After thirty years in marriage I’m starting to understand what God was thinking when he created marriage and why he used it to describe his relationship with the people of Israel and the relationship of Jesus to the church. We are transformed when our fate and flourishing are intimately interwoven with that of someone very different from us.
This reality is bound into our very existence since the only way that human life is created is if two very different beings can somehow figure out a way to be together. I believe that God has made us this way to help us practice our capacity for otherness—both for other people and for God.The only way that human life is created on this planet is if two very different beings can somehow figure out a way to be together. I believe that God has made it so to help us practice our capacity for otherness. Click To Tweet
Seeing My Invisible Assumptions
The first eighteen years of my life I lived in Australia. I thought I knew what it meant to be Australian, but I’d never had anything else to compare it to. I assumed that everyone in the world used an outside clothesline year-round, drank tea twice a day, and took daily swimming lessons. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that my blindness became apparent. I discovered that some people live in places too cold for outside clotheslines and daily swimming lessons, and that there were historical reasons here why coffee was the drink of choice.
I had to make an entirely new space in my mind for US ways of being and understanding. Only then did I begin to be fully aware of what it means be an Australian. I thought that traveling would teach me about other people and places. But it was only by being with others who were different from me that I became aware of my invisible assumptions. And I was changed in the process.
When we are together across differences, we are stretched in ways that require us to grow, that teach us something about ourselves and others, and that helps our hearts and minds expand to imagine there are other ways to see and know. This not only reveals something about ourselves and other human beings, but it also makes our imaginations hospitable to God.When we are together across differences, we are stretched in ways that require us to grow, that teach us something about ourselves and others, and that help our hearts and minds expand to imagine there are other ways to see and know. Click To Tweet
What a wonderful idea that these lessons are built into the very way human lives and families are formed! What if the broader family of Christian community is similarly formed by people being stretched by these ways of living together in difference? What if the experience of working together as men and women in leading the church helps shape us and the churches we lead, making us more hospitable to others and to God?
Serving Together Across Differences
I’ve had the pleasure of working very closely with men in ministry, first serving as an associate pastor and then as a co-lead pastor with an older male friend. And for the past seven years I’ve served as a lead pastor with Anthony, an incredibly capable and faithful younger man, serving as my associate pastor. Anthony sums up the experience beautifully:
“The joys and challenges of working with Mandy come from the same place: our difference. On the challenging side, working for a woman so different from me exposes blind spots I have as a man and pushes me to be humble enough to make room continually for a perspective that has long been ignored or suppressed. There’s always a painful stage of that humility that feels like a loss of control or an exposure of weakness. Yet the challenges that have come from that difference have also led to the best joys when that humility is surprisingly yet continuously matched by her. That shared humility and mutual submission has led to the joy of growing in our maturity together and experiencing the unity that can only come from Jesus, not just from our similar personalities, social positions, or perspectives.”
We both experience that exposure, that humility, that risk, on a regular basis. And we keep bringing our whole selves to this work, trusting that there’s a way our voices can blend, and that even in the miscommunications and differences, there is an opportunity for something better than uninterrupted sameness.
There are days when our differences are apparent and we confess our temptation to feel lesser than because of the strengths we see in the other. On these days we have opportunities to speak grace to one another and to call out the strengths we see in each other which bring balance to our congregation.
There are days when one of us has an opportunity to say, “Here’s what I’d do if it were only up to me, but I will submit to the ways you see it,” and “Here’s what I think, how I read Scripture, but I want to hear how you see it.”There are days when one of us has an opportunity to say, 'Here’s what I’d do if it were only up to me, but I will submit to the ways you see it,' and 'Here’s what I think, how I read Scripture, but I want to hear how you see it.' Click To Tweet
There are times when there’s a natural closeness that grows from working together, a way of appreciating one another, which we’ve learned to name as sibling affection. Giving it the language of brother and sister removes any sense of inappropriateness and gives freedom in Christian friendship.
And one of the greatest blessings in my working with Anthony has come from something that felt like a huge risk. As I began to realize how much I’ve learned to adapt, to speak in ways that make sense to men, I began to see how much energy it took to speak in a second language. I longed to speak in ways that are more natural to me—more intuitive, emotional, narrative ways. But the idea of speaking my “native tongue” made me anxious, that I would risk losing the trust and understanding of those I lead, especially the men. I felt I had to choose between being my true self and fulfilling my role—it was a crisis of identity and authenticity brought on by the pressure to be something other than myself in order to fulfill my calling.
But out of a choice to trust that God had not made a mistake when he called me as lead pastor, I began to take small risks to lead as my true self, in my own way and with my own language. And as I did, Anthony came alongside me. Certainly, there were misunderstandings, but when that occurred he didn’t disconnect; he asked questions. He began to learn my language. It was beautiful and deeply healing on several levels.
As brothers and sisters, our fates and flourishing are interwoven, whether it’s as husbands and wives, or co-workers in the church. Instead of seeing our differences as a threat or sign that we’re not meant to work together, we can trust that as we pursue freedom for ourselves, it will also bring freedom for the other. And as we speak peace and empowerment over the other, it will not be to our own detriment. As Miroslav Volf writes in Exclusion and Embrace, “[In] the name of God’s crucified Messiah we distance ourselves from ourselves and our cultures in order to create a space for the other… Coming from different sides, men and women need to make a journey into a common wholeness.”
I’d like to offer this excerpt from a poem written by Nancy Smith to conclude:
“For every woman who is tired of acting weak when she knows she is strong, there is a man who is tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable.
For every woman who is tired of acting dumb, there is a man who is burdened with the constant expectation of “knowing everything.”
For every woman who is tired of being called “an emotional female,” there is a man who is denied the right to weep and to be gentle. . . .
For every woman who takes a step toward her own liberation, there is a man who finds the way to freedom has been made a little easier.”1
May we continue to journey together as co-laborers, recognizing the gift of the “others” in our midst, for our mutual and self-understanding, and for the furtherance of the kingdom of our triune, co-labering God.
To access the full recording of our recent #ChurchTogether event for more conversations and examples of shared leadership, click here!
1Copyright © 1973 Nancy R. Smith, 154C Shore Drive Peabody, MA 01960.