“This is the most sexist, racist place on the planet and I am underpaid, understaffed, overworked, and summarily ignored.” Where have you heard that before? Perhaps one of the descriptors resonates with you. If we are honest, maybe more than one of those sentiments has been in our heart (if not on our lips), and maybe more than once in a while. Stay with me—I am going somewhere with this. It may surprise you that this expression of frustration is gender neutral. And, I would propose that the statement is indicative of an identity crisis. I am not suggesting that sexism, racism, inequity in pay, staffing, and a lack of appreciation or recognition are non-existent, but I do want to encourage you not to go there first when you are faced with a challenge.
By God’s grace, I have been blessed to enjoy a successful career in the for-profit corporate culture before serving in the nonprofit culture. When comparing the two cultures, there are distinct differences and surprising similarities. I discovered that, regardless of the setting, to be an effective leader you must be certain of your identity in Christ, follow His lead, and love what He loves. These lessons learned are essential in the Christian education environment.
Who Are You?
In the corporate culture, I progressed in my career quickly. It seemed I was promoted every 18 months or so, to positions of greater responsibility and higher income. I was propelled into leadership very early in my career in a field where most of my peers were Caucasian males. I began my career in finance and moved from there into technology-information systems. And there were numerous opportunities to identify with “isms,” as an African-American woman in a male-dominated profession.
But, I learned a valuable lesson during my first semester in college. I began my college career as an advanced freshman having received credit hours for math and French and needed to take several electives in my first semester, so I enrolled in a drama class. The professor was an atheist and loved to engage Christians in a debate. After several points and counterpoints, he said to me rather loudly, “Just who do you think you are?” I responded, “I am a daughter of the King.” That ended the conversation. Score!! But not really—it was a defining moment for me, but sadly it wasn’t much help for the professor.
Who we are is a fascinating topic. According to Wired magazine, between Black Friday and Cyber Monday in 2017, leading personal genomics company AncestryDNA sold about 1.5 million DNA testing kits. I confess that I bought one. Actually, I bought kits from several companies. I know very little of my biological father; my mother remarried when I was three years old, and I thought perhaps I could learn more about my genealogy. I did. I am a veritable melting pot of nations, and while this data is informative, it doesn’t define me.
We must know who we are in Christ. Our identity must be anchored in Him. And, our identity in Him must serve as our first point of reference in all things big and small. Our value must be found in Him and the price paid for our salvation and freedom. Then and only then can we be free from the “isms” and not defined by them. There is no denying their existence, but the “isms” are not binding or a stumbling block because your value is not tied to your gender, and your worth is not found in your race, culture, income, position, or staffing level. You are free to live in the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 and embrace the plan God has just for you.
If you are in the classroom, administration, or in a supporting role in operations, remember God has placed you there. Being confident in who you are in Christ, you are equipped to help students discover who they are in Christ, the gifting that is unique to them, and the plan God has for them. Your heart must be prepared to see each child as a child created in the image of God. Serving on senior staff directing Prestonwood Christian Academy’s Marketing and Communications department, I also have the opportunity to represent the Christ-centered identity of our school and share how Christ is working in the life of the school and the hearts of our students.
Follow the Leader
In a conversation with a colleague one Sunday morning, he asked that I pray for him. He was uncertain how he could lead his three adult sons to be godly men and assume the role of spiritual leadership in their homes. We were studying 1 Corinthians. I looked at him and said, “I think Paul has the answer for you in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (MEV): ‘Follow me as I follow Christ.’” Every effective leader must first be an obedient follower of Christ.
Life is complicated. We all wear many hats and flow from one role to the next in the course of a day, which requires us to adapt our behavior according to our present circumstance. Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey developed the theory of situational leadership referring to leading or managing by adjusting your style to fit the development level of the followers you are trying to influence. In 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (NIV), the Apostle Paul describes situational leadership this way: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
You are a wife, mother, teacher, CEO, doctor, lawyer, daughter, sister, principal, judge, retail clerk, soccer coach, artist—the list is endless. The fluidity and agility to morph from one role to the next are nestled in your identity in Christ. When faced with challenges that you don’t quite know what to do, ask for wisdom. Perhaps it is time for you to be Abigail and avert a potentially disastrous event by exercising good judgment, or to follow David’s example and not return evil for evil when he spared Saul’s life and ensured no one in his command would harm Saul, or to be as courageous and strategic as Deborah. In any school environment, students are adept at creating unique situations that would require the wisdom of Solomon. Ask God for guidance and, without a doubt, He will provide guidance. Ours is to obey and be ever mindful that our actions speak louder than our words.
We Live in a Theocracy
As Christ-followers, we live in a theocracy and there are only two kinds of people in this kingdom—the saved and the unsaved. Each group is equally diverse and includes men, women, boys, girls, affluent, poor, the able and those with different abilities, all races, tongues, cultures, and nations. And God loves all of us.
As leaders, we intentionally or inadvertently influence others through our decisions, behavior, and words. It is a good idea to do a 360-degree personal assessment from time to time to assess how we interact with those in positions of leadership above us, to those who are within our stewardship, and our immediate peers. Life is uncertain, and people are messy. Perhaps even more essential is having a 360-degree prayer life—praying for leaders, for those within our stewardship, and our peers. It matters to God, and it should matter to us. Going back to my discussion with my drama professor, I wish I could have a do-over. I missed the opportunity to do what God commands us to do. I wanted to be right, but it is more significant to be righteous. I won the argument but missed the opportunity to win the soul to Christ. I was immature in my faith and desperately needed apologetics training.
The unique educational environment in Christian schools develops students academically and spiritually so they are prepared to stand in their faith and lead others to Christ. And, that is true leadership.
[Editor’s Note: This blog is the third of a five-part series on women’s leadership in Christian education that is co-published by the ACSI blog and the CACE blog, in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.]
About the Author
Deborah Johnson joined the leadership team of Prestonwood Christian Academy in the fall of 2013 serving as the senior director of Marketing and Communications. Prior to her time at PCA, Deborah served in ministry leadership positions with LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park in Richardson, Texas. Deborah brings a broad business background gained through more than 20 years in leadership roles with Fortune 500 companies in finance, sales and marketing, and business development. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.