Ladies within the Church, are you prepared to face up?

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(Photo: Unsplash / Leighann Blackwood)

What do you do when you are a woman with a dream and hope for your life, but nagging doubts and insecurities threaten to derail you? Still, stand up, says Jo Saxton, popular speaker and author of Ready to Ascend: Own Your Voice, Gather Your Community, Be Your Influence.

Jo talks to Christian Today about her journey to owning her voice and what that looks like for a black woman both in church and in culture at large.

CT: Was it something you took for granted to have your own voice or did you have to work on it?

Jo: I wish it had come easy, but it was something I definitely had to work on and fight for in so many ways, and that probably has several reasons. I was a kid in the eighties and I am of Nigerian descent. I think a minority contributed to whether I believed my voice had been heard.

Then when I grew up to church spaces, these were predominantly in white majority contexts and although there was never a place where I was not welcome, the question was always there: To what extent am I welcome? Because everyone is welcome, but the real question is: can you lead? Can you help? Because if you can do these things then you are literally really welcome.

So it was a journey for me to find out what it is to lead and to know that nothing is wrong with me!

CT: Do you think there are still limits for women in the church?

Jo: It has gotten better, but there is still a huge, long way to go. It is wonderful to see women ordained, but my question – and this is for the Church in the UK and the US – is still this: let's design training pipelines that are accessible to women and the lives they actually lead are? Is our leadership development accessible to women? Are there mentoring opportunities for women?

We don't like to say it but that much depends on who you know but we should celebrate the gifts of women and hear their unique voice for who they are. And if we think this is important, then it's not just the figurehead that matters. It is of course extremely important to have visible role models, but pathways to leadership must be developed in such a way that it is natural and accessible for women to travel on them.

So there are a lot of questions that I still ask. Can women contribute or do they have to fit into shapes? Do we also recognize the different areas of a woman's life in the training processes? What does it look like for a woman with young children to exercise and claim her life? Since there are often assumptions about a man with young children, someone else will make adjustments so that these things are possible for him.

The thing is, women are already leaders out there in the world. Women run businesses, are accountants, doctors, teachers, raise young children, and volunteer in the Church. You do so many things. But is the Church investing in them so that their time and energy can have the maximum effect on the Kingdom? Because they are worth far more than what they offer, but sometimes the Church doesn't act like that!

Jo Saxton wants women to reach their full God-given potential.

CT: What role do you think Christian women play in unlocking these opportunities in the Church?

Jo: I think sometimes we can almost wait to be discovered like we're a candidate for American Idol or The Voice! But people are not mind readers, so we have to say something when we feel called to have an agency here. We can use our voices and it should be a natural part of our lives.

I remember Sunday evenings growing up. All of the women in my family came to my home to braid my hair. Sunday was hair braiding night! But it was also the time when all these conversations about work and life would take place. It was like a brain trust where the women in the family came together to solve any problems they had in life.

At this point they had lived in England for 20 years but they were still steering racism along with all the other things like work and how to raise their children to the best of their ability and so on.

I think there is room in the church where women can do this too, but I don't know if we are using the full power of peer mentoring. I call it "the village" – the village of the people you can raise as a leader.

CT: Racism has become a big topic of conversation in society and in the Church since the death of George Floyd. What is your experience of racism in the church?

Jo: We don't have enough time for the amount of things I could tell you from my experience in both the UK and US Church!

CT: Did you feel that this was an extra hurdle for you to be both woman and black?

Jo: It was because racism is evil, but also abusive, caustic and harmful. As Christians, we believe that humanity is created in the image of God, but if someone is racist they will actively oppose and dehumanize you.

And racism takes many forms. It could be people who are rude to you or don't give you a chance because they don't believe you deserve to be there. Or it could be people touching your body or hair without your permission. But in whatever form, if you are constantly dehumanized for the color of your skin, then all of these things are taking their toll on you and are corrosive.

For me as a black Christian it was certainly an additional hurdle because it was almost like there was a conversion to Christ and then a conversion to culture. If I assimilated I could go further. But the reality is that I'm black and it's very obvious from the moment you meet me!

CT: Would you say that the culture of the church in the west is still a very white majority?

Jo: It's because diversity and inclusion are different things. People can be in the room, but who sets the tone and how many voices do you invite to create a culture? When I was growing up there were people who talked about being “color blind” when running. But is it really true that God does not see color? Is that how God designed us? Why lie about it and pretend something isn't there when it is, because we should be able to celebrate the uniqueness of someone created in God's image in a way that is different from us. It is harmful to pretend otherwise.

