Breakthrough Of Love Through An Invitation To Mobilize Female Leaders

June 18, 2024

“Oh, she teaches? I see that your church must not care about following the Bible.”

My stomach churned as my face flushed red with embarrassment and anger. Eyes that had made frequent contact with me just moments before now erased my presence and attended solely to my husband. Friendly questions about potential family connections, how long we’d been married, and where we grew up transformed into allegations and insults. The instigation? Sharing about our new church plant; one co-led by men and women in all aspects of ministry.

In mere seconds, the friendly shop keeper at a local antique store had become a crusader against women in ministry, and his mission was to undermine any sense of dignity or call that I might have felt as a young woman. His angry judgements flowed easily into snide comments about women of the Bible. Phoebe? A glorified secretary. The woman at the well? Town gossip who got her fifteen minutes of fame. The vitriol flowed, unencumbered by my husband’s objections, until we finally wrestled ourselves away from the company of our acquaintance-turned-accuser.

I was 20 years old, newly married, and months into co-planting my first church with a group of family and close friends. And while I had grown up in a culture that quietly discouraged female leadership in a myriad of ways (limiting opportunities, preaching various versions of complementation doctrine, and relegating women to ministries centered around other women, children, or hospitality), I had never been so openly and hatefully accosted. In this one, uninvited interaction with a stranger on a Saturday afternoon, the ugliness and evil of sexism in the church showed me its true face. It would prove to be the first of many such interactions. Over 12+ years of pastor ministry, in church plants, megachurches and the spaces between, I have experienced the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the enemy undermines the Church’s work in the world through the marginalization of half of our members.

I spent the first ten years of my ministry career navigating male leader-dominated churches that, in even best case scenarios, struggled to honor my calling to ministry as an image of God who happened to be female. I was told I’d have to be “twice as good, twice as smart, and twice as skilled” as my male counterparts if I wanted to be in ministry leadership. I swallowed unsolicited comments about my clothing and physical appearance. Stomached backhanded compliments about “lady preachers” and endured disrespect from male colleagues, employees, and congregants. I fought for the chance to teach and lead in the midst of debilitating doubts and fears that told me

my deepest, truest self would never be fully seen or honored by the Church that I was giving my life to serve.

My friends called me a “trailblazer” during this season of ministry, and it rang true enough. I felt myself hacking through the dense jungle of misogny, machete in hand, getting bloody on thorns and branches. Willing myself forward. My greatest hope at that time was that perhaps, by the grace of God, I could actually find a way to live in alignment with my God-given calling and gifts. That I’d emerge from the dense jungle and find myself in a more spacious and hospitable place where I could actually be me without fear of being belittled, insulted, accused, or disrespected because of my gender. On my best days, I hoped that the small trail that I forged might make it easier for sisters coming behind me to find the same.

My personal battle and pain kept me from recognizing how many sisters around me were also looking for a path forward. Women with different personalities, gifts, backgrounds, and experiences— all yearning for that spacious place, too. I only looked up from my own struggle when they began seeking me out. We found sacred space in empty sanctuaries and crowded coffee shops as they shared their stories, often times through tears. They shared stories of being disrespected by male volunteers who were lauded by church leadership. Stories of standing up to preach on a Sunday morning, only to watch dozens of people leaving the sanctuary in protest. Stories of emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse— hidden, dismissed, and covered-over in the name of “grace” for the perpetrators.

As the Holy Spirit wove these stories and countless others together in my heart, a new, more beautiful truth revealed itself to me. What is one tiny path in a world of jungle to my sisters who are yearning to give their whole selves to God’s kingdom here and now? Why should there only be small pathways trodden by certain kinds of personalities, when God’s diverse daughters are everywhere, already giving their hearts and souls to His church, despite lack of support, credit, pay, and title? We didn’t need trails and trailblazers, we needed roads and construction crews. We needed a community of women and men who are willing to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into laying the foundations for new systems and infrastructure that traffic in the dignity and development of our sisters— and it started with me.

This revelation broke me open to a world of new possibilities. It steeled my courage and drove me to action from a place of deep love and hope. It set me on a path of becoming that listened more to Jesus and less to fear. God showed me this path in a vision during prayer. In the vision, I was sitting inside of a small, locked bird cage when suddenly, the door swung open. I stepped out and began to run, only to find that I was

in a slightly larger cage, whose door was swinging open now, too. This process repeated, cage after cage, until God suddenly shifted my perspective. He brought me up high enough to look down upon the line of cages from which I’d been set free. The cages that had held me captive were now a path. I skipped across them like a child in her grandmother’s garden.

Over the last several years I have watched this vision unfold. It began with an invitation from Christ to me, to create that spacious and welcome place for which I had been longing. AKA- Jesus called me to plant a church. The Spirit guided my family to a new denomination, a new community, and a more beautiful, sustainable expression of church than we had ever experienced— an expression of church where women (and men) of diverse gifts and personalities are supported in their call to ministry. Through all of these experiences, relationships, successes and failures, I have learned to pivot from trails to roads. I’ve learned practices and postures that honor women in their unique gifts and personalities. I’ve learned how to identify and activate female leadership in their communities, and how to help others do the same through co-learning, coaching, and accompaniment.

So now, I invite you to join me over the coming months as I share about the who and the how of mobilizing female leadership. We’ll explore whose responsibility it is to develop and mobilize women, gain insight into the practices and postures that subvert gender biases and spur us into healthy, sustainable action, and consider opportunities to journey together as we abandon our individual trail-blazing to form communities of road-builders and culture-shifters. Your sisters need you. The church needs you. I need you.

I can blaze a trail, but WE can build a road. Until next month,
Ericka Henry

Awaken is pleased to highlight Ekklesia Coaching, a paradigm-shifting ecosystem that cultivates healthy, sustainable leaders and organizations for the good of all. Ericka has graciously created a 25% discount for her course on Mobilizing Female Leaders, available through September 2024. Learn more by clicking the link below.