I don’t know which I like more—the insight of this week’s post or its author, Mandy Smith, who serves as a pastor at University Christian Church in Cincinnati. She is originally from Australia and studied at Cincinnati Christian University. She is the author of Making a Mess and Meeting God: Unruly Ideas and Everyday Experiments for Worship and creator of “The Collect,” a city-wide trash-to-art project. Mandy and her husband Jamie, who is a New Testament Professor at Cincinnati Christian University, live with their two kids in a little house where the teapot is always warm.
(Vulnerability Alert from Mandy – The nature of this article requires an uncomfortable amount of vulnerability. But since that helps prove my point, I’ve chosen to talk about things women usually reserve for female company. If you have a weak stomach for weakness, I would advise you not to read on.)
I just attended a four-day training intensive for hundreds of church leaders led by Mike Breen. Over the course of the four days he spoke on all kinds of challenging topics related to the future of church leadership, but for his final, rousing presentation he chose to speak on weakness. He spoke, with tears, of the central importance of our weakness as leaders, how vulnerability draws us into that reliance upon God which allows us to lead with humility. He pointed to weakness as foundational for the future of our church.
While most of the men in the audience were looking at each other and saying, “Hmm, that’s something we’re going to have to work on,” I, as a woman, was ironically feeling empowered. I, who, quite honestly had become accustomed to feeling like I just don’t have whatever the next essential leadership skill is, at last thought, “Yes, I’m really good at being weak! I’m totally filled up with emptiness and absolutely complete in my brokenness. The church needs me!” I’m starting to see that, if the church really does need leaders who can genuinely say, “In my weakness, He is strong,” women have something unique to offer—not just because it’s our turn but because we’re on the cutting edge of weakness!
Here’s why I say this: our very bodies teach us our limits.
For a little girl, there is always someone bigger, with a stronger body and a deeper voice, subtly reminding her she is literally weaker. And while little boys are learning their strength and testing new muscles, little girls are discovering how little control they have over their bodies; as a girl grows she is eventually faced with that conversation about an inconvenience that will visit her every month for the next 40 years. It may be painful or embarrassing and there is nothing she can do about it. And then, when she is grown, and she has finally become accustomed to her ever-cycling reality, she finds herself with a person growing inside of her who, for nine months, does what it likes and takes what it needs. It controls the food she craves and the way (or if) she sleeps. And then, when the little bundle makes its appearance, her body goes from Creator of Life to Sustainer of Life and all kinds of new systems kick into gear which, again, are beyond her control, sometimes with embarrassing consequences. As the mother becomes grandmother, her body begins to change again, throwing her into a state of confusion as the steady cycles she has grown accustomed to become syncopated and erratic and then finally stop altogether. Over the course of her life a woman can almost literally exist in four or five separate bodies, each wonderful and confounding in its own way.
Don’t feel sorry for women—any grown woman I know is well beyond fighting it and has embraced her nature. And this is my point. Sit down with your sister or mom and ask her to share how living in a female body has been embarrassing or confusing or humbling. As she shares, in addition to hearing her answers, watch her demeanor and notice her complete acceptance of this power over her life. Accepting—even celebrating—weakness is a woman’s forte.
This doesn’t mean women are lacking in zeal, purpose or determination, but it does mean a woman can express these energies with an understanding that her role is a part of something larger, something beyond her control. Neither does it mean that men can’t have the same humility I’m describing. But for a woman, it’s woven into her very being.
At this point, it might be obvious to say, “But the weakness that is mentioned in scripture is an internal weakness, a sense of dependence on God’s greater power in a spiritual sense.” And that is undoubtedly the case, and the reason why being a woman is not the only way to learn humility.
But, as we see through his creation of outward practices like sabbath keeping and circumcision, God has a high regard for the power of learning by living, always connecting our bodies and souls.
And so he saw fit to make half of all humans with particular physical limitations which, from an early age, teach them that their greatest strength lies in humility. They are forced to concede to a higher power, to be open, to listen, to collaborate. And so, if leading the church requires this kind of humble leadership, why wouldn’t we seek input from those to whom it comes naturally?