The Frightening Power of Alpha Leadership

Men and women behave very differently when they first enter a boardroom.  The men identify the alpha person in the room, then position themselves in relation to the alpha.  Every man will take a seat indicative of his perceived rank in the hierarchy.

Once the meeting begins, rank is confirmed by who speaks the most quickly and confidently. Extroverts and quick processors have an edge.  Introverts and slow processors are at a disadvantage.

Women are expected to find their place in this patriarchal ranking system.  That’s why there are books targeted to women with titles like, Lean In and, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.  If they refuse to play by the rules, the women are summarily dismissed.

Other even more unsavory determinations are also made when men first walk into a room.  If they are straight males, they are inclined to sexualize females.  There are exceptions.  Men do not sexualize alpha females.  In fact, they run in the opposite direction.  Castration anxiety is real.  If the woman is not an alpha, however, the men will be inclined to sexualize her at the same time as they rank the woman in the power hierarchy.

It is important for males to acknowledge this reality, because if it is not acknowledged it can wreak havoc.  If men had good role models and appropriate instruction in their formative years, they quickly stop themselves from sexualizing women, almost before they start. They have been made aware of these male tendencies and of their agency to refuse to empower them.

But those are some awfully big “ifs.”  A lot of men did not have good role models or appropriate instruction.  A lot of evangelical men had no instruction at all.  They were taught to deny their sexuality, which leads to shame and an increased lack of ability to recognize when they are sexualizing females.  It also leads to a lack of owning the fact that a man does indeed have agency when he is with a woman.  He does not have to act on his impulses.

When both sexual attraction and agency are denied, what you end up with is the Billy Graham rule, also known as the Mike Pence rule, where a man refuses to be in a private meeting with a woman.  What is not acknowledged is how this diminishes the humanity of the woman in favor of “protecting” the man.  Talk about patriarchy!

There is something even more sinister.  As a male, I spent most of my time with other powerful males.  The narrative they told themselves was that they needed to avoid private meetings with women because, “there are a lot of women out there who want to bring down a powerful man.”  Yeah.  Right. I cannot tell you how often I heard that ridiculous narrative.  A lot of evangelical males will go a long way to deny their fundamental sexuality.

Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, comes to mind.  What he did was so far outside the bounds of acceptable behavior that he should be suffering severe consequences.  The last thing his church should be doing is trying to reconcile prematurely with the women he abused.  What they should be doing is educating other male leaders about what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different if Hybels had come to grips with his sexuality early in life.  What if he had learned to acknowledge it, and control it, long before he gained the power that gave him so many opportunities to make inappropriate advances toward women?  Unfortunately, if you deny the reality of your sexual impulses, it should come as no surprise when you deny the actions that result from those impulses.

Alpha males set the tone for how women will be treated.  If an alpha male sexualizes women, the rest of the men are likely to follow suit.  If an alpha male ignores women, the men will likewise follow suit. If you have any question about the power of an alpha male in a boardroom, you need look no further than press pool video of cabinet meetings in the current White House.  It is frightening.

There are few places in my life in which I feel more upside down than in a boardroom.  Are the men ignoring me because I am an alpha, or because I am an older woman, or both?  I have no idea.  But I can tell you with certainty that it annoys the hell out of me.

Watching everyone ranked and/or sexualized is disturbing.  I think, “Oh please, dear God, tell me when I was a male I was not like that.” I know I did not sexualize women. I refused to do so.  But when it came to the ranking system, I was more of a participant than I would like to admit.

There are so many difficult lessons I am learning.  Hardly a day goes by that I do not find one more thing to grieve about my male life, and many of those discoveries are about power and patriarchy.

How do we move from a system of alpha leadership to a system of collaborative leadership? I am not sure.  There are some of us who have moved toward a Trinitarian-inspired leadership model, but I’m not kidding myself.  The alphas still carry a lot of weight.  But the first step toward fixing a problem is recognizing its existence.  And oh my, am I recognizing its existence!


Nothing to Fear

When I was in college I used to go spelunking with four friends.  Carter Caves State Park was near my Kentucky home and we explored the dark tributaries of its caves. Three of us did not weigh an ounce over 150 pounds, but our fourth friend had the bearing of a offensive tackle.  The rest of us could wriggle through narrow openings into fascinating interior caverns while he was left alone on the other side of the divide.

