I love the story my mom tells of my first dance recital. Of course, as memories go, it is augmented by the photos: pre-Instagram squares of naturally occurring haze. I am onstage for the tap show in a fringed pink satin leotard with about 20 other preschoolers. Because of my height, I am in the middle with little heads cascading down to my left and right. You can imagine. It is chaos. No one turns the right way or spins on cue, and half of the little girls are looking for a parent’s face. My grandfather is laughing so hard he is crying.
This is vivid in my mind. I’m not sure if I saw the video once and could hear his laughter, or if this is just the portion of the story I treasure most. But, at some point in the routine, I take charge. I start pulling arms to get the others in line and bossing around my classmates onstage. Firstborn all the way, I’m determined to bring order to this mess.
Striving and clamoring to lead has been my story ever since.
Growing up, being a good kid and a good student lent itself to the class office and team captain, but did that mean I could inspire people? Teachers frequently told me I was a good leader, but I sensed they really meant role model. After all, I was not the girl with the entourage in tow through the hallways of our school. Sure, I was often full of ideas (I started a sticker club and a friend newsletter—the 80s version of Facebook), but did innovation mean I was a leader? In college, I enrolled in the Undergraduate Leadership Program to verify if I was indeed endowed with this gift.
As a part of a campus ministry group, leadership felt like the spiritual gift to have, and I was developing an unhealthy envy to possess it.
My story weaves through the muddied waters of American women of faith in my generation, navigating motherhood and ambition, constantly wondering if I was spending my time wisely, always wanting more of what I wasn’t currently doing. I was in ministry for most of my kids’ little years, which offered flexibility but often sidelined me without asking. It seemed that I always wanted more responsibility or thought I could handle more when it wasn’t being offered or asked of me. I had the burden and privilege of having influence without position or title, of working without receiving a paycheck with my name on it. We were a ministry family.
I was his wife, their mom. They were my top priority and greatest herd to shepherd (the ministry term for leadership). If I was too ambitious, I felt like too much in the eyes of teammates. If I failed to fit the mold, I felt like not enough. My too much-ness and not enough-ness were exhausting.
To be honest, in certain seasons, this was more disheartening than I could handle. I started to have an image of myself that went like this: I was sitting in an auditorium surrounded by people. To my left and right were friends and coworkers, changing on the season. From stage, an honor was announced. It doesn’t matter what the honor was—a position, an award, some sort of recognition. The spotlight scanned the room, and as it landed on the person next to me, their name was proclaimed loudly. Repeatedly, I felt like the runner‑up, the sidekick, the supportive friend or teammate, but never the Leader.
I cannot ignore my story as I raise my daughter to understand how women lead. I see too many women reliving their adolescence through their children, striving for the recognition they sought at that age or pushing girls to do more than they achieved themselves. Furthermore, many of us who strive for so long to find our voice end up having a chip on our shoulder. We must resist the temptation to direct any newfound strength and agency toward bitterness. Sarah Bessey reflects on the power of women so beautifully: “As a Jesus feminist, I believe we are part of the trajectory of the redemption story for women in our churches, in our homes, in our marriages, in our parenting, in our friendships, and in our public lives. This trajectory impacts the story of humanity.”*
Jesus loves women, and he uses women to impact the story of humanity. Beyond roles and responsibilities, I believe there is something inherent in all of us to lead for the greater good. Our daughters may grow up to be FBI analysts (my redo dream job), homemakers, engineers, or bookkeepers; and amid their role, I believe they are designed to lead.
Excerpted from A Voice Becoming: A Yearlong Mother-Daughter Journey into Passionate, Purposed Living by Beth Bruno. Copyright (c) Beth Bruno by Faith Words. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
*Sarah Bessey, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women (New York: Howard Books, 2013), 30.
“Furthermore, many of us who strive for so long to find our voice end up having a chip on our shoulder.” I love this statement, Beth.
We can lead gently and lovingly wherever we are. I “lead” my classroom and my students, giving them seeds of hope and wonder. It’s not a jam-packed auditorium, but that’s okay, I I love it regardless.
Thank you for your words.
It’s hard to gain culturally normed “leadership” when it’s ascribed by people who norm it to people they see as like themselves. So in the US, women are “too nurturing” to be business leaders; in Scandinavia, women aren’t the “nurturing mentors” that business leaders should be. You’re so right to avoid bitterness or channeling into your daughter … All we can do is trust that those who follow us are those we are called to lead.
Wow, Beth, thank you for this sweet reasonableness. I love the sound of a woman’s voice in a room, freighted with purpose and confidence, but it saddens me when it begins to crackle with anger and bitterness. It takes so much faith to open our hands to the given when it doesn’t look at all they way we envisioned. I spent my thirties and forties in leadership roles in my church because I had ideas and maybe because I was the bossiest girl in the room, and now, in my fifties, I’m tired. The challenge for me in the next decade is to build into younger women who will be inspired to let their ideas glow and find life.
Beth, though my story is different, the undercurrent is the same. I love the way you have told this story, and the determination you have to let your daughter be herself. You are such a blessing to so many, and I resonate with all you’ve said.