Anchor for Authority
Talk of leadership, even servant leadership, focuses on the relationship between the leader and the led—which is very important. But Scripture also talks about authority: Esther defending her people, prophets standing before rulers, Moses leading the Israelites. Even Jesus, the epitome of selfless, sacrificial leadership, amazed people with his authority. Leadership may be about the relationship between the leader and the led, but authority grows from the relationship between the leader and the One she follows.
While good leaders embody both leadership and authority, parenthood taught me how to distinguish between the two. When I had my first child, I often questioned my role: What gives me the authority to shape this person’s life? But now, as the mother of two teenagers, I confidently speak with authority in their lives not only because I have the title “Mother,” but also because I’ve poured out my life for them. My voice carries weight because I’m older and wiser and because I’ve given so much for the sake of my kids.
A mother knows exactly what her child needs because she’s given her life to the study of that child. She has lost sleep, wrestled in prayer, and sought wisdom on behalf of that child’s health and wholeness. She may not be always right, but, by God, she has a right to speak because she has given so much.
Through the years, my authority as a parent has informed my authority as a pastor; in both roles, authority doesn’t come from my job title but from my ability to watch and follow. When I speak with confidence in decision making, it’s because I have read Scripture and watched the Spirit at work in the congregation. I have poured out my heart, laid aside my rights, and invited others to pray and seek with me.
My confidence is not in myself but in God’s work in my community and his ability to use me. I may not always know the details, but the emptying process shows me a general direction. When we acknowledge the moving and power of the Holy Spirit, we don’t have to force God’s plans on others—he is also at work in them. We can offer it and invite others to discern with us.
Part of our pastoral role may be to teach them how to listen to God. We can say, “I sense this is from God, discern if it resonates with you” and “My prayers are leading me to think this is the way God is leading the church. Let’s pray together about what that could become.” We can be confident to invite others into listening, watching, praying, and studying with us because we know that the same Spirit that lives and moves in us will also move in others.
Starting with Weakness
While we’d like to think our authority grows from our own abilities, acknowledging our limitations is actually the starting place. When we sense how far we fall from leadership ideals, it’s tempting to scramble to be more, to put on a stronger front, which looks more like desperation than authority. These façades create an insecure, manipulative kind of leadership that’s easy to spot and easier to overthrow. Too often we forget that in our weakness we are made strong.
The times I’ve most needed to depend on the authority I receive from God are the times when I’m not accepted, when a congregant disagrees with my ideas or ministry philosophy, or when someone on the Internet argues that my ministry is not valid because of my gender. The only way to grow in these situations is to open myself to his authority, and I find myself praying a mantra of sorts: Am I in line with you? Teach me if I’m seeing this wrong. Bring me Scripture or conversations which help me see as you see. When I emerge from that wrestling, sometimes I see I was headed down the wrong track, and I’m thankful for the correction. Sometimes I simply have greater confidence in my direction.
Opposition makes us want to defend our rights, to stick to our guns. In these moments, selflessness is key. It’s easy to think selflessness only means doing what others want, but as leaders, sometimes selflessness means doing what is good for the whole—even if it means we won’t be liked. Honestly, it’s easier for me to give up on my ideas than to know I haven’t pleased people, but how am I serving God or others when I lead from my desire to be liked? And how is that faithful to the direction in which God is leading? Selflessness can also look like standing our ground. Standing strong for the sake of power and standing strong out of selfless authority may look very similar, but our hearts determine the difference.
Power forces its own desires on others for the sake of the one in power. It makes people look strong and successful. But authority serves, listens, and speaks for the sake of others. We have won the right to speak, to cast vision, because of how well we have listened, how much we have invested, and how fervently we have prayed—not perfectly, but with great investment and care. We have authority because of how much we submit to the leading of the Spirit and the good of our community.
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.