By Rev. Penny Lowes

In celebrating Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, United Church Funds (UCF) celebrates the 51 to 52% of persons who make up the world’s population. In other words, women are the dominant gender on our planet.

While there are many women who have joined their male peers at the pinnacles of power and influence – Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris, Oprah Winfrey, Janet Yellen, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Karen Georgia Thompson, General Minister and President of the UCC – to name a few, the world’s top positions are still overwhelmingly filled by men. Fortunately, UCF is unique in providing excellent leadership opportunities across lines of gender, race and ethnicity. (In 2023, UCF’s Board was 56% female and 50% People of Color.)

As someone who has served as Board Chair for various organizations, I believe women bring unique gifts to leadership. Having often stood behind our male counterparts, we know what it means to follow, which gives us an understanding of what it means to lead, as well as how to build women up and how to include them in decision-making roles. Women tend to be unifiers and caregivers, building consensus and desiring harmony. Historically, women are also used to balancing many roles, giving us particular strengths for executing and completing multiple projects simultaneously.

Like many women, I know what it is to be discouraged in one’s search for purpose. Although I became the first female in our family to attain a university degree, the strongest obstacles for me pursuing leadership in the church were set by my own family. In 1972, when I was a high school senior and in the process of applying to colleges, I sat at the kitchen table after dinner with my mother, stepfather and grandparents. These discussions often turned to careers in which I might be interested, as well as the changing roles of women. My family had recently seen women stepping into fields previously dominated by men, such as Marilyn Turner, who was a meteorologist in Detroit, as well as our family’s General Practitioner. My grandfather said that while women could do many things, certain jobs, such as judges or surgeons, were inappropriate for women.

“No one would want to see a woman in those roles,” he stated with authority.

“I think it would be really great to be a woman minister,” I replied.

My grandfather slammed his hand on the table and stood up. “That is ridiculous!” he shouted. “I would never attend a church with a female minister. It would be blasphemy! Enough of this. I’m going home.”

Though I didn’t dwell on it at the time, I guess Grandpa’s opinion mattered, because it was many years before I decided to pursue a divinity degree. In the meantime, I became a successful public-school teacher and later a corporate trainer.

What helped to guide my ultimate career path were encounters with women in leadership roles in the church. As a Christian education director and church volunteer, I began to meet ordained female clergy at the Conference and National settings of the UCC. After attending a workshop led by the Rev. Dr. Ansley Coe Throckmorton, she singled me out and told me I had natural gifts for ministry. I was stunned. As I began serving on Association and Conference committees, it became a regular occurrence for clergymen and clergywomen to encourage me to pursue a theological degree. I attended seminary, graduated with honors and have since served three churches as Senior Pastor. I have also led three churches in the Open and Affirming (ONA) process and served on several Boards of Directors. I’ve been Chair of the Executive Council of the UCC and am currently Chair of the Board for United Church Funds.

Here’s the most important thing to remember: Women in leadership promote the rise of women in leadership! When women are included and elevated, we see the strength, wisdom and competence that they bring to the workplace, church and board room. There is nothing in corporate leadership that women cannot do…and do well.

My suggestion to girls and all women aspiring to leadership roles is: 1) identify women you admire; 2) find a woman mentor; and 3) just do it! Then, become a role model yourself, supporting and elevating other women. Together, we can ensure that women will continue to shape the world in astounding and miraculous ways.

I wish everybody a happy and reflective Women’s History Month.