Daughters of Deborah: What Is a Leader in the 21st Century?

Deborah was a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth. She was judge over Israel at that time. She held court under Deborah’s Palm between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Ephraim. The People of Israel went to her in matters of justice. (Judges 4.4-5)

There aren’t many examples of women leadership in the Bible. Luckily the few that are listed depict women of strength, endurance, faith, and loyalty. No female leader is depicted so strongly as Deborah. Here, Deborah serves in the highest level of leadership – not only as judge and prophet, but also one that led in battle. She reflects wisdom and strength. I’m often amazed at how much leadership qualities my two year old daughter is already showing. I have often said that she is two going on thirty. And while I wish I were joking, I’m not. Ask anyone in my family who the boss is and they will most likely point to her. I can’t tell you how many times she has put me in time-out or reprimanded me for reprimanding her or has raised her arm as if she was going to spank me only to barely miss my leg because she knows that spanking mommy is a big no-no. Of course, being a leader doesn’t mean being bossy. It requires more than that.

At a recent PCUSA gathering, we as racial ethnic clergywomen were asked to reflect on our leadership as daughters of Deborah.  Not a bad woman figure to look up to. However, I can’t help asking myself if this is the only image of leadership that women have to glean from. I spent last week at two very different gatherings. One was on building up and equipping racial ethnic clergywomen in roles of leadership and the other was meeting with representatives from the six agencies of the General Assembly office (Office of General Assembly, Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Presbyterian Church Foundation, Investment and Loan Program, and Committee on Theological Education) to plan a consultation on leadership in the 21st Century (Leadership Initiative Launch Team). Two very different gatherings but all having to do with some type of leadership. Out of the two, there was one gathering where I was looking forward to being nourished and inspired, while the other one I was a little hesitant to why I had agreed to be a part of it. What I hadn’t expected was having a complete opposite experience.

At the racial ethnic clergywomen gathering, we discussed how as women and specifically racial ethnic women, we may lead in different ways — egalitarian using consensus and team building, sharing wisdom through our experiences and stories, and a greater capacity to express empathy and compassion with those that are marginalized. However, the gathering itself was focused on “training” us to be better prepared to seek higher offices at the Presbytery and General Assembly level. The training included workshop after workshop regarding finance and budget, interview skills, Board of Pensions, and hearing stories from those in higher positions. Ironically, none of this modeled what we had previously discussed as women leaders. I find it ironic that a “hierarchical” and “top-down” model was used at a gathering focused on leadership for racial ethnic clergywomen, meaning that the wisdom sharing came from those in higher positions rather than more time given to wisdom sharing amongst ourselves. After all, right in that room were women who had been solo pastors and Heads of Staff for over 12 years, some serving in large congregations, some in urban ministry, and some as chaplains in a college or hospital.

I soon left this gathering to attend a meeting for the Leadership Initiative Launch Team. Here were people that were very used to sitting in meetings to get the job done. I was the only one in the room that wasn’t in a higher Presbyterian office. At some point in the meeting, I had to make a confession that I had no idea why I was invited to be a part of this team. I am an Associate Pastor at a small congregation in an urban setting. By no means, do I feel qualified to figure out how GA can better support leaders in the 21st century. Interestingly, once I had made my confession known, I discovered that these were people who genuinely did want to know how they can be of better support and they were the first to admit that they didn’t have the answers. They listened and they were open to using a different method of discernment. The conversations were surprisingly wonderful and thoughtful.

As a young-ish, racial ethnic woman, I am sensitive to why I am being asked to be part of something. Is it because I’m young(ish)? Is it because I’m Korean-American? Or is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I exude some leadership qualities? Or is it because I have a particular skill-set that is needed and appreciated? I am not naive to know that there have been many times that it has been a combination of all of them or that I have chosen to benefit from my “minority” status at one time or another. I also recognize that my identity make-up shapes the lens in which I view the world, God, and my faith. But I do wonder for a person like myself what does it mean to be a leader in the 21st century in this particular denomination – PCUSA? After all, that is the question that the six GA agencies are asking.

One thing that is perfectly clear is that there is diversity within the racial ethnic community; as well as the younger generation; as well as the sisterhood. There isn’t consensus about what a leader in the PCUSA in the 21st century looks like. For example, when I go to a racial ethnic gathering, I often feel the generational divide between those that have struggled and paved the way and those like myself that have benefitted from their fight and accomplishments. In February, the Leadership Initiative Launch Team will host a consultation, inviting about 30 leaders in the PCUSA denomination, to have conversations about leadership in the 21st century. Those invited will be a diverse group given age, racial ethnicity, ministry context, and location. Representatives from the six agencies are tasked to listen and observe while those present will have opportunities to share, discuss, and discern.

I’m hopeful for this gathering time with no expectations that the denomination’s problems will be solved, but that this will be an intentional beginning to address the issues at hand. A colleague of mine said that he was glad these conversations were happening because he just doesn’t want to be forgotten. I understand this sentiment. I remember when I was in college and hearing the Church ask how do we do ministry that is relevant to youth and young adults? I am in my late-30’s and we are still asking that question. My hope is that by giving space to hear and discern what the common values of leadership today looks like, we will begin to see the change that has been so longed for.

7 thoughts on “Daughters of Deborah: What Is a Leader in the 21st Century?

  1. Thank you for this insightful and reflective witness! I am so grateful that these conversations are unfolding in a participatory and engaged context! So glad to spend time with you.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on your time at these events/meetings. I thought before going to Montreat that it would be the kind of time you described. I wanted to see if my hunch was correct and it was.

    I’m one of those “firsts” and was never really allowed to participate when I was first ordained as I would have liked – I think because I didn’t follow the lead of older Native American men doing their political thing in the church. They had learned the system. I didn’t want to learn a system. I just wanted to be true to a call to be in relationship with others and be part of creating something in Native American ministries no matter how complex or challenging. Still sorting it out and I thank you for spurring my thoughts by sharing yours on leadership.

    1. I was wondering if I was the only one since there were people that did find the gathering helpful. Glad that you are dreaming and visioning something creative for Native American Ministries. Let’s be co-dreamers and vision companions. 🙂

  3. Thoughtful reflections, Teresa. It reminds me of a sermon recently preached at McCormick Seminary on Deborah on the occasion of Deborah Mullen’s departure to become Dean at Columbia Seminary. Mullen left the post as Director of the Center for Africain American Ministries andBlack Studies program at MTS and was honored following the service. The way one leads definitely matters.

  4. Why can’t the church find a way to connect with the youth? Because the youth doesn’t want to be a part of the church. They dont want to be told how to think and how to dress and how to act. That doesn’t make them bad people it just makes them people who want to be free from the oppession of religion. I myself am spiritual. I listen and follow the lead of numbers and signs in nature and all around me. I feel connected. I feel like I have a destiny and purpose. Human connection is a powerful thing. The youth just wants to feel free and accepted & the church isn’t always a place to find that.

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