The soup is simmering on the stove, filling the kitchen with hearty smells of autumn. The table is laid with brownies, cheeses, and chutneys. I want this lunch to be special. I want each guest to feel honoured. To know how much they are loved, how valuable they are. As I scan the room for last-minute tweaks, my heart is full of thankfulness.
This isn’t just any Friday lunch with friends. This lunch is a testimony to God’s gracious provision and kindness. There will be joy and laughter around this table, but the joy will be tinged with sorrow.
For one seat will be left empty.
That seat belonged to the person who prayed this group into being.
It belonged to Jos.
Over the last few years, our women’s Friday nurture group has grown. Jos, my co-leader, and I have longed for the Lord to do a deep work in each of us, and so we began asking God to raise up women to lead alongside us. A ratio of two leaders to twenty group members isn’t ideal. When Jos sadly passed away six months ago, I knew I couldn’t continue leading alone.
Our nurture group is filled with wise and godly women with wonderful servant hearts. Any one of them could be a leader. But as I asked them to consider helping me lead, they each responded with a version of “Oh, I couldn’t do that”. I knew this couldn’t be due to laziness or spiritual apathy, given their generous and servant-hearted natures. I wanted to understand why these women felt inhibited from serving in a leadership role.
Through many conversations over coffee, I started to understand what would help these women flourish. These insights I share with you now.
A SAFE ENVIRONMENT
A local church should be an environment where everyone can thrive and serve without the fear of getting it wrong. This is critical. Is there a spirit of generosity and encouragement, or one of correction and fault finding? How do we respond when someone gives the wrong answer in a bible study? One negative experience here led one woman to withdraw. For many years, she stopped contributing, her confidence shattered by one moment in time.
So a couple of questions.
How does your church handle imperfection?
Do your leaders exhibit an openness about their own struggles and weaknesses? Or do they present a ‘front’ which gives the impression that weakness is not tolerated?
Language matters. With a background in cross-cultural mission, I should know, but somehow, to my shame, I had forgotten. Words matter. The words we speak and the words that others hear.
Consider the word ‘leader’ and ‘lead’.
I thought I was asking for someone to facilitate a group discussion on a bible passage. They heard ‘must be articulate, intelligent, educated and know an awful lot of information!’ I didn’t say that but that’s what they heard. And so they were intimidated. On top of this, some have had a negative experience of leadership, which made things worse.
So, I asked the women to ‘share’ their thoughts on a passage rather than ‘lead’ a study. Slowly something beautiful began to happen. One woman gave us a theologically rich overview of Romans 5. She wouldn’t say that’s what she had done, but it was. Another expressed herself artistically though creating a piece of art around the passage. As they saw others willing to share, they found they could have a go too. Our time became so much richer.
In this way the Dream Team was born. Removing the word ‘leader’ took away much of their anxiety. A few women took the plunge and said ‘yes’. Not everyone on the team leads by leading bible studies. They each have different gifts, but most importantly they are godly, wise, loving women who are willing to step out in faith to serve Christ, trusting that he will supply all their needs.
LOTS OF TIME
People take time to recover from a season of change or settle into a new church environment. For some, it takes a long time. The newest member of the Dream Team has been around church for around five years. She’s quietly faithful, thoughtful, and extraordinarily gifted. She has been coming along, listening, watching, figuring us out, asking herself, ‘Is this a place where I am safe to try?’
It’s taken time.
But this year she is flourishing.
We’ve discovered she is a talented musician and finally feels safe enough to join the music group. She’s now teaching the kids, reaching out to newcomers, bringing friends into church. She has stepped into leading the discipleship group for young Christians, a role she loves. She has enthusiastically agreed to join our team.
When new people arrive at our churches, clearly godly and gifted, it’s tempting in our enthusiasm to plug them into the gaps. But often, people need time. Perhaps time is needed to heal from a previous damaging church experience. Or it might be time to rest from a busy season of serving. Or time to acclimatize themselves to our way of doing things.
Time to figure us out.
Time to feel safe.
Of course, as leaders, we see the gaps. And they can become burdens to us. Who will serve coffee, lead a children’s group, help at the newcomers’ course?
But we need patience. A lot more patience. For there is a deep wisdom in knowing when to ask people to serve, and when to hold back, giving them space to sit and receive.
As I wait for the doorbell to ring, I thank God for each one and for Jos who prayed big prayers with me all those months ago. She passed away before she could see her prayers answered in beautiful ways. She had a vision, and the Lord has done wonderful things because of her willingness to pray. We are grateful for her life.
Putting some finishing touches to the table settings, I pray that each woman coming for lunch would find real joy in serving together, in finding strength through weakness. I pray that as we plan, share, and encourage one another over lunch, God would deepen our connection with each other and with him.
Most importantly, I pray that we would experience the truth of the apostle Paul’s words.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
2 Cor 12.9