Claire Rush has interviewed Ruth Gilson, director of Girls’ Brigade England and Wales (GBEW), for Sophia. She says: Ruth is definitely one of a handful of people who has encouraged me to step out in faith and trust in God’s leading. From my time as a local GB leader in Northern Ireland to my current role as GBEW’s Esther Generation Project Coordinator, Ruth has provided inspiration, encouragement and bucket-loads of grace.
Ruth, tell us a little about yourself
After I became a Christian in my teens I had a niggling push that I couldn’t get away from… to train in theology because I thought God was calling me to serve him in some particular way. So I did.
I did loads of things before coming to GB though and I’m really glad about that because my eclectic experience has really helped me in this role. One claim to fame in my past is re-curtaining the student hostel I helped manage in London. Add that to doing a feasibility study on the comparative benefits of a flat-pack or roll system for toilet roll in the hostel… and you can see how well equipped I am for leading here at GB!
My family lives in Yorkshire (God’s own land) but I hang out in Oxfordshire and worship at a local Baptist church. Life is pretty busy, but I love it as there’s so much variety in my days and I get to live with the most amazing sense of privilege about my role in GB. Even though I’ve been here a while now I still feel as if I’m in a long term master-class about serving God and leading others - and it really is stretching. This year I’ve begun a secondment to GB International for nearly half my time and have travelled a bit to see GB in action in places like Singapore, Cambodia, Australia and New Zealand. My constant question these days is, do we ever stop emerging as leaders…?!
What is Girls Brigade all about?
God is a missionary God; therefore we’re a missionary people! That’s been re-emerging these past few years as our ‘words in the stick of rock’. It says everything about GB’s grasp of why we’re here. Looking at our 100+ year history as a mission among girls, I think those words have always been at our heart. But, like lots of Victorian-birthed movements, we’ve had a time of re-visiting our roots to rediscover what really makes us tick. The journey has been stretching, but really worth it. We’re clear about Girls’ Brigade:
- We’re called by God to join in with his mission in this generation
- His mission is all about lives restored and transformed through encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ
- Girls and young women are our passion – and we love to see them discover just who they are in God!
- Jesus is our role model. For GB this means we want to seek, serve and follow him in all we do. Through Jesus we are transformed and become agents of his transformation in others’ lives
Isn’t Girls Brigade a bit out of date?
Don’t get me started on this one… it’s dangerous! Seriously though, I do get jaded about the casual way in which some folk disregard GB. Is it because we wear a uniform? Because we’ve been around a long time? Because we have an amazingly sustainable and holistic approach?
One very recent development is our partnership with the London Safer Foundation. In a project called London YOU (Youth Organisations in Uniform), we’re the only overtly evangelical youth organisation in the conglomerate (Scouts, Sea Cadets, etc.) and it’s great to be working with the Metropolitan Police and others in London to establish more girls work in local communities. We managed to secure a grant to employ a London Development Worker and are helping local churches to reach out to girls in their communities by using GB resources and experience to establish new groups. Personally I’m thrilled at the really warm response we’ve had from the authorities who are genuinely impressed by the value of our Christian input. Exciting days!
How is Girls Brigade empowering younger leaders?
There’s such a big press about the missing generation of 20 somethings in church right now and I think this is a crucial subject. Although I also think we need to be careful to think more fully about what we mean by ‘in church’. The Sunday measure is just too one-dimensional for the generation.
We believe that God has called us to spend time and energy on the 18-30s we’re in contact with through GB. Statistically our 14+ leadership-training network is actually bucking the trend of ‘lost church generation’ and it’s exciting to see that 70% of new leaders in GB this year are under the age of 35.
So we’re intentionally creating GB networks for this ‘Esther generation’. It’s amazing to see how many young women really do want to make a God-impact in their community… they just need opportunity, encouragement and up-skilling to be 21st century Esthers. Step by step we’re seeing young women contribute on our trustee boards, councils and internationally. They’re dreaming up and delivering peer events and initiatives for discipleship via web forums in the UK, on Skype and in local student groups currently at pilot stage. The student ‘Nexus’ initiative is particularly encouraging as it’s growing organically and attracting women in GB when they move to uni. It gives them a GB ‘home’ for friendship, faith discovery and discipleship where otherwise they may well have just drifted away from faith at this big change-point in their lives.
A group of young GB women have even produced a book for this after school moment and we’ve been distributing it to our contacts, aged 16+, throughout the UK. It’s called Sole Stories and is an A-Z of personal stories and thoughts about life told from the shoes of a group of post-school GB women. By young women for young women.
What has been your experience of being a female director of a Christian ministry movement?
Sometimes painful, often lonely, always stretching! When I was first around, GB was on the fringe of the Christian youth work circle (actually, I’m not sure we were even that close.) I can remember going to so many network meetings where, to be frank, I cried on the way home because I felt so out on a limb. 95% of the time in the 1990s I was the only woman in these networks and it was tough going. I sometimes felt I spoke for ALL women leaders if I dared open my mouth and we were judged on my performance. Gradually things have moved on and I’m one of a number of female leaders in senior roles, which is great.
Recently Sophia and GB co-hosted an event for women who are working with girls and it was obvious to me that there’s still a significant need for good support mechanisms for women in senior leadership roles and that bothers me.
Still the debate rages about the role of women in Christian leadership. Still the glass ceiling is only just beginning to show signs of rolling back. It’s not simple - I realise that. Scripture interpretation and long-held attitudes in church have commanded a repressive culture and, in my opinion, at times women leaders have not helped much. The strident push of the pendulum by women for female leadership is surely as damaging to unity in kingdom purpose as the often reluctant and tokenistic approach of denominations and agencies over the last few years.
If I were to start again I think the one thing I’d do is commit myself much sooner to drawing together and opening up roles for young women where it’s in my gift to do so. I was 36 when appointed as GB’s director. Why did I wait five years before beginning to appoint younger women into emerging national leadership roles? When I see the team here now, out and about, as leaders in their own fields of expertise in mission development, empowerment, training, operational management and in media, I regret my own slowness. Had there been a team of us when I began to lead, the network, growth, learning and loneliness would have been very different… and so would the fruit that came from it.
As we enter 2012, what is your vision for Girls Brigade?
At church just before Christmas we had an informal carol service. We read some amazing words from John 1 and thought together about Jesus, the light of the world bringing light to his world. We were invited to take a nightlight candle up to a flame at the front of church and light our own candle there. I tried so hard not to be a GB leader at that point doing a risk assessment… I saw no buckets of water or sand! We were invited to do this act symbolically for someone or something we wanted to see God’s light fanned into flame this coming year and to pray for that person or issue as we lit our candle.
I prayed specifically for Girls’ Brigade around the world… that God would light us up as a burning fire of God’s hope and purpose and transformation in thousands of girls lives in 2012. I just do believe that GB has the opportunity and calling to be used by God to bring new life to women and girls all over His world – He’s raising up a new Esther generation to stand for faith in the nations!
Ruth would love to hear from you - email her on firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find out more information about Girls’ Brigade England & Wales here.