What’s In a Name? Calling Out Leadership in Women

Leanne McAlister says leadership begins when you look around and realize someone has to do something! That’s what led to her creating the Zoe Network, an organization that helps people find their place in God’s work. In this episode of the Women In Leadership Podcast, hosts Dr. Rhonda Davis and Julie Cole talk with Leanne about leadership, discipleship, and trusting God during any season you’re in.

Dr. Rhonda Davis: Thank you so much for tuning in once again to the Women in Ministry Leadership podcast. We are always glad to join you here, and I am here with always my friend Julie Cole and our guest today, Leanne McAlister. So Julie, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Leanne?

Julie Cole: Sure. Let me read some of Leanne’s bio here. Leanne McAlister is an ordained minister with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. After serving as an associate pastor for a decade, she founded the ZOE Network, which we’re going to talk about today, which empowers and activates and mobilizes women and men to participate fully into God’s mission. Leanne loves to help others and understand who they were created to be, and then assists them in walking through their passion, purpose, and gifting. She holds her MA in ministerial leadership from Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, and is a certified leadership coach. Leanne and her husband, Darcy, reside in Abbotsford, BC where she is today, but they spend six months of the year living and working in Asia. Together they develop leaders through coaching, consulting, conference speaking, and workshops. Darcy and Leanne have three married young adult children and two grandchildren.

Leanne McAlister: Yay.

Julie: Yeah, I heard Leanne on a video presentation where she was speaking about some of what she did with ZOE Network, and I first thought, I have to know this lady. This is a kindred spirit. And so I found a way for us to connect, even though she was in Asia and I was in Texas, we found a way to still have coffee together over the miracle of Zoom, and I met a friend, and so I’m so excited to have you today, Leanne, on the podcast today. Thank you for being with us.

Leanne: Yeah, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you for the invitation. And yeah, when I met you on that call, I knew I was meeting a kindred spirit. You always know when it’s like, oh, no, they understand. They sort of understand parts of my story and yeah, it was neat.

Julie: Yeah. Well, you have quite the varied bio, but we always start by asking our guests, how did you get to where you are today? Some people have a straight shot where they always knew what they were going to do, and other people kind of meander and find themselves where they are. What’s your path?

Leanne: Oh, the long and winding road to where I am. I did feel a call to ministry early on as probably around the age of 13, 14 years old. And I remember being in a situation where I was, I don’t know how it happened, but I was teaching adults.

Julie: Wow.

Leanne: Well, it was a sort of a youth group exchange thing, and it was weird. I still remember where I was standing and I felt like I touched my future, and I kind of tucked that away. Went to Bible college, met my husband, wanted to be married, wanted to be in ministry, wanted kids, sort of wanted all of the things, but really believed that I could have it all at the same time. Bless my heart. Then realized that no, I had to pace myself and that kind of thing, and watched my husband pursue ministry, felt really jealous of him, felt resentful towards him because the path was much easier from my perspective. It felt like the path was much easier for him.

And then slowly felt a lot of frustration in terms of not having an outlet for, I guess what I felt my calling was. Didn’t really even feel necessarily that people called it out of me. And I remember probably in my thirties, and I use this as an illustration of what it felt like, I wondered if I was that girl on American Idol that thinks she can sing, that thinks she’s amazing, and yet everyone else knows she’s tone deaf. And I honestly felt like-

Julie: Everyone’s secret fear, really.

Rhonda: Right.

Leanne: Really, do I have leadership potential? Do I have this call or are people just afraid to tell me the truth or whatever? And anyway, long story short, I actually ended up pastoring because the church couldn’t afford a pastor, and that opened the door. And I think I surprised myself. I think the people around me were surprised, and that really set me on a trajectory of like, no, actually you are called, you do have these gifts that God can use.

And then everything sort of opened up from there. But I do know that my story really informs what I do, and I think why I do it, because I wasn’t called out and I’m like, holy, I was in my mid to late thirties before I really understood. And that just can’t happen. There’s so many young women around us that are clearly gifted, have a lot of development to do. As we all know, leadership is this long arc of development, but we need to do a better job, I think, of really naming young women.

Julie: That’s something you said when I first heard you that just stood out to me. We have to have someone name us. Yeah.

Rhonda: Tell us about that. What is that? So you pastored and you started discovering that call. And so what has that become now for you? What does ministry look like now?

Leanne: Yeah. Well, to Julie’s point about the naming, let’s think about our ordination process. I didn’t just arrive in a room and announce to everyone that I was ordained. That’s not how we do it. A group of people notice the anointing, the call, the gifts and all of that. And from that, they are ordained or anointed or named. And so no one did that for me. And so then when I began to pastor, that was when my naming process started where people said, “No, you’re actually, you’re good at this.” And very, very specific too. “And we see this in you, and perhaps God is wanting to take you here or develop you.” And so for me, that was my sort of…

Darcy and I, we work a lot together. We preach together, we do a lot together, which I love. But I think I needed that time where it was sort of my own path and my own journey so that I could get really, I don’t want to use the word confident, but comfortable with, yeah, this is who I am and this is what I have to offer. So that led me now to what I’m doing with work with specifically women, but also working internationally.

Julie: Tell us about ZOE Network.

Leanne: Yeah, so ZOE Network came out of… I always think leadership starts that moment. You look around and say, “Someone’s got to do something.”

Julie: Yeah. Oh, it must be me.

Leanne: I know you… Oh my goodness, the amount of ideas I have for other people. But for me, that started when I would notice that there were so many women that I was pastoring that were hesitant to step out in leadership, and I just couldn’t believe it. These were really gifted women, some women that were leading in their workplaces, others that were just, it oozed out of them. And I would tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey, I see this in you. Have you ever considered this?”

