Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 04/09/2009 by Leslie Wiggins.
Not Recommended. By turns polemical and rah-rah regarding women's roles in the church, but ignores God's biblical design.
Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church by Nancy Beach will be loved or hated depending on where the reader lands regarding the debate surrounding women's roles in the local church. There are basically two camps: egalitarian or complementarian. The egalitarian position says, after synthesizing all relevant scriptures, that in Christ there is no longer male nor female, that God has gifted his children as it pleased him, and that women given the gifts of leadership and teaching ought to enjoy the same opportunities to serve, teach, and lead in the local church as men do, even filling the role of pastor and elder. The complementarian position says, also after considering all relevant scriptures, that in Christ there is no longer male nor female, that God has gifted his children as it pleased him, and women given the gifts of leadership and teaching ought to enjoy the same opportunities to serve, teach, and lead in the local church as men do, with the exception of the role of pastor and elder.
Nancy Beach, an executive vice president of the arts for the Willow Creek Association and a teaching pastor for Willow Creek Community Church, is a committed egalitarian. However, Gifted to Lead does not include a defense of the egalitarian position. Instead, Beach, whose natural abilities and spiritual gifts are in the areas of leadership and teaching, offers insight into what it's like being a female member of "the boys' club" and how women can go about moving up in the leadership ranks of their churches.
Beach begins with her life experiences. From childhood, Nancy knew she was different. She recalls a moment in time at which she realized she was not just like her mother (whom Nancy describes as the traditional stay-at-home mother) but that she was smart, ambitious, a leader, with "lots of ideas." She confesses that she often wondered if something was wrong with her because she was so different from the women and other girls in her life. Though it took time, Beach accepted her abilities and gifts from God, affirming that "He didn't make a mistake" when he made her unlike the traditional female. Beach emerged as a leader in every sphere of her young life, including her church youth group, led by Dave Holmbo and Bill Hybels.
In Chapters 2 through 4, Beach shares the lessons she learned as a woman in a position of leadership over men in her church. Her first leadership role for Willow Creek was programming director. She worked very closely with Hybels to lead "a small staff and many volunteers through the process of creating and executing our weekly services." She eventually became their first female preaching pastor. She highlights many of the same things that can be found in any typical leadership manual or bestseller: character, humility, confidence, focus, integrity, a sense of humor, diligence. She also devotes a few pages to issues that arise any time men and women work together, exhorting women leaders to use wisdom when relating to the men on their teams. She offers help for initiating and navigating difficult conversations, saying what needs to be said without becoming labeled a harsh female, and dealing with a few things that male leaders rarely, if ever, face, like difficulties in microphone placement, the fashion police, and "other female challenges."
Beach attempts to express gender neutrality. Try as she might, she just can't get away from, "God created them male and female." On the one hand, Beach is adamant that she can lead just like any man can, that emphasis should not be placed on her gender. She defends her leadership style by calling it "her" style, implying that the tendency to be very nurturing has nothing to with being a woman. On the other hand, Beach writes that women should never stuff their femininity in order to fit in with the men on staff, that it's alright to lead out of that femininity.
As I read the first few chapters I noticed some sexism. For instance, Beach says that she can tell when a woman is trying to overcompensate for being a woman. Later, while reading chapter 5, "And Then We Had Kids!", I was very offended by Beach's opinion of full-time wives and moms, children, and women in general. Beach's writing, though probably not intentional, is patronizing, sexist, and self-centered. Most of her examples of admirable women center on how they have benefited her in one way or another. In one paragraph she tells of her joy of becoming a mother, but most of the chapter revolves around the difficulties children create when one is attempting "big things" in this world. She implies that women who choose to stay home with their children are not driven, ambitious, and gifted to lead.
Beach offers a backhanded compliment to wives of ministers, elders and deacons: in describing how frustrating it is being in "the boys' club," Beach declares, "I need a wife!" She admits her jealousy over the male leaders who did not have to be concerned with child care, cooking, laundry, or housekeeping. She imagines that fulfilling her calling would be easier to do with a wife at home. Beach demonstrates her ignorance of what it really takes for talented, educated, gifted, ambitious women to submit to the authority of God's Word and serve their husbands and families for the sake of the Gospel. Beach writes as if she thinks a ministerial wife's life is carpool, appointments, cooking, cleaning, scrapbooking, and waiting for her minister-husband's next directive.
I wanted to quit reading right there, but my curiosity got the better of me. I turned to "An Open Letter to Male Pastors and Church Leaders." In this chapter, Beach assumes that your pastor - whoever he is - has not thoroughly studied the issue of women in the pulpit; that he's probably relying on centuries of church tradition, and that, perhaps, he believes all women need to be just like his mother. To help, she recommends some books, recommends using a "gender-accurate" translation of Scripture, and shares her thoughts on the pastor's responsibility to advocate for women. Like the proverbial frog in the pot, Beach recommends that a pastor begin a slow, controlled introduction of women into the pulpit. For her final [weak] argument, she asks, "What will they [the people in your community] think of the church that doesn't recognize women can teach? Why would the world want to be a part of something that oppresses women?"
This is disingenuous, for the vast majority of Western churches do not oppress women in any way. Beach would argue that refusing a gifted woman her role in the pulpit is oppressive; rather, the opposite is true: telling women that their gifts are only useful when it comes to teaching children and other women is oppressive. She continues, "The decisions you make about women in leadership will have a ripple effect for generations to come." Absolutely correct. All one has to do is look at the effects of feminism in our culture to realize the validity of that statement. There isn't a truer one in the whole book.
Beach also offers advice for leaning into one's "tribe" and the importance of developing friendships (but not because you're a woman!). She is open to the possibility that a woman gifted in leadership and teaching may have to leave her church in order to serve where her gifts will be appreciated. She also believes it is very important to find one's "voice." In support she incorporates the essay "Voice" by Jane Stephens. It is strange and almost incomprehensible.
It probably does not need to be pointed out, but I did not enjoy reading this book nor would I recommend it. Ultimately this book does not usher women into the fullness of God's biblical design for women.