That is how I felt at the She Is Called conference in Denver.   Capped at 50 attendees, the conference was focused on women in leadership.  For me, the highlights included a session on sex and power led by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, and Jen Jepsen’s talk on her awakening to white privilege.  I assisted in one conversation on Thursday and gave the keynote address on Friday evening.

Though women never treat me that way, I often feel like an interloper when I am in decidedly feminine spaces.  I believe my feelings are based on something more than self-deprecation.  The women were talking on Thursday about the cyclical lens through which they view the universe.  I do not have estrogen coursing through my body for 14 days, followed by progesterone for 14.  I have estrogen all 28 days.  I am always in the “feel good” portion of a period.  My experience is linear, not cyclical.

My surface life is pretty unremarkably female as I enjoy a satisfying and meaningful existence, but once I start crawling more deeply into the cave, I discover spaces into which I cannot fit.  But I can get close enough to see what is inside, and what I observe is fascinating.

Women are unafraid of intimacy with one another.  They don’t have the, “How ’bout those Bears” fear of physical touch that men so often express.  Most women are comfortable with each other’s bodies and at home in close spaces.  But I also observe that many of the same women are not comfortable in their own bodies.  After millennia of being treated as objects, they have bought into the notion they are only as good as they look.  This particular problem is something I understand.

As a male I never paid much attention to my appearance.  If I did glance in a mirror, I was comfortable with what I saw.  As a female I feel that way, let me think, yeah, never!  I always look in the mirror and find myself lacking.  The first response I had to seeing my TEDxMileHigh video was to cry, not because I was proud of the video, but because I thought I wasn’t pretty enough.

Carla and Kate, who host the She Is Called podcast and helped lead the retreat, bought dresses at Judith and Joe, a boutique in the Rhino neighborhood of Denver.  During Thursday evening’s main session they interviewed Brandee Castle, one of the owners.

You can be sure many of the rest of us were well aware we would never look as good as Kate and Carla did in their dresses.  It’s just not gonna happen.  We were thrilled for them, but acutely aware of our own limitations. Of course, the truth is that every woman at the retreat looked amazing, but none of them thought so.  And there is nothing you can tell them that will change what they see in the mirror.

When it comes to what you see in the mirror, I can squeeze into the cavern.  I understand that experience.  But there are other spaces into which I cannot crawl.  What did I see through the narrow tunnel as I looked into those spaces?  I saw women who not only thought they were not pretty enough, but women who thought they weren’t enough, period.  They measured themselves against the other women and came up lacking.

On Friday evening I encouraged the women to work more collaboratively and empower one another.  But the more I think about it, their tendency not to empower one another is not from any attitude of scarcity.  It is from a deep-seated lack of belief in themselves. They do not realize that if they harness all of that feminine energy, they can bring the whole world into alignment.  They have a hard time seeing their own power.  You cannot empower others when you are convinced you are powerless.

From my little space in the cave’s tunnel I saw what these women could not see.  While they saw dark rock walls, I saw rich earthy minerals ready to nurture growth.  What I saw was crystal clear water running over beautiful formations.  What I saw was the power to heal the nations.

On Saturday morning, as these beautiful women shared their thoughts about the retreat and laid bare their feelings as they read their own poetry, I realized I have nothing to fear.  These women will find the freedom and courage to empower themselves. I hear it in their voices.  And they will empower one another. They will change the world, and we will be better for it.  The Divine Feminine is alive and well.

Every Bit As Much, and More

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by a Detroit newspaper.  The reporter asked, “In watching your TED talk and reading through your articles, I notice you often refer to feeling unheard as a woman, but you never mention the difference in how people respond to your preaching now that you are a woman.”

I had not been asked the question before, and it got me thinking.  There is actually a discernible difference in how people respond to my preaching as a female.

People always responded well to the preaching of Paul.  (My apologies for speaking about myself in the third person, but sometimes it’s just easier.)  After preaching at a megachurch in Chicago, one woman said,  “Hey, what you said in your sermon, well, that’s the conclusion I was going to reach next month.  Thanks for getting me there a little earlier.”

You always want to be one step in front of your audience.  If you are a step behind, they are bored.  If you are two steps in front, they are confused.  But if you are a single step in front, they are ready to hear the insights you provide.  And that is what people are looking for in a sermon – insight.

