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No More Frenemies in Ministry

Rather than see other women leaders as competition, we can serve as advocates and allies for one another.

Daytime TV talk shows remain something of an occasional guilty pleasure for me, but on this particular afternoon it was essential viewing. After all, it was a TV world exclusive, an interview that had needed to happen for over a decade. It was actually more intimate than an interview, in its own daytime TV kind of way, with no studio audience to cheer or clap: this was a conversation, and the cameras rolled. Finally, these two beautiful successful women who had been locked in a feud for over a decade were face to face. It was time for Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell to talk it through, and kiss and make up.

Now obviously since this was Tyra’s TV show and Naomi was promoting her perfume, I didn’t expect a complete exposé, but as I’d followed their careers for years, I was committed. The interview itself was pretty TV ordinary: tears, hugs, and a runway walk-off where the supermodels imitated one another’s walks. A reconciliation made in TV heaven. Still, aside from the expected celebrity drama, aspects of the interview fascinated me. Both models spoke of how they’d been plagued by their own insecurity. When they started modeling, successful black models were rare, so others constantly compared them to and pitted them against one another. Although they look very different, it was made abundantly clear to them in various ways that there was only room for one black supermodel. Naomi had broken through first, so when Tyra arrived on the scene it was assumed that she was there to replace Naomi. Any hopes of fun, friendship, or sisterhood were quickly buried under the reality that only one of them could dominate high fashion. Well, they both intended to succeed … and so the rivalry began.

Complicated competitive relationships among women are not limited to the catwalks and TV shows. A number of women I spoke to (from different countries and across a range of professions) noted how strained relationships with other female leaders had been.

Suzie Brock leads Wave of Life Ministries with her husband, Tom. They’ve spent the last 30 years traveling the world, training and mentoring leaders, serving and planting churches. Suzie observes: “Women leaders are naturally plagued by insecurity. Everything in society touts an image of perfect that none of us can be because we don’t come with airbrushes to correct us. So we feel unworthy, and when we get with other women, we feel worse!”

We’ll know if the presence of other female leaders makes us feel threatened. We compare our gifts and abilities, our talents. We’ll observe their popularity and opportunities, their Facebook friends and Twitter fallowing. And perhaps we’ll notice their age, their shape, and their style. Whatever we notice, we’ll know if we’re competing even if we’re unprepared to admit it. Because eventually, we’ll feel it. In that slight discomfort that catches us off guard when we see her at work. Or the way we’re a nanosecond late with our endorsement when someone else enthuses about her. The person talking might not even notice the way we stiffened slightly; we’ve worked to mask these feelings, because it’s not something we’re proud of. But we feel it. It’s in the way we’re suddenly motivated to work and push ourselves harder, or the way we inexplicably disengage from our responsibilities because we find it hard not to be number one. Sometimes this woman is a colleague we see occasionally, but sometimes she is a friend of ours, and a friendship under strain.

The writer of Proverbs observed that,

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. (Proverbs 14:30)

We’re blasted by anger and swamped by rage, but who can survive jealousy? (Proverbs 27:4, The Message)

How Envy Destroys

Envy has a damaging effect on the person we are designed to be. It’s hard to embrace the life and future God has for us when we are constantly wanting someone else’s. And so we’re worn down, our relationship with God is worn down, because we are not embracing the ezeridentity we’ve been given.

And jealousy? I’m always blown away by that verse—who can survive jealousy? Another translation says, “Who can stand before jealousy?” (TNIV). It humbles me because it’s a reminder that, no matter how internal these attitudes are, they have an external impact. A relationship that could have been a source of encouragement and empowering can barely breathe after jealousy, corrosive like acid, has burned its way through it. Sometimes it seems there is no way back for the relationship. It’s been devastating on occasion when I’ve experienced someone else’s jealousy. But has that stopped me behaving in the same way? Of course not! If only.

A number of years ago I used to sing backup vocals, and led a worship team. If, when at an event, I heard another singer deliver a riff or hit a note in a way that intimidated me, I’d go home and practice it. I’d tell myself that I was developing ideas and skills, but frankly I was never that disciplined! There was a motive behind it. In “conquering” the riff, I was somehow keeping up with the other worship leader. Maybe I was even better than she was—that’s what I was aiming for. In my heart I couldn’t enjoy someone else’s gifts because I felt they were a threat to my own. Unfortunately for me, there were lots of amazing singers around! Finally, after a lot of practicing at home (my poor neighbors!), I realized that I couldn’t hope to keep up, let alone “win.” I also realized that I’d become incredibly judgmental, and not surprisingly I was as insecure as ever! It was time to get on my knees and confess my sin to God.

