by Jenni Wong Clayville
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
At age sixteen, I knew God was calling me to lead in ministry. I just didn’t know what that meant. At that time, I had never seen a female pastor lead, so the only way I could imagine being involved in ministry was by becoming a pastor's wife! Not only had I not seen any female pastors in existence, but Chinese-American women in leadership were a completely foreign concept (no pun intended). So, as doors started to open up, I was often the first and only woman in a leadership role. Though intimidating, it was exciting, and I am thankful for the many advocates I had along the way.
But, in my passion and ambition in the early years of God’s Kingdom work, I made some pretty big blunders. There were spaces I was privileged enough to be invited into as the first woman (and woman of color) with a seat at the table. Still, it didn’t always mean I was invited into the decision-making, and it was a frustration I often grappled with. Lacking the wisdom of experience, I sometimes pushed my way into being heard and getting things accomplished. Because of that, there was a mess of collateral damage from wrecked relationships in my wake. I was pushing my agenda so hard that I lost some equity with my team. The goal of “The Win” resulted in me losing the trust of my coworkers. I thought I was being zealous in doing the Lord’s work, but I was, in fact, burning bridges and hurting others with whom I’d been called to partner.
Finally, a mentor took me to coffee and lovingly pointed out that I was tipping into ambition and pride, carelessly burning bridges with people God entrusted to my care. At the time, I was hurt and defensive toward this act of accountability, but over time God revealed that though I was called, I was advancing ahead of Him with pride in my heart. What an incredible teaching moment.
It was painful to realize that my actions caused reluctance in people working with me. It was beautifully humbling to learn that even if I was right or had the best ideas, it counted for nothing if I wasn’t trustworthy. I needed to learn to lead the 1 Corinthians 13 way of loving selflessly. Building trust with others meant that I had to learn to approach things first with questions instead of critiques. I learned to begin with “help me understand…” and practiced listening well, which meant asking even more questions to fully grasp their perspective. With this new practice, my team began to see that I truly valued them.
It’s been over two decades since these life-teaching events occurred. In my more recent years of training and encouraging the next generation of brilliant and talented women in leadership, two practices of focus have risen to the top.
A “Rule of Life” is a process in which you write out essential priorities to stay focused on balancing your overall life holistically. Just as I need sleep, food, and exercise for my body, my soul and spirit need regular practices to be with God in Scripture and prayer. These practices are nutrients for my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual life. As a recovering workaholic, I especially need to intentionally sabbath regularly. This means making time to rest weekly and not entering into the new week tired. My goal is to enter into Sabbath, ready to commune with the Lord.
I have found a much more balanced and focused understanding of God’s call on my life through regular quiet times, walks outside, and quarterly silent retreats. I have set regular alerts on my phone (a few a day, if I’m honest) to jar me out of work as a reminder to stop and breathe in the Holy Spirit. I schedule regular meetings with my mentor for accountability. And finally, I work intentionally to keep my boundaries in check to stay in tune with the Spirit. This ensures that I’m not taking my cues and calendar mandates from others but always first from the Lord. My calling from God is to bring the lost into his Kingdom. This has expressed itself in different ways over time, but being faithful to my Rule of Life provides me with a clear focus on my calling.
When I get frustrated, it’s essential to dive into the actual root of my frustration. I ask myself: is it because I am feeling undervalued or unheard, or is it because I feel convicted that God is calling me to speak up about something that’s missing? Checking motives matters. Secondly, HOW I choose to respond matters. I need to ask: “Am I trying to push my own agenda, or am I inviting others into the process?” Remembering that God desires collaboration with others keeps my pride in check. Our God is a triune God working in communion with each other, so why would we, as the Imago Dei, the ones made in his image, do it any other way than together in community?
Passion and gifting are great in a leader, but they’re not enough. We need to commit to soul-healthy rhythms and reflection if we want to thrive season after season.
Jenni Wong Clayville is a collaborator for Propel Ecclesia: Cohorts for women in ministry. She is wife to Brian and boy-mom to Chance & Paxton. Jenni currently serves at National Community Church as the Weekend Experience Pastor and is part of the teaching team at the Northern Virginia campus. Her ministry experience has varied in positions such as Worship, First Impressions, and Executive Pastor.