Women in Church Leadership Linda McKinnish Bridges


The "Lydia Phase" in Early Irish Christianity: From Brigid to Mary



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The "Lydia Phase" in Early Irish Christianity: From Brigid to Mary

The "Lydia phase," that time in religious history when women were accepted as religious leaders, can also be documented in the history of early Christianity in Ireland.14 The pre-Christian Celtic tradition in Ireland celebrated the feminine. Dotting the contemporary landscape are ancient monuments and elaborate art designs carved in rock, such as the Sheela-na-gigs found in Ireland, as well as in Scotland and Wales, which appear to celebrate the life-giving force of women.15 Ireland's ancient history, both historical and mythological, is filled with the names of powerful women who were not in subordination to the men of the culture. Warrior queens, such as the historical figure of Boudicca, were not uncommon. King Ailil and Queen Medb were of equal standing.16 The Druid priesthood, the close advisors to the King, included both women and men with equal status. In the goddess tradition of the ancient Celts, women were a powerful influence in the culture. The goddess Brigid, the ancient partron of the poets and healers, the mother of memory, was a central story in the Irish mythological framework.

Into the egalitarian social structure of the Celtic tradition came Christianity. The early religious design maintained the gender balance of the ancient tradition. For example, in Ireland women frequently led great churches and monasteries, which also contained men and women, contrary to the religious practices of the rest of Christendom.17 Women in religious traditions assumed roles of leadership in both ecclesiastical and civil communities. Women led Mass and administered the Sacrament. Brigid of Kildaire, Hilda of Whitby, and Beverly of York were ordained as bishops, maintaining great influence and power. Civil authorities came to them for counsel as they led some of the country' s great monastic communities.

The pre-Christian Celtic tradition provided a religious imagination that prompted an egalitarian Christian community. That sense of inclusion lasted until the reform of Irish Christianity by Rome. Anthony Duncan writes:


There is to be found in the whole Celtic tradition a remarkable equilibrium as far as the masculine and the feminine are concerned. It is not a complete equilibrium but it is remarkable free from the male-dominated, woman-hating (which means woman-fearing) distortion which are to be found in many other cultures, and which survive, disfiguringly and unfaithfully, in many of the Churches of the Christian Church as a whole.18
The tradition of women leaders in Irish Christianity was not to last beyond the Romanesque revival of the tenth century. As early as 515 C. E., opposition to women leaders in the church can be documented. Three Roman bishops wrote a scathing letter to two Irish priests exhorting them to prohibit women from celebrating Mass:
You celebrate the divine sacrifice of the Mass with the assistance of women to whom you give the name conhospitae. While you distribute the Eucharist, they take the chalice and administer the blood of Christ to the people. . . . Renounce the abuses . . . .19
The "Lydia phase," the moment in a religious movement when women can freely serve the Church, began to disappear as the religious leaders in Rome enforced universal male celibacy. Leo IX (1049-54) was so intent on making celibacy the requirement of the Church that he ordered the wives of the Roman priests to be taken as slaves. In 1094-1148 the Celtic Church began to experience this wave of church reform under the leadership of Mael Maedoc us Morgair (Malachy) who tried to change the structures of the Irish Church, which up to this time had included both women and men within the leadership. The Synod of Cashel (1101) was the first serious attempt to enforce clerical celibacy in Ireland.

The move toward a male celibate clergy, thereby eliminating the role of woman as leader and diminishing her position to that of helper or even seductress, was politically motivated according to some scholars. To allow priests to marry endangered the power of the monarchy and the pope. The Church could receive lands free of family claims if the clergy remained unmarried. The Roman Church, therefore, prepared the way for the feudalization of Ireland, the Anglo-Norman invasion, and the exclusion of women's leadership in the Church. By the medieval period, the feminine face of the Church had been erased. A hierarchical, male-dominated Church that cherished celibacy over community, men over women, and structure over spirit began to emerge.

The "Lydia Phase" was over. The active role of women in the Church was frozen in the one-dimensional figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Church who would not tolerate women's leadership in the flesh was much more comfortable worshipping the feminine that was encased in patriarchal stone and oppression. The free-flowing spirit of the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose memory lived on the early Christian Irish church as abbess leader, Brigid of Kildaire, became concretized in Mother Mary. Perhaps we should just be thankful for the image of woman that remained in the transition. But something was lost in the transformation. That something was the social structure of male and female that existed in the early days of the Church where men and women worked side by side. To relegate Mary to some corner of the sanctuary crowded by worshippers in a cloud of incense while women are forbidden to even touch the altar misses the whole point. The role of the feminine cannot be relegated to the stone design of patriarchal Church, kept safely by men dressed in fine ecclesiastical robes. For the Church to be spiritually effective, the force of Mother Mary must live within the social structure of religious life. The "Lydia Phase" was over with Brigid. And the Church, once again, had chosen order over spirit, men over women.

