“Go where you’re really needed”
A conversation with former Baptist Union President Kate Coleman and General Secretary Lynn Green
Kate Coleman is a Baptist pioneer: she was the first black woman to become an accredited Baptist minister, and went on to become the first black female President of our Union in 2006.
Following the Presidency, Kate founded Next Leadership, an organisation committed to providing leaders in the public, private, voluntary and church arenas with opportunities to develop their leadership to its God-given potential through leadership programmes and one-to-one and small group coaching and mentoring. 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of Kate’s book 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership (7DS), and among a range of God-inspired and audacious anniversary goals, Next Leadership aims to impact and empower 1 million women through the 7DS materials over the next five years.
In this period of celebrating 100 years of ordaining Baptist women to ministry, General Secretary Lynn Green travelled to Birmingham to meet Kate. Their subsequent conversation explored a range of topics relating to Baptist life and beyond, as well as Kate’s reflections and lessons learnt from her ministry.
Lynn Green (LG): Why is there a paucity of women being called? What are the cultural issues?
Kate Coleman (KC): I don’t think there’s a paucity of women being called. God has always been calling us – and we are doing a lot of stuff! It’s not an issue of calling – it’s an issue of recognition. Sometimes churches are not used to recognising women’s calling. They’ve not been taught to see that. They’re used to what it looks like for a man to be called.
A lot of women just carry on doing the stuff they are passionate about, without, in inverted commas, being properly recognised and acknowledged and released to do it. That’s part of the challenge we face, and that is a cultural piece.
Another part of the challenge we face is that many women look at the institutional framework and say: “Actually, that’s not me. It doesn’t suit me, it doesn’t feel like me.” And so they go elsewhere. That’s what tends to happen. You see the same thing happen in business (even though business is doing better at addressing this): women are opting out of the corporate and heading into the entrepreneurial.
LG: That’s interesting, because I’m wondering if we have a higher proportion of women as pioneers? As you step out into a pioneering situation, there’s more chance to create your box.
KC: And to create the culture you want to operate within. I think that will be one of the huge challenges we will have in finding more women for traditional Baptist ministry. The institutional structures are masculine structures. They’re made for men, and men feel happier in them. It’s difficult for women to feel a sense of comfort and ease, unless they’ve developed an internal framework that allows them to exist well within that context, and to do just as well as the guys do within it.
My observations across the denominational structures and emerging churches is that women tend to be more pioneering. I think that’s partly because they can create their own culture – although it’s not articulated in this way.
LG: I’ve been really blessed. I’ve been able to serve in the trans-local roles because of people like Grenville (Overton) who were happy to think outside the box. I said ,“This is what I can do, this is the way I can do it.” He was able to say: “Let’s see how that could work.”
And it was made possible. Even in this role. That’s one of the changes I’d like to see - more flexibility. That’s where men and women can work together, making and shaping space for women to stand in.
KC: It’s the challenge of translating our articulated desires into something that actually looks and feels like a place where both men and women can stand and thrive. So I don’t think we will see more women who are called entering those spaces, unless it becomes patently obvious that they can do things differently.
LG: Have you read Marcus Buckingham’s book? (Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently?) He talked about: look at what you really want; how do you want to work; write it down; and then ask for it. That’s what I did with my regional role. When the opportunity came, I said “Can I do this?” rather than simply accept a specific role description. That was a particularly empowering book that helped me find my shape. Don’t be afraid to ask for a different space to be made.
KC: I’m often saying to the people I work with: “Have you asked?” Because the reality is, it’s not been part of the framework. Most people aren’t thinking about it. You may be the first person to say: “Can it be done this way?” Or, “can I do that job, rather than that job?’ You don’t know until you’ve done it, because by and large people haven’t thought about it. I think that is critical, and it’s going to be key to some of Jane’s work (Jane Day, our Centenary Enabler, who took up her post in September), to encourage that. “I know that’s what was requested – but I can see this. I can bring this! How about that instead?”
Are women called? Yes, but they’re not always willing to ask, or are not sure they have permission to do that.
