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Every single job I’ve ever held in Christian education did not exist previously. In fact, I’ve written my own job description for each role—now five times in nearly 15 years. I don’t say this to bring any credit to myself, nor to imply that there that is anything special or unique about my skills or abilities. Rather, I wish to make a few observations about what it means as a woman leader to take an unconventional path—especially in a field that is well-known for being fairly conventional. 

It’s About Calling… Not Position

Part of the reason why I’ve taken an unconventional path in Christian education is because the conventional path, marked off by positions and titles, has been less accessible to women. For example, the Christian school in which I first served as an administrator required that the head of school sit on the pastoral staff of the sponsoring church, which meant that the role could only be held by a man. This is not a theological or political critique in any way, but rather a simple statement of fact.

Even though the door to senior leadership was closed at that school, I still had a strong sense of calling—both to leadership generally, and to that school specifically. So, I did the best I could to serve faithfully, within the leadership roles that were open to me. I’m reminded of the parable of the bricklayers that Angela Duckworth shares in Grit: “Three bricklayers are asked: ‘What are you doing?’ The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second says, ‘I am building a church.’ And the third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’ The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling” (149). When we seek to fulfill a calling, the specific job title or career path is unimportant. What matters is faithfully doing the work to which God has called us.

This understanding of calling enables us to be more open to the opportunities that God will provide. Eventually doors opened for me to leave the school as I felt called onward, first to a brand new role in Christian education regionally (that hadn’t existed before). This role then turned into a leadership opportunity nationally (that also hadn’t yet existed), and eventually internationally (in yet another role that previously didn’t exist). In each case, the decision to answer a call—and not seek a specific title, for the sake of a title—was not only what kept me serving, but also what helped me to walk through new doors that had never been opened before and/or were entirely unlabeled.

Recently I have been encouraged by an interview with the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, who is the first black woman to become a bishop in the Church of England. She describes the strong calling to ministry she felt during her childhood in Montego Bay, Jamaica, even though such a pathway was completely closed to women at the time. As she says in the interview, “It’s very strange, being called to something that doesn’t exist. And so I had a conversation with God, and my conversation with God was, ‘I believe that You have called me. And I’m going to remain faithful, and I will simply leave it to You to work it out.’” Regardless of one’s denomination or theological position regarding women in ministry, Bishop Hudson-Wilkin’s description of a simultaneous sense of calling and trust in God is inspirational. The principle is true: serve faithfully, and God will open doors of opportunity when and how He sees fit.

I believe the attitudinal disposition just described—serving God faithfully, and trusting God to open doors in His plan—is one that yields peace and hope for the individual woman leader. Time and time again, we are instructed in Scripture to trust him with our futures, as in, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this” (Psalm 37:4-5).

But… It’s Also About Access

At the same time, it is important to note that even though God is the one who opens doors, He almost always does so through a person—someone who turns the doorknob, and welcomes the other in. In my personal experiences, every professional door that has opened for me has been opened by a male leader—almost always significantly older, and always white. I share this to give credit to those who “took a chance on a young woman leader” or hired me instead of a retiring head of school “who was a friend” (their words—not mine!) I share it also to encourage those in most senior leadership positions in Christian education: the women leaders and leaders of color on your teams need your mentorship, your encouragement, and your willingness to open doors. You have a crucial role to play in helping us to fulfill the callings that God has given to us, just as you do for all of the individuals on your teams.

Again, we can take encouragement from the journey of Bishop Hudson-Wilkin. During her installation, she starts her message by thanking those who said “yes” to her. As she says, “The ‘yes’ that I want to begin with is your ‘yes’—so thank you… for saying ‘yes’ to me.” She could have started off her first sermon with anything—but she chose to start with gratitude for those who opened the door for her (she also goes on to give a powerful message about our lives bearing the name of Jesus, and how this reality should overflow into evangelism every day—but that’s a topic for another blog post!) Again, we may be from different denominations or hold different theological positions regarding women in ministry, but we can agree that Bishop Hudson-Wilkin’s impulse to thank those who have opened doors for her is the right and proper one.

I also want to share her words as an inspirational challenge to those currently holding leadership titles, whether men or women. We know how tremendous an honor and blessing it is to play a small part in God’s plan for someone to fulfill their calling. We can do this more intentionally by looking around at our teams and asking ourselves, who do we need to say ‘yes’ to—particularly those who are worthy of a ‘yes,’ but may not have had the same opportunities as others for leadership? Who is deserving of and needs an open door to take on additional responsibility or a new role? And are we broadening our answers to these questions as our schools, our team of educators, and our societies become more diverse? Or do our answers reflect that with which (and those with whom) we are more comfortable or familiar, instead of all those whom God may be calling, for such a time as this?

The Road Less Traveled

We are likely well-acquainted with Robert Frost’s poem about the road “less traveled.” This less-traveled road certainly characterizes my own leadership experiences in Christian education, especially when compared with that of my friends and colleagues in the field who are men. As it turns out, this less-traveled road is actually more traveled by women; this is because historically and across many sectors, women have had unconventional career paths, often owning to the demands of parenting or a spouse’s career—or as mentioned earlier, limited opportunities for women’s leadership. All of these factors resonate with me, and I’m sure they do with many readers as well.

It is important to note that there are changes afoot in the economy (and in the expectations of Millennial workers) that led an article on to suggest that “straight, unbroken career trajectories will no longer be the norm against which all others are compared.” More and more people, of all different backgrounds, may end up on the less-traveled road, or on a plethora of unique paths that perhaps no one has trodden previously. In the end, this diversity of who ends up in leadership—and how they end up there—will likely strengthen our schools, as new perspectives, skillsets, and networks are brought to the table, as well as to bear on the complex challenges and God-sized opportunities facing Christian education.

For now, though, we can be encouraged to serve faithfully in our calling, to trust God to make a way, and to open doors for others when and where we can. And doing so, just like the less-traveled road, will make “all the difference.”

Author Lynn Swaner

Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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Women Leaders for Christian Education