The "Lydia Phase": From Martha to Lottie

A "Lydia phase" existed even within the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the Separate Baptist tradition, women had a major role in the development of the church. The Separate Baptists, considered by some historians to be the original Southern Baptists, were noted for their fervent evangelistic preaching, emotional conversion, and uninhibited styles of worship.20 Originating out of the revival known as the First Great Awakening, leaders Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall came from Virginia to North Carolina in the 1750s. At Sandy Creek (now Randolph Co.) they established the Sandy Creek Baptist Church in 1755. In seventeen years the church had grown from 16 to 606 members. The church sent out 125 preachers and gave birth to 42 other churches.

An important but often ignored leader of this movement was Martha Stearns, sister to Shubal and then later, wife to Daniel Marshall. Martha and many other women had major roles in the development of early Baptist life in the South, although much of Baptist memory has intentionally ignored their contributions. In the Sandy Creek tradition, women were regularly ordained deacons and elders. The documents show that women were active leaders in preaching and evangelism.

Martha was one of the many active women leaders, bearing much of the responsibility of the ministry of Separate Baptists in North Carolina. Born in Connecticut in the early 1700s, she was converted under the preaching of George Whitfield around 1740. She influenced the faith of both her brother and husband.21 From Connecticut, they migrated to Virginia where she taught and preached Baptist doctrines. Married to Daniel Marshall, whom she may have influenced to join the Baptist way, she, along with Marshall, was baptized by immersion by the pastor of Mill Creek Baptist Church, Opeckon, Virginia, in 1754. Before and after her baptism, Martha was a leader in the Baptist movement in Virginia. W. L. Lumpkin writes that, while Martha was preaching in Virginia, the authorities ordered her to cease. She refused and, like many of our Baptist forebears, was placed in jail, although unlike may of our known Baptist forebears, she was pregnant at the time. Her preaching was powerful. While Martha was preaching, a young man named Cartledge was convinced by her words and became a preacher. Even the arresting constable and the magistrate were soon converted and baptized. This woman could preach!

She also had a keen vision for ministry. Before migrating to Carolina, Martha and Daniel, along with their three children, left Virginia to work as missionaries with the Mohawk Indians in New York. Finally, in 1755 Martha, Daniel, and family, along with brother Shubal and his family, moved to Sandy Creek in Guilford County, North Carolina. Shubal, Martha, and Daniel built a small meeting house in 1755 and with sixteen persons formed a churchCthe Sandy Creek Baptist Church. Martha's preaching continued in North Carolina as had her ministry in Virginia. Her contemporaries remembered Martha Stearns Marshall: "being a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution, has, in countless instances melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations."23 Later Daniel and Martha formed the Abbots Creek Church in 1758.24 The ministry of Martha, along with Shubal and Daniel, formed the center of Baptist life in North Carolina and later the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

Leon McBeth and W. L. Lumpkin note, however, that while the Separate Baptists, represented by the Sandy Creek tradition, may have "set the tone in theology, evangelism, and organization which the Southern Baptist Convention later followed, the one area the Convention intentionally ignored was the role of women in the church."25 The Southern Baptist Convention, established in 1845, would carry on the revivalist tradition of the Separate Baptists, with uninhibited worship style and emotional conversions, but they were determined to organize a convention without the presence and influence of women. The "Lydia phase" was over.

No women were present at the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. No women were allowed. Seventy-three years later, in 1918, women were finally allowed to attend as voting messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, a woman's voice was not heard on the Convention platform until 1929 when Mrs. J. W. Cox gave the report of the Woman's Missionary Union. Where did the women go? What were they doing during those years of silence?

