September 13, 2017 / Mandy Smith

In Times of Upheaval Women Shape New Landscapes

I’m doing something radical: I’m choosing to be a woman—in public.

As a female pastor, I live at the center of several big questions filling our minds and headlines: What is leadership and power (and does it have to look like a CEO)? How do women lead? What is the church becoming in North America? When everything is in upheaval, where do we go for something solid?

In my work of shaping community, there’s always the temptation to make something institutional. That’s where our culture turns—concrete, objective facts, a glossy brochure, a pithy statement, a document to sign. There’s a place in the world for those things.

But when Scripture wants to describe the Church and the way of Jesus it talks about gardens and families—things that seem vague and small in our culture. So when we want to talk about the Church and the way of Jesus, we are offered a choice: will we speak as Scripture does and risk being dismissed as weak and feminine? Or will we describe this alternative way and be given an opportunity to reconsider what is truly powerful and transformative?

When Scripture wants to describe the talks about gardens and families. Share on X

Although I’m tempted to make documents, I invite conversations. Although I’m tempted to make statements, I leave room for mysteries. Although I’m tempted to speak in transactional language, I speak in heart language. I know it’s not the language of business or the academy or power. It’s the language of humans, of family, of a seed in the earth.

Leading through Small Things

Many—even in the Church—look down their nose at such things. So this work of leading through “small” things is surprisingly scary.

But it’s something women have done for generations. What if those skills we learn in our homes and gardens are the skills needed in our churches and communities?

I’ve had folks set aside my work with comments like, “It’s too vague, too soft, too emotional and subjective.” I get it. I also want solid things, something objective. I feel the shame of providing less than that. And I know all the stereotypes: female leadership is weak, unimportant, vague, emotional.

But I’m pressing in because we all long for home and family. Home and family are not feminine. Home and family are human. We all long to flourish like a garden. Plants bursting from the ground are tender and fragile but not feminine.

This work is revolutionary. A small, patient and vulnerable kind of revolution. The Jesus kind.

I think Jesus would have been a yarn bomber. These playful activists cover public structures in colorful hand knitted creations, often in secret. In Copenhagen an entire tank was wrapped in pink knitted patches. In 2010 the famous charging bull statue on Wall Street was covered in a crazy pink and blue cosy.

It’s challenging and yet strangely disarming. It does not damage existing structures and yet we see them in new ways as something from home is brought into the public sphere. And knitting by its very nature is slow and small. A piece of knit-work large enough to cover a public structure would take days of human effort—patience, love, perseverance, creativity. It seems soft, domestic, unimportant. But it inspires something in us. We’re reminded of a favorite aunt, a favorite sweater, of comfort and family and home—eternal things.

Could those things belong—and even be valued—in a public space?

A Time of Upheaval

Regardless of our political perspective we all know we’re in a time of upheaval, locally and globally. And regardless of denominational affiliation Christians see that the Church in the US is in a time of upheaval. When the ground is shaking it’s tempting to grasp for institutional power to feel strong. And yet I have to remember the way of our faith.

Psalm 46 is a Psalm for our time:

“God is our refuge and strength,

    an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way

    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea . . . .

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God . . . .

God is within her, she will not fall;

    God will help her at break of day.”

When the earth itself is giving way, where will we look for comfort?

Will we find our strength in human understanding? In structures of concrete and steel? In words that seem objective?

We are promised a river whose streams make glad. Do we want to put our hope in something as unruly and fluid as a river?

Perhaps that slow, small, human work that knit-bombers know is also the work of creating community and shaping mission. Seemingly menial and unimportant, domestic and ordinary. Invisible but powerful because it’s carried in human hearts. An institution can be attacked, undermined, shaken. The hope in human hearts is harder to target.

In 1986 author Ursula LeGuin gave a commencement speech which brought home and heart language into a public, academic place. She calls the native way of women “The Mother Tongue”:

It is primitive; . . . trivial. It’s repetitive, . . . like the work called women’s work . . . . It’s . . .  common speech, colloquial, low, ordinary, plebeian, like the work ordinary people do, the lives common people live. The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation . . . . The mother tongue is language not as mere communication but as . . . relationship. It connects. It goes two ways, many ways . . . a network. Its power is not in dividing but in binding, not in distancing but in uniting. . . . It is a language always on the verge of silence and often on the verge of song. It is the language stories are told in . . . . But you and I have learned to use the mother tongue only at home or safe among friends, and many men learn not to speak it at all. They’re taught that there’s no safe place for them. . . . I am trying to unlearn these lessons, along with other lessons I was taught by my society, particularly lessons concerning the minds, work . . . and being of women.

Have we as women even sidelined our own ways, kept them only for nurturing our children or whispering to one another?

What if these hidden gifts, these natural ways, are needed by our churches and communities?

I’m reminded that the scripture upon which we build this faith says such “weak” things as:

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”

1 Corinthians 1:27-29


“’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

Zechariah 4:6

Being a Woman in Public

In the past I have kept these ways of speaking to the home and to groups of women. And in those places I see flourishing. But, unimportant and weak as they seem, if I long for them and find life in them, how can I keep them to the “small” places? As much as I fear I will be set aside as too feminine, too subjective, too emotional, I choose to speak with passion about the seemingly small, life-giving things. I choose to put my heart in a public place and let my longing be seen so that together we can long for flourishing.

To my brothers, let me say: I know how you marvel at your wives’ hidden powers with your children and with you, how you enjoy the unshakeable kindness of your mothers, the strength of your sisters. I watch how you care for your own children and gardens. You know the power of domestic things. Even if they aren’t valued in the workplace, in industry, in politics, surely you see the power of them. Speak to your wives, mothers and sisters in ways that call forth these gifts for the flourishing of the world. Venture to let those parts of yourselves be shown.

And to my sisters, let me say: It will take courage to let these gifts be seen. You will be told this is inconsequential, pretty nonsense. But while nations have come and gone, the family lives on. While human structures have been built and fallen to ruin, every Spring the life that died away in Autumn bursts into life again. Nature and life, family and love are not inherently feminine things. These are inherently human things. And as you tentatively live in these ways, in more public places, you will be put down by those who don’t understand. But if you press through, you will find healing. You may even bring healing to those who set you aside.

Psalm 46 uses language of mountains quaking and falling into the heart of the sea. When the earth shakes, there is destruction of all we’ve known. But it is also a time when new landscapes are shaped. As Le Guin puts it:

“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”

These are the sort of conversations we are looking to advance through the SheLeads Summit. We hope you’ll consider joining us in Pasadena or at 11 other regional venues across the country on Saturday, October, 28. Click the banner for more info.