Every year, nations around the world celebrate Women’s History Month. During this month, we pause to remember the contributions women have made to society over the course of millennia. Innovative, dedicated women have influenced art, business, politics, science … the list goes on. But today, we’re going to take a look at just a few of the women who shaped the Church as we know it and find out what we can learn from their spiritual leadership. Let’s get started.
Phoebe was a part of the early church, back when the Apostle Paul was still walking around. She was a member of the church in Cenchreae (that’s in Greece, for anyone wondering) and was a trusted friend of Paul’s, back when he was working on the Book of Romans. In fact, he name-dropped her toward the end of his letter:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Romans 16:1-2 NIV
And that’s … all we know about her, really. Paul thinks she’s great, and he asks the Christians in Rome to take care of her while she’s with them (many theologians believe that Phoebe was the person who carried Paul’s letter to the Roman church).
So, Phoebe would make a great mailwoman, but why is she on this list? Because of a little word in the first sentence of Paul’s recommendation. Phoebe was a deacon in the early church. The first woman we know of to bear the title. As a deacon, Phoebe would have ministered to the people in her church and community, and perhaps even taken part in preaching and evangelization. We find, in Phoebe, the first of many, many women to minister to others in an official capacity.
What can we learn from Phoebe? Don’t be afraid to be the first to do something. When God calls, trust Him and follow.
Monica is known as the patron saint of difficult marriages and disappointing children, which gives you a glimpse into the sort of life she experienced. Monica’s Christian parents married her to a Roman non-believer, an adulterous man with a not-so-great temper. To make matters worse, his mother lived with them and wasn’t much of an improvement in terms of attitude and habits. But Monica didn’t waver in her faith.
Monica’s oldest son was studying away from home when her husband died. And when he returned home, Monica discovered that he had converted to Manichaeism, a rival religion of Christianity. And Monica … kicked her son out of the house. Maybe not the greatest knee-jerk reaction. But soon after, Monica was reassured in a dream that her son would come back to the faith. So she made amends, and from that point on, dedicated her life to encouraging her son’s return to the faith.
In Milan, Monica and her son met a local church leader named Ambrose, and he played a significant role in leading Monica’s son back to the faith after 17 years. After his conversion, Monica’s son, Augustine, went on to become one of the most influential Christian theologians and philosophers of all time. The western church wouldn’t look the way it does today had it not been for Monica’s dedication to God and her son.
What can we learn from Monica? Persistence in following God’s call is vital.
Clare of Assisi
Clare was the oldest daughter a count, affording her a life of privilege in her early years. Her father likely had plans for her—an advantageous marriage would have been in her future. But in March 1212, Clare attended a service during Lent and heard a preacher named Francis (now known as St. Francis) speak. She was so moved by his words that, following the service, she asked him to help her live a life devoted to Christ.
Now, while there are countless ways we can live lives devoted to Christ in modern times, for Clare, those words pretty much meant one thing: She wanted to become a nun. With the help of Clare’s aunt, Francis placed Clare in a convent.
But Clare’s father? He wasn’t happy his plans for Clare were being thwarted. So he traveled to the convent, determined to convince his daughter to come home. But Clare refused to leave. Historians say she clung to the altar of her church and said she would have no other husband than Jesus Christ.
Clare didn’t waver in her determination to follow the path God had set before her. She embraced a life of joyful poverty in imitation of Christ. She eventually took on the position of abbess at her convent, affording her the authority to protect the women under her care from the rules others wished to impose upon them. And today, the Order of Saint Clare still exists, made up of nuns in 75 countries around the world.
What can we learn from Clare? Following God’s call can mean giving up comfort, possessions, opportunities, and other things that feel important. But in the end, the sacrifice will be worth it.
Susanna never had trouble choosing her own path. Her father was a member of the English Dissenters—Protestant Christians who broke off from the Church of England. But when Susanna was 12, she decided she preferred the Church of England, and stopped attending her father’s church.
This ability to think for herself served her well, because her life wasn’t easy. Susanna married Samuel Wesley—a clergyman and writer—when she was 19. Over the course of their marriage, 9 of their 19 children died as infants. Their home burned down twice. And Samuel was not the most reliable presence in their family. He was bad with money, jailed twice because of financial difficulties, and once left Susanna and their children for an entire year after a minor dispute with his wife.
Through all of this, though, Susanna was a rock for her children. She was the primary source of their education, teaching her sons and daughters Latin and Greek and all the other subjects common at the time. And when she found herself underwhelmed by an interim pastor’s Sunday sermons, she began holding family services for her children on Sunday afternoons. Soon, friends began asking whether they could attend these services, and before long, there were over 200 people attending Susanna’s services weekly.
Many of Susanna’s writings still survive, as does the influence she had on her children. Her son, Charles, became a prolific hymn writer, writing the words to more than 6,500 hymns during his lifetime. And Charles’ brother, John, was the founder of Methodism, a movement which would eventually lead to the formation of the Methodist denomination.
What can we learn from Susanna? Following God sometimes means making the most of less-than-great circumstances. But we often have no idea how God will use our choices in those moments for good.
Amanda Berry Smith
Amanda Berry Smith was born in Maryland in 1837. Her parents had big dreams for their family—her father worked extra hours every week to buy his family’s freedom from slavery, and her mother taught Amanda and her siblings how to read and write.
Once Amanda was older, she found work in Pennsylvania. Her early adult years weren’t easy. By the time she was 32, she had lost two husbands and four of her five children. She worked as a cook and washerwoman to provide for herself and her daughter after her second husband was killed in the American Civil War. During her grief, she found comfort by attending religious revivals. And as she became more involved with her local church, she felt God calling her to preach.
Amanda soon became well-known for her beautiful voice and inspired teaching. Because of her gifts, opportunities to evangelize opened for her. She wore plain clothing wherever she went—African American women struggled with receiving the respect they deserved even if they dressed well, and Amanda was determined that her clothing wouldn’t detract from what she had to say.
Preaching required her to trust God completely—for everything from food to shoes to money for her sister’s freedom. But as she followed Him, she lived an extraordinary life, preaching around the world—in places like the United Kingdom, India, and Liberia—and starting an orphanage for children in Chicago. Amanda’s justice and missions work helped open expanded roles for women in ministry, particularly in Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal churches.
What can we learn from Amanda? When you follow God, He’ll lead you to grow and go in ways you never could have imagined.
For more on spiritual growth, check out this article about spiritual disciplines.