Although the organizational structure had ignored all traces of the feminine, Baptist women worked underground to form missionary societies that would promote the work of missions in China through money and volunteers. No formal organizational support for women within the Convention existed, however. In 1888 the Women's Missionary Union was formed as an auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention at the Broad Street Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia.26 The opposition against such an organization was widespread within the Convention. A committee was formed by the Baptist General Association of Virginia to warn women in Virginia of the danger. They wrote: " . . . we further fear that such an independent organization of women naturally tends toward a violation of the divine interdict against women's becoming a public religious teacher and leader . . . . "27 Meanwhile, "a public religious teacher and leader" from Virginia named Charlotte Digges Moon (Lottie) had already been preaching and teaching in China since 1873.28 Her work became the missionary inspiration for the work of Southern Baptists. The Christmas offering for missions was named for Lottie Moon in 1918. The Southern Baptist Convention, who could not fully erase the presence of the feminine from within the ecclesiastical walls, could at least relegate women to the tasks of fundraising for convention projects and leave the stories of women preaching and teaching in some foreign place like China. The "Lydia phase" that had been present in the early days of Baptist life, in the energy and promise of the Separate Baptist tradition, was over. Although women were working and would continue to serve in the denomination, the roles of leadership were given only to men. While the women raised the money in the name of Lottie, only the men of the denomination could decide how to spend it. Once again, the cultural restraints prohibited the full inclusion of women in the church. For Southern Baptists, it would be more politically expedient to develop a denominational structure to match the cultural realities of gender construction than to allow the full participation of women in a religious tradition that they had worked to establish.

The "Lydia phase" belonged to the early Church, where the women who began the movement with Paul in the 50s could not have even met the job description of church leader as written in the 90s ( seen in the Pastoral Epistles). The "Lydia phase" can be documented in the life of early Irish Christianity, where women established the religious tradition, then were excised from leadership roles by the church in Rome. The Southern Baptist Convention, and its current, strong opposition to women, must honestly admit that a "Lydia phase" existed in the life of Baptists of the South, in the life and work of Martha Stearns Marshall in the Sandy Creek tradition. The Church intentionally excised women's leadership from religious life in order to be culturally relevant: now the Church must welcome her daughters home in order to be spiritually effective.

The Church and Women's Leadership
Social change does not occur overnight. Social change does not usually occur because someone has a noble thought and sets out to right all wrongs. Social change occurs usually as the result of some crisis. The future for women in the Church looks good not because the Church has finally repented and wants to begin again. Rather, the future is bright for women and the Church because the Church is changing. The rigid ecclesiastical structures are eroding.29 The stone monuments of denominational bureaucracy dedicated to the top-down understanding of leadership, where the powerful are more powerful and the weak are more weak, where creativity suffocates under the pretentious scaffolding of policies that only spawn more policies not life, where order rather than ardor is the desired goal, where structure matters more than people, are toppling. The Church is going through another reformation. We are not as aware of this shift as we will be in a future, more retrospective glance. But the change is happening now, right now at this very moment.

The post-modern Church looks for small group experiences, for mission projects close at home, for leadership that dresses in casual clothes and knows how to build teams rather than committees. The second-reformation churches are less inclined to send dollars to a distant, convention headquarters building, which they have never even seen, and to programs which do not respond to their needs. The Church is changing.

While top-heavy denominational structures and large, mega-church corporations must wrestle with these new challenges by slicing budgets, reformatting programs, and closing old projects, women must be aware that, like Esther, we are here "for such a time as this." This second reformation will actually be a time when women can finally come home. The future direction of the Church may not be that different than the conditions of its early beginnings, when the "Lydia phase" was in full flower. The conditions are right for women's inclusion in the Church. The Church of the future will be much like the early Church of the past. The faith will be less corporately structured and oriented more along the lines of the family. Just as women contributed much to this environment in the first century, women, likewise, will be the future leaders of the Church in the next century. The second half of this article attempts to describe women's style of leading and the appropriateness of such a leader for the second-reformation Church.
Ways Women Lead
Women have traditionally been stereotyped as ineffective leaders. Judith Rosener, Professor at the Graduate School of Business Management, University of California, provides research on the attributes of male and female leadership.30 When men and women were asked to list the attributes of a strong leader, respondents in Rosener's research answered: "strong, rational, independent, linear thinker." When the same group was also asked to list the attributes related to men, the same list was given: "strong, rational, independent, linear thinker." When the respondents were asked to list the attributes of women, however, another list emerged: "sex, mother, wife, beauty, soft curves, sensitive." Rosener concluded that cultural script says that we are masculine if we are not feminine. And if we are feminine we are not leaders. Thus, at least in the minds of this small research sample, women cannot be leaders because they do not possess the same attributes as a man.

This gender bias has been our common cultural dilemma. Women, seen as second class citizens anyway, certainly could not possess the necessary skills needed for leadership, so says the common tradition. Recently, I overheard my own niece, who is sixteen years old, say that she would truly be afraid if our country elected a woman president. When asked why, she said that a woman's emotions simply could not be trusted in the event of a national crisis. I cringed, and then began to provide examples like Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Mary Robinson, Indira Ghandi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her logic matched the respondents in Rosener's study who said women are inferior. Women, therefore, cannot be leaders. We have some more conversations to go before she can accept a woman as president, really before she can accept herself as worthy of being a leader, or even possessing positive leadership attributes suitable for the public good.

