Today is International Women’s Day, and there is so much that I could say, but I think I will sum up my thoughts with a story of something that happened to me in my first month as a pastor.
I began my job as a lead pastor in my church when I was 27. I was an unconventional choice in lots of ways – I was young, I was a woman, and I would be the lead pastor while my husband would serve in the associate role. I was really excited to have this unusual opportunity, but I was also freaked out. Like lots of people starting in their career, I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. And I was self conscious of all the things that made me different, especially that I was a woman in a field still dominated by men.
But each week I would meet with a mentor, named Joyce. This woman had been my very favourite professor when I studied in Seminary, and it turned out that she attended the church where I would now pastor (this also added to me being a bit freaked out….). She offered early on to meet with me each week and help me negotiate my way in our new church, and I gratefully accepted.
I well remember our first meeting. I had been at the church just a couple of weeks. I had only led a few services and the week before I had led communion, for only the second time in my life (which also freaked me out). As I sat in Joyce’s cozy kitchen, she looked at me with a firm stare behind her tortoise-shell glasses: “Leanne,” she said, “Do you realize where you stood when you led communion this week?”
“No,” I answered.
“The whole time you stood behind your husband. You literally hid behind him. You held back.”
“Do not do that again,” she said. “You are our pastor. Step forward.”
“Okay,” I agreed sheepishly.
Then she went on. “And I want you to do something else,” she said. “Each week when we start the service, I want you to go to the mic and say clearly: “My name is Leanne and I am your pastor.” I want you to say it every week, until you believe it.”
I felt my body tense up. “I don’t know if I can do that,” I told her.
And it was true.
I had been HIRED in this job. The entire church had voted me into my role. They wanted me. But still, something held me back. I didn’t know if I could say “I am your pastor.” I didn’t know if I believed it. I was still not sure I could step up. Even thinking about saying those words made me nervous. Wasn’t it too pretentious? Too presumptuous? Too much?
But she told me I had to, and she told me she would be watching. And so for the next little while, on a Sunday morning, I would nervously say: “Hi, I’m Leanne and I’m your pastor.” And every Sunday I would wait for something to happen – someone to laugh, or to say “that can’t be right” or to tell me I was overstepping. But no one ever did. Of course they didn’t! I was their pastor. I was doing what I had been called to do. I was able to do it and I was ready to do it. I just needed my head to catch up to my life.
I know I’m not the only woman to feel this way. Many of us find it hard to step forward. Many of us find it hard to own and name the very thing that we know that we can do. We’ve been taught to stand behind, taught to keep quiet, taught to not push “too much.” We don’t want to be pushy or demanding or one of “those” women whose voices are like “nails on a chalkboard,” right?
But thank God when we are given people like Joyce, who tell us to knock it off. Thank God for the voices who say: “Don’t stand behind.” Thank God for the ones who will tell us to step up and say who we are, without apology. Thank God for the women who will say “I am watching you – and I am waiting for you to be everything you are made to be.”
Now, it seems almost laughable to remember a time that I felt self conscious simply saying who I was. I no longer doubt that it is okay for me to introduce myself as a pastor. I am deeply grateful for the woman who got me to say it until I believed it.
On this International Women’s Day, my sisters. I wish for you to hear the same message that I heard from a woman when I needed it most: Step forward. Say, with confidence, “This is who I am and what I can do.” Say it until you believe it.
And know that you have women everywhere watching you and cheering you on.