Seat at the Table (Wayne Schmidt)

Earlier this month I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in two events as an extension of my leadership role here at Wesley Seminary at IWU.  The first was to participate in the inaugural National Multiethnic Church Conference, which was attended by a wonderfully diverse group of more than 400 attendees.  Since this event was a “pre-conference” to a larger event, I also participated in the first portion of the National Outreach Conference (NOC), which was brimming with creative ideas for connecting with and transforming people and communities with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the NOC workshops I chose to attend was called “Engaging Women in Leadership.” This is a personal passion of mine since I’ve been blessed over the years to serve alongside many amazing women in leadership.  I also attended because I long for Wesley Seminary at IWU to be a Kingdom force in engaging women in leadership – and to help catalyze this movement within The Wesleyan Church and beyond.

Sherry Surratt (sherry.surratt@leadnet.org) was the workshop presenter.  Sherry is on staff with Leadership Network as well as on the Executive Staff of Seacoast Church (which now has 13 campuses).  Her “research” (not statistically validated, yet quite comprehensive) involved conversations with 220+ women in 200+ churches.  She was seeking to discover why women volunteer more in churches than men, yet….

            …women make up less that 5% of paid full-time ministry staff in churches.

…women make up less that 30% of volunteer leadership positions that involve oversight of other volunteers.

Predominant among the reasons is the failure to fully engage them in the investment of their passions and skills at all levels of leadership.  She went on to give these suggestions for engaging leaders in your church:

  • Assess your current reality – are our leaders predominantly one gender (or ethnicity or generation)?  Why?
  • Access their passion – make room for organic, self-created leadership opportunities
  • Advance their leadership potential – key to this is having women (or various ethnicities or generations) in visible leadership roles
  • Adapt for the next generation – for instance, younger women look very different at “leadership” and don’t want to be called a “leader” but want to be freed to express their skills and energy in the context of their passions.  Women in their 20’s are saying “don’t put me in a box, don’t make me jump through a lot of hoops in a linear leadership path.”  Most often this generation does not lead because they are not interested in the areas of opportunity provided by the church.

Perhaps because of the timing of this seminar on the heels of the Multiethnic Church conference, it also strikes me that not only women are underrepresented in leadership in most evangelical churches, but ethnic minorities as well.  Then there is the challenge of fully engaging all generations.

I’ve come to recognize that in the Church (and in society as a whole) it’s the dominant culture that controls the “seats at the table.”  The table I’m speaking of is the table where decisions are made, priorities are established and strategies are outlined.  In other words, having a seat at the table is having a share of the power that shapes the Church.

Do we practice a form of “table fellowship” in our Boardrooms or leadership conference rooms?  In Jesus’ day there were religious power-brokers (“table fellowship” sects like the Pharisees) who excluded others.  Jeremias puts it this way – “Some religious leaders of Jesus’ day defined their fellowship by who was excluded from their membership.  There were long lists of those who did not meet the definition – women, Samaritans, Gentiles, individuals with criminal records, anyone who was disabled or sick, tax collectors and those considered “sinners.”  Also certain occupations were not considered worthy – camel drivers, sailors, herdsmen, weavers, tailors, barbers, butchers, physicians, business people and many others.  The only people qualified were healthy males of pure Hebrew ancestry who held respectable jobs and followed all the laws of religion.”  (Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, pp. 303-312.  Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1969)

Jesus revolutionized His world by using the “tables” in His life to include rather than exclude others.  He used His influence to provide a seat at the table.  This certainly puzzled the dominant religious culture of His day (Luke 5:30).  Are we more like Jesus or more like the Pharisees when we look around at who has “seats at our table”? 

Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church, shared with me a leadership practice that I want to emulate, and want to be the spirit of Wesley Seminary at IWU.  Her years of faithfulness in leadership and service have led to an abundance of opportunities – seats at lots of tables.  She makes it a point to use her seat at the table to give others a place at the table – sometimes by giving up her own seat.  She has made way for countless others who tend to be marginalized by the dominant cultures in their churches and ministry organizations.

It takes both intentional effort and a spirit of humility to fully engage all people in Kingdom work.  It involves the recognition that “thinking like me” or “acting like me” or “looking like me” isn’t the best criteria for screening ministry roles. The joy is that, beyond the initial discomfort and learning curve, there is a richness to a unity that is not based on uniformity, but a oneness in Jesus Christ.

  • Steve Zerbe

    Thank you Wayne for the thought-provoking insights. I have sat at the table with several wonderfully gifted women as well, and have been at some tables that prohibited women in leadership. I agree with you, we need to solidify this opportunity at the seminary and perhaps in the entire Wesleyan Church.