Halee Grey Scott is an author and independent social researcher who focuses on issues related to leadership and spiritual formation. She teaches courses in spiritual formation, theology, and leadership in seminaries across the country. The following is an excerpt from her book, Dare Mighty Things: Mapping The Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women.
Vision is the art of seeing the invisible. —Jonathan Swift
The most ancient tool of warfare is not the sword or the scythe — it’s smoke. For millennia, warring groups have exploited smoke to obscure movement in areas that were open to enemy fire. Nobody knows exactly when smoke became a strategic military tactic, but the Greek historian Thucydides records that it concealed some of the battles in the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century.
The term smoke screen has long been an American colloquialism. We use it to describe that which clouds or hides the truth. The theological debate over the role of women inadvertently serves as a smoke screen that eclipses the way God is using influential Christian women around the world. Christian women are God’s invisible army. The theological debate about female leaders is important, but it needs to take place in the context of a larger, celebratory conversation about how God is working through women. Otherwise, the stories of these women are lost, and our lack of stories truncates our vision of what God can do through a single life — your life, my life, and the lives of our daughters.
Behind the Smoke Screen
In his book Junia is Not Alone, Scot McKnight argues that the church has been silent regarding how God worked through women in the Scriptures. Two decades of teaching college students who, for the most part, grew up in church convinced him that “churches don’t talk about the women of the Bible. Of Mary mother of Jesus they have heard, and even then not all of what they have heard is accurate. But of the other woman saints of the Bible…they have heard almost nothing.” 1
McKnight is right that churches have largely silenced the voices of women throughout church history, but he is also correct in pointing out that the same thing is happening today because the stories and contributions of women continue to be marginalized, not only within the church but also, as we saw in the first chapter, in the cloistered halls of academia.
But there is a way to peek behind the smoke screen. By piecing together the little we do know about influential Christian women from a handful of studies and stories, we can get a small glimpse of how God is using Christian women in Christian education, churches, and parachurch organizations. It is a dance of sorts between numbers and story.
But the numbers are important because they show us what is happening to Christian women on a global scale. When you look at the numbers of women in both secular and Christian spheres, it is easy to get discouraged. Some think that the numbers are so disheartening to women that they are giving up, because fewer women are pursuing graduate degrees across most disciplines. Experts that that the steady stream of studies and statistics about the glacial (or altogether static) progress of female leaders in the twenty-first century is a deterrent from seeking further education or pursuing higher levels of leadership. Women are either giving up on their dreams or learning to dream different (and, some argue, less ambitious) dreams.
That is why stories are so important. If numbers are the telescope that gives us the vast, macroscopic picture, the stories of Christian female leaders are the microscope that gives us the minute, detailed picture. We are hardwired for stories. We tell them around the breakfast table and the watercooler, over the phone and the internet, and at bedtime as we tuck our children in for the night. Stories are the way we experience the world, and the way we make sense of the world, and they humanize abstract principles and statistics. Anthropologists estimate that 70 percent of what we learn is through stories.2
In ancient Israel, the telling of stories was so important that several feasts were held throughout the calendar year to commemorate — to remember the story of — God’s faithfulness to the Israelites. After the nation of Israel passed over the Jordan River, the Lord instructed Joshua to set up memorial stones in the dry riverbed, “that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant.” (Joshua 4:6-7). As Matthew Henry comments, “The works of the Lord are so worthy of remembrance, and the heart of man is so prone to forget them, that various methods are needful to refresh our memories.”3
Stories are the cement that paves our expectations and firms up our faith, shaping our understanding of what is real and what is possible.
Your Story Matters
God is working through women. I want my daughters to know that. I want them to know that their lives matter before God. I want them to know that they are full of tremendous potential to be a force for good to a world swamped in incomprehensible evil. Most of all, I want them to know that they are not invisible to God. I want you to know it too. You matter. Even in those moments when you feel most useless, most irrelevant, most unwanted, most unqualified or disqualified, you are not invisible to God.
God, the Creator of a universe that contains a staggering 100 billion galaxies — sees you, and has gifted you for a specific purpose. “But each has his own gift from God,” the apostle Paul writes, “one of one kind and one of another…Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:7, 17).
To grow as leaders, we need to have a firm grasp of the challenges we will encounter. Women today live in a time of unparalleled freedom and opportunity. Though women are still underrepresented in top leadership positions in every sector of American life, from politics to business to the church, the truth is that we have more opportunities to have a meaningful impact on our world and our society today than at any other time in human history. But many challenges remain, especially for Christian women.
Over the years, I have met many female Christian leaders looking for help on how to lead and how to navigate the terrain they find themselves in. Some women, especially young women, have trouble discerning what God is calling them to do with their lives. Some feel unprepared for the positions they find themselves in; others feel excluded from informal networks; many struggle to balance home and work/ministry; some wonder how to build strong relationships with men and women; others struggle with perceptions about their leadership and their identity as women.
These challenges are real and they are great and they have to be addressed if we hope to move forward as faithful stewards of our spiritual gifts.
Interested in exploring the topic of women and ambition in greater depth? Join Denver Institute for “Ambition: Living with Drive & Devotion”, a half-day conference on March 10th.
1 Scot McKnight, Junia is Not Alone (Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2011), Kindle edition.
2 Michael Margolis, Believe Me: Why Your Vision, Brand, and Leadership Need a bigger Story (New York: Get Started Press, 2009), xv.
3 Matthew Henry and Thomas Scott, A Commentary on the Holy Bible: From Joshua to Esther (London: Religious Tract Society, 1895), 11.