Do women make inferior leaders? An interesting empirical study by Stephen M. Brown, however, concludes that "even though the traditional sex-stereotyping is pervasive, the widely held belief that women make inferior leaders seems to give way in actual work situations."31 Brown discovered that gender bias diminished as actual work practices were accomplished. In other words, when women are given roles of leadership, they rise to the occasion. Women can be public leaders, and very good ones. Women have leadership traits that the contemporary marketplace demands. Rosener writes:

Women managers who have broken the glass ceiling in medium-sized, nontraditional organizations have proven that effective leaders don't come from the mold. They have demonstrated that using the command-and-control style of managing others, a style generally associated with men in large, traditional organizations, is not the only way to succeed.


What my niece will learn, as well as the marketplace and the Church, is that, although women may lead in different ways than men, women are not inferior leaders.

Women themselves have not always been confident of their leadership ability. The first wave of women leaders followed the male rules of conduct. We dressed like men, donning the business suit and tie. We learned male language and attitudes. We felt the pressure to neglect our families for the sake of the job, just as we had observed our male counterparts doing. Now, however, a second wave of women is changing corporate America not simply by following their male counterparts, but by using their own skills and attitudes gathered from their experience of being women. Research in leadership theory suggests that the qualities of leadership which women bring to corporations and public life are the exact type of leadership styles needed for the corporate world of the next millennium.

Perhaps the difference in leadership style between women and men can be summarized with the terms "transactional" and "transformational" leadership. Men are more likely to describe themselves as "transactional leaders," a leadership style that uses power from organizational position and formal authority and views job performance as a series of transactions with subordinates, which exchanges rewards for services performed and offers punishment for poor performance. On the other hand, women describe themselves as leaders who use power from charisma, interpersonal skills, and hard work, rather than power from the organizational structure, and who lead by attempting to transform the self-interest of the worker to the larger interests of the corporation.33

What attributes of leadership do women have? While it is much easier to describe the dichotomy of transactional and transformational leadership style with gender roles, an important disclaimer for broad generalizations is necessary. The discussion of a good leader does not mandate a particular style above all others. Some men learn transformational styles of leadership. Likewise, some women are able to function at a transactional level. Business needs both at various times of growth ad development. The neglect, however, has been to exclude women and their leadership because it appeared less rational and more feeling, less expedient and more humane, less outcome focused and more attentive to process. To relegate women and these particular attributes of leader to a marginal, unacceptable position is to diminish the effectiveness of the organization.

What skills might women bring to the marketplace? In conversations with women interviewees, Rosener observed several patterns of leadership. Women tend to encourage participation, desiring that people feel as if they belong to the organization. Women tend to create mechanisms to involve people, regardless of rank, in discussions. Sally Helgesen describes the leadership style of Frances Hesselbein, Executive Director of the Girl Scouts in Manhattan, New York, as seen in the physical organization of their fourteen-story office building. Hesselbein decided against locating office space according to status within the organization, but rather chose to organize offices according to functional needs of the workers. For example, management team members have offices on the same floor as support staff, rather than on the floor closest to the top management.34 The physical arrangement of office space points not to a hierarchy of position but to an emphasis on quality job performance.

Women leaders in Rosener's study tended to share power and information. When the ultimate goal is to transform both the work and the workers, rather than preserving territorial rights, the goal of sharing becomes an easier task. Sharing power allows coworkers and subordinates to know that they are trusted and that their ideas are respected while, at the same time, provides important data for all workers involved to reach conclusions and solve problems for the good of the entire company.

Women leaders, says Rosener, strive to enhance the self-worth of others. Human empowerment and development rather than subordination to the chain of command are stressed. Jean Baker Miller notes the pull toward affiliation in women's psychological development. She describes this ability as a strength and also a weakness. While making interpersonal connections and striving to elevate the worth of the other, women can also limit their power by being subservient to the group and may sacrifice parts of their own personalities in emotionally unhealthy ways. To build up another is a strong attribute of the leader. To lose oneself in the other creates serious emotional problems. 35

Rosener also added that the women leaders in her sample research had the ability to energize others. Enthusiasm may not be the dominant trait of the typical, male, conservative investment banker. But enthusiasm combined with successful results cannot be refuted. The ability to motivate others and enable one's own excitement to be caught can be a positive leadership trait, even when the cheerleader persona clashes with the image of the conservative banker. Rosener's study concluded that many successful women leaders carry enormous energy for their work and that it becomes contagious.

