This is one of the many interesting (and kind of horrible!) comments I have had over the past ten months. I started leading our church in September 2016 and had a huge surprise in November 2016 that I was a few weeks pregnant! This was a shock and much as it was amazing, if I am honest, after the initial excitement came a panic. I was so worried about how people would take this news. I actually felt like I had let ‘women worldwide’ down. By getting a job I was so passionate about and that is still quite rare to have, but then getting pregnant and now I was going to change things!
Initially I had no idea how this time ahead was going to look. I have looked for other women who lead churches for ideas and support. Yet interestingly I didn’t find anyone else who had been in this position-if you have or are, please get in touch! I do know incredible female leaders who lead alongside their husbands, so when they had children, they took time out and their husbands carried on. I know amazing women who are now leaders yet they couldn’t help as they had begun to lead when their children had grown up. I haven’t met a friend who is the female lead of their church, whose husband has their own job and things going on, and so they will need ‘maternity cover’.
So I prayed, and the church I lead under, Ivy Church, are incredible. They made me feel so at ease and were so happy for us. So we set to praying about and advertising for maternity cover. As I prayed there was someone I had felt could lead what I was building, yet I had no idea if she would be up for it! Her name is Lucy Smith, and I thought it would be fun to write this post together…
So, I was asked by an Elder at church if I’d consider doing this role. Firstly I thought, not a chance, I’d be terrible! I quickly made a list of all the reasons why it was a bad idea (am I the only one who does that?). I was a classic case of a woman who just didn’t know how I could ‘run’ a church, continue my photography business and a family all at the same time!
My husband, Andy Smith, was so incredibly supportive and has always encouraged me to do what I feel is right, so we started talking it over and he talked to me about what he saw in me. It was one night at a women’s event that Hannah prophesied that she believed there were ladies in the room whose husbands lead but that God was calling them to step up and lead too. She called it out in me. For a while I had taken the role of caring for our girls and running a photography business, but now it felt like Jesus was asking something more of me. So after prayer and lots of chats with my hubbie, I said yes!
There are 3 things I would love us to highlight in this blog. I was going to call it ‘How to do maternity cover well, as a Church Leader’ but I think the current title grabs you a little more! Of course there are many things that help maternity cover to be good. Yet three keeps this short enough I hope!
1. Start Clear
Lucy and I had some really good discussions with staff members and elders about what this arrangement was. Using some brilliant imagery, such as a race. A race in which I have been running, yet now am passing the baton onto Lucy for her to run her lap. I can cheer and shout from the side-lines but she is running, and then will pass back the baton when I return. This helped the awkwardness to leave, made our roles clear, as well as help us with managing expectations.
We also spoke honestly together, we shared how we felt. I was amazed by Lucy’s humility. That she wanted to hold this for me, to grow it the best she could but she welcomed my input. Lucy would message me and we met regularly throughout maternity leave. So I didn’t feel excluded or out of sync, but equally I didn’t feel the stress or weight while being off. It was clear that Lucy was a safe pair of hands, and more than that she was called by God to run this part of the race with our Church. We kept the lines of communication open and discussed things together. Having this clarity and openness helped us both feel comfortable to thrive in our new positions.
As with any new job there was a steep learning curve, but Hannah was great, she supported me as I learned ‘the ropes’. It was a ‘together’ thing. Hannah had already created a great vision for the ‘flavour’ of this IVY church, which included a big focus on worship and family. These are key for me too in how to shape a church culture, so I really enjoyed getting stuck in and building on that culture.
We faced a big change as soon as I started the role, with an end of tenancy for one of our other IVY venues. This meant the congregation grew by 100% over night and we had to work out how we were going to grow team quickly for the influx of people. We had to work out how to communicate ‘our’ culture to the new congregation and try to bring a cohesion between the different people attending.
Throughout the whole process, it was amazing to know that Hannah knew what it was like to be a wife, a mum, and run a church which meant that our conversations throughout were invaluable.
2. Choose Championing
I really believe that you should choose your emotions rather than allow them to control you. I had to decide very early on in the process of choosing Lucy and inviting her into my world, to choose to want this. To choose joy, to choose to encourage and that choice made it easier. It meant it became a genuine want for her to do well, for the church to grow, for things to succeed.
There were, of course, times I would sit at home, with a baby who wouldn’t stop crying and who threw up every few feeds, and see pictures of church meetings or fun I was missing and find it hard. Yet in one of those times I heard a podcast from Jonathon Hesler saying:
“Jealousy is a belief that God doesn’t have enough for you”
Through that one line I felt God speak to me that He does have enough to share with me too. I don’t need to worry about what new things might happen or what I might miss, He has things in store for me too. As well as having something pretty wonderful right here, right now. This also then meant that it when it came time for Lucy to handover back, I wanted to really thank her for all she had done- so with prayer and party we honoured this family!
