by Ann Svennungsen

For over 30 years I have thought about the pioneering role of women as leaders. It began in 1972 when I lost to a boy in the vote for student body president of my high school in Shelby, Montana. It continued when I successfully won a similar election in college, becoming the first woman student association president in the school’s 85-year history. Then, for 22 years, I served as a pastoral leader. In each congregation, I had a pioneering role: the first woman pastor, the first woman co-pastor, the first woman senior pastor.

What difference did it make that I was a woman? Do women lead differently from men? Are girls socialized to lead in certain ways? How do women incorporate what is good for leadership from their socialization, and how do they overcome what is bad? There are several studies on women in ministry, such as those described in the Pulpit & Pew report “Women’s Path into Ministry: Six Major Studies.” These studies compare the ministry styles of men and women in various areas: preaching, presiding at worship, teaching, pastoral care, placement, and loneliness.

My focus is on women as pastoral leaders. Leadership is a timely topic in both church and society. Not long ago, my alma mater changed its mission statement to read “Luther Seminary educates leaders for Christian communities” [emphasis added], and the New York Times regularly includes books about leadership on its bestseller list. In my work as a woman in pastoral leadership, two such books have been particularly significant: Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis; and Leadership without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz. Ann Svennungsen explores women’s leadership styles

Leadership and Emotional Intelligence
In Primal Leadership, the authors focus on emotional intelligence, arguing that “the best leaders have found effective ways to understand and improve the way they handle their own and other people’s emotions….This emotional task of the leader is primal…in two senses: It is both the original and the most important act of leadership.”1 The book suggests 18 competencies of emotional intelligence, including emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, empathy, and relationship management. Throughout the book, I was struck by a sense that women and girls were socialized to do just what the authors were asking—to pay close attention to emotions and to relationships. I often caught myself thinking, “Well, duh, of course you need empathy and relational skills to lead!” This is not big news for a woman.

Indeed, as I reflect on my leadership style, these intelligences are some of the best gifts I bring. When critical decision-making is needed, my first step is to gather people together, bringing wisdom and ownership to the table. When a change is suggested “on the fly,” I take time to ensure that other stakeholders are consulted. Occasionally, this attention to relationships has been frustrating to those who wish to move with greater expediency. However, in the long run, it has served the organization well. There is a deeper sense of trust within the group—a confidence that each participant will be respected and included—and a belief that better decisions will result from attention to process.

However, attention to relationships can sometimes become an impediment for leadership. In her book Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons studies the development of girls ages 10 to 14. She notes earlier studies that discovered that, while boys fear smothering, girls fear isolation.2 This socialization affects adulthood roles, as Simmons notes in her reference to CNN Executive Vice President Gail Evans’ book, Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman:

After decades of watching women hit the glass ceiling, Evans concludes that a misguided focus on personal relationships is partly to blame….Women struggle when hearing the word no from colleagues or superiors, construing it as a sign of interpersonal conflict. Because of this, women will avoid asking questions they anticipate will end in a no, hearing it as ‘a sign the relationship between us and our superiors has failed.’…Where Evans has watched men buy each other a beer after a conflict at work, a woman often takes it personally. She may storm away angry, reflecting a lifetime association of conflict with relational loss. Women who, as girls, never learned to be comfortable with conflict now as adults have trouble distinguishing normal day-to-day disagreements from personal attacks.3

I recall such an experience from my tenth year of ministry. To highlight our annual stewardship program, I suggested that each council committee prepare a brief dramatic presentation to present between worship services. The idea was quickly and soundly rejected. As one lay leader said, “Unlike you, Ann, most of us would be pretty uncomfortable at the thought of doing some sort of Bible camp skit.” I was devastated—embarrassed for even suggesting such an idea. I came home with a sense of personal rejection, and it took a while before I felt confident enough to offer another creative idea.

