Lead Like Deborah
A little more than a month ago I left my position as dean of religious and spiritual life at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., to return to parish ministry as interim pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Summit, N.J. Both places have a strong history of educating and nurturing leaders.
At 175 years young, Mount Holyoke is the oldest of the Seven Sisters, the female equivalent of the once pre- dominantly male Ivy League schools. It is a place brimming with remarkable young women—women who hail from almost every state in the U.S.A. and from many countries around the world. Mount Holyoke students are women with vision and purpose, as well as with determination and power—power that they are unafraid to both name and claim. And perhaps more than anything, Mount Holyoke women understand themselves to be part of a worldwide community that takes seriously their imperative to make a difference in the world for good.
Had the main subject of this month’s Bible study session, Deborah, been alive in the 21st century, she may very well have been an alumna of Mount Holyoke College. She too was a woman who accepted the mantle of leadership and used her power to help transform her world. (back to top)
“At that time Deborah...”
Oh, what a time it was in the life of the people of Israel! Cruelly oppressed for more than 20 years by the Canaanites and terrified of Sisera, the commander of King Jabin’s army with his 900 chariots of iron, they had cried out to God for help. The next thing we read in Judges 4 was this: “At that time Deborah….” At the time when the Israelites were in need of both compassion and guidance, God gave them Deborah. But before we reflect on Deborah’s leadership abilities, as well as our own, let’s think about the use of the concept of time in Scripture, and how God does things at just the right time. As I read those introductory words about Deborah in Judges 4, they reminded me of another woman in the Old Testament who also had a huge role in saving her people, Esther. Her older cousin Mordecai had spoken to her quite persuasively about using her power to save her people. Indeed, he challenged her to read the times (and not The New York Times): “Who knows?” said Mordecai to Esther. “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” When it is time for God to act, God will act—through whomever and whatever God chooses. And when God chooses a woman, watch out world!
In Judges, at the time when the Israelites were yearning for freedom from the tyrannical rule of the Canaanites, God sends Deborah: Deborah the prophet, wife, and judge. It’s amazing how she managed to juggle all those responsibilities. For Deborah not only spoke God’s word to the people, she also kept a household as a spouse, and she was so prominent that people brought their disputes to her as she acted as judge under her large palm tree. She was a leader’s leader, prophet, wife, and judge. And truth-be-told, her husband Lappidoth must have been a pretty exceptional man for the era in which they lived, for he was willing to be the partner of a very public and powerful woman. (back to top)
Juggling many roles
It’s probably not so hard for us to understand how Deborah cared for her numerous life responsibilities and roles, because many women today find themselves juggling multiple priorities. We are teachers and preachers, spouses and mothers, homemakers and home health care aides, congregation council members and civic leaders. Like Deborah, we wear many hats and serve our people—families, friends, coworkers, churches, and communities.
Often times, though, we do not think of ourselves as leaders. We see leaders as those who are frequently in the public eye, speaking both to the people and for the people. They’re the ones with charisma who draw people to themselves. Leaders, we think, are everybody else except us!
But let’s face it, in our day and in former times as well, leaders aren’t always as other-centered as Deborah. Regardless of our political affiliations, one has only to recall the current political stalemate in Congress to realize that sometimes public life produces leaders who are self-serving and lacking in the very vision, compassion, and courage that was so evident in Deborah’s leadership.
What then made Deborah and her strong leadership important in the life of the people of Israel? First, Deborah took all of her roles seriously. She owned her role as prophet, accepting the reality that God had indeed called her to discern what God was doing and to speak God’s word to the people. She was undoubtedly a conscientious wife, caring for her private responsibilities as much as she did for her public ones. And her abilities as judge were clearly unparalleled since she was the only female judge in Scripture.
Not only did Deborah take her roles seriously, but she trusted herself too. She believed that God had placed her in the positions of power that she held and she knew what so many good leaders do: namely, that if God places us in positions of authority, God will also give us what we need to do the work to which we have been called. In other words, Deborah was self- confident. She seems to have innately understood that being a leader means taking risks and stepping out in faith, believing that the gifts and abilities we have been given are to be used, as St. Paul said, “for the praise of God’s glory.” (back to top)
Seeing yourself as a leader
In her own time and her own way Deborah claimed what Jesus had when he read from the scroll of Isaiah as recorded in Luke 4:18–19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In our baptism, whether we claim it or not, each of us have been called to be leaders, to lead others to the grace, love, freedom, and forgiveness of God in Christ through lives of witness and service. Sometimes our leadership will be both public and private as Deborah’s was. Sometimes it will be in smaller venues like Sunday church school where we serve as teachers or song leaders. At other times, it will be in larger arenas like synodical leadership positions. But our roles as leaders might also be performed on our city councils or local boards of education or as members of our children’s Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTOs).
Still, it is far too often the case that we as women resist seeing ourselves as leaders. Books have been written about this very subject. And many of us do so because we think it’s immodest or haughty to see our- selves as leaders and people with power. What’s even worse, though, is that we sometimes allow others to undermine our God-given calls to leadership. Imagine if Deborah had thought that way. She surely wouldn’t have had the guts to say to Barak (and not Obama), “The Lord, the God of Israel commands you…” No, she would not have had the courage to speak for the Lord if she had allowed others to erode her self-confidence in God’s presence and power working in and through her life.
What about you, dear readers? Have you claimed your own unique voice and abilities for leadership within your family, circle of friends, church, or community? Do you trust that if God has called you to serve in some capacity that God will also equip you to do what you have been commissioned to do? (back to top)
Seeing a spark
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the third woman and first Latina appointed to the United States Supreme Court, has been giving interviews about her newly published memoir, My Beloved World. In a very candid and personal manner, she tells her life journey from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, a journey that offers a moving testament to her own astonishing determination and the power of believing in herself. Sotomayor talks about her childhood, a childhood fraught with the ups and downs of living with an alcoholic father (who died when she was nine), and a devoted, yet frequently overwhelmed mother. But she also talks about how she found solace from the troubles at home with her passionate and feisty paternal grandmother.
While most of will never achieve, nor do we desire to, the public stature of a woman like Justice Sotomayor, each of us has a story to tell about what we’ve learned and experienced in our unique life journeys. And we know who our cheerleaders and supporters are—the women, men, and even children who have seen the spark of leadership within us, confirmed it, and encouraged us to use it.
In her book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” author Marianne Williamson wrote words so powerful that even the great Nelson Mandela, the first black president of post-apartheid South Africa, was misquoted many times as having said them. (In fact, I myself made this mistake 16 years ago when I was serving as chaplain at the 1997 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans. Had it not been for the willingness of a fellow E LCA member to write and correct me, I too would have continued attributing the quote to Mandela).
The words that Williamson penned have touched millions of people around the globe and are apt for us as well as we share these concluding thoughts about leadership. She writes:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Deborah understood that her leadership was very much about liberating others—whether it was from the throes of indecision or conflict or from the oppressive rule of another nation. She claimed her God-given power and set about to transform her world. God expects no less from each of us, and looks forward with eagerness and joy to see how our leadership will unfold. Trust, obey, and seize the day—for this is the day that God has made you and called you to let your light shine.
The Rev. Gladys G. Moore is currently serving as the interim pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Summit, N.J. Prior to this call she was the dean of religious and spiritual life and director of diversity and inclusion at Mount Holyoke College where she served for six years. Gladys has been an assistant to the bishop of the New Jersey Synod, and has been a chaplain, preacher, retreat leader, and Bible study leader at many events. Prior to her service as a pastor, Gladys was an elementary school teacher.
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