Jo - tell us about yourself, where you live and what you do
I grew up in London, and worked for St. Thomas Church, Sheffield years ago, initially leading the youth work, then gathering a team leading the student work and the student congregation. I now live in Southern California in the USA and am one of the directors of a movement/organisation called 3dm which helps churches get discipleship and mission at the heart of all they are and do.
My job at 3dm is wide and varied: we gather church teams into a two-year journey we call a learning community, so I spend a lot of time coaching senior pastors and their teams on building a discipling culture within their churches, and on how to launch missional communities. I do some teaching, some group facilitation, as well as give regular coaching to church leaders. I love my job, because I firmly believe when we as church as doing our job, society is fundamentally changed. Alongside that I'm a leader in a global missional movement called The Order of Mission. I do some speaking and writing here and there. I'm married to a wonderful man called Chris who's a pastor, and we have two gorgeous and hilarious daughters who are full of life and comedy.
What was the inspiration behind your new book, Influential?
I think as a leader the issue of women in leadership is always a live one for me. The vast majority of what I do is with men, and it’s very common to be the only woman in the room. But I know that there are many great female leaders out there, and many who have not been invested in so we just don't know of them. When the conversation comes up, leaders that are in favour of women leaders often say they want women leaders but they are not coming through. The reality is that they simply won't come through if we are not investing in the theological issues, or in the discipling, investment, character development that is part of every leader's formation. Women often miss out on that direct mentoring from leaders. Influential is an attempt to address some of the areas leaders may need to attend to as they respond to their calling, and hopefully equip more female leaders to get a few steps further along in what God's called them to do.
As a woman in leadership what are the main challenges you have faced and how have you tackled them?
One challenge over the years has been confidence to believe I'm called to lead, especially at times when I was given more responsibility. In my 20's I worried if it would mean I would never get married, because what guy would want a women with a big leadership role? In my 30's I wrestled with going back to work after having my girls, because what did that say about me as a wife and mother? I questioned things like - am I too strong, is it godly and feminine to be a leader, is there something wrong with me?
It’s been important to dig deep into Scripture. There I met women like Deborah and Priscilla who were incredible leaders whom God raised up for the times there were in. It also helped to look afresh at how God designed women. Discovering the word "helper" in Genesis, was ezer - a word meaning strength and power, often used to describe God has been nothing less than a revolution in my heart for my identity and sense of calling. It been important to grasp who God says I am and what I'm here for. This has helped me look afresh at the cultural expectations around about strength, femininity and leadership, and work out what was a cultural issue and what was a character issue. There's nothing wrong with being a strong woman, though perceptions of strength vary across cultures. Strength is part of our God given design. Being a domineering, manipulative woman however - well that's not ideal in any culture and is a character issue! They are not the same thing.
It doesn't happen often these days, but sometimes I have to deal with the women in leadership issue directly when I am working. It’s always interesting knowing you are speaking in a context where a number of people don't believe you should be up there! I have to get past my emotions and get on with it, avoiding the temptation to crumble out of feelings of rejection, or get sassy to prove something. My Father's never asked either of me. With him there is nothing to prove, nor to defend. But there is a call to be faithful to him and to respond to what I believe he's asked me to do. That helps me get some perspective, but still it’s not always easy.
There was one conference I was speaking at over here that couldn't find a venue because no one would host a conference with a female main speaker. I was glad when circumstances meant I had to step down, and they got on with it without me. But I had to process the feelings that involved; I had to forgive, let go, move on. It’s been essential for me to not allow bitterness and judgemental attitudes to creep in.
And it’s lonely sometimes. The guys are great, especially the 3dm team; we often dialogue about the challenges for female leaders and they are all intentional about investing in female leaders. Still, sometimes I just want to talk to other women! I want to hang out face to face and talk about how we do this life, lessons learned that sort of thing. When that happens it’s a total blessing!
How have you developed yourself as a leader?
When it comes to growing as a leader, I think there are some things that we are personally responsible for, and then other things that we need to work out with the people around us...
When I realised that I was called into ministry, though I had no clue where I'd end up, I took some steps that would equip me. I went to Bible College, and then at university I took biblical studies, studying biblical languages. I wanted, needed, to know what the Bible said about women for myself. Then I got involved me my local church and got stuck in. St. Thomas's was (and still is) an incredibly encouraging environment for young leaders, male and female. If you want to grow to your full potential as a leader, you need to be a part of a church community that recognises what women bring to the table as part of the Body of Christ.
