Katie Stock looks at the rise of women in church leadership...
I don’t speak at Christian events in order to be famous. Promise. In fact they come at a cost. Working in the creative industries, writing words and stories, faith of any sort isn’t a badge of honour.
I don’t really fit in the Christian camp either. I’m not the obvious choice to invite to your women’s event and I’m in nobody’s worst, wildest, dream a traditional preacher. Topics I’ve spoken on relate to what I know how to do – writing, creativity, publishing, culture, media and storytelling – and sometimes what’s required to see those things through if that’s where you’re called. The hard work and resilience needed, the importance of identity, discipline and persistence in the face of tough and unforgiving industries, how to make good choices and balance huge success (should it come) and abject failure (which definitely will) through a lens of faith. A man could speak on those topics too; if I’m asked it’s because on that occasion my version of events, observations and experience is the one that fits the bill.
I am one of the organisers / facilitators / arrangers of the Gathering of Women Leaders. Despite its name, none of those who spend glamorous evenings on long Skype calls, emailing, inviting, tweeting, updating, organising catering or putting out chairs to make it happen call ourselves ‘leaders of the gathering of women leaders’. That would just be silly and we couldn’t fit it on our tiaras. We do it not because we’re hung up on ‘women being leaders’ but so we can create a space where women can be who they are called to be. Some speak about topics they are experts in – our regular strands are Justice, Community, Knowledge and Celebration – others speak from experience, and many come simply to meet women like them. Through our contributors we’ve learned about many issues affecting women around the world including FGM, the prison system, hunger, homelessness and sexual exploitation, from women who dedicate their lives to bringing change not to seeking platforms. We also try to be practical about why women might not step forward and fulfil a calling, dream or passion so we’ve talked about handling criticism, impostor syndrome, the practicalities of starting new things and how to speak confidently, both one-to-one and to a group.
It was at a GWL session on effective communication, run by actor and presentation skills coach Liz Garland, that film-maker Jendella Benson started to articulate for an audience the idea she had for a project debunking myths about young mothers. A year later, today in fact, that project is being presented to MPs in parliament, sponsored by an MP who was herself a young mum. Jendella came back to GWL late in 2014 and showed us her work. At the end of the day I spoke to a young woman at a gathering for the first time, who told me she was “so inspired I’m not coming back.” She had been offered that week a place on a project in South America, working with mums as young as 11 and had felt incapable of relating or offering anything useful to them. Hearing Jendella and seeing her film of young mums talking about their experiences had been the inspiration and the prompt to say yes to going into an uncomfortable place to do an important thing. Liz’s training session led to her being invited by another gathering attendee to help vulnerable women re-entering society after time in prison to develop communication skills so they could look for work, attend interviews and grow in confidence. Not so much a virtuous circle, but a virtuous web, a bold yet subtle interweaving of energy, skills and passion reaching down the road and all over the globe, inspired by faith.
This is why I am part of the Project 3:28 collective, working towards greater representation of women speakers: because the world changes for the better when we hear from the half of the population (and more than half of the Christian population) that often goes unheard. As well as presenting stats on the gender balance at Christian events to highlight where opportunities still exist, we’re working, amongst other things, to create a searchable database of women speakers. Ripping up the infamous ‘Women Speaker Bingo Card’ once and for all and dismantling barriers is possible. If you don’t know where to start, ask us.
Are you convinced yet that the motives behind this are solid? Does anyone still want to debate whether women really, deep down, want to stay at home with children (some of us don’t have them) or whether we should be limited to certain topics when there’s so much to learn from each other? When important stories will be missed if the debate stays in the deliberately-muddied shallows of (largely male) mumblings about gender roles, and nothing changes?
This is only superficially about the ‘conference circuit’ or the platform, which are nothing more than a mechanism for change. Really it’s about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, bringing good news, all the stuff we’re meant to be doing while the world is in this messed up, unjust state. No woman anywhere in the world should need us or anyone to speak up on their behalf, but we’re starting somewhere. Doing what we can to make a difference. The brave, difficult, challenging, outward-looking stuff that women should be talking about to their Christian communities, along with the doctors, lawyers, theologians, storytellers, politicians, musicians and academics who pioneer and have wisdom to share too.
Don’t just listen to me. Ask women about their experiences. Ask them for their stories. For their knowledge and learning. Ask them what they dream of doing. Ask them what they’ve already done. What they’re doing today. Ask them if it’s been easy, if they’ve been doubted, dismissed, overlooked, or pushed back. Ask yourself if the next generation should have to fight to be heard too. And ask what you can do so they don’t have to.