LG: There are some Union cultures that are very alpha male, and I thought there is an oppression there not just of women, but of men not that far on the spectrum. If women can do it differently, it also means other people can do it differently. It’s for both men and women to find our shape and not be defined by gender stereotypes.
KC: By and large if you work with the most powerless and dispossessed within a culture, you end up having to work to empower everyone. Within our church structures, if you work with black women, for instance, you end up having to liberate everyone.
LG: While we’ve seen more women come into ministry, it’s been recognised that BAME women find it very hard. What are your reflections on BAME women having their callings recognised? Are there additional challenges?
KC: I think there are additional challenges. There are similar categories of challenges: structural, cultural, behavioural and personal. A lot of this is about perception and becoming aware of the fact that the structural challenges look slightly different for different kinds of women. There won’t be a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to dealing with this.
Some of the challenge to BAME women is actually white women. Some of this is understandable. For example, in spaces where there are very few women, women will often compete with each other. Therefore we need to create more space for all women, to minimise this challenge. For BAME women, they’re rarely offered opportunities to find themselves in such spaces. They have to be invited in.
Then the way they do things such as ministry, preaching, leadership, the whole behavioural and personal challenge, is also different. So the challenges they may face even within their own cultural frameworks, will differ from those faced by white women.
And then it can be misinterpreted across frameworks. We used to say in black theology circles, you almost have to operate out of a "hermeneutic of suspicion". We have to say, “I need to question my interpretation of and response to what’s going on here,” in order to create the space for something different, such as an approach to ministry, and for somebody different to thrive.
I remember fairly early on in my ministry, there were certain approaches I would take that were assumed to be wrong. And this came from white women telling me, simply because it didn’t fit the paradigm they were used to or expected. There is some irony that x years later, what I was trying to do then is now what we’re all trying to do!
LG: The early pioneers, a generation or two before us, had to find a space on the terms of that space. By them doggedly standing in that space, in the way that space determined, has meant that people like you and I can find and stand in different spaces.
We need to keep reflecting on how we stand in that space, and how we support each other.
KC: I think it’s less nuanced than that. Sometimes I find myself having a conversation, even with what could be a BAME group. And the nature of the conversation will be: “Do you remember how the Israelites became the nation of Israel. By the time we get to the New Testament, they are a colonised and oppressed people – but they still manage to find another group to suppress – the Samaritans. Part of the challenge we face as women, is to resist that temptation to find another group that we can put down, or exclude.”
Just because we’ve been in a position of being ‘colonised’ by the structures or certain kinds of men, doesn’t mean we’re incapable of doing the same to others. We have to recognise that the temptation to oppress others is in all of us and one kind of woman is just as capable of disempowering and oppressing another kind of woman. We have to resist this temptation.
LG: All these things connect with Next Leadership. Can you tell us a little about that?
KC: The idea is to encourage, inspire, mobilise, through coaching, mentoring and leadership development programmes. We work with people across sectors, mostly Christian but anybody who is willing to work with a baseline Christian ethos or wanting to see something of God’s kingdom worked out through their leadership. We see leadership development as the quickest way to make the greatest gains in the Church and society.
We work to release people to be transformational and transformative leaders. There’s a quote from Reggie McNeal (in Practicing Greatness – 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders). He says: “Great leaders don’t just appear. They are crafted over time. They practise being great; extraordinary character and exceptional competence develops over time. Leaders must make countless good choices…”
In some ways our commitment is to help leaders to make those good calls and choices. That’s what we’re seeking to do in developing leaders. As we do this, we are seeing some amazing, transformative leaders released into every sphere and sector of society.
We have been able to work with some wonderful people, passionate about seeing amazing change at the social, economic, political and spiritual levels.
You ask me what I’ve been particularly pleased about over the years, well looking back: obviously the book, 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership. Every few months it finds a new constituency. And I hear back from people that: “This is exactly what I need now!” I sometimes slip into the thinking that this is old territory – after all, it was published 10 years ago! But women are finding fresh release and hope through it.
I’m also pleased about the other groups we have worked with, such as UN Women, where we helped to develop curriculum for women leaders in South Sudan – that was truly amazing stuff.
