Before You Exit, Ensure You’re in the Right Seat

Leadership consultant Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says that to ensure success leaders must not only get the right people on the bus, but those people must be in the right seats. Greatness is not just a matter of finding the right people, but of making sure their roles are a great fit for them.

That was just a nice theory for me until I recently found myself back on the ministry bus, but not in my usual seat as a worship pastor. My call was to work alongside Mary Putera at Sunset Covenant Church in Portland as associate pastor. It’s been a huge adjustment, going from a position in which I’d gained a certain level of confidence and mastery to a position with a much wider range of duties and responsibilities, for which I have far less directly relevant experience.

So I’ve been leaning on Pastor Mary to show me the ropes. Every day I show up and learn. In Mary’s stories, explanations, and warnings—and even her mistakes—I find a treasure trove of insight.
One insight is much more obvious than it’s ever been before: it’s hard out here for women in pastoral ministry.

See, it’s taken me time to come to terms with my calling as a pastor. I’ve got baggage from growing up as a pastor’s kid, I guess. But along the way, I’ve received encouragement from friends, family, colleagues, and parishioners who have affirmed God’s call on my life.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for that. But in the back of my mind, I wonder, how much of that is because I’m a man? When people see me as “being pastoral,” how much of it is that being male helps me look the part?

I’ve seen the way some people respond to Mary. The polite “oh,” followed by an embarrassed smile as they try to hide their disbelief when she is introduced as pastor. The way they ask me questions she’s already answered several times, as if her answer doesn’t really count.

The theory of intersectionality says that people have layers of both advantages and disadvantages that operate simultaneously. So even though the fact that I’m black might make it difficult for some people to receive my pastoral ministry—even subconsciously—the fact that I’m male also benefits me, perhaps at times in equal measure.

I’ve seen my wife, Holly, receive less recognition for her ministry than I do for mine. In the past, I chalked that up to the idea that my role as worship leader was more visible than hers, or that I was paid and she was a volunteer. But after seeing the same thing repeatedly happen to Mary—a lead pastor in a paid ministry role—I can see sexism for what it is.

There’s a difference between mentally assenting to a position and engaging it personally.

There’s a difference between mentally assenting to a position and engaging it personally. I’ve heard similar stories from white people who didn’t really get the pervasive extent of racism in America until they married a black person or adopted a black child. It’s different when it’s personal. Switching seats on the bus helped sexism become more personal for me.

I’m convinced that in order for more women to be supported in ministry, we must go beyond mentally assenting to their calling and gifting in the abstract. Those of us in positions of power must engage in both honest reflection and extensive auditing to reveal the ways we continue to unintentionally communicate to women that they’re not as qualified to lead.

We need a sense of urgency about this. I know what it’s like to feel overworked and undercompensated in church work. If you’re in that space for too long, it’s easy to think the only way to find lasting career fulfillment is to get off the ministry bus.

But our sisters in Christ deserve better. In ways large and small, we must tell them that the answer isn’t getting off the bus but finding the right seat. And if they’re made to feel like the seats of leadership aren’t meant for them, then the problem isn’t with them. It’s with the rest of us.

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks Jelani. I hope to share these words with some of my students as encouragement to press on. Very well said.

  2. I appreciate these words and the truth of the story. I know this story well. As a male pastor of a minority ethnicity said to me, “You (women) have to be extraordinary to get opportunities as a pastor, I can be mediocre and find a job in ministry.”

    And then add the ageism issue for women and much of the church has sent you to lay down in a pasture and would like to forget you exist…unless they need cookies or childcare workers…

    The church has chained up over half of their soldiers and still thinks this is the best way to reach the world for Christ. No military leader would retire 62% of the force and go into a major battle. Why would one think that is an effective plan of action?

    Thank you Jelani! You speak truth!

  3. Thanks for the affirmation, Jelani. Glad you’re on the bus. Closely related is the camaflouge. It always seems to me that people’s reasons are camaflouged when they express disapproval of a woman or another “minority.” “It’s not that they’re a ——(blank), it’s just that they ‘don’t have experience,’ ‘aren’t qualified,’ ‘weren’t born in this country,’ ‘fill in the blank,’ etc.” Sifting through the camaflouge is exhausting. Thanks again for a fresh perspective.

  4. Somehow I always expect your comments to be good, true and right; and somehow you always exceed my expectations. I hope this becomes the most-read piece of its type, and that it really makes a difference in how we think.
    Thank you, Jelani.

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