I always want to be one step in front of my audience, and I always want to provide both information and insight.  I want them to say, “Oh I never thought of it that way before.” I have always wanted to touch both mind and heart, for that’s where the soul resides.

As a male in American evangelicalism, my presence carried weight.  I had authority, granted by my education and accomplishments, but mostly by my status as a white male.  Because I spoke to the right brain as much as the left, I was well received by women.  In fact, women seemed to be a good bit more responsive to my messages than men.  I used to speak at men’s retreats every now and again, but I was never a favorite.

When I preached as Paul, I felt alive.  With the exception of how I felt as a father, I felt more alive preaching than at any other time I was living as a male.  After I came out as transgender, it was 18 months before I preached again.  The first time I preached as Paula, I used a sermon I had preached before.  I paired it with different illustrations, but the guts of the sermon were the same.  I wanted to be as comfortable as possible, and I needed the continuity.  The sermon went wonderfully, but because it was a sermon I had preached before, the main sense I felt was comfort and familiarity.

The first time I wrote a new sermon as Paula, it was different.  Very different.  The writing process felt like I was opening drawers that had remained closed, well, forever.  There were no depths that could not be plumbed and no thoughts that had to be censored.  I brought all of myself to my study.  When I preached that sermon, something else happened.  People listened as I had never seen them listen before.

There is no question that as a woman I am often ignored by society.  But when I preach, I feel as though I have every bit as much authority as when I was a male.  In fact, I believe I have more.  I think it is because I have the courage to exist in the world, to answer God’s call to be true to who I am.  It is as though the audience says, “She was rejected by the church, but she still loves it, and the Spirit who gave birth to it.  So if she is still in the church, then I wanna hear what she’s got to say.”

People do listen, carefully.  They lean in and take to heart the words I speak from my own heart.  I really enjoyed writing my sermon and preaching this past weekend.  I’ve attached a link below.  I feel a pleasure preaching that gives me great joy.

I was made to preach.  Yes. Paula was made to preach.  And it is wonderful to preach every other week with another human who was also made to preach, Jen Jepsen.  We are the preaching pastors of Left Hand Church, and we love it!  And thanks to the hard work of our co-pastor Aaron Bailey, we will preach the Word, in season and out, for as long as we are able.


What If You Held a March and No One Came?

There was a march in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to celebrate “freedom from homosexuality and transgenderism.”  Well, for starters, “transgenderism” is not a word. It is a made up noun.  But it’s easier to invent a word than it is to say “transgender people” because, darn it, if you do that then you have to acknowledge they are people.

Of course, it is not nouns from which these people want to be free.  It is people, people who are gay or transgender.  So let me ask, how is that different from wanting to be free from people who are not of European ancestry?  Yeah, I thought so.

Julie Rogers wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about the rally.  Turns out it might not have been necessary.  Posted pictures didn’t show hundreds of thousands, or thousands, or even hundreds of attendees.  There were a few tens of attendees.  Yep, that’s it.  The low attendance might have been because the march was poorly promoted, but I wonder if something else isn’t going on.

Younger Evangelicals are coming to understand what the rest of the world has known for quite a while.  The church has done a terrible job teaching about human sexuality and gender.  The evangelical purity culture ruined an entire generation of teens when they made it difficult for them, even in marriage, to find sexual pleasure.  They could only see sex negatively.

The same is true when it comes to how the church has handled gender.  To keep the patriarchy alive, for centuries the church has disparaged an entire gender!  To this very day evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are still at it.

The march was a flop because Millennials and Generation X  don’t much respect the church on issues of sexuality and gender.  They have moved on, while the Boomers who still hold to their hard and fast categories have too many knee problems to march.

Even many of those evangelical leaders who still occasionally speak up against LGBTQ issues are less than enthusiastic.  They are not about to show up at a march.  As one megachurch pastor told me, “Most of our people have moved on, but our money hasn’t.”  These guys (and they are all guys) are just biding their time.

Don’t get me wrong.  The war is not over.  There are still a lot of dangerous people out there who want “freedom from homosexuality and transgenderism.”  But when you look at their dwindling numbers, their threats look pretty weak.  They still want to kill the messengers who remind them of the church’s failure on these subjects, but their arsenal has been reduced to a few pebbles lobbed in our general direction by people with weak throwing arms.

