Creating a Welcoming Seat for Her at the Table: 3 Principles for Empowering Women to Lead

Having been in upper management leadership positions for nearly 20 years, over half of which have been as a lead pastor, it’s not uncommon for male leaders and pastors to ask me what they can do to better empower women to serve in leadership roles. I love getting this question because it shows the progress that many are committed to making when it comes to women serving in roles that are generally held by men.

According to Dr. Eileen R. Campbell-Reed’s research in, State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update, the percentage of woman pastors has doubled, if not tripled, in most mainline denominations in the last two decades. Within my own ministry, I have a consistent stream of young women from year-to-year seeking to be mentored in pastoral leadership.

A new, glorious day has dawned for the church. Yet, there’s still so much work to be done to welcome women into the leadership roles that they are preparing for.

I’d like to offer three thoughts based on my personal experiences that I hope are helpful for both men and women seeking to empower women.

If you invite her to the table, be ready for her...

It is not uncommon for me to be invited to bring leadership and voice to systems or environments that have been largely dominated by men as the decision and culture makers for decades, if not generations. As one who is accustomed to being the “first woman to…” I know what it’s like to inch my seat up to the proverbial “ol’ boys club” table that has not hosted someone like me before.

I am generally deeply grateful for the invitations, knowing that we are all submitting to the humble pursuit of change. Yet, there are times I have been cheered on to join “the table” but once I’m there, it’s clear that no one has any idea what to do with me. Key players scramble to know how to make room for me or incorporate me at all. After not being called upon for input, roadblocks being put in my way that inhibit me from moving forward, and trying to navigate the “club” atmosphere, I walk away thinking that they only want me in theory but not in practice.

Yet, there are times I have been cheered on to join “the table” but once I’m there, it’s clear that no one has any idea what to do with me.

When a woman is in this situation, she is put in the position where she is -figuratively- on her own to clear her own little space, find some utensils, order her own meal, figure out the language being spoken, and interject her voice when there’s a break in the conversation. This is a lot of stressful, psychological heavy lifting for her to do upfront when she thinks she’s there to do more than break a ceiling.

There was one system I was invited into to lead in which I spent well over a year clearing the path and overcoming barriers before the stated reason for why I was invited to help in the first place was accessed. I am now at a place in life where if I’m invited to a table to make a certain contribution (not as a learning curve) and it’s not ready for me, I honor myself and my time and kindly excuse myself. I simply don’t have the time and energy to wait it out.

If you invite a woman to a table for the first time, prepare for her. Get her place set and ready. Consider how the environment will help her feel welcomed and valued… Open up some windows to let some fresh air in, clean up any insider or offensive language that will make her feel left out, work out any issues of resistance as a team before she arrives, and get ready to value her voice.

If your team has been locked for years, then these are probably good practices regardless. We grow too comfortable with sitting at cluttered and worn tables, in dirty and dank rooms. A breath of fresh air might be needed for everyone.

Not long after I brought home my fourth baby, I had a commitment to participate in an all-day research gathering with a small group of pastors and educators. Knowing the content of the day, I was sensitive to how bringing my new baby along might be an unwelcome distraction. So, as a precaution, I sent out an e-mail to the team reminding them that I would be coming with my baby and that I understood if the team thought it best for me to sit the meeting out. The team responded with resounding affirmation that they were fully expecting both of us to be there.

When I arrived at the meeting, being hosted at one of the other pastor’s office space, he was waiting outside to help me carry the baby in the carrier up the flight of stairs. Once in the office, he directed me to a little nook he had set up with a comfy chair, a nursing pillow, and a small space heater if the baby needed a break. There was a changing table stocked with wipes and diapers. The rest of the team oohed and awed for a moment, then we got to work. And when I chose to forgo the nook so I could stay present in the conversation when I had to nurse or she got a little fussy, no one batted an eyelash.

The table had been thoughtfully prepared for me… Because of this, I was free to be fully present and do what I had come to do without the fear that my womanhood was an imposition.

The table had been thoughtfully prepared for me. It was ready to receive me, even as a newly postpartum mama. Because of this, I was free to be fully present and do what I had come to do without the fear that my womanhood was an imposition. My presence (and my baby’s) felt deeply valued. I didn’t have to do the awkward work, by myself, of attempting to act like having my baby with me was easy. It wasn’t. But because I had been prepared for, I knew I wasn’t alone to figure it out.

Let her make her own decisions...

A handful of years ago I was asked to help oversee a system that only men had led up to the point of my arrival. Making this commitment involved an element of travel that I was well aware of when I agreed to it. At one point in a meeting the need for a trip came to the surface due some critical, in-person conversations that needed to be had. One of the men at the table thoughtfully glanced my direction and concluded, “But, Abigail, you really don’t need to go… I’d hate for you to have to leave your children.”

