Stale categories undermine leadership.
I realized this while working at a Cokesbury Bookstore during seminary. One day, when the manager returned from her break, she found me furiously shuffling books. I peeled away the brass label with the section heading, “Feminist Theology,” and alphabetized the works on the shelves between Anselm and Zwingli.
“The whole church will never read these books if they’re on a secluded shelf,” I scornfully explained as I transported the works from their desert island onto the populated space. Thankfully, my manager was a good-natured friend and laughed at my sudden frenzy instead of firing me.
Now that I’m a woman who preaches and writes books, I still struggle with the difficulties of categorization. I have always written about generational issues, church growth, organizational leadership, and congregational redevelopment, which are male-dominated subjects. Men write the books in that section of the store and men buy them. I intentionally chose fields that I loved, knew a lot about, and were underrepresented by women.
And yet, here I am writing a memoir, which happens to be about… well… being a woman, even though I never wanted to be shelved in the bookstore under “women’s issues.” I love that section and read from it frequently. But publishers warn women and those from non-white cultural backgrounds not to write from their particular perspective because then the book will be stuck in a niche market and won't appeal to a larger audience. It's disheartening to think that a woman can write an amazing theological treatise that will fail to gain widespread appeal.
But I can’t ignore the issue or my book project any more than I can ignore the fact that I am a woman. Nor would I want to.
Underrepresented groups need to connect in order gain strength within a culture or organization. Leaders need to tell stories to understand how we might face discrimination -- not to wallow in victimhood, but to gain solidarity and plan strategies to overcome it. We need to sort out what’s important and what’s not (i.e., for women, having another woman in our congregation say that she thinks our stole is pretty is not the sort of discrimination that we ought to be worried about. The fact that our male colleagues might make 50% more than we do is worthy of our attention). And we need to network in order to encourage one another in our strengths and help one another out.
Yet, if leaders who are among underrepresented groups stay secluded in our women’s groups, caucuses or advocacy groups, then we may end up only speaking to ourselves. We may never have an impact on the larger organization or society.
A colleague summed up the situation well as she was particularly addressing women’s issues: “A woman is used to reading herself into a book. When she reads theology and it talks about ‘man,’ she learns to understand that she is included in that noun. It doesn’t really matter if the author intended for her to be incorporated; she claims it. It’s a part of going to seminary. We [women] all learned to do it. Many men don’t have that experience. They don’t often have to read themselves into a book that wasn’t particularly geared toward them. They might go out of their way to read them, but they don’t really have to.”
That is the way our privilege works. As an educated, white, middle-class, heterosexual clergy, I often read with my bias in play. My fingers skip over books that are “not for me.”
As we think about our roles as leaders, we need to look at both hands. With one hand, we need to be supporting, networking and connecting with those who might be underrepresented. But with the other hand, we will need to be reaching out to the needs of the larger organization. We can work on behalf of our church and against injustice that might arise.
Hopefully, we will be encouraging growth and health for a particular group as well as the larger community.