But what has also been incredibly significant for me was being discipled in such a way that I didn't just get input on my thoughts and character, but was also given tangible opportunities to grow and fail and risk and succeed. That kind of discipleship has been THE deciding factor in my leadership journey. I was given responsibility and opportunity with regular input, but no micro management. I was affirmed and encouraged and challenged and stretched.
One moment that will always stay with me: years ago I spoke at New Wine. Mike Breen was leading St. Thomas' back then and was originally due to speak, but somehow made it possible for this 26-year-old woman to take his place. After the talk someone came up to Mike and said, when are we going to hear you this week? He pointed at me and said "You just did". It struck me then and now that leadership development often requires someone else to sacrifice and risk to make room for you. Mike is an awesome gifted speaker, yet invested in me AND stepped aside for me to grow. That's the kind of leader I would like to be.
I think it’s important to keep growing as leaders so I try to keep working on it. I seek out people I can learn from, and ask lots of questions. I've learned it’s good to be proactive in that. So alongside ongoing relationships with people like Mike and Sally Breen, who head up 3dm, I email other leaders asking for advice, and an opportunity to meet even if I don't know them. I've found the business world and the political world helpful too because women have been able to make strides in leadership there in recent years. So alongside meeting up with other leaders, I read books/ blogs/magazines on women in leadership in those fields, and political autobiographies.
I don't want to take myself too seriously, but I want to take what God has entrusted to me seriously. So I want to learn from failure, grow in skill, develop my character.
You talk in your book about an evening at Momentum where you spoke and many women responded who had been thwarted or hurt in their attempts to lead. How can we get beyond this?
Honestly, that night almost haunts me; there were hundreds of women and a lot of pain, frustration and grief in the room. And can you measure the cost to the kingdom?
How do we get past that? I think there are a number of answers.
For those of us already in leadership we need to get discipling women. I don't think we can just stand there sympathetic but inactive. When we look at the life of Jesus he spent all night in prayer, then selected 12 people and invested in them, apprenticed them, often all at the same time. They all went through it together. At St Thomas' back in the day, we learned to disciple people in groups, with the expressed intent that in time they all would go and disciple others. Again discipleship wasn't just theoretical; it had a practical component too. That was the way I was discipled - often in mixed groups. That was how I learned to disciple others. As I mentioned earlier most of what I do involves working with men. However I always try to have one or two huddles of female leaders, leaders in the church but also in the workplace. Discipleship can be demanding, time consuming and may not feel that glamorous. But then I look at some of the women I have the privilege of discipling. Now they're fighting child trafficking in Bangok, leading churches in Kansas , planting missional communities in the inner city Atlanta, raising kids, building families, moving up the corporate ladder - and all of them salt and light in their world and going much further than I could ever have done. I'm just honoured to have been involved in some way, and I'm aware that discipleship releases an army of believers into our world. Effective discipleship always leads to mission.
I also think male leaders have a role to play in breaking the glass ceiling that holds so many women back. It’s one thing to cheer on women in leadership and it’s great. But we need more leaders, male and female, who will proactively smash that ceiling to pieces. What could it look like? It would be great to have male leaders also speaking/blogging/writing about women in leadership issues so that it doesn't become a "woman's topic". It would be wonderful to see more male leaders discipling women and men together as much as is possible. It could look like leaders taking a risk on young credible leaders to speak and to input into their events. It could be looking at the culture of the workplace, watching and listening and learning where our models inadvertently exclude men and women at different stages of life. It would be a paradigm shift to break a ceiling; it would involve sacrifice, time, money, humility. But it would also release more men and women into their calling. Then what will we see happen in our nations?
For those of us who still cry those tears of pain and frustration - I think its important to grieve, to find safe places to deal with the difficulties of your journey, get a counsellor if need be. Then I would say its time to start seeking the Lord again, have a season of prayer and fasting with your friends and hear what he has to say. It’s vital that we get into the process of forgiving those who have hurt us, for as long as we don't we are still under the shadow of what they've done. Alongside that I'd recommend they deliberately put themselves in environments that endorse and encourage women leaders. Get resourced, supported anywhere you can - and then start listening to what we need to do next. The next step may be challenging, will most certainly be costly, but we're rarely as powerless as we feel.
What’s your advice to women who are in churches where their leadership is not encouraged or welcomed?
