“Raise your hand if even as a child you always knew how to take charge. Maybe they called you bossy.”
The nearly 70 attendees at the Adventist Women Leaders (AWL) luncheon met keynote speaker Leah J. M. Dean’s query with laughter and several raised hands.
“Raise your hand if you were usually off in a corner but always coming up with an idea … and getting everyone else in trouble with your ideas. Raise your hand if you asked a lot of questions. And, who got in trouble for talking?” Dean asked.
The AWL luncheon was held January 11 at the conclusion of the North American Division (NAD) 2023 “Replenish” Adventist Ministries Convention in Greensboro, North Carolina, United States.
Dean continued, “We often look at the things we do naturally as quirks or idiosyncrasies when really, they are talents that we can apply productively.” She noted that a talent invested in becomes a strength, and “when you choose to invest, it can change your life.”
For the women presidents, administrators, department directors, associates, and assistants present, Dean and other speakers fostered a sense of affirmation, fellowship, and self-discovery. And the jovial Dean, who founded the leadership, professional, and personal development company Conduit International Ltd. after 20 years in human resources, was a fitting choice for the keynote.
She linked her presentation, “Leading with Your Strengths and Managing Your Weaknesses,” to the ministries convention theme, Replenish. “Today, we’ll talk about how you can be replenished, restored, and refreshed in your leadership by answering two questions: How can I lead with my strengths? And how can I manage my weaknesses?” she said.
Registrants were asked to complete the CliftonStrengths assessment beforehand to uncover their top five strengths. These results would kickstart thought-provoking activities such as discussing in pairs how to harness their strengths in leadership.
“I’m so surprised,” said one participant about her results. This was a common sentiment among the attendees.
Beth Grissom, Carolina Conference Women’s Ministries leader, shared that she’d once believed her top result, strategic thinking, was a mistake. As a woman leader, she said, “my strategic planning strength wasn’t honored, understood, or accepted,” so she invested in positivity, her third strength, instead. Having similarly shied away from her “command” strength, Dean asked attendees to consider, “Is there a strength I’ve been suppressing because those around me didn’t value it, and how can I use it in my leadership anyway?”
Another eye-opener was an exercise that tasked attendees with writing “I use my strengths every day” three times, first with their non-dominant hand, then their dominant. It took many almost a minute to write successfully with the non-dominant hand versus a few seconds with the dominant. “I heard people sighing and getting frustrated [using the non-dominant hand],” Dean observed. “That’s what happens when we operate in our lack of talent.”
She then offered three action steps for leaders.
First, refocus: “Stop fixating on the things you don’t do well and focus on your strengths.”
Second, remember: “In each season of your leadership, remember your why.”
And third, release: “Release your weaknesses and fears to God.”
Dean concluded, “The God of the universe can fill in any gap. He can clean up any schedule. He can find any resources. He can do it all. So, as you think about replenishing your soul, spirit, and leadership, ask Him, what do You need me to do? Because when you lean into that release, then you’re able to leverage your strengths.”
Affirming Women History-Makers Since 2017
The luncheon also celebrated women leaders past and present. In his opening greeting, G. Alexander Bryant, NAD president, thanked women for their considerable contributions to the church in North America and acknowledged the burden they carry. “Know you have a voice, you have a friend, you have a colleague in the North American Division office as we stand together in ministry,” he said.
Michael W. Campbell, NAD director of Archives, Statistics & Research, elicited cheers with his history of Adventist women leaders. Those featured included Lulu Whitman, who baptized more people in one year in the 1890s than all male pastors combined; Lottie Blake, the first Black Seventh-day Adventist to become a physician; and Sarah Lindsey, the first Adventist woman with ministry credentials, whose preaching was so powerful that “more people showed up to her evangelistic meeting than to see Barnum and Bailey Circus when they came into town.”
Subsequently, Celeste Ryan Blyden, an AWL founder, stated, “Women are still making history!” She acknowledged the latest history-maker, Kimberly Luste Maran, the NAD’s first woman communication director, and others around the room. Notably, Blyden made history in 2021 as the Columbia Union Conference’s first woman executive secretary.
Blyden shared AWL’s origin in 2014, when she became the Columbia Union Conference’s first woman vice president and felt a nudge from God: “Good for you, but who are you bringing along?” In 2017, she spoke with Debra Brill, then NAD vice president for ministries, about having a luncheon for women leaders, and Brill immediately agreed. They then reached out to Ann Roda, vice president for Adventist HealthCare, and Tamyra Horst, Pennsylvania Conference Women’s Ministries director, who’d felt similar nudges.
That year, 15 women leaders met at the end of the NAD’s year-end meeting, leading to regional meetings, then a luncheon for 90 women at the 2019 NAD ministries convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In October 2022, after prayerful consideration, AWL joined the NAD’s Women’s Ministries department. Today, the committee is composed of Blyden; Roda; Wendy Eberhardt, current NAD vice president for ministries; DeeAnn Bragaw, NAD Women’s Ministries director; Brenda Dickerson, Mid-America Union Conference communication director; and Carolyn D. Forrest, NAD associate secretary-director for secretariat and the Office of Human Relations.
God Chooses Everyone
Celeste offered this message on behalf of the committee: “We see you. We acknowledge your call and accomplishments. We celebrate what God is doing in your life and ministry. We are praying for you. We are here for you.”
In her closing remarks, Roda said, “We don’t want this gathering and event to just be this gathering and event. We want this to be part of your journey and transformation as a leader.”
For leaders like Kennetia Brooks, a women’s empowerment facilitator, the luncheon reinforced that “we don’t have to change our leadership style. God chooses everyone with their leadership style for the season and position [in which He has placed them]. Trust in that.”