In the most recent past it’s definitely been the work we initiated in early 2019 – launching Role Model Leadership Academy in Uganda. We’ve nearly through the pilot year for that – and have been absolutely amazed by how impactful and effective it has proven to be.
LG: Who are you doing that with?
KC: At the moment we have four local partners including: African Pastors Fellowship, Baptist Union of Uganda; Inspired Leaders International; and Pastors Discipleship Network. We now have a small queue of other leadership networks who want to join us and we are experiencing some demand from nations such as DRC, Kenya and Rwanda.
LG: And what are you offering – a course, coaching?
KC: The course we are running at the moment is called ‘Maximise your Leadership’. Essentially, we are creating a huge mentoring environment, for about 100 leaders, both men and women, touching on a variety of subjects, such as what leaders do, why leaders lead, who leaders are…
Because we are two women leading Next Leadership (Kate’s co-director is fellow Baptist minister Cham Kaur-Mann) – we knew that God was in it, when all these men said “yes, 100 per cent we want to come on board with you.”
We asked the local partners to identify 14 coach facilitators between them, and when the first list came back only two of them were women. We asked them to send up to 120 names between them in total. Once again when the first list came back, less than 10 per cent were women. We said: “Are you committed to women’s leadership?” They said: “Absolutely – we’ve got it in all our policies, theology etc.”
So we asked them to revise their lists to demonstrate this, and they were very keen to do so. The next time they sent us very different looking lists, not yet 50 per cent of male and female but better than what we’d had before. The value of doing things this way is we can take a more integrated approach, rather than trying to address women in leadership as a separate issue; and rather than trying to get people to sit and listen to something that’s focused on women’s leadership – (most people don’t want to do that, because it feels contentious and provocative or it leaves people feeling bad – although, to be frank, some people don’t feel bad enough about these issues!) – we’ve decided just to make it a standard part of our leadership development for men and women together without drawing any special attention to it.
So, we offer leadership development, but we always include stuff that challenges theological, leadership and spiritual perceptions around women. It’s therefore of a piece, rather than a separate, marginal issue that we’re bolting on. We’ve found this really, really powerful.
LG: What can Baptists Together learn from Next Leadership?
KC: I’m reluctant to say that it’s just Baptists who can learn from this approach: I think there is something to be learned about leadership across the church in general. Certainly, it’s a challenge for us as Baptists, as well.
We’re (Cham and Kate) both theologians – but we do leadership, and leadership development. There is a perception, and maybe some of this is for our colleges as well, that theological and spiritual literacy equals theological and spiritual practice, and that somehow these cover leadership literacy and practice too. But I am always shocked at how few of our ministers actually know how to lead, practically. As well as an emphasis on literacy (i.e. knowing stuff), we also need vertical growth (i.e. bigger hearts and minds). We are often preoccupied with horizontal growth – let’s teach people stuff, so that they know stuff, and become more knowledgeable, so that they are familiar with different spiritual traditions etc.
But this ends up teaching people how to talk about stuff and perform, rather than teaching people how to be different and to grow up into their identity in Christ. I know people who know how to fast and pray, but frankly, character-wise? I know people who are high end intellectuals when it comes to theology, but do they look, taste and feel like Jesus?
LG: We went through a whole stage of focusing on competencies in ministerial formation. And while they remain important, with our new Marks of Ministry we’re also looking for people who have the demonstrable skills to lead; can lead something; can lead someone into an encounter with Jesus. And that all this is underpinned by spiritual character. Together, these things are vital. So the Marks are much more than: “Can you do this? Can you do that?”, ticking off a list.
And that relates to the pioneering: we said rather than accredited ministry looking like a teacher/pastor, we’ve widened the Marks and said “can you offer leadership by communicating the gospel?” We’re opening the box in terms of what that (leadership) looks like.
Leadership is a gift – it’s a gift to the church. But we are so afraid of it, though not as afraid of it as we used to be.
KC: That’s true.
LG: But we are still pretty afraid of it. Yet one of our four key areas of work as Baptists Together is investing in Godly leadership. It’s not the world’s way, though. We don’t just want to take business stuff off the shelf. We want Godly men and women who are leading in a Christ-like way, because that’s a gift God has given the church.
