High Stakes for Women in Leadership: A Reflection and a Prayer by Elise M. Edwards


elise-edwardsA few weeks ago, I was asked to give the invocation for a luncheon at my university.  Baylor University was celebrating our presidential inauguration and there were several events leading up to the installation of the university’s 15th president. The inauguration was historic because it ceremonially marks the beginning of a term for our first female president, Dr. Linda A. Livingstone.

As I write, it is a year after Hillary Rodham Clinton lost the election for President of the United States of America. Like many of us, I’m still coming to terms with the choice my nation made, and how we came to it.  I’m thinking about women in leadership, especially occasions such leadership marks a first, a departure for an institution or system marked by male privilege.

What does it mean when an institution is willing to deviate from its long-established patterns of leadership and entrust its governance to women?

Well, it means several things.  Humanity is too complex to attribute our actions to simplistic or reductionist accounts of our motives.  Choosing female leadership may signal desire or openness to change.  It may signal that feminism, womanism, and other ideologies opposed to male dominance are making advances.  Maybe it means the work that communities like FAR do is paying off.  Perhaps the appointment of women to high leadership positions indicates that people have become more comfortable with women leaders in positions with lower profiles—team leaders, managers, coaches, chairpersons, division heads, and company owners.  It could also indicate a desire to choose the person who is most qualified who also fits within the culture of the institution.

At my university, these reasons ring true.  I hope they are true.  But talking with friends and colleagues who are still fighting for women’s full inclusion in Christian church leadership, I have to acknowledge that sometimes choosing a woman to lead an organization emerges from a sense of crisis, too.  When things are going well for an institution, there is often a reluctance to significantly change patterns.  This is why incumbents often have an advantage in election years when voters are satisfied with the current situation, even if the incumbent isn’t directly responsible for it.  We know the saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But in crisis, the risk of the unknown and the unprecedented becomes more acceptable.  When churches face a declining membership and may have to shut down, why not take a chance on a minister who is a woman? Or so the logic goes.  While this way of thinking recognizes the skills the new leader brings and entrusts care of the institution to her, it also places high stakes on her success.  This mindset welcomes change when failure is not just a possibility, but too often, a probability.  If the woman fails, it can reinforce sexist assumptions about her abilities or discourage decision makers from “taking a chance” in the future.

So at the inaugural luncheon, I was cognizant of what may be at stake for the university’s leadership in a time where we are still trying to address the legacy of mishandling sexual assault cases and make systemic changes to prevent it from happening again.  This is a time when we are rebuilding our reputation and continuing to build our academic programs to become a top research university with a Christian identity.  The luncheon wasn’t about women in leadership, and quite honestly, neither was the inauguration.  The luncheon was about highlighting the significance of transformative research and featured panelists from around the university who engage in cancer research.  Cancer research is an area full of exciting developments, but also one where the stakes are high.  I wanted to lead us in a prayer that would honor the significance of the research and the university’s historic inauguration and guide us to seek divine guidance in our work.

Since the luncheon wasn’t about women in leadership, I chose not to directly reference gender.  I chose to use gender-neutral pronouns and nouns for God (although retained the use of male terms for Jesus), which is what I usually do in public prayer and religious speech.   I used the invocation to call us to hope and express our excitement about what is to come.  I wanted us, as a community, to anticipate good things for our future, to not envision our situation as desperate (in the university and in research), even though these are serious matters. As I crafted the prayer, I sought inspiration from prayer books and songs for communities who cultivate hope and perseverance in faith.  I was influenced by prayers by Rev. Lillie Kate Benitez, Dr. Frederick K.C. Price, Rev. Carmen Young, and Rev. Chestina Mitchell Archibald from Say Amen: The African-American Family’s Book of Prayers.

I am truly hopeful about my university’s presidential administration.  I hope you can see that in my prayer:

Almighty and Eternal God,

As an academic community gathered here together today, we offer our gratitude to You and seek your blessing for the occasion that has brought us together.

O God our Sustainer, first we thank you for our University President and ask your blessing upon her and the inaugural events of the day.  We give thanks for the wonderful changes that are taking place.  We lift up President Livingstone and pray that she has continual wisdom, knowledge, direction, and understanding regarding the decisions she is called on to make for the good of Baylor University.  We pray that as we mark a new era in our University’s history, that our leadership’s decisions be sound, fair, and in line with your Word.

O God of wholeness and health, we secondly thank you for the panel discussion before us and seek your blessing for wisdom.  We come here seeking to be filled with your divine guidance in an age of physical illness and need for healing.  As researchers here and throughout the world seek the knowledge to overcome cancer, we ask that you would help us here at Baylor to find and use this knowledge to become stronger in our mission to serve humanity in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate the promise of discovery and transformative research, may we be ever mindful of the lives touched by disease, even in our own community.

And dear Maker of all things great and small, lastly, we thank You for the meal before us and ask your blessing over it.  May we enjoy our food and our conversations and may both strengthen us for service today.

We come this afternoon asking for You to pour out your Holy Spirit on this luncheon and its noble purposes.  Use us at this moment, at this place to help bring your kin-dom here on earth.

In the holy name of Jesus, I pray. Amen.

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Academics, Academy, Christianity, college, Community, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Gender and Power, Healing, Hierarchy, Power relations, Prayer, Sexism, Women and Ministry, Women and Work

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8 replies

  1. Praying it with you, Elise. Thank you for sharing.

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  2. Well, the U.S. is certainly feeling that sense of crisis. Maybe there’s hope for change??

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    • I hope so! But that’s also part of the problem. There were many people who felt that the Obama years represented American decline, so if that is your understanding of the crisis, HRC would have simply exacerbated it. But for those of us concerned about the environment, equal rights, violence, and violent rhetoric, we’re looking for a different kind of leader and models of informed, participatory governance.

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  3. Fantastic Elise keep up the discussion.

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  4. A beautiful prayer – thank you for sharing it. What you say is so important – so often women who are the first to lead in their organizations are expected to do miracles, “bring a woman’s perspective,” have wisdom, calm, and the ability to bring about harmony among warring colleagues, and generally be super-human. As you say, the stakes are very high if they don’t live up to these expectations. I think one of the tasks for other women in the organization is to not only support the new woman leader, but help others remember that we are all only human, and we make mistakes, and we can still be good leaders even if we do. And thank you for the link to “Say Amen” – it sounds like a wonderful book!

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  5. Incredibly profound post. I greatly appreaciate your candor and truth!

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