by Natalee Kasza
I 2008, Citygate Network had 13 women CEOs. Twelve years later, there are 58. (We’ve even added a couple since our big 2020 survey.) That’s a 78 percent increase in a dozen years—not bad for organizations that a decade or so earlier were debating whether having women on the board was scriptural.
Considering that a September 2020 Statista report said only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies had a female CEO, we are doing pretty well. But that doesn’t mean we should congratulate ourselves and take our eyes off of this issue. Instead, we need to learn the stories of our “leading ladies” and promote the advantages of having women CEOs leading ministries of compassion.
For many women CEOs, preparation for their positions began when they were younger. Sherrie Laurie dealt with the challenge of working in a male-dominated field when she started her 20-year career as an airline pilot in the 1980s, flying 747s. God eventually led her to take on the directorship of The Downtown Hope Center in Anchorage, Alaska, in 2014.
“I came from the airline industry, where I faced pushback and doubts from others because of my gender,” Sherrie said. “I flew with men all the time, so I’d learned how to navigate things with them. Everything about the airline industry prepared me for what I’m doing now. Being one of not many women, staying on a flight plan, making decisions, and so forth—God wove all of those lessons into me.”
She began volunteering at the mission, then became a board member in 2010. Four years later, the mission had just built a 14,000-square-foot building and had no income source, yet it was serving 400 people a day. All of the board members except Sherrie and two others left.
“I prayed and fasted for 40 days,” she said, “and the Lord gave me a business plan for the mission. The other board members agreed that the worst I could do was fail, so I became the director. We’ve stayed with that business plan, and all we’ve accomplished has been God.”
For Lisa Chastain, CEO of Gospel Rescue Mission in Tucson, Arizona, “leadership training” began at about age 10 when she and her sisters started working in the office at their dad’s home-building business.
“My dad instilled a work ethic in all of us,” she said. “He raised us like boys—I’ve driven a tractor since I was 11. We learned there was nothing we couldn’t do. He groomed us all to take over his business.”
Although Lisa’s grandfather founded Gospel Rescue Mission in 1953, she didn’t know much about it or about the needs of poor individuals until God called her to minister to them about 20 years ago. She started a nonprofit to host citywide events where people could access emergency services and connect with service providers to get ongoing care. She expanded the event to several cities and was about to take it national in 2017. Instead, God led her to come on board at Gospel Rescue Mission, where she was part of a two-year leadership succession plan.
“Everything God has done in my life in regard to being a female leader started with my parents telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be,” Lisa said. “Any time I face any kind of opposition, I always think of, number one, the way I was raised, and number two, who God has called me to be. Those two things get me through any opposition.”
As the first female leader in Las Vegas Rescue Mission’s 50-year history, Heather Engle faced some challenges when she took the helm in 2018.
“I was not the typical mission CEO,” she said. “I did not come from a pastoral place, nor was I an attorney or bank executive. There were people—primarily males—who didn’t support my appointment as the first woman CEO. Some felt compelled to take my past court record and share it on social media. I was not hurt, necessarily; the fact that I’m a recovering alcoholic, sober for 14 years, has never been private. But they used it to gain support from others in trying to force me to resign.”
“Women get derailed when they think they’re in a competition with men. Be the best possible version of you that you can be, and let God promote you.” —Lisa Chastain
During this turbulent time Heather actually did tell God many times that it would be easier and possibly better for the mission if she resigned. But she let her faith guide her and stuck it out. “I know His plan is always for me to get closer to Him, so I leaned into that,” she shared. “The ridicule was hard on me and my family. However, my mother always said to take the high road until my nose bled, so I did. I firmly believe that fear drives most things, and with this event I saw that fear of losing what you have or fear of not getting what you want was a huge factor.”
Heather found guidance, prayer, and encouragement by reaching out to Citygate Network. Through the association, she met other female CEOs who supported her. She said, “I can honestly say Citygate was a huge factor to me staying and walking through the hard times. I didn’t navigate this alone.”
In Eugene, Oregon, Sheryl Balthrop faces challenges on the opposite end of the spectrum as she leads Eugene Mission. In her secular-humanist community, many perceive gospel missions as backward or regressive, possibly because they have historically hired solely male CEOs.
“The stereotype of ‘unenlightened’ gospel missions being ‘hostile’ to highly qualified women leaders persists in some circles,” she said. “Individuals holding to those regressive stereotypes are often quite surprised to learn that the Eugene Mission not only has a female executive director, but that it also has several women in key leadership positions. My gender has been an asset in muting certain criticisms and stereotypes about gospel missions.”
In fact, Eugene Mission significantly outpaces comparable secular entities in terms of the number of qualified female leaders it employs. In addition, the fact that the local faith community strongly supports female leadership “does much to dispel the negative stereotype that harms missions, women, and the precious people they serve,” Sheryl said.