KC: One of the things we’ve found with Next Leadership is; a quarter of my mentees are accredited coaches, or facilitators. Part of what we offer is that we bring spiritual formation and leadership together, and don’t assume they belong in different boxes.
We want people to actually know what it looks like to lead in practice when you’re trying to bring change. So it’s great to hear about what’s going on with the Marks of Ministry.
LG: 12 years have passed since the Apology, and your Presidential year. What are your thoughts on where we are as a Baptist community on gender and race?
KC: I don’t want to underestimate what has changed, but I don’t want to overestimate it either. A lot of our rhetoric has changed, which is good, and some of our structures have changed, so there are more BAME around to see. Obviously, the fact that you’re General Secretary, says something.
But it doesn’t mean some basic fundamental behaviours have changed. It doesn’t mean the culture is that different yet. We are now doing some of the things we should have been doing, but there’s still much more to be done. I would love to celebrate with a bigger bottle than I feel I could celebrate with at this time!
I think we are seeing some of the same things coming through. Earlier you asked me about some of the challenges for BAME women. One could argue that because I was President things are different. But I know the nature of my ministry and my call: part of what I do is break new ground and hope and pray that people will come in behind me.
Having said this I am very grateful for some of what I’m seeing, and it’s not just to do with the appearance of more women. I’m also grateful for the different kinds of men who are leading through different paradigms of masculinity. I think we’ve seen this particularly with some of our Presidents.
LG: You can have some changes at the top. On the one hand it’s “hurrah!” but on the other it’s “so what”. It’s how it filters through the organisation, movement. And that’s part of the challenge.
KC: There’s a challenge around those regions where demographics don’t lend themselves to dealing with issues like the Apology face to face, and there’s a need for more creativity. For example, in the absence of loads of difference (such as black or brown people), we need to be asking: what does the Apology look like for us in our demographic? What challenges should we be setting ourselves or questions should we be asking ourselves, given that we are not exposed to the people this Apology is talking about? What needs to change in terms of our mindsets, our approaches and how can we test this?
The reality is, and other denominations are having to deal with this too, if we could get on top of this, then a lot of the social tensions that have emerged in the last few years, we wouldn’t have seen. This would have been a no-go area for churches and they could have set the tone for their communities. Churches are often stable entities in our communities, so communities would at least have had one point of challenge. But unfortunately, too often churches have been swept along and followed prevailing social norms of division rather than creating new ones (like we see happening in the book of Acts). Churches have not been encouraged to question their own paradigms.
There’s a whole creative piece that needs to take place. I hear far too often, “We don’t have any black people here, so we don’t have a race problem.” The fact that you don’t have any black people means the ‘problem’ may simply be invisible and probably worse than anyone else’s!
I agree with you that saying sorry is never enough. Unfortunately, I feel the Union was dragged to that commitment in the first place. I know there was a God moment – and praise the Lord for that! But I can’t say I see people rushing to embed the commitment or to honour the God moment in the way it needs to be.
Too often people are trying to ‘understand’ the ‘black’ issue and black people are viewed as singular, one dimensional. There is a need to recognise that all communities are incredibly diverse, and we should expect diversity wherever we go. We’ve just got to give people space and room.
LG: I think some churches are suspicious of the worldly agenda – the sexual equality, race agenda – so one of the paradigms I often talk about is that this is actually a kingdom vision. The whole kind of Revelation thing of all nations is men and women together. As you say, we should be leading the way, we should be the prophetic community, not being cow-towed by some section or agenda.
KC: Absolutely, we should be challenged by God and the fact that God is and has always been doing this elsewhere. I believe He’s provoking us to envy and reminding us that we should be the ones leading on this.
LG: Yes, so I think having those biblical, theological underpinnings – we’re not doing this for someone else, this is something about the nature of God, the nature of the kingdom; actually we should take that seriously. I’ve found people do respond to that very well. That reminder that this is who we are. But as you say – long way to go.
LG: Can you talk to us about your time as chair of the Evangelical Alliance (2012-2014)? It must have been a challenging, responsible role?
