Jenny usually finds herself as the interviewer in this monthly feature, but for this month Ruth Hassall has stolen the reins and turned the tables on her to find out more about what she’s involved with, what she’s passionate about and what prompted her to launch the Sophia Network. Enjoy!
Many of us know you as one of the founders of the Sophia Network, but tell us a bit more about yourself and the other things you’re involved in.
I’m acting festival director of Greenbelt at the moment; I first went to the festival when I was 20, and was a trustee for nine years. It’s a brilliant job and it’s going to be an amazing festival this year. I love being active – I did my first marathon this year, and have just got back from a cycle ride in Scotland. I did triathlons for ten years, but swimming is not really my thing, so I think I’ll stick to running and cycling from now on. I’m a member of Grace, an alternative worship community in Ealing, west London. I’m married and have two adult sons; one is at uni and the other will go in the autumn so it’s an interesting time of life. I share an allotment with some friends and love the rhythm of growing things.
How do you manage to juggle all the different things that you do?
I think it’s important to be aware of what energises and what drains you. I know that running gives me an opportunity to reflect and unwind so I’ll always make space for that, same with seeing friends. I’ve been trying to put more boundaries around my work, but probably still spend far too much time doing emails. I find it helpful to talk to other people about the busyness of life and to get their perspective. But I do love the different things I’m involved in, so being busy is good.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I like problem solving, being strategic and getting things done! I enjoy consulting and making decisions I love opportunities to teach or train people, to get people thinking and interacting. I really enjoy the variety of what I do – from writing, to leading worship, to speaking, to working at Greenbelt. I’m grateful for opportunities to mentor others, and always get a lot out of these relationships.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in your working life, and some of the biggest opportunities?
The biggest challenge has been my own lack of confidence and my self-doubt. I was an incredibly shy teenager, and grew up in a church that didn’t allow women to lead. It’s been a long journey to overcome both of those things and I know that at times, I’ve been my own worst enemy. I’ve had to battle a lot with my ‘inner critic’ – the voice that tells me I’m no good, but I’m getting there!
I’ve often had to be encouraged to take opportunities and am really grateful to the people who’ve seen potential in me and have given me a push. Lots of them have been men – Dave Wiles, Lowell Sheppard, John Buckeridge and Jonny, my husband.
We’ve always shared all the domestic stuff – cooking, cleaning, washing and so on. We decided early on that if we were ever to have children, we wanted to share work and parenting. We were both working for YFC in Bath when we had our first son, Joel, and they agreed to us trying a job-share for six months to see if it would work. We worked three days a week each, and had one day a week when we overlapped in the office and had a childminder to look after the boys. It worked really well for us, and so we continued! As the boys went to school we were able to increase the amount of work we did. In the early days we didn’t have a huge amount of money because we were just on one salary but we never lacked anything. I loved being able to work and spend significant time with the boys; I would have struggled with doing either for the whole week.
Who is the person who has inspired and influenced you most?
When I was younger I was really inspired by reading about Corrie Ten Boom and Jackie Pullinger – women who served God wholeheartedly in challenging situations. Someone who has had a huge influence on me is my friend Anna, whose daughter Lydia was born with a life-limiting condition which left her profoundly disabled. I was Lydia’s godmother and learned so much about the love of God through spending time with her, and seeing how Anna and her husband Mark opened their hearts and lives to looking after her. A leader who inspires me is Virginia Luckett at Tearfund. She is incredibly positive and encouraging and when I’ve spent time with her, I always leave empowered and determined to persevere.
Coming back to the Sophia Network, what inspired or provoked you to create it?
I was a centre director for YFC when I was 23, but there weren’t many other women in youth work at that time and very few in positions of leadership and influence. A few years ago, Martin Saunders at Youthwork magazine did a special edition of the magazine on women in youth ministry. I was on the editorial team for that, and looking around it felt like there were loads more women in youth work but still relatively few in leadership. I was hearing stories about women facing discrimination and discouragement, and wanted to do something to help. So Sharon Prior, Richard Bromley and I set up the Sophia Network and we launched it in November 2007 at Youthwork the Conference.
What encouragements have you seen since its launch?
We did a survey shortly after our launch asking what were the key issues facing women in youth ministry. It felt like lots of women were looking for permission to lead and to do it well. I think a lot of women have found a sense of solidarity in the network, and the knowledge that they’re not alone in the challenges they face as women in leadership. Our mentoring training has been brilliant and resulted in lots of women finding mentors and mentoring others. I love the different people who contribute to our monthly update. It’s great to hear other people’s stories and to be a showcase for women’s writing. And I’m grateful to the people who have graciously heard my promptings to include more women in their events, and taken up the suggestions of women speakers that we’ve provided.
What are your hopes for the next few years?
I’ve said this before but my ultimate hope is that we don’t need to exist in a few years’ time because the church has moved on in providing women with the opportunities, training and encouragement to lead. In the short-term, I hope we can equip women with the practical skills they need to lead well and the encouragement to overcome any obstacles in their way. I hope we can encourage men and women to work together in true partnership, and model how that can happen.