Moving towards competent leadership: Strategies for an anti-sexist church

Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church. She earned an M.A. in Religion from Duke University and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Melissa is committed to the local church building power for local, systemic change as members of diverse coalitions. She is a board member of Friends of L’Arche North Carolina, a community for people with and without intellectual disabilities who share daily life. She is also on the steering committee for the Women in Leadership Project. Melissa and her spouse parent their three children in Durham, North Carolina. She is the author of a forthcoming book by Herald Press.

Several years ago I read a 2013 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” After I finished applying ice to my forehead from the injury I received when banging my head on the table, I began to wonder how this article might speak to my own experience in Mennonite Church USA.

In the article, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argues that the reason for the absence of women in upper level management positions results from “our inability to discern between confidence and competence.”[1] More often than not, we mistake hubris for leadership.

The problem is that being self-assured in one’s abilities — the quality it takes to get into a leadership position — is the inverse of what it takes to be a good leader. And the primary quality for good leadership is humility. More often than not, this is a quality women possess in spades.

As Chamorro-Premuzic points out, “whether by nature or by nurture,” women outperform men in emotional intelligence. In studies analyzing thousands of managers across 40 countries, men were consistently more arrogant, risk-prone, and manipulative than their female counterparts.

Women, by contrast, were more likely to adopt effective leadership strategies, “to elicit respect and pride from their followers, communicate their vision effectively, empower and mentor subordinates, and approach problem-solving in a more flexible and creative way.”

Men possess all the talents to find their way into top level leadership, to make it through a hiring committee, and to show themselves as self-possessed and confident in their success. Women can actually do the work. “The result,” writes Chamorro-Premuzic, “is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody’s detriment.”

Could such a thing be true for religious institutions?

As I thought about the context of this article, there is one major difference between the corporate structures described and Mennonite Church USA. Mennonites boast of a flat organization system. We are, after all, a “priesthood of all believers.” We like to think we have done the work of elevating voices at the margins.

But the money — those who are paid for their work — tells us a different story. The vast majority of pastors in MC USA are men. There has never been a female president of Everence (Mennonite Mutual Aid), Mennonite Economic Development Association, or Mennonite Mission Network. Only three women have been presidents of Mennonite colleges (there will be a fourth next year, and Sara Wenger Shenk serves as president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). Both MC USA Executive Directors have been men. Currently 17 men serve as a lead conference minister. Three conference ministers are women.

In some ways, a flat polity with high representation makes it easier to mask the realities of who has power. If you are paid for your work, you have the time, energy, and insight into how to navigate the system. When the majority of leadership positions in MC USA consistently trend towards male leaders, it becomes apparent that women and people of color are being utilized to present diversity through unpaid or underpaid labor, while men profit from their work.

Not every man who serves in leadership in MC USA is incompetent (I have competent white men friends!). And there have been calls recently to see a change to compensated leadership at the top levels of the church. We’re seeing change in Mennonite higher education with the appointment of Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus as the new Goshen College president and the recent hiring of president Susan Schultz Huxman at Eastern Mennonite University. I have heard the significant desire for the new Executive Director of MC USA to be a person of color and/or a woman.

While I applaud this desire, the reality is more complicated. I’m reminded by colleagues and friends in the Mennonite Church that top level positions only go to people of color and/or women when the ship is on the rocks. If it’s going down, we want to make sure it’s not on the watch of one of our white male leaders. Who wants to be at the helm for that, to take on the responsibility of mistakes and missteps of those who came before?

It’s a complicated time for women in Mennonite Church USA. What are we supposed to do in a system that both rewards incompetence and uses the talents of those at the margins of power to mask sexism?

One options is that we, as women, begin to organize ourselves. We can initiate calls before Executive Board and Constituency Leadership Council meetings for women to strategize around the agenda, and to commit to amplification of each other’s voices. We can organize calls after these meetings to identify sexist behaviors and procedures, a space where we strategize as to how we will better approach these roadblocks in the future. We can do the work within ourselves to recognize how femaleness is complicated by race, sexuality, and class, and how personal and corporate work to identify and address differences in power will strengthen our solidarity.

We can ask that the work already being done around anti-racism monitoring be deepened to include others at the margins of power, including women. We can request documentation at MC USA meetings — who spoke and for how long, what ideas were implemented, who was assigned what work, who was given credit for previous work, who was interrupted while speaking. We can pursue a full power analysis of MC USA, its structures and agencies, one that extends to multiple marginalized voices and communities.

The church has always struggled to resist the cultural influences of sexism. But there have been hopeful moments of egalitarian communities here and there in the history books. The same Holy Spirit who has sustained the matriarchs of the church in the past will sustain us now. What our foremothers passed down is still true today — no one is coming to save us and there is work to be done.