We often tell my girls, who are aged 6 and 9, ‘you have a choice to grow your sister into your best friend or worst enemy. How you treat her, determines the outcome’.
This is so true, the power of friendship is in our hands! Hannah is my sister in Jesus, and whilst that might sound cheesy, it’s the truth, and the power lies in our hands whether we build up or tear down! This isn’t news to any of you who know the scriptures:
‘The tongue has the power of life and death.’ Proverbs 18.21
It was so important for this to work that we championed each other and believed the best of each other. This is something we feel about the church too – that we want to honour people and champion them so that they in turn can do the same. We even started something called ‘IVY Heroes’ because we want people to feel seen, championed and loved. We want the church to be known for building people up and not tearing people down! But we all know where this stuff starts though right… our own mouths!
They say the definition of humility is ‘not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less’! Championing someone else is a great way to think of yourself less! But like Hannah said – it’s a choice!
I remember one day when I was feeling insecure about me leaving and Jesus said ‘make some word art for Hannah’. I knew what this meant as I make ‘word art’ for people made up of positive words or phrases about them. I sent a piece of paper round and asked the IVY staff to give phrases about why they love Hannah and I added my own. I know it sounds weird, but this shifted something in me! As I championed her, it changed my focus back on her and what it must be like to come back to this role and not just focus on my feelings about leaving.
3. Hold on lightly
..to caring what others think
..to being ‘the boss’
…to thinking you know..anything!
This is Jesus’ church. He is the head, these are His people and His plans will prevail. He spoke to me so kindly through maternity leave and I really know that this wasn’t a pause in ministry. I was ministering in so many ways, I just was doing it on little sleep and with a baby on my hip- which I will carry on doing! God didn’t see this as a surprise; He has plans for my church in this season but also for my children, my family, those around me and for me very personally. As I held on lightly to what He has given me I found that He loves me just the same without a title. He loves me and will guide me and speak to me. I am sure I will blog more about all God taught me through this time, all those I was able to walk alongside, all I saw by taking a step back, how I grew and changed through these 9months. How precious it was to be with my children and have God speak to me through them.
At the start of this role I thought it was a maternity cover post where I was holding the baton for Hannah. Towards the end, our senior leader, Anthony Delaney, described it more as ‘holding the baby’. Due to the big changes that happened when I started the role, it did feel like that. Through the months we had been helping this new ‘baby’ grow well, find it’s feet, learn to walk and talk! We now have a church that looks different in many ways to the one we started with 9 months ago. As I was processing leaving I started to feel very sad and I couldn’t really understand it. I thought that I would be excited to ‘hand the baton back’, but found it was more like a baby and I had grown to love it. I took the sadness to Jesus and asked Him why was I feeling so sad? What I hadn’t factored in was that I had been taken on a journey of self discovery! Jesus knew that I would never had said ‘yes’ to leading a church full time before this. I would have given him a Moses-sized complaint list of all the reasons why I couldn’t. But having done it for a short time, I realised that God had been sneakily training me! What I thought was a temporary assignment became an investment for the future.
The last conversation I had with a few ladies from church before I left was ‘Are you going to miss being a leader Lucy?’ and the response shocked me as it came out of my mouth… ‘I’m still a leader, I’m just not the leader of this church.’ And there it was! What Hannah and my husband, had seen in the beginning, God was taking me through a season of realising it’s ok to know ‘I am a leader’.
To be fair, we all are…called to lead ourselves in our own personal growth with God and lead those around us (Matthew 28!). The journey of ‘becoming’ a leader never stops, the growth trajectory is always up…but it’s not a solo path! God puts us alongside people to champion us and encourage us – and for those people I am eternally grateful and I would not be where I am without them! We all have a choice: to celebrate and champion those people God has put around us, or to tear them down and discourage them…and for Hannah’s choice I’m eternally grateful!
I have found this such an interesting experience. I have met so many people who have asked Qs about how we have managed this. Lucy and I went away to a conference in January together, just us two. Most people that I told that I was here at this conference with the lady who was doing my maternity cover said variations of ‘oooh isn’t that awkward!?’. Yet the answer was actually a massive no! It was the most lovely time, we shared a room, prayed together, helped each other with talks, chatted family and challenges and church and future. It was mainly women, who have sought for this to be an awkward or challenging thing, and I guess it hasn’t been perfect the whole time, as I said earlier. We are humans after all. Yet I am proud of us, I am thankful to God and I am excited for how God will use us both in the future. It feels a shame for it to be seen as an awkward thing, or how we can create a stumbling block for welcoming female leaders. Yet I believe it can and does work. More than that, it needs too.
“So are you the ‘other woman’ or is she” – We are both the women, we are all His people and we need everyone in order to build His Kingdom.