Women in Leadership: Saying Yes

This post is part of a series examining issues surrounding women and leadership.

In the summer of 2001, I found myself beginning to think about transition intentionally for the first time in my life. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school, and for the first time, people began to ask me more intentionally and often about my plans for college. I realized that people I had called friends were graduating and would no longer be staples in my high school hallways. I was beginning to get intimidated about taking the PSAT and other standardized tests and figuring out that nebulous concept called “the future.”

In the midst of these transitions, I embarked on a bike trip with my youth group en route to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Nashville. Over seven days, I was encouraged and supported by my youth group as we pushed our bodies hard on a seven-day pilgrimmage to convention. Upon arrival in Nashville, we participated in seven days of worship, servant projects, relationship-building and more with thousands of Mennonite youth from across the country. I don’t remember a lot about that week. But one thing I do remember was a speech given by Shirley Hershey Showalter, then president of Goshen College, during one youth worship service. Showalter talked about the cloud of witnesses that was present among us and had gone before us, and that were cheering for each of us young adults spread throughout the worship hall. She invited a host of adults up onstage as a symbolic show of support and hope for our collective futures. I remember being struck by the power inherent in this small gesture. As I looked around at members of my youth group and my youth sponsors, I was struck by the knowledge that I was

A Cloud of Witnesses

surrounded by people who loved me, supported me and would walk alongside me as I transitioned into each of these new life phases.

I feel particularly blessed to have encountered new mentors in each new phase of life, who were able to offer advice to me, to name what they saw as good in me, and to encourage me to pursue goals that were sometimes even bigger than I was able to conceive of for myself. There were my parents, who continually dreamed big dreams for me. Teachers and professors, at all levels of education, who affirmed my gifts for writing and thinking theologically, and who pushed me to be better and not to settle for mediocrity. There have been co-workers and supervisors who have invited me to take on responsibilities that seemed too big or too daunting and helped to guide me successfully through a process. Each of these mentors have offered abundant affirmation, but also criticism and suggestions for improvement at key moments. These mentors have been open and honest with me, and shared their own stories and struggles.

And so, for me, here is the encouragement that underlies even the bleakest statistics: that there are many adults who are willing and interested in helping to develop the next generation of leaders through mentoring relationships. Leadership development for me has not just been a trendy development: it has been a lived experience. These mentoring relationships have been of the utmost importance for helping me to build a base of confidence that has allowed me to say yes when new leadership opportunities arose.

But I know that not everyone has been lucky enough to be accompanied by such encouraging mentors. One of the greatest holes that has been identified in development for new female leaders in the church has been mentorship. Not too long ago, I had dinner with a group of women about my age who were lamenting the fact that they part of the way through graduate academic careers with few strong female allies in sight. If you do not necessarily have easy access to church systems or to individuals who make mentoring a priority, engaging in leadership at any level can feel daunting and may not even seem like an option.

I currently have been given the opportunity to serve on a task force of women within Mennonite Church USA who are examining ways to build a network of mentors and to continue to connect women with one another. Sharing our stories with one another and spending time affirming the new leaders who are just beginning their careers is not just a bonus: it will need to be a priority for the church if we hope to keep expanding our pictures of who and what leadership looks like.

I have been thinking about this recently as I realize that 27 is no longer 22 or 18, and there is a new whole new generation of leaders already emerging behind me. Leadership is a journey and it’s a posture that we can engage in any position and interaction.  I have a responsibility to continue to encourage new leaders, just as my mentors encouraged, and continue to encourage me.

Several years ago another former Mennonite college president, Lee Snyder, encouraged me by sending along this poem (which also appears in her excellent memoir), and I still carry it along with me when new opportunities continue to present themselves. I offer this poem to other compatriots on this leadership journey, in hopes that they will be empowered to continue to “say yes” when new opportunities arise.

Say yes quickly, before you think too hard
or the soles of your feet give out.
Say yes before you see the to-do list.
Saying maybe will only get you to the door,
but never past it.
Say yes before the dove departs for, yes,
she will depart and you will be left
alone with your yes,
your affirmation of what you
couldn’t possibly know was coming…
Keep saying yes.
-Sherri Hostetler, A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry

Who are the mentors who have helped to lead you along the way? What obstacles stand in the way of your saying yes? Has finding willing mentors been a challenge?



Filed under Leadership, womanhood

5 responses to “Women in Leadership: Saying Yes

  1. Rhoda Blough

    thanks for your insights on women in leadership but more importantly those women who have mentored each of us. Some of those woman who mentored me are in that great cloud of witnesses cheering me on from above (there are also some men up there too cheering me on!). I find it interesting as I think about these women and there roles in my mentoring, they are not just older women but those like you, Hannah who are mentors to me. Thanks for being that role model for me. I love your posts! Rhoda

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Thanks, Rhoda! I am so grateful to have many good women like you in my life, too. It gives me lots of encouragement for the journey!

  2. Shana Boshart

    Thanks for this, Hannah. Rhoda’s comment about you being a mentor to her too makes me think of how important encouragement is to women at all ages. I am encouraged by your life and leadership, and I want to be an encouragement to you.

    I also love that the root word is “courage,” because that is so much at the heart of stepping into leadership roles. As we give one another courage, we are all en-couraged–there’s a multiplying effect that empowers and nurtures all of us women leaders.

    Blessings to you, and thanks for this blog!


  3. Allison Siburg

    Hi Hannah – This is a phenomenal post that speaks to a huge challenge in the personal and leadership development of girls young women. If we don’t have mentors to bounce ideas off of, to hear words of affirmation, to dwell in open and honest big life-God questions, then who do young women have?

    As a part of confirmation, each of us kids were assigned a mentor at church, an adult who we weren’t related to – we hit it off and Joanne was one of the wedding coordinators for Timothy and I!! When I didn’t want to go to college, she encouraged me to at least apply to her alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University.

    It’s those little words of encouragement, and fun outings to coffee and the theater that speak volumes in retrospect – that I was worth her time, and in that way she valued me and loved me — told me that I was worthy to be loved. What a huge message to tell kids through action. Mentoring is such a significant part of my faith and life journey, I hope I get to mentor people in the future!!! I hope we can talk about this sometime, this is similar to the topic of my Master’s thesis – the role of the church in young women’s vocational discernment – and the role of mentors, female mentors, plays a HUGE part in that!

  4. Thanks, Hannah, for mentioning my talk so long ago and saying what was important to you. I love the comments of your other readers, also. We can mentor each other at all stages of life. A mentor doesn’t have to be older.

    This post encourage s all of us to seek mentors. They are all around us.

    Yesterday I had the chance to have tea with a former high school teacher/mentor of mine, Miss Riehl. I had not seen her in 46 years, but we experienced pure joy together. I was able to thank her for seeing more in me than I could see myself. I told her she had given me this courage with her eyes and her voice. We both got a little misty-eyed and then laughed at ourselves.
    “I’m a teacher too,” I said.
    “Then you know,” she murmured.

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