Formation

When Minorities Lead: One Woman’s Wrestling with “Oppressor” and “Oppressed”

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“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.

Conforming

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

Resenting/Reacting

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

Shame

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

Pressing in/Inviting

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.

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10 responses to “Can Evangelicalism and Capitalism (Not) Get Along? The Upcoming Ancient-Evangelical Future Conference

  1. This sounds like an excellent and needed talk. Here in South Africa we also need to work out how to critique the pervasive capitalistic mindset within the church itself. Would have loved to be at your talk. Shalom from Africa.

  2. Great topic, Dave. A key issue will be differentiating between participating in a capitalist economy on a secular (i.e. civic/state/governmental) level and following capitalist principles in our distinctive practices as churches, and the Church. I respect the need to avoid drawing too stark a line between the sacred and secular, but do recognize that approaching such “secular” spheres of life as civil government in a “spiritual” manner will look considerably different than if we were apply such criteria to, say, a literal theocracy or, of course, ecclesiastical government.

  3. I eavesdropped on a post-seminar scrum as a student asked author Ron Sider about capitalism at a social justice conference in Toronto about a year ago.

    Sider basically was saying that of all the various economic models, capitalism is “the best we’ve got.”

  4. It is within a capitalist system that we as churches have the freedom to act contrary to capitalism. In fact, as we do live our lives as Peter suggested in his first letter (chapter 2):

    “10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
    11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
    13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority,
    14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.
    16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. 17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.”

    Peter seems to point to a way to be subversive within the system by being the most loving servants of all and following the most loving Servant of All’s example. To have the freedom to do it within our system may make it harder because to not serve is easier, but true lovers of people (and not just people who talk about it all the time) will stand out.

  5. The idea that capitalism is “the best we’ve got,” is exactly what I heard from my seminary professor who specializes in economics at Regent College. He could see all the problems capitalism creates, but also noted all the benefits it has provided (even for the poorest of the poor), and then said, “basically, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.”

    This has never been a satisfying response to me. It’s an answer that lulls us into thinking there’s nothing better out there, so why try to fight it? Though I will have to live within (and will benefit from) capitalism for my whole life, I also wish to aid those who are its casualties and point a large sign toward God’s Kingdom in the midst of it.

    So David, I’m wanting to hear an outline of what it means for the church to function as an alternative polis. Is this like a churchy version of ethnic minorities who set up their own mini-economic systems (I’m thinking of the Chinese in Vancouver)? I imagine not, but don’t have any other analogies to consider.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  6. Matthew, Paul .. I engage Sider on his benign view of capitalism on page 164ff. of The Great Giveaway in a section entitled “Evangelicals and Our Liberal Ways of Justice.” I strongly suggest that Sider does not see the pernicious ways capitalism defeats the justice of God as illuminated by Milbank et al. Instead we must learn to live in but not of capitalism.

  7. Hello,

    I was wondering if your talk will be recorded and available for download. I can’t make the conference but would very much like to hear what you will say.

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