Calling for Deborah: Investing and encouraging women leaders in the workplace
It had been twenty years.
Twenty years of Canaanite oppression
Twenty years that had devastated Israelite communities; that left roads and highways abandoned (Judges 5:6).
Twenty years that had broken God’s people
Finally the Israelites cried out to God for help and one leader emerges
Though Deborah was a prophetess, it is significant to note that the context of her influence was not found in a priestly role, or a worshipping role, but in the sphere of her community and work. Deborah was the nation’s judge and leader, dealing with the most difficult and challenging cases of the region. She dealt with people’s disputes, despair and drama on a daily basis. Still such was the depth and strength of her influence that when the people faced their oppressor, Barak, the leader of the military, would not mobilize his army and call them to war without Deborah at his side. Deborah’s work had earned her the respect and the credibility of the people. Barak knew that her public endorsement would encourage and motivate the army. She even gave God inspired strategy to the army, guided their military campaign. As a result of Deborah’s leadership in the midst of that desperate time, oppression was overturned and there was peace for a generation.
Deborah was a strong leader at the top of her field, whom God used to transform society. Have we met the Deborahs in our churches today? They’re the godly leaders with considerable influence, vast leadership experience, and great potential for the kingdom of God at the intersection of faith and work.
Yet it’s possible we might miss out on this kingdom opportunity. Sometimes there is a disconnect for these women in today’s churches. With many of their daytime hours spent at work, and spare evenings spent prioritizing key relationships, full engagement with church life is not always an easy fit. Furthermore, sometimes the disconnect strikes at a more personal level. If there ever were an idealized church woman, these women would defy the stereotype. Some of the expectations placed on them and their experiences at church have left them frustrated, overlooked, confused, or even invalidated and rejected:
It’s so strange. I’m so confident in my profession, even with all its challenges, I know what I am there for. But when it comes to the church… I just don’t know… I don’t know how I fit.
I don’t think they’re comfortable with my career ambitions.
When it come to being involved in church it feels like I can give my money but I can’t give my leadership experience.
Working life is simply a reality for most of today’s women in the US and many women will step into high levels of opportunity and influence in the course of their careers. How can today’s churches encourage the Deborahs of this generation in their congregation?
1) Acknowledge their influence:
“Villagers in Israel would not fight;
They held back until I, Deborah, arose” (Judges 5:6-7),
Deborah understood the influence of her role in that moment. When she stepped up into her role, her community would step into theirs. Her leadership was the catalyst that mobilized the people to fight and overcome oppression and build a lasting future.
As we look at our Deborahs, let us also acknowledge and encourage their potential for real kingdom influence. We need 21st Century Deborahs to rise up and play their part in society’ renewal. These leaders oversee budgets, manage companies, lead employees, work with overseas clients. They work their way up the corporate ladder. They deal with disputes, despair and drama in any given day. They call people to take huge risks. Their endorsements mobilize people. They make strategic decisions. They influence global business and commerce that affects millions of lives.
They are some of the everyday missionaries of the church. We often find ways to encourage and support our church missionaries and their families overseas. How do we serve these local ones?
2) Invest in them
Working life and rhythms can make it impossible for these leaders to regularly attend a women’s Bible study, daytime or evening. We may need to reconsider how we serve them in the area of connection and community.
We could create spaces of retreat, investment, encouragement, and commission that equip leaders to be kingdom emissaries in a complex, rapidly changing word. We could create spaces that gather online when women are unable to be physically present. (That might bless and equip a number of stay at home moms, too!)
Their needs are not limited to faith and leadership either. Let’s ensure that our conversations and events on marriage, singleness, parenting and family life include the faith perspective from women leaders in the workplace
We could explore how to encourage and facilitate networking events and mentorship opportunities for women workplace leaders in our community, and our emerging workplace leaders who are in college and graduate school. We could even partner with other churches as a means to pool resources.
3) Tell Her Story
When was the last time you spoke from the pulpit about Deborah, or any of the other workplace women leaders in the Bible? Naturally there is value in telling their story to the entire congregation. But it may be especially poignant and encouraging for the woman leader wondering where her gifts and calling fit into church life.
4 ) Ask them
All too often we don’t know what to do because we haven’t asked the people who probably have the best answers and the greatest insights. Invite the Deborahs in your church into a conversation on how to encourage and empower them in their calling. Who knows what could happen as a result!
Jo Saxton is a pastor, missional leader, speaker and leadership coach. She is the co-host of Lead Stories podcast and is the board chair of 3DMovements. Jo is the author of More Than Enchanting and High Heels and Holiness. She loves Starbucks, the gym, her people, and the everyday stuff, like good music, good food, and good books. And Target. She really, really loves Target. She spends her days dreaming big dreams, and making big plans. Jo lives in the Minneapolis area with her husband Chris and their two daughters.