Feminine Leadership

Feminine leadership looks like a spider carefully constructing a web of connections, spinning with her sisters an inclusive community; each thread making everything stronger and more beautiful. Feminine leaderships recognizes our interconnectedness and our dependence upon one another. When lead in a feminine way a community is able to embrace vulnerability, radical truth telling, and loving-kindness. This community honors the elders, cares for the web spinners, and nurtures the young.

I have been wondering about how to cultivate my own leadership style and how to demonstrate a different kind of clergy leadership, when I received this email (I used brackets to allow this family to be anonymous):

“And a funny anecdote from this morning… for background, we usually introduce adults to [My four-year-old Daughter] as “Ms. {first name}” or “Mr. {first name}”  While you were opening the service today, [she] started asking questions (as she usually does), looking for particular people in the Zoom gallery view, or wondering why people didn’t have cameras on, etc. [My Wife] finally said “Let me listen to Ms. Karie for a few minutes, please.” [My Daughter] quickly replied, “It’s Pastor Karie, Mommy.” So thanks for being an example of a woman with a special title!”

More than anything, I want to be the kind of pastor that young children can look to as an example for what women are able to do and be, but not just because I’m a girl in a collar but because I can lead in a different way than male clergy simply by embracing feminine images of God, and feminine forms of leadership. I do know male clergy that embrace feminine images of God and lead in ways that may be considered feminine, but those men are still seen as not typical.

In chapter 8, “Cocreating” in her book “Wild Mercy” Mirabai Starr affirms interconnectedness as a way of understanding the divine by sharing stories from indigenous peoples and mystics about the divine feminine as a spider. “In many indigenous traditions, the feminine face of the Holy One takes the from of a spider that weaves the world into being, affirming our mutual dependence with one another and the planet we share.” (p. 147) After sharing a few examples she says, “The essence of these spider stories lies in the truth of interconnectedness. When the Great Weaver spins the yarn of physicality and weaves the tapestry of creation, she is fashioning a web in which every link connects to every other link. Everything is vitally, extravagantly interconnected.” (p.148) Mirabai’s writing is vivid and her knowledge of a vast variety of traditions is astounding. In the same chapter, she also recalls how Hildegard “got away with worshiping Mother Earth… through the church approved lens of Mother Mary and Mother Sophia. Otherwise she would likely have been marked as a pagan and condemned as a heretic. According to Hildegard, it is Mary who spins earthly matter into being and weaves it tighter with the heavens so that all of creation is interpenetrated with the sacred. In Hildegard’s theology, Mary merges with Sophia, Mother Wisdom, who dips one wing to earth while the other soars to heaven and, in her ecstatic flight, quickens life.” (pp. 151-152). The divine feminine weaves us all together, connecting us, and bringing us life.

In chapter 2, “Leadership in the Round” of her book “Church in the Round” Letty M. Russell sites the Girl Scout Organization as an example of feminine leadership with “the national and regional Girl Scout staff in a weblike structure in which ever-widening circles of staff and volunteers are woven together by multiple lines of communication, and decision making flows around and across, not up and down a ladder of authority.” (p. 57) I love this, because I didn’t realize it while I was a girl scout, but looking back on it now, my troop leaders modeled this kind of leadership for me. They made connections with other Girl Scout leaders and their volunteers to put on day camp and other activities where I saw women encouraging and caring for one another. “In feminist styles of leadership, authority is exercised by standing with others by seeking to share power and authority. Power is seen as something to be multiplied and shared rather than accumulated at the top. A feminist leader is one who inspires others to be leaders, especially those on the margins of church and society who do not think they are “somebody”. Effectiveness is related to how well the leader empowers those who are assigned marginal roles because of systemic racism, heterosexism, classism, sexism, disables, and the like.” (p.57) Being a leader breaking down systemic anything is difficult and scary, but the good news is that being a feminist leader means that I can not and will not go it alone.

Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead” highlights parts of her other works for leaders to provide practical strategies for “Daring Leadership” and gives examples of “Armored Leadership” which is less desirable. Daring Leadership includes: “Modeling and encouraging healthy striving, empathy, and self-compassion; Practicing gratitude and celebrating milestones and victories; setting boundaries and finding real comfort; Practicing integration-strong back, soft front, wild heart; Being a learner and getting it right; Modeling clarity, kindness, and hope; Making contributions and taking risks; Using power with, power to, and power within; Knowing our value; Cultivating commitment and shared purpose; Acknowledging, naming, and normalizing collective fear and uncertainty; Modeling and supporting rest, play, and recovery; Cultivating a culture of belonging, inclusivity, and diverse perspectives; Giving gold stars; Straightedges talking and taking action; and Leading from the Heart” (p. 77).

I found in Brene Brown’s description of these daring leadership styles elements of what I would call feminine attributes. Her idea of a wild heart seems similar to Mirabai Starr’s wild mercy as she describes the kind of leadership that integrates strong back and soft front. “For me, that strong back is grounded confidence and boundaries. The soft front is staying vulnerable and curious. The mark of a wild heart is living out these paradoxes in our lives and not giving into the either/or BS that reduces us. It’s showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, and above all else, being both fierce and kind.” (pp. 90-91) Side note, Both Brene and Mirabai swear in their writing and there is something incredibly ‘real’ about the way they use language. Brene is a tends to be ‘safe’ in her usage, like spelling BS instead of writing the entire word. Mirabai is much more free with language.

In ‘Using power with, power to, and power within’ and ‘giving gold stars’ in Brene Brown’s work, I noticed connections to ‘leadership in the round’ and with my experiences with Girl Scouts and with leading the Pittsburgh Chapter of Days for Girls. I think feminine leadership is about including, empowering, and celebrating each and every volunteer. And creating ways in which volunteers are able to connect with one another to continue empowering and celebrating on their own. The web our community weaves is made of love.

In June of 2014 I took a trip to the Pittsburgh Botanical Gardens and captured this image of a spider as she was spinning her web. I watched her for a long time (and took other photos too). The web is on a construction vehicle, a bulldozer I think, that was in the middle of a wooded area. I loved the juxtaposition of the machines and nature. Building the park paths certainly meant destroying some of the nature I was there to enjoy. I wonder if the spider saw her web as a protest to reclaim what once was before the machines plowed it down.

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