'Each one has been changed by the process'
Claire Nicholls reports on Magnify You, a two-year development programme for Baptist women in leadership
Women in leadership in our Baptist family. Surely we’re not still talking about this after over one hundred years of women ministers? Is it really still a problem?
I was asked this in a recent seminar I led on women’s justice, and the answer is yes - yes we still need to talk about it. While things have moved forward, the pace of movement has been very slow and the gender gap still exists. While it does, and women remain unrepresented, underestimated and undervalued in the leadership of our Baptist family and in our churches, then we need to continue to encourage, support and mentor them and provide ways and strategies for change.
A significant meeting took place in 2019. The newly appointed Centenary Enabler Jane Day (appointed after a conference celebrating 100 years of women in ministry), met with the only female Regional Minister Team Leader at the time, Beth Powney to explore what the Eastern Baptist Association was doing to encourage and enable women in ministry and leadership. Beth recalls that meeting:
'We both agreed that this needed to change. Linked with that was the knowledge I had gleaned about the intentional discipleship that the Church of England had taken with their women priests prior to the Anglican Synod agreement to have women Bishops. Another factor, which I knew, because of the position I was in, was that about five Regional Ministers, some Team Leaders would be retiring within the next 2-3 years.'
As a result, MagnifyYou, a two-year development programme for women ministers with the potential to flourish in roles in regional and national life within the Baptist movement was born. The team leaders from Central, Eastern and London Baptist Associations agreed together to support this and to identify key women ministers from within their associations to attend. Jane Day enthusiastically joined the adventure and in early March 2020, one of the last in person meetings of ministers in the London Baptist offices, saw the inaugural meeting of MagnifyYou.
In that first meeting, 15 women ministers gathered and were invited to help form the programme for the next two years. They shared some of the challenges they encountered as women in ministry - the need for courage and to challenge criticism (both internal and external), imposter syndrome, how to survive and to thrive when encountering barriers and how to find seats at the table when the atmosphere at the table makes you feel like you are not welcome.
In the group were women with a combination of many years of experience. Some with significant leadership roles pre-accredited ministry in secular life; some who have ministered in many different contexts in this country and across the world; some who started ministry life working with children and young people. Sole ministers, associate ministers, team leaders, chaplains…..
Their journeys were all different, but the issues they encountered were often very similar - some unique to church, some very similar to any woman in leadership, wherever they are called to lead.
Jane and Beth worked on a structure for the programme based around worship, sharing, support and coaching – a key part of each day was hearing the story and receiving teaching and wisdom from significant women leaders in the Baptist family and beyond. The gatherings continued online over the next two years – negotiating Covid highlighting and magnifying for many of the group the issues that they have encountered on the way.
In the final meeting of the programme, a much anticipated and appreciated in person 24-hour retreat, the group reflected on the experience. The impact of the programme was clear. With confidence built, boldness encouraged, gifts identified and nurtured, inspired by others journeys, each attendee has been changed by the process.
The intentional discipleship has been instrumental in developing and empowering three new regional ministers so far and the possible opportunities in the future for those who are called to where they are right now have opened far wider. Further research is being done into the impact of the programme through Project Violet, and we wait and anticipate the results of that research.
Places at the table have often been limited by culture, tradition, circumstance and by not acknowledging or identifying it as an issue. To counter this, an equitable mindset must include a commitment to intentionally providing spaces, opportunities and discipleship for those who are not always able to find space for their own chair, despite having the calling, gifting and ability to be there.
What opportunities are there in your church, association and community to release and empower women (and others) who haven’t always fitted at the table?
How can we provide opportunities and spaces for intentional discipleship where they can flourish and become all that God created them to be?
Claire Nicholls is minister of New Addington Baptist Church, South London
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