Looking back I've seen there's been a time for everything. In my first year at uni, there were endless arguments about this. In the end it felt important to let my life and the fruit do the talking. I'm naturally feisty so it was good for me. God moved in power and I saw many people become Christians, get healed, all sorts. The fruit of obedience was the best argument I could ever have, and in the end I was so wrapped up in what God was doing, I didn't care. There were times when I used to think - maybe you're in there to change people's views - but I've seen a lot of women who chose that path who are now burnt out and discouraged, a shadow of their original vision and call. Today, I look at the needs of the world - child trafficking, extreme poverty, racial tensions, economic meltdown, people lost in wealth and excess – it’s a devastating landscape. And the church is called to be Jesus in it all. Life is too short. Seriously, we don't have time to be debating this while people live in hell every day and know nothing of Jesus' redeeming love. It’s in the Bible and its a no brainer. I don't mean to be harsh, but I'm just not interested in talking about it anymore. We need to get on with the Great Commission.
That said the church is family, and I love my family whether I disagree with them or not. I'm going to bless them and speak well of them, even in our differences. If I'm allowed to be me, where I serve, they are allowed to be them where they serve.
As for practical details in working this through - If you find yourself in context which doesn't advocate women in leadership positions today here's a process I'd consider:
Address it directly, rather than gossip and rant about in your circle. Arrange to meet with your leaders, on your own, or if there is more than one of you, consider if you should go as a small group
Then write down all your questions and concerns. What are you hoping to find out from your leaders? What do you want to say? What is at stake here for you? If this is just a rant be prepared to not get very far! If your pain is a symptom of concerns and your calling then make sure they hear the concerns that you have clearly.
Go to your leaders and process it through with them one more time. Explain your position where you are at theologically and ask honestly where they are at and how they see the women in leadership in their church/ministry.So If your concern is about preachers, ask their position on female speakers. Make sure you find out all you need to know from them, because you want to make an informed decision, rather than one based on suspicion and angst. And at the end of the conversation thank them for being upfront with you. It might not be an easy conversation for either of you.
Once you know where they stand - Go away and pray about it. This bit is your responsibility. You see, painful though it is, they don't have to come around to your point of view, and it doesn't make them terrible people either. If for whatever reason they will not encourage women in leadership you have a decision to make. If God called you to lead,but you can't where you are, what are you going to do about it? If you choose to stay, it’s unfair and unproductive to be resentful of them because they were honest with you. What you can do is explore whether the opportunities they do offer are a good fit for you. If you choose to go, its important to do so with blessing and love, its still family after all, so make sure you leave well. Send a note thanking them for the blessing they've been on your journey. Then find a context where you can serve, and learn and grow in all God's called you to do.
You have a family as well as being involved in ministry. What are your tips for juggling work and family life?
I couldn't do what I do without my husband Chris. We have different gifts and responsibilities, but we share our lives and calling. So we've spent a lot of time talking and working through what that looks like in practice. It means sacrifices, but that's marriage isn't it? He is very hands on with our girls too and I love the fact that they are very close to both their mum and dad. I love what it teaches then about men. I love what our life teaches them about Jesus and changing the world, and our role in it. They are four and five but I bring them with me on ministry trips when I can. When we're apart my heart aches - but the wonders of skype and facetime help A LOT.
My heritage is Nigerian, so growing up I was surrounded by extended family, endless aunts and uncles and cousins who were part of our lives, for good or ill! Most of them were not blood relatives; all of them were family and were active in my growing up. I'm a firm believer that it does take a village to raise a child.
When we knew what God was calling us to - we sat down and talked about what we needed to make life work. As much as I wanted to be, I am no domestic goddess. I had to admit that to myself, slay the superwoman idol of being able to do it all, and think through what I needed to make our house work. Then I thought of things I like doing, like cooking with the girls, and thought of how I could keep doing that. We talked through our need for date nights and time away, for fun filled family time. And then we looked at how much all of these things would cost - and began to pray and look for God's provision in practical or financial terms. And he provided - through friends and family we share life with and yes financial resources that help us get in the extra support we need.
So build your village - the people in your life that will help you raise your family and make life work. Some may be people you employ like babysistters, cleaners, some will be relatives, friends, neighbours who help with the kids and other things that need doing.
Other thoughts: You need the energy for this life - take your health and fitness seriously. I have a greater capacity for the life I'm called to when I'm working out and eating well.
One last thing in the village - you need wise secure friends who will ask you the awkward questions about marriage and family. People who can ask if you are travelling too much, working too hard, not having enough fun. That way you can keep prayerfully reviewing your life to see if what needs tweaking as the needs of the family change
Be thankful - God is good! There will always be challenges, always be opposition, it comes with being a Christian. But you get to be a part of what the King of Heaven is doing to redeem humanity. It’s incredible. When I am feeling down or frustrated - I remind myself of what I am thankful for - it changes my perspective and he gives me strength to get up again.