5 myths of men and women leading together

Stephanie Williams-O’Brien

Lead pastor of Mill City Church

  • Leadership

I have been leading with men for as long as I can remember. My younger brother and I were born ready to take charge of our nuclear family ― which wasn’t going to happen due to our two leadership-oriented parents. They set the two of us on a path to grow in our leadership by putting us together and telling us to work as a team.

Ever since the grade school days of figuring out how to partner with my brother, I have had countless opportunities to lead with men in life, work and ministry. It hasn’t always been easy, and it is often not as efficient. But it’s proven to be the most effective leadership strategy I’ve experienced.

I currently co-lead with my husband in our various joint ventures as a couple and serve as lead pastor of Mill City Church, which I planted alongside our founding pastor, Michael Binder. Fourteen years into leading this church, I still get to lead with a great team, including some very gifted men who are strong leaders.

Over the years of leading with men and coaching many women and men as they lead together, I have found many tips and strategies that can help us grow as leaders. Last year, through Seminary for Everyone, a new initiative at Bethel Seminary, I co-led a class on men and women leading together in various settings. The initiative offers online seminary-level seminars to ministry and lay leaders anywhere in the world.

Amid all the best practices, I have also discovered some myths people believe that easily hold us back from thriving in these God-given partnerships. If we can debunk these myths, we will be ready to lead better together than we would on our own.

Myth # 1: Men and women can’t lead together.

Regardless of the differing theological views on gender roles, there are many spaces where a partnership with men and women would be beneficial and best for our communities. It is usually not the belief that we could lead together that is the problem; it is the practical reality of how we might do so.

It’s a fact that many people have not had the opportunity to see men and women lead together well. The few examples some have weren’t ideal or were even negative. These realities can keep this myth alive in the minds and hearts of even well-meaning people. We have the opportunity to forge a path where others can see that even though it means we need to be intentional, leading together can be done in meaningful, God-honoring ways.

Myth # 2: The future is female.

This slogan dates back to the 1970s and has encouraged many women who have felt unheard and underrepresented. I am not interested in taking the wind out of the sails of anyone trying to empower discouraged women. I can see why this phrase has been meaningful to some, but like many other often-used slogans ― printing it on a t-shirt doesn’t make it true.

Sometimes I hear a suggestion like, “If women ruled the world, things would be better.” While I think there is a lot more room for women at nearly every table of power in our world, if women had “absolute power,” it would “corrupt absolutely” ― just like it could in the hands of male leaders.

I deeply hope we see more and more women leading in all spaces in society. However, as Jesus’ followers, our vision of a future new creation where all God created will be made new and restored gives us a picture of what our future actually holds: A new and improved version of Genesis 1 and 2, with men and women co-laboring and co-working with God. People will walk with no shame or desire to control, as the Genesis 3 curse promises we will desire to do until God’s Kingdom fully comes.

Our future can be one of healthy relationships as brothers and sisters that bring glory to God and serve our neighbor’s good.

Myth # 3: The transition to co-leadership is too hard and not worth it.

This is a myth favored by some who tend to be very practical. The way structures will need to change and the adaptive leadership needed to move to teams with both men and women leading together is hard work. The excuses are easy to find: How will we have the same intimacy on the team? How will meetings, conferences and travel need to change? What about those who believe men and women can’t lead together? The list could go on.

As it grows and changes, every organization needs to find the right pace of change for necessary transformation. It’s also important to note that those who have not seen themselves represented may be hesitant to step up when asked. Some deeper discussion and multiple respectful requests may be needed for an underrepresented person to use her (or his) voice. It’s difficult but necessary to accept a “no” when someone chooses not to be the first person of difference to enter the team.

For many of our communities, women have not had as much opportunity to see other women lead in public and in healthy ways. So, my friend, Jo Saxton, and I created this free resource on Empowering Women in Leadership. Both men and women can use this resource to help change the trajectory, so that more and more women step into who God created them to be.

Often the most important and meaningful change and growth are the most challenging and complex. We get the chance to join God in reversing the Genesis 3 curse one day at a time, knowing that brokenness isn’t the end of the story. No matter how much time it takes and how many courageous conversations will be had, it is worth it.

Myth # 4: Policies and rules will prevent problems.

When considering how teams will shift and change when both genders are at the table, some policies may need to be put into place to create clear expectations for your organization. I am an advocate for healthy and thoughtful policies. However, a well-worded policy won’t prevent the deepest problems. Only one thing will prevent potential problems that could arise from women and men being on a team together: the character of those on the team.

Character is what prevents the worst-case scenarios that come to mind, such as affairs, assault or harassment. Policies can be helpful guardrails, but they can also be harmful when we aren’t careful to observe their outcomes.

For instance, a policy about men and women not traveling together might be wise. Then again, the time I spend with my female interns traveling with me to conferences or speaking engagements is rich with mentorship opportunities. It is up to me as a senior leader to be creative about how I can also invest in my male interns in other ways.

Myth # 5: Men and women can’t truly mentor each other.

I define mentorship as investing leadership wisdom in, sharing experience with and giving advice to other leaders. It’s important for leaders of both genders to be mentored by ― and to mentor ― those of the opposite sex.

Will this need to look different and require creativity to do well? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to do effectively.

There have been so many times when a man has told me how the first spiritual conversations he had in his life were with the women in his life ― his mom, auntie, grandma or female Sunday school teacher. Additionally, statistics prove how important in women’s lives having healthy relationships with men who have strong character.

As we become adults, this need to be invested in by the opposite gender doesn’t change. It may need to look very different, but the need remains.

We also have the opportunity to be what many call a “sponsor” for other less-experienced or less-networked leaders. For example, when I suggest one of the men I mentor speak at an event or I connect him with a future employer, I am taking mentorship to the next level and sponsoring that leader. Mentorship and sponsorship are needed for most leaders to reach their potential.

There may be other myths you have observed that would be helpful to be named. If you see these myths emerge in your contexts, I encourage you to say something. Calling them out is a step toward the truths and opportunities we will experience if we stay committed to leading together well.

Certainly, there have been many challenges in my life of co-leading with men. But I’m more convinced than ever they are worth it, not only for our current experiences but for those who will come behind us.

Stephanie Williams-O’Brien, Lead pastor of Mill City Church

Stephanie Williams-O’Brien is lead pastor of Mill City Church, a Converge congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a member of Converge’s board of overseers. She teaches preaching at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul and is an executive producer of Lead Stories Media, a leadership resource company. She co-hosts the Lead Stories Podcast and co-leads the Ezer Collective, equipping gatherings for women in all spheres of leadership. Stephanie is the author of Stay Curious ― How Questions and Doubts Can Save Your Faith and of Make A Move ― How to Stop Wavering and Make Decisions in a Disorienting World.

Additional articles by Stephanie Williams-O’Brien