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18 July 2013

How to raise up women leaders

In October 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban on her way to school. In July 2013, aged 16, she delivered an accomplished and passionate speech to the UN on the importance of education for everyone. Some in her community wanted to silence and exclude her, but instead her voice rang out loud and clear. Watching her turn such a horrendous assault into an opportunity for advocacy reminded me once again of the importance of developing leadership in women. If we don't, then we miss out on the contribution of more Malalas and we are poorer for it. We need action on two fronts – creating an environment where women leaders can flourish, and developing the skills of women.

So firstly, church leaders need to publicly affirm their support for women in leadership. It's possible to do this while making space for a range of views within the congregation, but being silent on the issue allows confusion to win and inhibits leadership in women. Remember the huge diversity of women in your congregation. Some will already be leaders in business, education or other spheres; some will be keen to learn, while others are happy to play a supporting role. Does your women's ministry only cater for some of these groups? If so, what message does that send to men and women? Look at what you are modelling in terms of those who have an upfront role, and find women who can contribute if they don't already. Make sure that both men and women do the less public parts of church life such as serving coffee and running children's groups. Be prepared to challenge those who are disparaging about women, or men for that matter, and nurture an environment where diversity is genuinely valued.

And secondly, be proactive about developing leadership in women and creating opportunities for them to exercise it. Ask women in your church what they need to grow in leadership and what their aspirations are. What's stopping them being leaders at the moment? Identify women who you feel have an aptitude for leadership. Team them up with more experienced women who can mentor them, even if you have to look outside your congregation. Create opportunities for them to take on small projects with support and feedback, and build on that.

Encourage them to attend leadership events, read books or set up a study group where they can talk about issues with others. Some women, not all, will need their confidence built and will need nudging into a leadership role that they will excel at once they get there. I lead a beginners' running group for my running club and although it's open to everyone, 90 per cent of participants are women. Many of them are hesitant to run on their own and assume they're not good enough to join the club straight away, but after a few sessions there's no stopping them.

Raising up women as leaders takes commitment and perseverance at times, but the benefits are clear – an attractive community where all members are enabled to use their gifts in the work of the kingdom. Who can argue with that?

Jenny Baker is a marathon runner and works for Church Urban Fund. She has been involved in developing leadership in women for many years and her book on the equality of men and women will be published in 2014. www.jennybaker.org.uk


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