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Interview: Kate Coleman founder and co-director, Next Leadership

08 March 2013

'The rhetoric of a church may be "equality", but its practice may not'

Next Leadership is an organisation committed to providing leaders in the public, private, voluntary, and church arenas with opportunities to sharpen their leadership performance.

I'm also chair of the Evangelical Alliance Council, which is the largest body serving Evangelical Christians in Britain.

And I am a Baptist minister. I was President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in 2006.

I don't see mentoring and ministry as distinct and separate. Mentoring is very much a part of my ministry. From the beginning, I was always mentoring - usually church leaders at the outset, and I was in full-time ministry for 25 years. But in 2010 I made the shift from local ministry to more extended national and international work.

It's possibly the steepest learning curve ever; but I'm enjoying it. I've found my niche.

Many of my experiences of ministry have been similar to those of my male colleagues. But my experience of ministry and leadership has also, undoubtedly, been textured by my gender, culture, and ethnicity. They've informed my perspectives, priorities, and concerns. And, far too often, they've affected - negatively - how I have been viewed, interacted with, or treated by others.

I wrote 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership [Next Leadership, 2010] primarily because, during my 25 or so years of leadership, I've encountered women leaders nationally and internationally, within and beyond church circles, wrestling with these issues. Second, because I recognised that much of the literature produced for leaders is written by men - and sometimes women - with men in mind, often unconsciously. So, I wanted to write something that didn't overlook many of the unique challenges faced by women leaders.

More than anything else, I wanted to write the book that I could have done with reading before I started on the road to leadership, and came face to face with my own deadly sins.

The seven deadly sins in my book, not specifically to do with church leadership, are: limiting self-perceptions; failure to draw the line (not keeping good boundaries); inadequate personal vision; too little life in the work (not keeping good work-life rhythms - balance isn't what we're aiming for, but getting the rhythm right is important); the "disease to please", or approval addiction; colluding, not confronting (how we deal with leaders who behave badly); and neglect in family matters.

I want to help women have a proper perspective on family life. It isn't everything that life's about, but neither should we dismiss it in favour of our career.

The interesting thing is when we run the [7 Deadly Sins] programme. Each day, the women who run the programme say: "This is the worst one." But the one I think is the most debilitating is our limited self-perceptions. We run this in differ-ent parts of the country; we're just about to start one in Bristol, in April.

A woman's relationship with Jesus may be the most fulfilling and affirming of all her relationships. This is certainly true for me. By contrast, some churches can be among the most difficult and soul-destroying places for Christian women to attempt to flourish. The rhetoric of a church may be "equality", but its practice can be far removed from it. This can leave women - regardless of their context - diminished and uncertain of their value and validity.

Christ gifts his Church in many ways, and some of the gifts are people, both male and female. When churches neglect the gifts of leadership that some women bring, they sentence themselves to being less than God intends.

Whether you start with Catholics at one end, or more fundamentalist Christians at the other, you'll find groups in every context who are very positive about women's leadership, including a number of Evangelical Alliance churches, and Black-led and Bible-based Charismatic Churches - though there are some that aren't. In fact, some can be more liberated than some of the more so-called "liberal" churches. In many Black Pentecostal churches, the expectation is of a co-leadership of men and women.

There's a book, How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, by a number of American and British leaders. It goes back to scripture, and sees if the text says what people have been led to believe it says. I encourage people to ex-plore women's roles.

In Ghana, women's roles are viewed somewhat differently, despite the ex-colonial context. Public invisibility? Lacking the physical capability to do heavy work? That was only ever a perspective that existed for white middle-class women in the West. Most women have been in servitude and expected to do heavy work. So the whole issue of roles is highly confusing: the things many conservative commentators underline as being inappropriate for women to do have only ever ap- plied to a very small group of women. When people really examine their beliefs, the Bible, and what they can see beyond their own context, they question whether what they've been led to believe is reality.

I was 18 years old when I first seriously encountered Jesus. I was at a Christian rock concert, to my surprise, and had what can only be described as a Damascus-road experience. I had been very anti-Christian beforehand: my encounter was incredibly powerful, and everyone I knew, including me, was shocked and surprised when it happened.

My immediate family includes both blood relatives and close friends, who are hugely important to me. I've also got extended family in Britain, Ghana (where I was born), the US, and, until recently, Libya. It's a complicated family structure by British standards, but fairly common by Ghanaian standards.

At the age of 11, I told my head teacher, with my father in the room, that I wanted to be a poet. My father was determined that I would become a doctor; so I did eventually study paramedical sciences at university.

Some people would say the way I preach is a bit like poetry. I love the power of words and so, in a sense, yes, I still write poetry.

I remember particularly a sermon called "Leading while bleeding" by T. D. Jakes.

I regret not having my mother around for much of my childhood. I only got to know her well in my late teens. My parents split up when I was very young, and I was raised by my father and stepmothers. My father was a great father. He had a number of daughters, and was very good with us. There were always female role-models around us.

There's someone who inspires you in each season. Many of those have been women. My mother was one: she was a teacher, and having a profession was unusual for women in Ghana.

Two important mentors have been Elaine Storkey and Emmanuel Lartey. Elaine has been a huge influence. I first heard her when I was at university, and then met her many years later. It's not just the way she teaches, and her pioneering work. She recognised what I had and made room for it. She gave me opportunities and provided a platform when others didn't.

Emmanuel Lartey, also from Ghana, is now in the States; but he was then the leading Black theologian in the UK, and he affirmed me - recognising what I had, drawing it out, challenging me, and helping me reconnect with who I was as a black person. He was a bit of father-figure, and Elaine was a bit of a mother-figure, though I don't know if she'd appreciate it.

A book? At the moment it's got to be Scaredy Squirrel and Jesus' Day Off.

Scotland: there's no place on earth like it. Its beauty and ruggedness -you're close to God up there, I think. If Scotland was sunny, I'd live there.

Proverbs 3.3-6 is significant: it's my life verse. At the moment, my least favourite part of the Bible is the story of the appalling abuse, both before and after death, of the Levite's concubine in Judges 19.

I love the sound of water by the sea, a lake, or a stream.

I'm annoyed by lack of thinking and consideration, just making things unnecessarily difficult; re-cently, the craziness of an institutional decision that effectively un-dermined the mission of some churches. I can't say what, no. But it's that sort of stuff that gets to me the most. Women often just give up on the system and go it alone, church planting, or setting up their own businesses, because systems tend to have a more masculine culture, and it can be difficult for women to thrive in them.

I'm happiest when I'm relaxing with friends.

I pray most for people I mentor and work with.

That God is still for us in spite of us - that's what gives me hope.

I'd like to be locked in a church by myself. I spend most of my time interacting with other people, so just me and God for a while sounds great.

The Revd Dr Kate Coleman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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