“The categories of oppression and liberation provide combat gear, not a pin-striped suit or a dinner dress; they are good for fighting, but not for negotiating or celebrating.”
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace
This month marks the third anniversary of my role as Lead Pastor. As I look back I can see the process I’ve gone through as I step into the very real challenge of leading from the margins.
The early stages of my leadership looked a lot like trying to conform. I was very aware of how much I am different from the ‘typical’ leader, not only in gender but also in my personality—an introverted, collaborative, emotional, slow-thinking artist is not what you think when you think “Lead Pastor.” There are ways people have named my difference with hurtful words but in some ways that was easier to handle because it was obvious. What was harder to deal with was the way I felt judgment in every “normal” leader that didn’t look like me, every leadership book that didn’t sound like me, every preacher who didn’t preach like me.
There was pain in the comparison. When the shape of “normal” was pressed onto me, there were places where it cut into me, places where I am something that doesn’t fit within the norm. And there were places where I felt the yawning void between the shape of me and the shape I was supposed to fill. Both my “too much” and my “not enough” brought deep pain and without even naming it, I worked extra hard to hide the parts of me that didn’t fit and to puff up the parts of me that were lacking. Introverted, collaborative, emotional, slow-thinking artist isn't what you think of as Lead Pastor. Click To Tweet
Eventually, in exhaustion, I came to see this was unsustainable. I came to name the ways I was trying to compensate and, now, for the first time, could see the standard I was trying to meet. For the first time I acknowledged it was not possible for me to be that person. I felt God’s peace to step into my true self and as I read scripture I saw many models of leadership that were not the “norm.”
Now that I could name the problem, it was easy to resent it, to react to it. Instead of falling victim to it, I wanted to fight it. I began to see those who represented the “norm” as my enemies, the ones oppressing me and keeping me from living into my true calling. But as I did, I began to see real hurt in them. I started to wonder if even those perpetuating the “norm” were not the creators of it but unwitting victims. The more I learned to describe the situation without casting blame, the more I watched great conversations unfold. I began to see how all of us are wrapped up in working to be something that none of us can be. The way I shared my own wrestling brought healing to myself and, surprisingly, to others. Sharing my own wrestling brought healing to myself and, surprisingly, to others. Click To Tweet
But there was a deeper learning yet to come. If I’m honest, I still felt like a little, squeaky mouse, defiantly opposing a giant. I still felt like a tender shoot, pressing through solid concrete. At one point I told a mentor, “I want to learn to speak with confidence what I hear from God. But I don’t want to overstep.” And I was surprised by his response: “Mandy, that makes me sense a deep woundedness in you.” I had no idea what he meant.
A few weeks later I came to discover where the wounds might be. I was part of a meeting that I had invited someone else to lead. The entire time, although I agreed with the content of what we discussed, I felt incredibly uncomfortable and came home, angry.
The next day I was still unsettled and felt a kind of spiritual darkness come over me. That day someone in the office made a slight change to a system I had set up and I felt rage building in me. I made a joke and let it go but it was obvious to everyone in the office that I was deeply disturbed. It made no sense to me that both the meeting and this minor change would trouble me so deeply and I sensed the enemy using it in some way.
I asked a trusted friend to pray for me. As she did I came to see how I had interpreted my experience. My experience was:
- Someone led a meeting in a way that was very different from my way of leading which required me to work by their way of solving problems.
- Someone else had tweaked a system I created so that I had to work according to their preferred way of working. That was the simple reality of the situation.
But then came my interpretation: “Once again, you have to conform to the ‘normal’ way of doing things. Once more, you have to set aside your ideas, your ways of thinking to work within the system.” It wasn’t a Christlike choice of mutual submission but a shaming voice which said, “You are different—you think differently, you communicate differently, you work differently . . . and it’s a problem. When will you get it right?!” It was incredibly freeing to see, for the first time, how for years, I had allowed shame to hound me. I can’t avoid feeling different at every turn, noticing the ways that I’m not typical. But I can choose not to add that layer of shame which says “ . . . and you shouldn’t be different.” I can’t avoid feeling different, but I can choose not to add a layer of shame. Click To Tweet
As I’m learning to recognize the shame and trying not to listen to it (I don’t know if I’ll ever be totally free of it), I’m watching myself develop in confidence as a leader. Three years in I’m starting to trust my instincts, see where they’re different but learn that they’re valid. And in some ways, now more than ever, I’m experiencing push-back. Especially from those I lead who are more “normal.”
Now that I’ve stepped away from trying to replicate a norm that is unsustainable and am creating a new way of leading I’m seeing that I wasn’t imagining things when I sensed how different I am. As I invite my staff into this new way of leading with me, I’m seeing how hard it is to press into a different norm.
It’s a strange thing to have the authority of a leadership role but not the authority of “normal” at your back. It means that in my efforts to lead as someone who isn’t normal, I can easily victimize those who are closer to the norm. And it means that there’s no cruising—my way is not the default.
The onus is often on me to understand both myself and the more “normal” folks I lead, to define and describe and defend my approach. At some point, it becomes time to say, “I know it’s hard, and I know you don’t understand, but this is where we’re headed. I will be patient when it’s hard or clarify when you don’t understand but I can’t keep convincing you to follow.” It’s hard for those who have been surrounded by a system that affirms their way to step into a world that makes them feel strange. But it’s an invitation for them to step into the experience of all who are not “normal,” inviting those who are closer to the norm to step into the place of minority, to conform to a system not of their own choosing, to learn to speak two languages.
The Challenge of Inviting
The challenge for me is how to make it an invitation, not a threat. But when I see how my difference over the years has stretched me, forced me to understand myself and others, I see it for the strange blessing it has been to me and the blessing it can be for others.
When it’s taken so much to discover how to lead, as your true self, against direct and indirect opposition, it’s a huge challenge to then lead without being reactionary, or perpetuating the oppression. It takes all we have to set aside our own baggage, to know our own voice while still listening to the voice of others, even those who are more “normal.” As I look back on my own story I recognize the over-reactions: the temptations to swing from oppressed to oppressor and back to oppressed. I’m asking God to help me find a new place of peace-making, stepping into submission and inviting others to join me in it.