Now, let me first say that I understood his intent. He was genuinely trying to be sensitive to the fact that I was balancing a lot between family and full-time ministry. But, what he didn’t realize was that he was perpetuating and reinforcing ideology that women have been working hard to overcome for decades. By stepping ahead of me in that situation he was inadvertently communicating to me and everyone else in the conversation that, 1) It’s more of sacrifice for women to leave their children than men (which it’s not), 2) Women aren’t critical to the equation when the really important conversations need to be had, and 3) Women need men to make wise decisions for them.

What he didn’t realize was that he was perpetuating and reinforcing ideology that women have been working hard to overcome for decades.

Because he inserted himself into my decision making process– and used my obligation to my children as his rationale– I was then left to do the unnecessary work of justifying my decision to go. And, as a side note, I wondered if the same recommendation was made to other male leaders in similar seasons of life.

It’s important that we give honor to the whole being in the workplace. We come as moms, dads, grandparents, husbands, wives, singles, with varying particularities and interests. I hope that those who work for me feel like I regard them as a whole, not just the skillsets that they bring. When we thrive as whole beings, we are enabled to thrive in our work with greater integrity and alignment of values.

But, we can honor the whole being without disempowering women from being able to act out of their own good conscience and wisdom. Rather than being told that it wasn’t necessary for me to go because of my obligation to my children, he could have simply asked, “Is this a good time for you to travel?” Working moms (and dads) are well aware of the sacrifices they make to keep all the balls in the air. When I say yes to something, I measure every impact– as we all should.

Not too long ago, a man in an upper leadership position at a local institution, began to ask me to partner with him in various community efforts in need of participation from a local pastor. Because the topics have been in alignment with my own leadership and ministry values, I have said yes to a handful of his invitations. However, there have been several times in which I have also declined, knowing that it would be one thing too many to balance. Every time I say yes, he is happy to have me. And, every time I say no, he completely understands.

But, here’s the thing… no matter how many times I decline, he keeps approaching me with new opportunities. He continuously shows value in my voice at the table, but honors my limitations at the same time. Regardless of which way I fall, the decision is always mine to make. When I chose to fly up to Sacramento to participate in a meeting he had organized, with a baby and husband in tow, he welcomed us all, made small talk about his own children and grandchildren, said he was thankful I could make it work, and then we focused on the meeting at hand.

Honor the whole, but let her make her own decisions.

If she is under-represented, create space for her to be heard...

Going into any collaborative meeting that I am not leading, I try to be mindful of the 30/70 principle. Talk 30% and listen 70%. Admittedly, this is something I have had to work at because I am a verbal processor. However, after a series of meetings in which I was the only woman in rooms of 5-10 men, I found myself beginning to break the ratio down a bit.

In one particular meeting, the group was meant to be casting some critical vision and it was essential that we draw from our pastoral experiences to help shape the outcome. I chimed in a few ideas from my perspective as a female pastor, but they were quickly glossed over by the dominant experience of the group.

At the time, I was in my thirties and the rest of the room were middle-aged males. The chasm between my story and their stories was great– though all valid and necessary in the discernment process. But, truthfully, there was no way for my experience to have enough weight that the outcome of the meeting would be influenced. I knew I was greatly outnumbered and comparatively under-experienced, so I withdrew my voice from the conversation and let the guys figure it out.

There was no way for my experience to have enough weight that the outcome of the meeting would be influenced.

While they chatted, I started doing the math… In a room of 9 male pastors and 1 female pastor, if everyone received an allotted 30% of the talking time and my voice, as a female pastor, was 1/10th of the voices in the room, then my voice was outnumbered by 270%.

This is not to say that I would at all want 150% of the airtime to balance out the percentages! However, I think it’s a necessary point to make as one considers empowering women in leadership roles that are mostly held by men. If there’s only one woman in a group of ten, there needs to be a way to let her voice be amplified without tokenism.

A dear pastor friend of mine, and leader of leaders, seems to have figured this balance out. When he leads meetings, with me as the only female voice, he is considerate to engage me if he feels like I have not been heard from. And he does it gently without making me feel like I’m receiving special treatment. There have been times I haven’t added my thoughts to various matters, but before finalizing decisions he has said things like, “I’d really like to hear what Abigail has to say about this before we move on.”

Now, I genuinely don’t believe that he does this because he thinks my insights are that amazing. Rather, I believe he has internalized that if the decisions made are going to reflect a more diverse perspective, then my voice must be brought to the table on every matter if it is a minority voice.

If a woman is invited to the table, make sure that you are ready to hear from her. And not only hear from her, but be willing to multiply her perspective– give it a little more consideration. Because there’s a good chance that it is a lone insight that won’t be supported by everyone else’s experience. This is not to say that what she says should bear more weight in the ultimate outcome. This is appeasement. But, rather, it’s a caution to not bypass her ideas too quickly when no one else resonates with her experience.

In summary, it’s important not to neglect simple practices that can be done to welcome women into leadership.

If you invite her…

Prepare for her.

Let her speak for herself.

And, listen to her.

2 thoughts on “Creating a Welcoming Seat for Her at the Table: 3 Principles for Empowering Women to Lead

  1. Abigail is my Pastor & My friend, & a fellow Christian. I honor her words. I hope you will too.

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