Iris de León-Hartshorn is the director of Transformative Peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA. This is the first in a three-part blog series based on a presentation Iris gave on leadership at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in January 2018.
Being a leader in this time in our history is tough. Institutions, including the church, have lost a lot of trust. Many leaders are under scrutiny from their constituency, and some with good reason. People want more transparency and more say in shaping their future.
Stepping into leadership these days requires more than a high organizational skill level, it requires higher emotional intelligence.
Learning what it means to be a leader is a life-long endeavor. As leaders, transforming our wounds into strengths instead of hurting others is a must. To begin, I want to share some of my story, so you might know a little about where I came from.
In my early elementary school years, I was very shy and quiet. I know those of you who know me now might find that hard to believe. As a girl, I was timid because I thought I wasn’t smart. English is my second language, so in kindergarten through third grade I was often made fun of and told I was stupid. In kindergarten I had to wear a dunce hat, because I was not fluent in English. I was sent to speech therapy to get rid of my accent. I could have become a very bitter person. Humiliating a child can cause a lot of damage to their self-image. But looking back, I can also see that God had a plan for me and put some very wise and loving mentors along my path to help me heal and to strengthen me.
In fourth grade, I was told I was smart for the first time by my teacher, that knowing two languages was a good thing. Every day she gave me an encouraging word and asked my opinion about things. That was the year I started to play the clarinet and excelled. Music became my companion. Each year a mentor would guide me. One of the most significant mentors was my eighth grade history teacher. My friend and I would stay after school and play folk music with him. He played the banjo and we both played guitars.
As I was transitioning into high school, I met with a high school counselor to map out my academic year. When I walked in to meet with her, she had already selected my classes. I started crying because she had assigned me to general education even though I had a three point nine grade point average. She told me Mexicans don’t go to college, and I was not college material. When I returned to my class, my history teacher asked me what was wrong. He could tell I had been crying, and I told him what had happened. After school, he took me to the school office, called my parents and when they showed up, he told them what had happened. He then made an appointment with the high school counselor, and he and my parents met with her. My classes were changed to college prep courses. That change significantly altered my future. While in high school I grew more self-confident and took on many leadership roles.
Leadership did not come to me easily.
I always saw it as another opportunity to learn, but I was not always confident in my leadership. Those tapes in my head from my early in elementary school experience would pop up now and again. But the lessons I had learned from people willing to mentor me began to play a huge role in developing my own leadership style. It became important that I bring people along with me, that I was not by myself as a leader. This became even more important as I was invited to take leadership roles in the church.
My husband and I came into the Mennonite Church in 1987 when he became the pastor at Houston Mennonite Church. I was a chaplain and worked for a hospice program. I hold a lot of love towards Houston Mennonite Church. I encountered many mentors and caring people there. Often leaders appear to have everything together in their lives, but that is not always the case. Our family situation was very difficult. We have three children, two we adopted as older children. They came into our home with deep childhood wounds from sexual abuse and torture. In addition to that, while at Houston Mennonite Church, an elder from our congregation sexually abused our adopted daughter, who was already wounded and hurting. I really didn’t know how we would hold up through the entire situation. I know eyes were on us as leaders, watching what we would do. This was a criminal matter, and it went through the courts. Meanwhile inside the church, we had people with opinions about what forgiveness looks like on all sides of our situation. As parents, my husband and I saw this was an emotional breaking point for our daughter. Decisions we made to protect her were not always seen in the same light by some members of the church. Our daughter was only 11, and she needed our protection, which we did our best to give. As a congregation, we invited resource experts on child abuse to come and provide education for our congregation. Together we learned and were able to journey together through a tough situation.
I share this story to help you see that leaders in our churches struggle like all other families.
There are obstacles we may not even know about, and yet leaders continue to open themselves to God’s leading even in difficult times.
The stories I share with you are embodied in an imperfect person. I have my own hurts and flaws. But I share as a follower of Jesus doing my best to hear God and to follow the best I can.