I’m purposeful in how I develop my staff members as leaders. I tell them what I see in them, put them in new situations which stretch them, sit with them regularly to ask, “How do you need to vent, process, or pray with me?” And, as uncomfortable as it makes me, I let them see my own struggles so they’re not surprised when leadership is hard. Without even meaning to, I’ve been doing the same thing in my family with this leader who has been growing up right under my roof.
It’s been fascinating to raise a very smart and gifted daughter while I’m figuring out how to lead as a woman myself. This year, as my beautiful girl, Zoë, completed her first year of Bible college (interestingly, at the same college I attended), I had an opportunity to watch her blossom. So much has changed—in me and in the world—since I was a student. I wondered what it has been like for her to watch me step into my calling and how it shaped her own sense of call. So we sat down at a local cafe for a chat:
Mandy: I think you were around nine when I first became a pastor. Do you remember much about it?
Zoë: I remember being surprised because I didn’t know you wanted to do that. I just saw you as my mom.
Do you remember times when I had a hard time figuring out how to lead or preach?
Yes, I remember times you told me someone had criticized you in a blog. To me it almost felt like you were two different people: my mom who is this ethereal, super-human who is there for me, and then this other person who was having all these struggles and vulnerabilities. I remember separating that in my brain because it’s weird to know that people have a problem with your mom. I didn’t like that was hurting you, but I didn’t feel personally affected by it. At some point early in your role as lead pastor there were a few months when you had really low energy a lot of the time and it wasn’t until later that I realized it was part of that.
Yes, it was a very steep learning curve in the early days of my ministry. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s leveled off much! Maybe I’m just getting used to the discomfort of always learning. Do you remember when you first started feeling called to ministry?
Yes, it was very sudden. I knew I wanted to do something that would bring change, but didn’t know what that entailed. I was at a Christ in Youth conference where they were talking about kingdom work. They invited those who felt called to vocational ministry to talk to their leaders, and when I did my youth pastor said he’d been praying about that for me for a long time and that he’d always seen me in ministry. I wrestled with that for a long time. But not because I’m a woman, more because I didn’t really want to be a pastor because that sounds hard and not something I’m good at. At that point I thought maybe it would be worship ministry and I guess it could be. But there was no question about whether ministry was possible or allowed as a woman.
So how are you stepping into your calling and gifts?
I think I should stop saying that I know what I’m going to do! It changes every three months! I have a lot of things I’m really interested in and a lot of things that really matter to me and a lot of things that I could see myself doing. I’m trying to take every opportunity to be equipped for what’s ahead.
I find leading worship incredibly rewarding. When I’m on stage there’s a kind of vulnerability I have to show just by being in front of people. Since I’m already uncomfortable it’s easier to fall into that vulnerable worship state than when I’m safe in the dark in the congregation. I’m kind of testing out preaching through my youth ministry internship. I’m always surprised how much I actually like it. I hated the idea when the youth pastor asked me to do it. But I also really love the kids I’m teaching. And it helps that it’s really laid back and the kids just sit in a circle around me.
Why does the idea of preaching not appeal to you?
It’s too much pressure.
I feel that every Sunday. [laughing] When I was your age, I felt a lot of pain because there was conflict between what I felt called to do and what people told me the Bible said. So I’m so thankful that you don’t feel that pain, especially while trying just to figure out who you are and what life is. How do you respond when people with a different approach want to have a conversation on this issue?
I can’t take it personally. I just think people read the Bible differently from me and I have to commend them for being true to how they read the Bible. I have to choose not to believe that their reading of the Bible means they hate me or women in general. I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince anyone so I don’t make that my goal. I try to approach it with grace and explain why I think what I think. The only thing I can share that really makes people reconsider their opinion is sharing my experience of your leadership.
It’s interesting that you say that. I think it’s helpful to point to real stories instead of talking about it in abstracts, but when we do it puts a lot of weight on those particular women. I’ve felt pressure to be successful because people are watching closely to see if a woman can do this. So it’s easy to put too much weight on myself. Ever since I became lead pastor five years ago, the church has been growing. But this year is the first year the growth has levelled off. I know it’s normal in a church’s life to have up years and down years, but as I’ve watched that levelling off I’ve felt exactly what you’re saying—that people are watching. But thankfully I have the Lord’s help! On those discouraging days, what draws you back to why you’re doing this?
I just feel that God is preparing me for what’s ahead. There’s never a point that I question what God’s calling me to.
I do believe the Lord uses these experiences to shape our character and ministry. You’ve had people who have spoken into your life in positive ways, too, right?
My friends and professors, and you and Dad have had a big role in that. And my youth pastor has also said many times that he sees me in a role model position and has encouraged and equipped me for that.
Do you have women in ministry you’ve seen and said, “Oh, I could be like her!”
There was a family friend who’s seven years older than me who was the first woman I saw in a leadership role apart from you. She led worship when she was a teenager and I was a pre-teen, and it helped me imagine myself doing that. And I have a professor who’s in her late twenties and I want to be just like her. I could see myself doing what she does in a way very similar to how she does it. And there’s a younger woman on staff with you who I also relate to. She and I have similar personalities.
What a blessing to have so many young women who are role models in your life, each showing their own ways of living out their ministry callings! I didn’t have anyone like that when I was your age. When you hear me talk about women in leadership do you feel like my issues are different from the things your generation thinks about?
It wasn’t until I went to Bible college that I personally came across people who had questions about women in leadership. In the past I had only heard about those people who had blogged about you, so they felt very distant. My friends and I never talk about whether we can lead, just how to handle the ways others respond to us. We do struggle with being perceived as having liberal ideology. So many issues that my generation cares about—whether it’s women’s roles or the environment or social justice issues—are often lumped together as liberal. Some people even feel animosity toward recycling because they think it’s a liberal thing. I understand—I lump things together, too. But I see a lot of Christians my age wanting to explore these as individual issues without the assumption that to do so is to become liberal.
I love that you see it that way! If you ever have a daughter and sit down with her for this kind of conversation what do you think you’ll be talking about?
I think it’s going to take longer than one generation for the church to figure out these things. But it will be more common for women to be leaders and maybe at some point our perspective will be seen as the conservative view! I expect things will be easier for my daughter.
There have been many days in the past 10 years since I became pastor when I have been so overwhelmed, trying to be my own role model (as my friend Tara Beth Leach calls it) that I didn’t have a lot of time to wonder how my daughter was taking it all in. But now, as I watch her flourishing, stepping with confidence into her gifts, being resilient and faithful, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that somehow God has brought us both through my fumblings and fears.
On the many days I had no competence or confidence or peers, I asked the Lord to stretch my imagination to give me what I needed to live into a reality that didn’t yet exist—a church leader version of me. Many days I had little more to go on than my imagination that perhaps a person like me could do this role God had called me to do. There’s a fine line between a good imagination and insanity, and there were days when I thought I’d crossed it. And there were days when others affirmed that fear. But as I watch my girl, knowing things at 18 which have taken me years to discover, I know she is the fulfillment of a promise. She shows me that as each of us steps with courage into something yet unseen, a vision of what God is calling us to be, the young girls around us are invited to broaden their imaginations of what they can become. As women describe God in their own language, share their readings of Scripture, tell their stories of faith, we all—men and women together—will find new ways not only to imagine female leadership but to imagine the fullness of our God.
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor. Mandy was recently named summit director of SheLeads, presented by MissioAlliance. The event will be held October 28 in Pasadena, California, and simulcast to multiple regional host sites.