I spent some time, a lot of time, surrendering my attitudes and insecurities to God. During that time of repentance, I sensed the Holy Spirit nudge me to pray for blessings and opportunities for the women I was jealous of. Regularly. At first it was galling, if I’m honest; I felt as though God was on their side (still competing, even in prayer!) and that I was forgotten. It felt as though I was praying for success for them that should have been mine. But God in his infinite patience and mercy broke down the jealousy in my heart through those prayers. He peeled off yet another layer of the insecurity that had enabled jealousy to have such a hold in the first place. He changed my heart, and in time I had a completely different approach to the singers I came across. I learned to make a habit of encouraging singers, until it became natural to me. It was humbling, and healing at the same time, that I should gain freedom out of this. And potential for friendships, too. I didn’t deserve this.

Have I ever felt jealous again? Totally, but I am more aware of my weaknesses now, so I’ve learned to be more honest with myself and not let these things linger. I’m aware that I’m quite naturally a competitive person, and I like to push myself forward. That’s one thing when I’m running and want to clock a faster time or a longer distance; it’s another thing entirely when I’m dealing with people.

Female Stereotypes

There’s another dynamic that can emerge in some leadership teams that might also lead to competitive relationships. Sometimes, when a woman leads, she has her job but then there is her role. It’s as though her role is to be the woman. She’s become the pioneer, the rare one who leapt over the brick wall, shattered the glass ceiling, and navigated the labyrinth of choices and decisions to get where she is.

And because she’s the woman on the team, she is to some degree incomparable. She has risen to the top, and that’s significant because only one woman, it seems, is allowed at the top at any one time. (Remember the black supermodels?)

Then another woman joins the leadership team. It’s exciting; finally a sister! We know we need more women in the upper echelons of church, business, the community, and so potentially here is someone who speaks the same language, who identifies with our journey. Finally, the chance to build a support network, to effect positive change. Isn’t it? Yes, it is, but it can also be complicated. Who is this woman and what’s her role? Is she the woman now? Has she arrived to take my place? Is there room for not just a woman at the top but women at the top? Did this woman pay the price I paid, endure the misunderstandings, put in the hours? Or often behind that question—does it mean I am not enough? That she is better that me? More attractive, more competent, and so, more valuable?

Suzie recalled her own experience when she started out in ministry. “The women in the community avoided me for years, perhaps out of jealousy, fear, and competition. And I was young and inexperienced, I really needed their support and guidance. But there was not a lot of coming to my aid, no support. It was lonely.”

As a result Suzie made a decision over the years to act differently, even if it cost her emotionally at times:

When new women come through into positions of leadership—there’s insecurity. So I have to forget again about me. I make an effort to get to know them, look out for them, serve them, and bless them. I remember I can’t be anyone else, but I can be me. It’s okay, I have what I have, and that’s Christ in me, the hope in glory. Why do I have to be the brightest star in the group? It was only ever about him, only about him.

The saddest thing about the dynamics I’ve described or other situations where competitive relationships arise is that this is nothing like the life God has for us. We are missing out on so much! As the Teacher of Ecclesiastes writes,

Two are better than one, Because they have a good return for their labor: If they fall down, They can help each other up. But pity those who fall and have no one to help them up! (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10, TNIV)

Together we can process the opportunities of leadership; we can help one another succeed. We can support one another when challenges knock us down. Like the biblical heroes who have gone ahead of us, we can release one another into who God created us to be. What would we change in the world around us if we won this battle inside ourselves? If we could serve, support, and encourage each of the women leaders we know—what difference would it make?

I want to issue a challenge to every influential woman reading this—whether you’re a mother, an entrepreneur, a teacher, a church leader—make every effort in the next few months to make friends with the women leaders around you. If you already know them well, reach beyond your immediate network and make a new friend. I’m not saying ignore the women who are not in leadership; that’s equally counterproductive! But for the purposes of this particular conversation, I’m urging us take the time to invest in building networks of relationships with other female leaders. Let’s intentionally adopt the opposite attitude. They may be thinner than you, have a more celebrated voice than you; they may earn more than you. Be a friend anyway! They may have husbands while you are single. They may have shiny perfect children, they may have more influence. But you know what? Do it anyway.

Do it for them, because everyone needs a friend. Do it for yourself, because that “everyone” includes you. Rather than all struggling alone with loneliness and misunderstanding, weakened by our efforts, can we humble ourselves and seek to affirm and learn from one another? Perhaps I am being idealistic; we’re all human, after all, and complications always come our way. But insecurity strangles the life out of us when it dictates our relationships. It wreaks havoc with our capacity to lead. Healthy friendships with other female leaders are something that we should fight for and work toward.

Jo Saxton is a pastor, missional leader, speaker, and author. She is the board chair of 3D Movements and author of High Heels and Holiness and Real God, Real Life. Taken from More Than Enchanting by Jo Saxton. Copyright Second Edition 2016 by Jo Saxton. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

February27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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