Sherrie has noticed that women primarily lead Catholic human service agencies, but historically, men have run gospel rescue missions. “That may come along with Protestant beliefs about women in leadership,” she said.
Stacia Glavas, CEO of New Life Mission in Melbourne, Florida, has also observed this. “When I have looked to fill leadership positions in the mission, I have had a hard time finding women who have leadership experience in Christian organizations and churches due to the preponderance of evangelical churches that limit women’s leadership,” she said. “There are professional women with great leadership experience in business or government, but not church. There aren’t many who have been senior pastors or in executive leadership—where they would be responsible for hiring and firing, finances, marketing, insurance, and so forth—which is a great springboard for rescue mission leadership.”
Sheryl has observed this as well, but she believes an additional factor is at play: “The lower representation of women in C-suite roles in rescue missions and ministries is more likely the result of a variety of complex and empowered life choices,” she said. “Qualified women may gravitate to other professional options that permit greater flexibility for career advancement or family time than may be available in top positions at rescue missions or ministries.”
And yet, a limited number of women work in top-level leadership in all industries. Ann Ebbert, president of Cherry Street Mission Ministries in Toledo, Ohio, noted the extremely low number of women in America’s major corporations.
“It has long been the standard in society that women played a certain type of role, and that has been gradually changing. Increasingly, individuals are being placed in the roles for which they are most suited, according to their God-given giftings,” Ann said. “I am blessed by a board that pauses and asks God about people’s giftings first.”
“As male directors retire—many of whom have served in their positions for 30 years—there are a lot more women with social service degrees or [who are] involved in local politics [who can fill those roles],” said Sherrie. “I don’t think anything necessarily needs to change.”
Lisa believes that God will appoint the right person, whether male or female, for the right place and time. “We shouldn’t be discriminated against with a gender bias or any other bias,” she said. “God’s raising up a new generation for mission work. I’ve seen a lot of additional women at director levels who are now running the ministry here. I’m only going to hire people if they’re the right person for the job, but it seems like God has raised up some powerful women for these roles.”
“God’s raising up a new generation for mission work. I’ve seen a lot of additional women at director levels who are now running the ministry here. I’m only going to hire people if they’re the right person for the job, but it seems like God has raised up some powerful women for these roles.” —Lisa Chastain
Some are taking a proactive role. For example, Stacia seeks to build into her female staff: “As I look to replace myself someday, and as I develop leaders,” she said, “I look to mentor the women on my team and help prepare them for these opportunities.”
Sheryl, too, sees the need for enhanced professional support and development for top leaders—without regard to gender. “That would benefit rescue missions and related ministries and the vulnerable people they serve,” she said.
“It’s unfair to be the only person to bring uncomfortable topics to the table with other community leaders. However, I get to stand with confidence on the fact that I am a disciple of a Lord who is creating new possibilities everywhere. That His version of fair is taking the high places and making them low and rough places and making them smooth.” —Ann Ebbert
Some women leaders face pushback because of their gender, but Ann seeks to remember that life can be unfair to everyone at times. “It’s unfair to not have a voice when you are poor,” she said. “It’s unfair to be the only person to bring uncomfortable topics to the table with other community leaders. However, I get to stand with confidence on the fact that I am a disciple of a Lord who is creating new possibilities everywhere. That His version of fair is taking the high places and making them low and rough places and making them smooth.”
Sheryl responds to unfairness by praying for wisdom and a soft heart. “At times, the circumstances call for diligent work for godly outcomes for our guests, staff, and the mission as a whole. At other times, the situation calls for the matter to be left in God’s hands. In almost all situations, I do my best to not make the matter about me,” she shared.
Lisa, who has worked in nonprofit leadership for 15 years, keeps in mind that God created men and women with different gifts.
“I’m not trying to be a man; I’m trying to be the best leader I can using the gifts God has given me,” she said. “Women need to realize the advantages we have in the workplace. Women get derailed when they think they’re in a competition with men. Be the best possible version of you that you can be, and let God promote you.”
When she’s the only woman in a group of men, she takes this tactic: “I try to engage in relationships so they can get to know me and the experience I have. It comes down to respect—others have to respect me for the knowledge I have. The way we always work best together is mutual respect,” she said.
“I’m a glass-half-full type of person, so I don’t focus on difficult circumstances. I’ve never had a negative experience that hasn’t turned into a positive. It’s standing on God’s promise that He does turn bad for good.”
Women in any role can follow Ann’s advice: “I would encourage women to lean in to their gifts and open themselves to God’s amazing possibilities for them, whether that is as a CEO or not.”
Natalee is a freelance writer and editor and a full-time mother of two. She lives in Colorado Springs.
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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional permissions.