By my twentieth year of ministry, I had become more comfortable with the leader’s vocation of suggesting ideas and casting vision. When my congregation considered a new program for Wednesday worship and education, I brought a rough proposal to the staff. By the end of the meeting, the final proposal looked nothing like my original, but I was not embarrassed. I did not feel rejected. I had come to see that the leader’s vocation includes casting the initial vision—setting forth ideas that will be changed and improved through a process of critique and discussion. Indeed, when I think back to that stewardship program several years earlier, I realize that the final outcome was actually shaped by my original idea—the one that was soundly rejected. It has been significant to recognize that the leader’s vocation includes casting a vision, making initial proposals, and knowing that corporate critique and improvement is not sign of rejection but rather a cause for celebration.

Yes, though women may be well equipped for empathy and relationship management, these strengths may also become stumbling blocks. Clearly there is a tension—attention to relationships on the one hand and self-differentiation on the other. And, perhaps, gender socialization has something to say about the side of the horse off which one is apt to fall. In the words of feminist theologian Daphne Hampson, of Scotland’s St. Andrews University, “The task for men is…to learn to find themselves in relationship; the task for women is to find themselves in relationship.”4

Leadership and Authority
Just as gender socialization affects a leader’s development with respect to Goleman’s key emotional intelligences of empathy and relationship management, so also gender socialization plays a role in the relationship between leadership and authority.

At a recent gathering of seasoned pastors, there was consensus that pastoral authority is both granted and earned, and that gender plays a role in the relationship and balance between the two.

In his book Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz defines authority as “conferred power to perform a service”—“Given your know-how, I give you the power to make decisions to accomplish a service, and I’ll follow those decisions as long as it appears to me that they serve my purposes.” He continues with this caveat: “Not all authority relationships are the product of a conscious and deliberate conferring of power. Often, they are produced by habitual deference.”5

One might argue that men come into the pastoral office with greater external authority as a result of “habitual deference” to clergy—who have been consistently male. Such authority is not immediately conferred upon women, who do not “look like” the clergy to whom deference was given in the past. There is a greater need to earn authority—authority conferred once a parishioner comes to learn that the woman pastor has the know-how, the wisdom, and the gifts to provide the service the parishioner expects.

As a Lutheran, my first pastoral assignment was a year of internship, serving full-time as “student pastor.” Eager for the experience, I was deeply troubled to learn that the seminary placement office received two rejections before finding me an assignment. I had excellent grades, good recommendations—all was in order, except that it was 1979 and I was a woman.

Such experiences of rejection slowed the development of my inner authority. I thought to myself, “If all those Christians are unwilling to consider me as their pastor, what actually gives me the authority to minister?” Even when I could intellectually debunk such thinking, the feelings remained. It is not surprising that women struggle to establish a strong sense of inner authority.

In her article “Weaving Garments of Grace: En-gendering a Theology of the Call to Ordained Ministry for Women Today,” Joy McDougall also discovers the truth of this. In her conversation with eight gifted women seminary students, she tells how they expressed frustration with external impediments to ordination. But, what “stunned” the author was the women’s “self-doubts, ambivalence, and even guilt about (their) call to ordained ministry: ‘Did I really want to set myself apart within my church community?’ ‘I was petrified about standing in the pulpit for the first time to preach. I didn’t think I could do it.’ ‘I think I felt guilty about wanting to be a priest, as if I thought that I was somehow better than others or spiritually elite.’”6

Leadership and Improvisation
In addition to the relationship between leadership and authority, Heifetz suggests that leadership requires a willingness to improvise: “Leadership… requires an experimental mindset, the willingness to work by trial and error—where the community’s reactions at each stage provide the basis for planning future actions.” 7 Pastors practice that improvisation in the context of a very complex community—replete with a host of different constituencies—lay and pastoral staff, elected leaders, appointed leaders, self-appointed leaders, and so on.