KC: ‘Challenging’ is a good word. There was a lot happening in those few years around all sorts of things. They all seemed to pop up in my tenure. Positively, God is doing amazing things with amazing people, beyond our borders. We need to look beyond, as well as within our borders for inspiration.
But one of the key things about chairing the Council, such a large body, even though it wasn’t very diverse at the time, was the significant diversity of thought, and diversity of approach – particularly when trying to resolve issues that were contentious. It was a fantastic reminder, bearing in mind that relatively speaking the evangelical world isn’t that big, that we live on a planet with millions and millions of people who don’t agree with us – with our ideological position, our theological position, who just have a different approach to doing things. This is a fact of life and we need to get used to that. Rather than trying to strong arm people, we should try to see that God is working through them as well. To be humbled, challenged and encouraged by that.
I think for us as Baptists, we should take a look across the aisle. There are people there who are different from you and if there aren’t, there should be. Where are they?
LG: And that speaks a lot into a Baptist setting, where while we don’t have the full breadth of churchpersonship, we do live with difference. That’s part of the way our Union is put together. We don’t have to theologically agree on everything. We hold Jesus Christ as central and we do mission. We covenant together. There’s that positive embracing of difference. Let’s look for what God is doing and accept that while that’s not how I would do it, maybe God is in this, and have a more gracious, generous spirit to each other. I guess that’s on a bigger scale with the Evangelical Alliance.
KC: It’s good to be robust with what we believe. Earlier in 2019 I led the Bishop of Birmingham’s Clergy Conference. I led the Bible studies. I was facilitating conversations and it was interesting to be on the ‘inside’ of a very significant moment for them. One of the things that comes out of that kind of time is both the appreciation of what makes me Baptistic, but also the recognition that each tradition has its place.
Having said this, I’m reminded that God is not committed to the traditions. God is committed to His mission. God is not committed to the survival of the Baptists or any other denomination. He’s entrusted his mission to a community of learners – that’s what the Great Commission is about. If we commit ourselves to being a community of learners, we have joined God in His mission. We become a community of learners, creating learners, who are open to learning and following Jesus in the process.
If I have an encouragement and a fear for our Baptist family, it’s that we will ossify those aspects of family life that we should question and challenge, and we will dismiss, as we have done in the past, our best pioneers, innovators, apostles and prophets. But overall I’m encouraged by some of the stuff I’m seeing that you’re doing, Lynn.
So, my fear is that we will ossify what we should question. And rather than say, “Does this or that serve God’s mission anymore?”, we will dispense with those things that actually keep us learning, stretch us and keep us open to breaking new ground. I recognise that not everyone is a pioneer, or an apostle – but this is about recognising that we exist in a much broader, much wider framework. As long as we stay in that mindset, Baptists could be here until Jesus comes. But if we don’t stay in that mindset? Well, God’s mission doesn’t change, but his personnel do.
LG: I think there’s something about being Baptist in our contemporary context which is very powerful at the moment – it’s not to say we are great, or that we’re the best – it’s to say that God has something for us to contribute, and that’s part of the bigger thing. It is a unique and precious contribution, but there is that sense that we have to step up to the plate to be who God is calling us to be. The following, the learning, it’s a dynamic thing. We have to be on that journey for the sake of His mission.
We bring our distinctive, not as a thing in itself, but as something to offer to the richness of what God is doing. And trust that God is at work in us if we keep our eyes fixed on him.
I’ve reflected a lot on what it means to be a white British Baptist, and how as a Union do we change, develop and embrace these other ways of being Baptist around the world. It can feel a bit threatening, a bit scary – but it could be enriching.
But what are those Baptist things that are the dna, the unchanging, and what is the expression of it in our contemporary culture? These are all big questions.
KC: My own feeling is that we are being an offered an opportunity to explore this ‘identity’ in a way that enables us to lean into the fact that we are a movement, and therefore constantly on the move following the Lord. But I think that’s why it’s a dangerous place. The world is smaller, so I don’t think we really have a choice about it. We’re being offered this opportunity, but it’s going to squeeze us one way or the other and standing still is no longer an option.
