Formation

When Male Leadership is Privileged

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There are subtle ways that privilege happens in ‘equality’ environments. One is the privilege of being emotionally disruptive, and it’s considered normal. Case in point. I was with a group of Christian leaders collaborating on an important project which had a short deadline. We were moving along at a good pace, everyone on the same page, until one man began to complain that this wasn’t what we should be doing. He thought we hadn’t all agreed on the purpose and that the shape of the project was off track with the mission. Now we were in the final stages of this project. This wasn’t the beginning nor the middle of it. But now he speaks, and he speaks emotionally, not rationally. I believe something has triggered fear in him, but he’s an important leader figure, so thus it begins.

One subtle example of privilege is the privilege of being emotionally disruptive. Click To Tweet

We had to stop. We had to entertain all his thoughts and treat each of his points seriously. We had to be careful with his emotional state. He needed to be encouraged. We would then actually change our direction or modify it in order to appease the gentleman. From then on persons would be extra nice to him, talking with him more, making sure he was okay.

If this were an isolated incident, it wouldn’t be on my radar, but I see this over and over again in various ministry settings. What is happening?  When one party can emotionally disrupt a collaborative process and it’s considered ‘normal,’ that is an example of privilege.

Non-majority participants in a collaborative process, which is often women and/or people of color, couldn’t get away with this type of behavior. If we were to pull a stunt like that, our leadership journey would be short-lived. We would be considered disruptive and emotionally unprepared for leadership. If we challenged the behavior, our bandwidth for influence would diminish.

Generally, in evangelical leadership circles, white men can sabotage a process much more easily than a woman or person of color. If she behaved in that manner, she would be marginalized. The privileged male, however, the group believes, might have a good point, so his disruptive behavior is valued. The rest of us have to manage ourselves in these crazy environments. His privilege to upset the apple cart without penalty, is not our privilege. His status is not weakened, ours would be.

So what to do? There is something for the privileged to do and something for the non-privileged to do.

For the privileged – use your privilege to serve and lead like Jesus

There is no evidence that Jesus used his position to leak his emotional state onto a group in order to have his own way. When a group excuses emotionally disruptive behavior in anyone, it creates a wobble in the group’s ability to function exceptionally for Christ. The fulcrum is the group’s commitment to bring their emotional best to collaborative processes.  When any one person begins to wobble because of fear, anxiety, need to be important, insecurity, whatever, the group should take a break. A person of influence should pull the person aside and have a pastoral conversation with him, perhaps a prayer. We wobble in a group because we perceive a threat. It is a perfect opportunity to grow in self-awareness and to become more Christ-like, not more child-like.

If you're privileged, use your privilege to serve and lead like Jesus. Click To Tweet

For the non-privileged – use your non-privilege to serve and lead like Jesus.

Jesus sees you and gifts you as fully as any other person. And privilege is a funny thing. It paints reality in strange colors. So what to do in situations like this….

As a woman in a male-normed environment when situations like this happen, honestly, first I’m just pissed off. It takes me an hour or two or even a day or two, sometimes even a week or two to stop fuming inside. But then, I have spiritual work to do. I go to Christ for a conversation and to the Holy Spirit for direction.  As irritating as his behavior is, I still got triggered and frustrated. So I take care of myself to restore a place of emotional balance and peace in me. In solitude and reflective prayer, I put the man across from me and Christ in between us, and I wait, and I listen. Eventually, I’m able to release him to Christ. He is not my business. He is accountable to Christ, not me. I let go. Then I’m able to receive and believe that Jesus is watching out for me, and I am in his perfect will.

I will also pray and discern with the Holy Spirit whether in that environment I should bring this up with the group leader or some respected member of the group. If I sense clarity around discussing the incident with someone of privileged influence, I will. I will do it from a position of observation, not judgement, and I will ask the leader for his perspective. I try to open a door. The Holy Spirit does the rest. If I do not have clarity, I do not bring it up. Instead I choose to see this as a unique opportunity to embrace the suffering of Christ as a bold gesture of God’s kingdom way. Such incidents simply mean for me that I have to be faithful to my own formation in Christ, and I have to learn how to be ‘me’ in community.

Disclaimers

Sometimes the person who disrupts does so for holy reasons and not unholy. You can usually tell by the nature of the emotional content of the disruption. Sometimes the group is on the wrong track.

Sometimes for the non-privileged person, you must speak when the situation is unethical and unjust. The group again is on the wrong track, and it offends the sensibilities of God. But these are reflections for another time.

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7 responses to “When Male Leadership is Privileged

  1. You seem to have missed the real point that you actually started with. “He” was deferred to, not simply because “He” was a man but because “He” was an important figure. Politely, with respect and without meaning to offend, If your concern was less for your own rights you wouldn’t trigger in this way. I suggest you look out at the real world and realise that you belong to the second most privileged group in the world. Rich, Free, Educated, White female…

    1. I think that’s kinda the point she’s making when she discusses how she OUGHT to handle it. It’s about God and the work, and when our emotions get in the way, we need to find healthy ways to deal with that. Still, her issues don’t change the fact that that guy has work to do too.

    2. Had the leader or important figure been a woman, she likely never would have behaved like an interrupting jerkweed to start with, and if she had, the rest of the group would not have tolerated it – as they did with a man who happened to be in that role. That might be part of the point the essay was raising. Being rich, free, educated, etc, does not mean it’s wrong to point out what some would consider minor examples of sexism in culture.

  2. Thanks you for this, MaryKate. Even in a church setting that officially grants full leadership authority to women, this still shows up in subtle ways. I have been told I have “authority issues.” I’ve tried to visualize the man telling me this saying such a thing to a male with the same leadership credentials I have. I can’t see it happening.

    I especially appreciate how your suggestions for responding to the situation you describe reflect the Kingdom values of patience and humility rather than more common advice to be assertive and stand up for oneself.

  3. I agree with this overall, but have had a different experience. I’m involved with a non-profit in which a man of color engages in this behavior on a regular basis. It is tolerated because no one wants to be accused of racial bias. :Wondering if anyone else has observed this, or if it is an anomaly.

    1. @darh477:disqus So you’re saying that men of color can never, ever be sexist, or never, ever engage in sexist behavior? Or that they cannot or do not ever operate out of a place of male privilege?

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