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
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?