I was in 3rd or 4th grade when I got my first goldfish. Unlike the dog, this pet was uniquely mine. I kept the fishbowl in my room and had the total responsibility for its care. I changed its water, gave it little flecks of fish food…and yes, I admit that I even tried to pet it. This goldfish was my very own and I cherished it. We must have been learning about the prophetess and judge, Deborah in school about that time, because I named the goldfish Jael.
You remember the story. The prophetess Deborah was leading Israel. The Lord told her to instruct Barak to lead an attack against Sisera’s army of Canaanites who were oppressing them. When she spoke Gods Words to him, he refused. Apparently Sisera had 900 iron chariots and this made Barak a little nervous. “If you go with me, I will go,” he told Deborah, “but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go” (Judges 4:8). Deborah agreed to go with him, but told him that because of the way he was going about things the glory of victory would go to a woman instead of to him. Sure enough, the Lord delivered all the Canaanite army into their hands and only Sisera, their leader, got away. Sisera ran away on foot and was hiding out in the tent home of Jael and Heber. Heber wasn’t there at the time, so his wife was stuck alone with Sisera. While the brave man hid under her rug, she hammered a tent peg through his temple. Sounds messy.
I have never been a very violent person, so naming my fish after someone who drove a peg through a guy’s head wasn’t really the point. I think I was just so excited to hear a Bible story about a woman who did something brave, something that the men wouldn’t or couldn’t do, a woman who did something astonishing for the Lord. Deborah and Jael played an important role in Gods deliverance of His people. They took the lead and got the job done. God spoke His words through Deborah (Judges 4:6) and Jael was considered blessed (Judges 5:24). That was the kind of role model I wanted for my precious goldfish.
We all know that women leaders aren’t always lauded and admired. Throughout world history we have seen sinful pride and honest confusion play its role in the de-valuing of women as leaders and the limiting of their opportunity to serve. Even in our own church history, we have seen controversy over the role of women. For example, C.F.W. Walther, the first LCMS president, strongly opposed women serving as grade school teachers even though there was a severe teacher shortage; or what about the roots of the Lutheran Woman’s Missionary League? It took years of petitioning before the League was recognized as an official organization of the LCMS. The Synod governing boards were concerned that this group would take too much time away from the pastor’s duties. Since they were finally allowed to form in 1941 the LWML has raised over $75 million for LCMS mission work!
When I asked Lois Voeltz, the first woman to teach theology full-time at an LCMS high school, what temptations women in ministry need to avoid, she offered great insight. She shared that even though finding female mentors and colleagues may be a challenge and even though congregations and districts have different, and perhaps confusing, limitations and opportunities for women in ministry, we must resist feeling sorry for ourselves and not become angry or resentful.
Lois went on to say: “It’s not just a ‘man thing’, both women and men are often biased against women. The gender bias is still practiced. There are also many men and women [who] are not biased and affirm and encourage the gifts and talents that God has given. Keep reading and studying theology. Don’t give up when you get discouraged. It’s important [to be a] role model for younger members of your congregation.”
I can see what she means. Given the confusion and frustrations women youth workers may face, it is easy to see why we might be tempted to become bitter. Reading the story of Deborah was an encouragement to me. In Judges 5:7 she calls herself “a mother in Israel.” The picture of her as a mother, and servant-leader doesn’t bring to mind an image of bitterness and anger. The patience and tough love she showed Barak is a testimony of “speaking the truth in love.” I want to be like that! I want to learn to lead with gentleness and respect, ignore my own emotions over how others may treat me, and serve the Lord in the way He would want. The unique temptations and pitfalls we face as women in youth ministry could set us up for a fate similar to Jael the goldfish: frustrations left unchecked could lead us to burn out and face an early demise and a flush down the toilet! Instead, let’s learn from Deborah who led with the firm and gentle hand of a mother. Let’s live the lesson of Jael (the Bible hero, not my goldfish) and bravely do the messy job others (men and women alike) are unwilling to do.