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Things Mentors Can Say to Christian Women

I am writing to follow-up on the conversation Sarah Bessey leaned into this week that many of us are (should be) having with the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear. I am also writing in direct response to my colleague Alicia McClintic and her additions to the conversation:

I am also writing as a mentor to women and men who is directly implicated in this conversation. While there are many things that can generally apply to mentoring, I want to hone in on mentoring women clergy. The following advice comes from a decade of working with young adults who are discerning their call into vocational ministry.

1. “Can you tell me more about that?”

Many women are actively experiencing misogyny or sexism within the church as they discern how to faithfully obey God’s calling on their lives. While I have seen and heard sexist actions/remarks (and probably participate in it), I haven’t experienced it. This is what Alicia calls a blind spot in "Things Christian Women Should Hear." As I continue to gain experience as a mentor, the discouragement that my colleagues endure is seemingly endless and sadly familiar.

As I hear new stories, I am learning to resist my inclination to apologize before I have heard the whole story. I can mistakenly rush through the storytelling process in the hopes of “moving on” or “fixing” the mistakes with an apology. I have treated friends' and mentees' stories as if they were surface wounds, the typical bumps and bruises you get working with people. In my ignorance (blind spot) I didn’t and couldn’t empathize with the depth of hurt that comes with the rejection of who you are (a woman) not just what you did (your actions).

Rather than allowing the wounds to receive the clean air they needed, I quickly wrapped them back up in clean bandages and pretended they were healed. My apology (expedient/convenient solution) is temporarily gratifying, but may also create walls that require women to live with deep frustration, pain, anger, and confusion. An apology isn’t the fix, it is maybe step two of many. Step one, really listen.

2. “Can I introduce you to… (professional)?”

There’s a proverb that has recently come into the general consciousness: “If you want to go fast, go alone… but if you want to go far, go together.” In the context of mentoring young women, I want to know, “Where are we going so quickly that we can’t bring others along?” Mentees don’t belong at every meeting… but what would it look like to err on the side of inclusion?

So many of the mistakes I have made trying to progress professionally are out of ignorance that could have easily been enlightened by a simple invitation to listen in on a practical conversation about how things are supposed to get done. Additionally, the 45-minute car rides to and from meetings are great to prepare, process, and pray for wisdom with others committed to your profession.

3. “Can I introduce you to… (personal)?”

I have some awesome friends doing great things and last summer I got to vacation with some of them. I have almost 20 years of history with each of them, including roommate situations, international church work, seminary, and friendship. This group is exclusive in the way that lifelong friendships are irreplaceable. We had all managed to carve out a whole week to be together with our growing families.

I recognized that this would be a valuable yet informal way to give access to someone I was mentoring. It wasn’t a job opportunity or interview, it was friendship; a literal seat at the kitchen table with folks who are leading and shaping our denomination. Rather than making her relationship with these leaders transactional, (here is how she can serve a project you are advancing), we allowed her to meet people. She met people who are more than two dimensional robots in service to an organization. She met my friends who are parents, hiking buddies, rock jumpers, work-life balancers, story-tellers.

4. “That shouldn’t be.”

There is not enough time to wait around for someone else to fix the broken system I am responsible for. As clergy (or church members), we are officially a part of the organization. If we are committed to the church, (local, denominational, global), then we are individually and collectively responsible to engage where we can.

As it directly relates to creating space for the young women who we mentor, we can address systemic and complex issues like patriarchy swiftly if we just refuse to accept that it is the only (or best) option. When established clergy and lay leaders continue to accept lists of candidates for leadership positions that are void of diversity (ethnic, gender, experience), we tacitly approve of the limited imaginations that produced such a list. We affirm, in whatever small way, that there is not space for the fullness of redeemed humanity in our leadership and that the glass ceiling is still in place. Learn to ask if what is offered is the best we can do, and when you know it isn’t, refuse to settle. For a quick refresher, this short piece on The Role of Women in Scripture by Kate Wallace Nunneley might help.

5. “You are great at…”

Be explicit and direct in your affirmation. I am always surprised, because my experience was (mostly) affirming, when I say, “You are great!” and the compliment isn’t immediately received. For example, after thanking a recent retreat speaker for leading our church into deeper levels of spiritual intimacy, she immediately retorted with self-deprecation and physically recoiled. She was communicating that my deep appreciation was unjustified because there is no way she could be worthy of such significant praise.

In my earlier days, I would wonder, “Why doesn’t she know how to take a compliment?” My wrongly held assumption (blind spot) was that her gifts were obvious, continuously affirmed, and that the compliment I offered was ordinary. For many women, this just isn’t the case. Compliments are often undercut by qualifiers or held back entirely.

I don’t believe women need more verbal affirmation than men, they can just be starved for it. Whatever the reasons we (mentors) haven’t been explicit and direct with our praise, we can and should be.

6. “You know who would be great at that…”

As a mentor, a lot of support can come from your network without you needing to be present. By passing along the information of your mentee, you allow for multiple voices to validate her gifts and interests. Sometimes that means you need to prepare her for the opportunity by giving context and helping her prepare. Other times, let it be a surprise… you aren’t manipulating someone by gifting an opportunity… you are letting her blossom out from under your shade.

7. Extend support beyond words

There are a million ways to support young clergy women. Write a note of encouragement, teach your children to pray for Pastor Alicia, contribute to her educational debt reduction, hire an accountant to train her how to write her own contract, talk to the church board about paying for a seminary class, invite her to dinner with your family, share resources from your library, invite her into professional networks and development opportunities, etc. Be a follower when she is capable of leading. Let her fail and grow. Believe that she is as strong as the task ahead will require her to be. She’ll appreciate it and our world will be better for it.

8. My mentors Beverly and Pam…

There was one pivotal moment when I almost left ministry entirely. Pastor Bev (colleague/mentor) and Pam, (bi-vocational boss/mentor) gave me opportunities to discern my next steps. They coached my responses by editing e-mails, listened to my hurts and dreams, encouraged me to lean into strengths, and challenged me to grow. As often as possible, I let them know how they continue to shape my ministry from 500 and 3,000 miles away.

As often as possible, I also intentionally share with my mentees (without regard to gender) that I am deeply shaped by and indebted to women leaders. If I am asking my mentees to imagine themselves in positions of authority, they need to know that who they are doesn’t get in the way of leading me in the present.

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