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Women Speak Up and Out at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit


Condi Rice, Sheryl WuDunn, and IJM’s Pranitha Timothy showed me that women can achieve enormous influence outside the walls of the church.

Allison J. Althoff
Many things caught my attention last week at Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit, but nothing as strikingly as the women in attendance—both on stage and off. Speakers included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Sheryl WuDunn, business aficionado Carly Fiorina, and International Justice Mission’s (IJM) Pranitha Timothy. Christine Caine, co-founder of the anti-trafficking A21 Campaign, also made an appearance to interview entrepreneur Marc Kielburger. Needless to say, as a girl with dreams of someday changing the world, I took it all in from the edge of my seat.

Last week’s event was the highest-attended Summit in the conference’s history. Over 72,000 church and business leaders united at 200 sites in North America last Thursday and Friday to tune in, as the conference was simulcast live from Willow’s South Barrington, Illinois, campus. Individuals from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, the UK, Ireland, Mexico, and Central America were present in house, including leaders from technical companies, consulting firms, churches, businesses, and more. Grammy-nominated "post-liturgical rock" group Gungor was even there to lead worship.

When Rice kicked off the bill of women speakers with a talk addressing the role of compassion in the church and the responsibility that comes with leadership, I jotted down notes like a scribe. “The opportunity to lead carries many responsibilities: The importance is not just having people follow me, but helping people see their own leadership opportunities and potential,” noted Rice. “Our example is Christ Jesus, who called ordinary people to lead, to help in his ministry, and ultimately establish a church.”

After hearing a first-person account of her literal standoff with Vladmir Putin and coordination of “big personalities” in D.C., I smiled—Rice’s gender had little to nothing to do with her professional political success, and actually, high heels worked in her favor more than once, for example, boosting her over the heads of high-powered world leaders, including Putin, a 5’8” to Rice’s 5’11”.

Later that day, WuDunn talked about Half the Sky, the best-selling book she wrote with her husband, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. The collaboration is an astonishing feat: I can only imagine what it would be like to carry out the mission of investigating some of the world’s most cruel injustices alongside my spouse.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, came to the stage as a guest at the end of the first day to share her story of coming to faith in the midst of battling cancer, losing her daughter to suicide, and serving for years as a high-powered business executive. According to Fiorina, Bill Hybels’s persistence kept her pondering the complexities of faith, and after praying with him on stage at the summit a couple years ago, then praying to God on her own for a sign, she began seeing little miracles. At the end of her talk, Fiorina stated that now she lives “unburdened by fear,” because she sees life as “not measured in time—it’s measured in love and contribution and moments of grace.”

On Friday, Pranitha Timothy, Director of Aftercare for IJM, took center stage. She has led over 50 slave rescue operations and helps restore individuals formerly caught in slavery on a daily basis in restoration and reintegration programs. She said God called out to her with words from Isaiah 42 during a chapel service while she was pursuing her master’s degree in social work. After surviving a brain tumor that took her voice, she dedicated her silent self for two years to “giving a voice to the voiceless” with IJM before eventually regaining a voice that is “feeble, but powerful in God’s hands.”

At the conclusion of the summit, I had a stark realization: A number of influential women had delivered keynote addresses, but not one of them was in formal ministry. As someone who dreams of helping to lead or plant a church, I was a bit discouraged at this realization.

Yet it wasn’t three seconds later that I was slapped across the face with an epiphany: When women weren’t addressing the thousands of conference attendees from Willow’s pulpit, the men at the pulpit were affirming them. Craig Groeschel gave a powerful first-person account of his wife’s fervent commitment to the complementarian passage of Ephesians 5 on Thursday, and John Ortberg followed up Friday with a reference to Jesus’ mention of egalitarianism in Galatians 3:28.

I was shocked: God had provided an answer to my prayer with both egalitarian and complementarian passages paired with powerful messages from dynamite speakers from all walks of life. I was speechless.

I then began thinking about the men who had delivered keynote addresses. Four of the nine were pastors. The other five were exercising influence one day at a time, however, in fields of business, finance, education, youth outreach, and more. That not all Christian leaders are in formal ministry seems about right: After all, Jesus did a lot of his work outside the walls of the temple, and found his most committed disciples fishing on a beach.

More affirmation came as I remembered the humble confidence exhibited by every woman who stepped into the summit’s spotlight. I listened carefully as they shared biblical wisdom and testimonies, knowing I would take to heart every word that came from their mouths. I left Willow knowing that, if my Prince Charming doesn’t have dreams of becoming the next John Piper or Bill Hybels, it doesn’t mean I couldn’t have ministry impact of my own. I also knew that, in the words of Pranitha, “The proper source of strength and courage is not willful determination, but a willful decision to remember my will is God’s and my strength is his.”

So, instead of fearing my leadership qualities will manifest in a perceived fire-breathing feminist personality with a self-centered agenda, I’ve learned that every day I am called to surrender my life and talents to God. It’s there, in complete surrender, that he promises to give us a hope and a future—and, perhaps, a Prince Charming along the way.

Allison J. Althoff is an editorial intern at Christianity Today.

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