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Ally or Adversary?

Relationships between female leaders are often marked by competition and contempt. It doesn't have to be this way.

Besides being afraid to lose her position, a woman who has risen to places of significance can also feel entitled. She has fought and suffered to get to her position. She deserves it! When those who are coming up behind her seem to step into leadership and influence with greater ease and opportunity, resentment can arise. I will admit that when I see eager, fresh, talented, beautiful women up on stage, writing books, blogging, and working from home, something within me gets activated. Being an introverted woman of color in ministry for almost 30 years has been a long, hard road. It is difficult not to let jealousy and resentment creep in. It turns out it’s not just me. Researchers from Northwestern University recently conducted a study entitled, “When Having ‘Been There’ Doesn’t Mean I Care.” They found that people who had endured a distressing event showed less compassion toward others who were facing a similar event, thinking, “It isn’t that bad. I got through it. You can get through it, too.”

Female rivalry is also fueled by our own insecurities. When we lack a belief in our own unique gifts, when we don’t have confidence in our innate talent, and when we doubt the calling on our lives, we can become competitive. The fear of being exposed makes us defensive and protective. I knew a female leader who was aggressive, hard-driving, and high-producing. To be clear, none of those qualities are inherently bad, but they were inflated by her insecurity. One day, I found her crying in the bathroom after an event we’d worked on went poorly, and we had an honest connection about our frustration with how things had turned out. The next day when we debriefed with other leaders, however, she criticized me and my team, blaming my team for the poor results. It seems she thought I would step on her when she was down, so she stomped first. Afraid of being exposed, she saw me as a threat rather than as a friend or partner.

A Community of Being

Despite the prevalence of competition between women in ministry, I rarely have honest, vulnerable conversations with other women leaders about it. My heart longs for a circle of female friends like I had in third grade that isn’t marked by competition. I think that’s because God made us to reflect perichoresis, a Greek theological term that describes the triune relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Often symbolized by three intersecting circles, perichoresis depicts a reciprocal, intersecting, collaborative, equal, and intimate relationship. Christian theologian Alister McGrath writes in Christian Theology: An Introduction that it “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a ‘community of being.’ ”

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