At Left Hand Church, all three of our pastors are the messengers. Aaron Bailey is gay.  I am transgender, and Jen Jepsen might be the worst offender of all.  She is a straight female who dares to stand in the face of the patriarchal system and say, “Not on my watch.”

There may have been a tiny celebration in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, but there was a far more life-giving celebration in Longmont, Colorado.  At Left Hand Church Jen preached a wonderful sermon about Jesus affirming us as we are.  Then Justin Bullis sang a Billy Joel song (you know which one) and Kate Gaddis brought us to tears with a beautiful communion meditation about the thin places where the lines between heaven and earth come together.  The entire service was a beautiful celebration of true love.

There will still be large rallies attended by thousands who want to deny the rights of gay and transgender citizens.  But Saturday’s march in D.C. is a more reliable sign of what’s to come.  Their days are numbered.

On the other hand, Saturday’s celebration at Left Hand Church is also a sign of what’s to come.  Love is rising, my friends.  Love is rising.

Into This Briarpatch

Into This Briarpatch

The writer D. H. Lawrence said a writer sheds his sickness in his writing.  No one escapes it.  Read any author long enough and you will see the nature of his or her ongoing struggles.  I’ve recently noticed it on reality television, where couples work together renovating houses or selling real estate.  You can see some of the marriages are headed for the exit unless there is serious intervention.  It is painful to watch.

I have lived my transition publicly.  Over a half million people have watched via my TEDxMileHigh talk.  Every day I hear from transgender people and their families from all over the world.  Women from five continents have thanked me for validating their experiences of discrimination.  I understand that by writing and speaking about my life I am doing something for the greater good.  But I am always walking a knife-edge with my transparency.  It is easy to drop into egocentricity or self-promotion.  I mean, really.

My writing could also be presumptuous.  Who am I to think I know anything about the female experience?  I said in the TEDx talk, “I often feel like an interloper, a late arrival to the serious work of womanhood.”  For that reason I tread lightly when I contrast my life as a male with my life as a female.  All I have is my experience as a transgender female.  But still I write, because so many of my discoveries have been about how a person holds his or her space in the world.

As a male I rarely thought about how a person holds space.  I just was.  I expected the world to make room for me and it did.  That’s the ease of being a well-educated white male.  If I was in a group of men, we were conscious of who the alpha male was, but we had little difficulty holding our space.  In religious spaces, women were pretty much patronized or ignored.  It is shocking to me that any of them stuck around.

I have noticed that women often feel uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces.  They have had decades of teaching that when they are in that space their value is determined by how they look more than what they know. When their expertise is acknowledged, they are judged by how quickly and confidently they speak.  In short, they are judged by how male they are.

It is rare that I feel pulled back into male ways of functioning.  But when I am in a room full of men, it is tempting.  That is how it felt at the retreat I wrote about two weeks ago.  But that is not my strongest temptation.  The strongest temptation is to stop working with men altogether, to leave the patriarchal ranking system and learn from watching women work.  I know that is not a real solution, because there is serious work to be done.

Women must not back off from infiltrating male-dominated spaces with their storehouse of wisdom.  I know they are weary of being ignored and dismissed, but the men will not get there on their own.  And the men must make room for women.  That will be difficult because a lot of men have yet to learn the art of listening.  For instance, they have not yet begun to think about new kinds of metrics.  In the church world, the metrics have always been weekend attendance and per capita giving.  What if we measured the quality of relationships instead?  That is the kind of change I am talking about.

There are men who are already there, like Mark Tidd, one of the co-pastors at Highlands Church, or Eric Jepsen, Jen’s husband, or my co-pastor Aaron Bailey.  All three hold their own in male dominated spaces, but when women are in the room they seek to empower, not dominate.

I don’t have many answers, just observations.  Being a woman in the world feels as natural as can be.  But I have been undone by how it has changed the lens through which I view the world.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be ranked, tokenized and ignored.  I am deeply pained when I watch dear female friends and family be dismissed by groups of men.  I want to scream, “Don’t you know who she is?”

I cannot find language for the depths of my discomfort.  But I will continue to wrestle, because I have come to believe this is one of the holy reasons I was led into this briarpatch.

And so it goes.