Clearly, in such a complex community, issues of gender will play a part in the leader’s work of improvisation. The community’s reactions may and will be influenced by the leader’s gender. Both women and men need to acknowledge and understand this. However, women may need to be especially aware. In my most recent call as senior pastor of a 3,700-member congregation, I occasionally would suggest that conflicts I encountered might be based, in part, on gender. One day, the male council president looked at me and said, “Why do you bring up the gender thing?” I was reminded of my work in race relations—where, if you are a person of color, race is always an issue. In the same way, if you are a woman working in patriarchal culture, gender is always an issue.

However, gender is not always the issue. Actually, one of the challenges facing women leaders is the need to discern the cause of a particular struggle. On the one hand, we, ourselves, are sometimes the cause—our personality, our ministry style, a mistake we’ve made. On the other hand, struggles sometimes arise from within the congregation—dysfunctional lay leadership, an unresolved issue in the congregation’s history, staff conflict. However, for women in pioneering roles, there is also a third possibility—the issue of gender. We find ourselves asking, “Is this struggle in any way related to the fact that I am a woman in leadership?”

Clearly, one has to be careful about raising the gender question. There are essentially two pitfalls: raising the gender question too often and failing to raise the question at all. To blame every problem on sexism is to deny reality and inhibit one’s own personal growth as a woman in leadership. On the other hand, to deny that sexism potentially could be a factor is also to deny reality. Still, the subtleties for this discernment can be enormous.

Occasionally, I have had the experience of suggesting an idea to which no one takes notice. Some moments later, however, a man makes a similar suggestion, and the whole room responds. Then, one must ask, “Is this a function of group process, where an idea becomes more favorable as the discussion continues, or is this an issue of gender discrimination, whereby an idea expressed by a man is given more credibility than the same idea expressed by a woman?” Clearly there are many layers. The work of leading a congregation is always an adventure with myriad dynamics, some of which are neither fair nor just. Still, that is the real world in which we are called to serve.

Leadership and Faith
Yes, the relationship between gender socialization and leadership development is complicated. And sometimes, like my friends who resist the Myers-Briggs test because they do not want their multifaceted personalities reduced to a list of four mere letters, so I also resist being reduced to a particular leadership style because I am a woman. We are much more than our gender. Nevertheless, there is important learning to be gained through the appropriate study of these issues.

Indeed, some wonder why the issue is not being studied more fully. “Why is the issue of gender largely absent from contemporary discussions about the crisis of pastoral leadership? This seems especially surprising, since most sociologists and theological educators agree that women’s entry into the ordained ministry represents the most significant transformation in pastoral leadership in the twentieth century, if not since the Reformation.”8 Yes, faithful and honest conversation about women in pastoral leadership is important. Through study and awareness, growth, and change, the church can become better equipped to lead and to serve in faithfulness. There are important strides to be made and a great deal to explore as we move toward a roster of pastors that better reflects the rich diversity of God’s people.

One of the best stories from my ministry comes from a four-year-old parishioner, Elizabeth. Though Erik Strand and I had been her pastors since she was baptized as an infant, I had just announced that I was leaving the congregation and moving to Iowa. Sometime after she heard the news, she turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, isn’t it sad that God is moving to Iowa? But,” she said, “at least Jesus is staying here.”

Though her theology was a bit suspect, Elizabeth pointed to the best leadership example: Follow Jesus. Seek the ways of God. Pray hard. And most important, lead and live by grace.

1. Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002): 4–5.
2. Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls(Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2002): 30.
3. Ibid., 265–266.
4. Daphne Hampson, “Reinhold Niebuhr on Sin: A Critique” in Richard Harries, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr and the Issues of Our Time (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986): 55.
5. Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998): 57–58.
6. Joy McDougall, “Weaving Garments of Grace: En-gendering a Theology of the Call to Ordained Ministry for Women Today,” Theological Education, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, 2003): 150.
7. Ronald Heifetz, 242.
8. Joy McDougall, 151.

Congregations, 2004-07-01
Summer 2004, Number 3