Rosener's important study not only affirmed the possibility of women leaders but also called for organizational change in order to accommodate this change in leadership style. She warns that those organizational structures that cannot be hospitable to a nontraditional style of management stand to lose their ground of success in the next century. As women continue to enter the marketplace, institutions must learn to accommodate women's style of leadership in order to be successful.

While corporations struggle with new organizational patterns due to the influx of women into the marketplace and also a changing corporate structure, leadership theory likewise experiences new patterns of discussion. 36 For example, at the turn of the twentieth century leadership theory advocated born leaders. A good leader was born with the ability to be strong, exude power, and maintain social distance. A good leader resembled a commander or autocrat. A shift occurred in the 1930s as new social theories about people emerged indicating that leaders were not born, but were made. The last part of the twentieth century, heavily influenced by scientific management theories that emphasized bureaucracy, hierarchy, individualism, and rationality, noted that the leader, not the workings of a group, is the focal point point of power and leadership. A leader could lead successfully without the influence of the group, said leadership theorists. . A good leader, then, was the one able to persuade others to comply with the leader's objectives. Power over (rather than power with) was a prominent attribute.

In the late 1980s, however, a new construction emerged. The most recent paradigms of leadership do not emphasize hierarchy, but collective action; not authority and control, but influence and consensus; not only products or outcomes, but also processes. Theorists now study leadership teams, women's leadership styles, roles of followers, and analysis of power relationships.37 The field of leadership theory is changing because women's leadership style is entering the marketplace. Likewise, organizational systems are also changing as women enter in record numbers and with concurrent market shifts of a global, technologically-driven economy. Rosener observes that while crises are not desirable, they do give an opportunity for women to prove themselves.

The lesson is clear. When given opportunities to lead, women leaders can be very successful. Women leaders bring added value to the company by introducing new leadership styles that can provide stability for the market in unstable times. Women leaders change the institutional landscape, thereby creating new forms of relational structure and rules for decision making. Women leaders will change and are changing corporate America. Roy Adler and Rebecca Yates recently studied the careers of male and female MBA students over a period of twenty-five years. They discovered that nearly three times as many of the women with MBAs had reached top management spots than had the men. Adler and Yates concluded that by the year 2000, twenty percent of the Fortune 500 companies' top slots will be held by women.38


The Future Church
Now what about women leaders and the Church? The responses vary. Paula Nesbitt contends that as more women enter the ranks of ordained clergy, the more adverse will be consequences for women leaders in the Church.39 Her work showed that women, no matter how large the critical mass, do not move far beyond their original points of entry. These entry positions are usually small congregations with limited financial and political resources. As the ranks of ordained women swell to larger than one-third of the total number of ordained persons, women fill in all the bottom ranks and the men rise to the peaks of power within the pyramid. Women, according to Nesbitt, do not change the ecclesiastical structure, regardless of their numbers.

One major point is overlooked, however, in Nesbitt's study. The pyramid of ecclesiastical power is shifting. Just like a global, technological market demands shifts in business America, so does a post-modern, anti-establishment, spiritually hungry faith seeks transformation of the ecclesiastical landscape. The patriarchal notions of Church are eroding by default. Again, it is not that organized religion took a vote and decided to shift paradigms as a noble gesture of welcome to the religiously disenfranchised. Rather, the times have changed the structures. The upheaval is painful. The traditional places of power are shifting. The people who supported the growth of organized religion are dying. In their place are equally hungry, faith seekers, although not as institutionally focused. This generation lacks the attention needed to build huge centers of ecclesiastical power. They are interested less in form and more in essence. They are casual. And casual faith seekers do not search for powerful centers of religious expression but for immediate, authentic places of spiritual growth.

Contemporary faith seekers want meaningful relations, practical applications to life, local experiences of mission, and team-centered church structures, from worship to administrative leadership. The ecclesiastical pyramid is shifting. Nesbitt's thesis is helpful only if the power structure stays intact. If women continue to enter ordained positions, the adverse consequences will occur, she contends. However, if the Church of the future loses its pyramid structure, while women continue to enter into positions of leadership, then women will frame a new religious experience for the second-reformation Church. I have no crystal ball on my writing desk, just a few hunches based on experience of past and present. My assumptions are these: The Church is moving rapidly into a new phase. Women are in process of entering the ranks of church leaders. Women need to be even more prepared to assume even greater leadership roles in the future Church.40

The future Church can benefit from leaders who know how to encourage


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