Women Who Hate Women Who Lead

We had dinner with friends from out of town last week. Knowing their depth of involvement in their church, I asked them how things were going.

"We're going," they explained.

Somewhat surprised, I asked, "Why, what happened?"

Our friends went onto explain that they were recently asked to assume a leadership role in the church that they had served in the past and some key lay leaders complained, "That's not a good idea."

I was puzzled, because I knew that they had done an exceptional job, so I pressed them for an explanation. "Why?" I asked.

"Because," they said, "according to the people who complained, Pam is too assertive."

As we continued to talk, I discovered that while there were male lay leaders who led the charge in objecting to Pam's assertiveness, they weren't the real culprits. The people who really objected to Pam's style were their wives.

My conclusion?

There is no enemy of women's leadership like another woman.

Don't get me wrong. The male chauvinists are alive and kicking, but they are often the front-men for women who object even more vociferously to women in leadership than do men themselves.

Almost fifteen years ago I wrote a book on women's ordination. Based on interviews with fifty women, ten each from five different denominations, I explored the formal and informal barriers to the ordination of women. It never occurred to me that the book would still be in print or that it would still be relevant, but it is. My research and work has moved onto other subjects, but I've continued to track the influences that shape women's opportunities for leadership in the church and I've noticed some patterns that were less apparent to me fifteen years ago.

This is one of them. Time and again, in parishes large and small, it's often women who make it hard for women to lead. The interesting thing about this dynamic is that the women who object to "strong" women are not just "strong" as well, but are overbearing bullies or passive-aggressive bullies who object to a woman who is more self-possessed. So what is the real issue, if it isn't one of style?

The answer is that women in leadership are sounding boards for the anxiety, guilt, and ambition of other women. Whether it's frustrated ambition, guilt about staying home too much, or guilt about staying home too little, the women who do this kind of thing to other women are typically struggling with their own choices and projecting their feelings on the women around them. In other words, the problem with Pam isn't Pam at all. The problem is with the women around her.

So, what's the solution? There are times when all you can do is what Pam and Terry are doing. Move on. Sadly, bullies—male or female—can completely sabotage a church. When that happens an honest evaluation of the opportunity cost can offer a lot of clarity. There are parts of the church that are still so captive to forces that inhibit the involvement of women that it simply isn't worth the time.

Ask yourself:

  1. How many women are currently in leadership positions?
  2. How many women were in leadership positions ten years ago?
  3. Are those leadership positions at the top or in the middle of your church's organizational structure?
  4. How many of those leadership positions are executive in nature and how many are secondary and program-specific roles?

If your church hasn't experienced significant change in the number of women involved in leadership, or if women are largely absent from executive leadership roles, it may be time to move on. The opportunity cost may simply be too high.

If the numbers suggest better opportunities than that or if you decide to stay put—for whatever reason—then remember these tips:

One, lead on. Nothing takes the steam out of someone's objections like the calm, determined, consistent effort to lead. Don't be distracted by the people who want to drag you down.

Two, keep the needs of your church at the forefront of your efforts. Don't let your detractors make you the issue. Make the issues facing the organization the centerpiece of your leadership efforts. Staying mission-focused is a great antidote to personal animosity.

Three, avoid the temptation to "fix" the views that other women have of your work. You can't fix anyone and you are poorly placed to get through to people who see your life as a mirror for their own lives and choices.

Four, broaden your base. Stay connected as a leader with the members of your church who are positive and healthy souls, whether they are men and women. They are sure to be your allies, if times get tough.