Women in leadership
by Keri Vermeulen
Women in leadership. Even now, in the 21st Century Church, it’s still somewhat of a catch phrase that hints at larger issues – folks are still untangling social and religious restrictions placed on women that have often hindered them from figuring out who they really are. Many Christian Canadian women are today still discovering their own gifts and talents, and importantly, how to use them in their spheres of influence.
It may seem like a painstakingly slow process, but since Jesus leisurely chatted with the Samaritan woman at the well and released her to be a community changer, the rest of the believing world has been making gradual progress towards welcoming and empowering women to enact change in their own areas of influence, and to work alongside men in leadership roles.
As we look to International Women’s Day on March 8, the Light Magazine decided to spend a bit of time talking with two Lower Mainland women leaders this month. Two themes emerged: that women’s areas of influence are diverse and far-reaching; and a key to developing more women leaders is having other women give them a hand up, assisting them in figuring out their own strengths. Leanne McAlister, an ordained minister with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and part of the preaching team at Living Waters Church in Fort Langley, is the founder and director of Zoe Leadership, two six-week courses that guide women into places of active influence by first teaching them who they are, their strengths and gifts; and then by helping them to function on a team.
The development of this leadership course came after McAlister developed Zoe Projects, which she started to get Canadians connected with helping disempowered women around the world in key areas of need. Through her missionary travels with husband Darcy (who is the Personnel Director of PAOC Missions), McAlister identified four key areas of need for vulnerable women around the globe: health; economic empowerment; sex trafficking and education. It was around four years ago, and at the time, McAlister was pastoring at Living Waters.
“I really began to feel that if we were going to help empower women around the world, we also needed to help empower women here in Canada. As a pastor, I was constantly talking to women who had been Christians in the Church for 30-plus years and could not tell me what they were good at. They could not articulate what their strengths were and I thought: ‘This is a problem’,” McAlister says from her office at the BC/Yukon PAOC office in Langley. She set about developing a course that would help women come to know themselves and grab hold of their unique gifts and strengths. She started writing Zoe Leadership. “It was super fun because my friend Julie and I would still be writing curriculum and the doorbell would ring. We knew that women needed to understand their leadership potential and women needed to understand their strengths.”
This idea of helping other women to lead, to walk with them and cheer them on as they discover their own strengths is one that is also practiced by MaryAnne Connor, a reverend and a Christian counsellor, and also founder and president of NightShift Street Ministries in the downtown core of Surrey. Connor began the ministry after a sleepness night at home during a blinding white snowstorm in the winter of 2004. God had reached her heart for the people of the street – the addicts, the prostitutes, the poor, the hurting, and the homeless of Surrey’s urban core. She left her career at the top of her game as a real estate marketer when she started NightShift by knocking on a church door in the middle of the night, and asking them to swing the doors open for the lonely and the cold. Today, NightShift includes street level outreach 365 days a year with hot meals and warm smiles to hundreds of street people every week; a mobile care bus with crisis counselling and nursing; leadership training; professional Christian counselling; developing places of refuge for women; a thrift store that gives retail training and experience to those in the community and weekly connecting points on site.
Connor says leadership is about service – about getting low and coming alongside people, as they come into places of leadership themselves. The team at NightShift is currently taking a two-night ministry equipping training for their volunteers and developing it into a five-night teaching that includes healthy communication skills, some addictions training, conflict resolution and crisis intervention. “We all need this kind of teaching – whether it’s in our marriage, or to help the people next door,” Connor shares. “This will be the ground work for us to step into a deeper leadership development. We are developing leaders. And my heart is to not just serve here in Whalley, but to take that training to missions, to your workplace. We’re training people to be skilled leaders in their own lives. God takes ordinary people – you’ve heard that phrase – to do extraordinary things. Look what He did with my life – how many others are out there? That’s our focus over the next 12 months.”
There has been momentum gathering around women’s leadership, support and fundraising at NightShift, such as the annual women’s gala event, a fundraiser called “Unmasking the Truth” when hundreds of women gather to share desserts and unpack important topics. This year’s event, March 7, at Eagleridge golf course will feature women speaking around the theme “Beauty Beyond the Pain.”
As she talks, sitting in a meeting room that overlooks a parking lot and a back alley in Whalley, Connor’s attention is taken away for a moment when she spots a young woman across the parking lot walking by a dumpster. “Oh, look at this girl – I just met her today. She’s 24 years old but she looks 15. She melted my heart.” Connor forgets the conversation for a moment as she gazes at the young woman outside in the rain. The hope Connor has for her is palpable in the air. It seems the perfect time to ask about the possibility of empowering women of the street to know their owns strengths to lead – perhaps much like McAlister envisions leadership skills for vulnerable women in developing countries.
“The gals that I see on the street who have gone through hell and back, have the same giftings, the same skills as you and I do, but no one has come alongside them and said ‘do you know what you have?’” she says, adding it is important for women to help other women.
And this is a concept that is held dear by McAlister also. “Women tend to excel in collaboration,” says McAlister. “Women tend to want to bring people along with them. If you look at the history of women in Canada, there has been a lot of social activism, and a lot of things happened with groups of women.” She points to the Famous Five in Canada’s Person’s Case, where five women, led by Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, led the charge in the 1920s to have women recognized as persons under Canadian law.
McAlister, who is “unapologetically egalitarian” in her beliefs, does not believe that women are a replacement for, or even the same as men in leadership. The sexes are delightfully different, but designed to work alongside one another. “Through the redemption of His death and resurrection, Jesus is restoring what was lost in the Garden,” McAlister says. She’s not preaching here, just saying it like it is. For those who have a difficult time accepting women roles that are equal in leadership to men, she asks them not to agree with her, but to “do the hard theological work, because 98 per cent of people have not really looked at the issue objectively.”
McAlister has a natural gift at holding an air of intelligent authority, while being very easy to talk with. In a wonderfully unplanned moment in the interview, just as she is talking about the support she and her husband give each other in their unique leadership roles, he walks by her office door. “There he is! That’s my guy, that’s Darcy,” she exclaims, as the two pause to smile at each other. “I brought him coffee today.”
Leadership has its tender side too.
For more information about Zoe Leadership or Zoe Projects, check out www.zoeprojects.org
For more information about NightShift Street Ministries, their outreach or their annual women’s gala fundraiser, check out nightshiftministries.org