So we need to ask ourselves where we are on our journey as communities, not just in terms of the welcome but also in terms of inclusion at all levels. How do we respond to the needs of our community and what does that mean in our management structures? Hopefully people are asking themselves these questions – and they won't run out of energy to ask these questions!

CT: What would you say today to a young black woman who doubts whether she can be the woman you describe in your book – a woman who is ready to rise up, to have her own voice and community, and hers Spreading influence?

Jo: I would say that God was delighted to make her the way He made her, to be made terrible and wonderful, to have gifts and abilities and intentions, and to contribute to the kingdom of God in the renewal of all things. She is valuable and her voice is important in any area she is mentioned, whether it is race or something else.

And I would say: it's hard. We have all had experiences where the opposite has been explained to us. But we have to build people around us who will see, know and celebrate us. And it's important that we don't get used to it. I am not the diversity quota, I am the child of God.

CT: When it comes to owning our destiny, do you think that is a problem that is more difficult for women than men? Or do you think the challenges are just different?

Jo: I think it's harder for women because of the appeal of the culture. I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to speak up for what all the guys are feeling and of course there are challenges and nuances for them too, but I don't think they are equally weighted. I remember what it was like for us as women to see the first women ordained in the Church of England in the 1990s, but it still happens that I have been to several churches of which I was the first The speaker was – and the first black person on the pulpit.

I'm not saying male leaders don't have challenges, but I think it's harder for women because all of this is pretty new and when you break barriers the glass falls somewhere. We're talking about breaking glass ceilings and new possibilities, all of which apply. But where does the glass go? It tends to go down on the women who pave the way.

And it's important to note that it didn't all start with the Church. It's just the world we're in. And I think the UK is actually further ahead than the US when it comes to things like maternity leave for example – maternity leave is such a game changer.

But I don't want it to sound like there hasn't been any progress either. There are certain things that make a massive difference and I don't think the church is using them as much as they could and there is clearly much still to be done. Wonderful things have been done, but we want to get to a point where women are not the exception, just a consistent pipeline that women come through.

CT: A popular mantra in the Instagram era is "you got this", but if we're honest we probably don't always feel like we "have that". Is it important to have our weaknesses too?

Jo: Oh yes, and if we want to lead, we have to own it! Because I don't think we always "understood" that. But at the same time it's about agency – there are things for which we are responsible. We have to deal with the broken pieces of our history and expect who we are when no one else is watching. We must admit when we are not confident and accept God's perfect power in our weakness. And it is important to identify the weaknesses that are intended to engulf the very things we are called to do. It's not just about opening doors, we also need to figure out how to go through those doors.

CT: We all have our comfort zones, those places where we feel "safe". What would you say to someone who is struggling to take that first step to get beyond what feels comfortable?

Jo: I remember one pastor saying, "Your calling calls." And I am reminded that Jesus said that if anyone came after me, he would pick up his cross, deny himself daily, and follow me. That is the cross. It's vulnerable, it's death to itself, and it's not comfortable.

And I would hate it if people got the wrong idea that we just snapped our fingers and made it. Because everyone who answers their call pays a price. Let's not imagine that people don't pay a price to faithfully get into what they do and that sometimes it's not confusing or contradicting itself. It is not platitude when I say that Jesus is our best example that we should lift up our cross and deny ourselves and follow him.

So we have to ask ourselves: what if we lift our cross as this woman struggling to get out of her comfort zone? Perhaps it is to deny our self-doubts, to deny this temptation to sabotage or scourge ourselves – and to do so on a daily basis.

There were moments when I just had to show up – and show up every day. I may hate it right now, but I am called to do it, and my calling is not based on my feelings and it has never been determined by how confident, brave, or brave I have felt. Otherwise I would never have done it!

When I gave my first public talk, I was physically shaking and for a while I was physically ill every time. I had to reckon with the following thoughts: Who does she think she is, this black Nigerian outsider with a migration background from the city center? Who should she tell us what God says ?! I had to reckon with these thoughts for years.

CT: The inner voice sometimes seems to be our greatest enemy!

Jo: Yes, and it is amplified by the culture around us. You open magazines and rarely see yourself in them. You turn on the television or look at the people in positions of influence and none of them look like you.

When we look at the world around us there may be a lot of ads for women, but most of the time it tells us how thin we need to be, how cute we need to be, how young we need to be, how sexually desirable we need to be.

It doesn't tell us how powerful God has made us because of His presence in our lives. It doesn't tell us how much potential we have to be part of the renewal of all things.

And to be honest, we don't always hear these things from the pulpit, either. We do not hear that we are change makers in society and that we can do something. The sermons may give us some information about changes in behavior, but they do not generally confirm everything we could be or achieve as we step into God's calling on our lives. And we have to hear that.

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