Opinion | former TCW issue

Who's Afraid of Her Own Authority?

As women, we’re often taught to fear power. Here’s how I’ve overcome that fear.
Who's Afraid of Her Own Authority?
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When I was around five years old on a camping trip, someone accidentally locked the keys inside our camper trailer. We were hot and miserable. My parents and their grown-up friends hatched a plan to have me climb through the narrow luggage compartment, so I shimmied into the dark opening and my dad coached me through the hatch into the trailer. As I grabbed the keys and unlocked the trailer door, my family and camping friends erupted in cheers and shouts of “You saved the day!” I beamed. I had taken a small risk, and with that risk came some authority: I alone could rescue campers from a night without shelter.

Now, 30 years later, I scarcely remember a moment when I felt so proud and accomplished in a pure and uncomplicated way. In the ensuing years, my relationship with authority and responsibility has become more complex and angst-ridden. I want to take risks and help people, but I am often intimidated by any role where people count on me.

Empowering women in leadership is a live conversation these days. Books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business, and Katelyn Beaty’s A Woman's Place look at the systemic and cultural forces that limit female leadership, as well as the internal struggles that we women often encounter as we take up the mantle of power. Many of us internalize false messages about the nature of meekness, humility, and femininity that cause us to self-sabotage and devalue our own callings. As Sandberg writes, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back.” This can be especially true for some evangelical women who subtly, even subconsciously, come to believe that avoiding leadership is part of being a godly woman. But encouraging women to embrace authority is essential to discipleship, and it’s a task that all of us—those who favor women’s ordination as well as those who don’t—can embrace. For both men and women, learning to embody authority is essential to human flourishing.

In his new book Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch asserts that flourishing comes when individuals and communities are able to practice authority—which he defines as “capacity for meaningful action”—together with vulnerability, defined as “exposure to meaningful risk.” Having authority without vulnerability leads to exploiting others. Vulnerability without authority yields suffering and even (in the extreme) slavery. If one has neither vulnerability nor authority, we exist in “withdrawal,” where we risk very little but also have very little impact, influence, or capacity for action.

Crouch’s book gives me words to describe my complex relationship with power. I have a deep fear of being in authority, and that fear—combined with a hint of vanity—has led me to avoid positions of leadership and the flourishing that comes with them. Until I read Strong and Weak, I misnamed that fear as “humility” because I confused avoiding power with avoiding pride. My confusion was wrapped up in notions of femininity that I’ve imbibed from the time I learned to dance: Women follow. We don't lead. We shouldn’t assert ourselves too strongly. Every achievement must come with self-deprecation and self-doubt. Taking up authority is somehow unwomanly.

I don’t know precisely where these ideas came from. I grew up seeing strong examples of women in authority—my mom was mayor of her small town—and no one overtly told me that womanhood and authority were mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, these ideas have shaped my vocation, discipleship, and relationships.

I felt led into ministry in my early teens and have been in lay ministry for most of my adulthood, but soon after I was ordained, I freaked out. Getting ordained as a woman invited critique that I’d never known before. The new authority conferred on me by my bishop was not anything I wore proudly; it was something I wanted to hide. Before I put on a clerical collar, I would have an angst-ridden internal debate over what people would think, what kind of statement I was making, and whether I should even wear it.

Even outside of ordination or ministry, I sometimes find it difficult to demonstrate my authority. A few months ago in an online discussion, an author cited something factually incorrect, but I had anxiety about whether to publicly point out the error. As my husband listened to me wrestle out loud for 10 minutes—would correcting the error sound too pushy?—he shook his head and said, “No man I know would ever worry about correcting a fact for this long.”

My natural inclinations and most unredeemed habits land me squarely in Crouch’s land of “withdrawal.” (My husband and I joke that I have a timeshare there.) Men and women alike are tempted by the safety and ease of withdrawal, but they’re often tempted in different ways. Although there are myriad exceptions, men are generally encouraged toward authority and away from vulnerability—they’re told not to cry or show weakness—while most women are brought up to be comfortable in our vulnerability and to shrink back from authority. Duke historian Kate Bowler found in her research that female leaders in the church and in the Christian women’s conference scene face a “push-pull” between the perfection we demand of female leaders and also “the vulnerability and disclosure that's required of women in public spaces.”

We see this same tension outside of church and parachurch spaces. In A Woman’s Place, Katelyn Beaty profiles a lawyer in San Francisco named Liz Aleman, whose pastor discouraged her from pursuing a law degree because “no Christian man would want to marry a lawyer.” Consequentially, one of her “deepest wounds” is “the fear that Christian men won’t like me because I’m a lawyer.” Beaty herself admits that “as a woman, I’m uncomfortable with power itself, because powerful women make us very nervous.”

As a physically small woman who grew up in the South, vulnerability comes naturally to me, but faithfulness to Jesus means owning the authority I’ve been given, even if it feels terrifying. Growing in authority is part of discovering God’s true vision of womanhood—a womanhood that flourishes and calls others into their own flourishing. And although it’s easier for me to fit the expected woman’s role of being a listening ear behind the scenes, nonetheless I’m slowly re-conditioning myself to also embrace more overt leadership.

So what does that mean in practice? It means being brave enough to inhabit my calling in ordinary moments.

A few months ago, a friend approached me after a church service to ask if I would hear her confession. She was working through sin and pain from her past, wanted to talk with a church leader, and preferred to speak with a woman. We arranged a time to meet. When I showed up, I was unusually nervous and wondered briefly if I should figure out a way to bow out. As a campus minister, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with young women about God’s work in the midst of their struggles, but I usually approached those exchanges as more of a peer or a friend. This time, I put on my clerical collar and came as a church leader. She didn’t need a friend—she needed a priest. She was looking for a spiritual authority. Assuming this position of authority scared me, but I showed up anyway. I listened to her, walked her through a service of confession, then prayed for her and cried with her.

As my friend and I sat across from each other, she risked the vulnerability of confession and I risked the vulnerability of authority. We were two women, beloved of God, learning to flourish together.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and works with InterVarsity’s Women in the Academy & Professions initiative. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP, December 2016). More at
TishHarrisonWarren.com.

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