The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Welcoming women as leaders

Living into God's vision in our church, society

Leadership is a fairly simple concept. Ordinary people, dubbed “leaders,” guide or direct a group, bringing to a position or situation their inborn leadership styles. Great leaders understand their leadership style and learn how to use it to motivate and inspire. Depending upon the group or situation, different leadership styles can bring about different or better results.

In the abstract, leadership is a fairly simple concept. Add in race, gender, economic or educational levels, prejudices and issues of power and, suddenly, understanding leadership becomes downright complicated.

Like it or not, in many ways leadership has been and continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. The norm against which our church and society has measured effective leadership has been established and defined by men. The leadership gifts of men and women typically have been pitted against each other.

Leadership styles more associated with women, collaboration and shared vision have frequently been seen as weak and valued less. When women adopted leadership styles more often associated with men (involving assertiveness or competitiveness) those styles were often negatively valued as well.

In the second half of the 19th century, Lutheran women encouraged the church to engage in mission work here and abroad. The response from the church’s leadership: we have no money for such things.

No problem, the women said, we’ll raise the money to fund mission. And they did. They made and auctioned quilts. They raised chickens and sold eggs. Soon Lutheran women formed domestic and foreign missionary societies. There they funneled their money, coordinated their prayers and joined in Bible study.

The Spirit was at work, and some Lutheran women began discerning their call to mission work. They encouraged the church’s leadership to send female teachers and nurses into the mission field. Again church leaders responded: we have no way to educate women or fund their work.

No problem, the women said, we’ll create schools and provide funding for women to serve in the mission field. And they did — all during a time when few women had independent wealth. 

Lutheran women taking a lead when church leaders said no has been a pattern repeated time and again in congregations across the church. Historically, the church’s leadership has been dominated by a command and control style of leadership carried out primarily by men. While that style was often used to exclude women, it didn’t prevent them from leading the church.

Shared vision
Within the organizations they founded, Lutheran women practiced a variety of leadership styles, including the use of parliamentary procedure in conventions. They brought care, compassion, humility and self-awareness to their shared vision. The organizations weren’t burdened by complex systems or rules, so the women could address the shared vision in whatever way brought about the best results at any given moment. They grounded their understanding of leadership (some today might use the term “discipleship”) in rigorous Bible study, prayer, stewardship and response.

The women clung to the biblical stories of Dorcas and Phoebe, Mary and Martha, and countless unnamed women. They remembered the historical stories of Katharina von Bora Luther, Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. They recalled the stories of Lutheran leaders Elizabeth Fedde, Emma Francis, Anna Kugler, Elizabeth Platz, Ruth Youngdahl Nelson and April Ulring Larson.

Lutheran women continued to lead, even when those in power said no.

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