One thing I used to say to people (and still do from time to time) is, I don’t consider myself to be an English Baptist. This used to offend a lot of people. I’m one of the most Baptistic people I know – irritatingly so, too! – but I recognise for a long time a lot of people thought I wasn’t Baptist. And my response was: “I’m not an English Baptist.” Baptists come in all kinds of shapes and sizes and I knew for all kinds of reasons that I didn’t fit in that particular box, nor did I want to.
LG: Even just across Europe there loads of different ways of being Baptist, let alone the world. So that goes right back to what we were talking about earlier. History and culture shape what we consider to be important -because of our context.
KC: And there’s nothing wrong in that. There’s something precious in that. The challenge is to not to turn it into an imposition, where we believe that our way of being or doing things is the right or only way. The challenge lies, as you’ve said, in allowing ourselves to distill what it really means to be Baptist. What’s at the centre of it? What can we gather around? Rather than emphasising the borders.
LG: The Declaration of Principle is an expression of a centred set. Christ at the centre, scripture, mission – that’s what we gather around.
KC: But you wouldn’t necessarily know it! We haven’t been great at this. Instead we’ve been pretty good at policing the edges and dismissing anything that doesn’t ‘fit’ with our ideas, particularly when it comes to culture and ethnicity. It should be about taking the journey together.
One of my favourite quotes is by Alice Walker, who said: I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one…the whole story is what I’m after. Somehow, we can forget that our small story is not the only story God is interested in.
On that subject, I want to hear the other stories. I might not agree with them all, I might not want to hear them. But they’re going to help me make sense of the bigger story.
I think that’s part of the challenge of this season. We have an opportunity to do just that.
The more we cling to our small story, the more likely we are to end up as an institution rather than a movement.
LG: On the one hand there’s a confidence in the story we bring; there’s something precious about our story, but it’s not the be all and end all. It’s part of God’s bigger story.
LG: Yes, the unity movement is quite telling. People see through the lens of either or, but it’s a “both and” world. It’s always this – not one or the other; it’s male and female. Confidence means we don’t have to be over protective. In changing times when we feel under threat, there’s a danger of self-preservation.
KC: That’s the danger of the current milieu, I think.
LG: We are in huge transition in so many ways. When I preach on this, I draw on the image of navigating unchartered territory. It’s back to God leading. God goes before us. We find our way in this new place. It’s about confidence and openness.
KC: I think those are two good words. Confidence, openness and also humility. I spend a lot of time with many different kinds of people, lots of different churchpersonship, and I’ve come to appreciate a whole bunch of stuff. But I still feel passionately about what I feel passionately about. And that hasn’t changed. I feel I can talk passionately about those things, but without the need to impose it on others. If somebody walks away and they don’t feel the same as I do at the end of it, well, that’s ok.
LG: Imposing it, that’s part of the fear culture – when we’re afraid of it. We want to force other people to do it, it reinforces our sense of security. We don’t want to lose something precious. We are certainly in interesting times!
LG: As you look back, what lessons have you learnt?
KC: Two key lessons. Discipline and courage. One of my first mentors said to me: “Kate, don’t go where you’re needed. Go where you’re really needed.” He was saying to me, because of who you are, there are many things you could be called upon to do. But actually, other people could do those things just as well or even better than you. Your discipline will be to discern the things that only you can do.
LG: Such a good piece of advice. There are so many good things, what’s the God thing? Particularly as women, BAME, young people; if you’re in any group that’s being intentionalised, so many things come your way.
KC: Exactly. And then it’s the courage to do those things. Even if people are upset. That’s the thing you’ve chosen to do. I think there are so many temptations in national leadership. From settling for stuff to wanting to be known for this or that. But the task hasn’t changed, it is simply to follow, it’s always to follow. If you’re following, then at least you know you have some proximity to Jesus. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s good enough for me!
LG: That’s the sense of being content that God will open the door for you, for whatever He wants you to do. If you’ve got your eyes fixed on Jesus and are following him then it will be what it will be. And that’s enough.
Kate, thank you for your time today and for all your ministry among us over the years. We bless you in the name of the Lord for all that is to come!