And it got to the point where no one’s making eye contact with me anymore in the church foyer because they’re scared of what I’m going to say to them. But I noticed a pattern, a pattern of just this hesitancy, which sort of got me on a path of what is going on here. And there’s lots of reasons that women hold back, but for me, that was the moment where I’m like, no, we have to clear out these obstacles for women so that they can respond to what God is asking of them. And so it started with me gathering with a girlfriend. We gathered women in my house, the tea kettle on, and we just started to disciple about… We started teaching about leadership. I was embarrassed. I was like, there’s nothing special here.

It was leadership 101 kind of stuff. But we found this response within women of light bulbs going on for them. I would ask women who’d been walking with Jesus for 30 years, “What are your spiritual gifts?” And they couldn’t tell me. And I’m like, oh my goodness, this is a discipleship problem. And so we started with all that kind of stuff, and it eventually turned into curriculum that we made available for other leaders to really disciple the women around them. And the curriculum is being used in different parts of the world. And it’s also because we’re bilingual here in Canada, we were determined that whatever we did would also be available for our francophone brothers and sisters.

And so we had translation projects with that. But then from there, we decided that we were going to invest with women’s issues worldwide, through our missions organization of the Pentecostal Songs of Canada, because we found that people really cared about women’s issues worldwide, but they didn’t really know how to get involved or who is reputable, that kind of thing. And so we have two things that we do: that leadership, discipleship element, and then sort of outreach. So I just returned from Asia two and a half weeks ago. We were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we held our first Zoe International Women’s Leadership Conference.

Rhonda: Congratulations.

Leanne: Thank you. Thank you. It was grounded in research. We didn’t want to be the Canadians coming in on the big horse to save people. So it was grounded in good research and then co-designed by Kami and Canadians. So we just-

Rhonda: That’s exciting.

Leanne: I don’t know if that helps.

Rhonda: No, that’s great.

Leanne: But yeah.

Rhonda: I want to go back a little bit to what you were saying there in the church foyer as you would spot potential leaders and those kinds of things. And you said there’s several reasons that women hold back. What are some of those reasons that you have found? Why do we do that? Why do we hold back or diminish leadership gift?

Leanne: Yeah. I think because we’re super confused in the church about the role of women. I mean, there’s this sort of what we believe on paper, and then there’s what we practice. There’s a dichotomy there for sure. There is cultural expectations about the role of women. So I just finished a six week road trip in Asia in five different countries. And the script for what it means to be a woman, like a godly woman in this day and age, different in every country. And I think that that breeds a lot of confusion for women because women don’t… Christian women do not want to get out of their lane. They don’t want to dishonor God in any way.

So sometimes that, I think then they sort of go on the more cautious side of that equation because they don’t want to offend God or offend other people or cause a problem within their communities. Sometimes how we frame leadership, we’ve had this idea that that leadership is the person out front with the mic calling all the shots. And people will say, “Well, that’s not me.” So even thinking about what leadership is, and maybe it’s influence and maybe we all have influence in different ways, and how do we leverage the influence God has for us? And then lack of confidence for sure. Just that whenever we step out in something, it requires that we risk.

Rhonda: That’s huge risk.

Leanne: It’s risky.

Rhonda: Yeah. I think some of those things are true for women, they’re true for men, how we frame leadership really, I think come into implications when we try to lead together. So understanding what is a leader, what does that look like? How do I exercise my gifts and stay in my lane and let you do your thing? So I love that ZOE Network is really interested in helping men and women lead together. We are really all about that here at the Kings and the way we develop our students. It’s not that… Yes, we want women to gain confidence, and like you’re saying, we want to go to those very foundational identity issues and what is God saying about you? But not so that we can push men out of leadership, but so that we can come together and lead. So do you find that to be more difficult or then it’s one thing to push women forward and call leadership out of them. It’s a whole nother thing to bring men and women together. So how have you seen that be successful? Or what’s your heart on that?

Leanne: Oh yeah. Well, I think there’s a lie out there that for women to rise means somehow that men are diminished. Like my husband, oh, I wish you could meet him. He’s fantastic. He’s a leader and I’m a leader. And he would be absolutely annoyed with me if I ever held back in the fullness of who I am in my leadership. And I remember once we were preaching together at a college and one of the professors came up to us and said, “Darcy, you better watch out. Your wife’s a better preacher than you.” And I looked at him going, what’s he going to do? First of all, is that true? No, it’s not. What is true is that women in the pulpit are a little less common, and I think it’s easier to stand out.

Rhonda: Right. It’s easier to stand out.

Leanne: So I looked at Darcy and he said, “I know, isn’t she amazing?” And that humility that he had to sort of let me be me. And then, so this idea that somehow in order for someone to rise someone else diminishes is just honestly from the pit. It’s from the pit. And so I know I’ll speak in terms of marriage because I’ve been married for 33 years I think it is now. And we really look at our lives and leadership as a partnership. The first 20 years of marriage, kind of duking it out with one another and trying to remake the other into our own image to see things as we see things and that kind of thing.

But I tell you, the more I’m married, the more I’m in leadership, I’m realizing I don’t have to have it all. I don’t have to be the it girl, that I have strengths, but I also have weaknesses. And for Darcy to come forward with his strengths and weaknesses, that when we drop the pride and when we meet one another in humility and join our forces together, that is unstoppable.

Rhonda: I love that.

Leanne: And so I think with men and women, I mean the first 20, no, I don’t know. Let’s just say that if I’d been born in another era, I might have been a bra burner. And I’m not. But I’m just realizing that men are not the enemy. They’ve never been the enemy. They are brothers, and the vast majority of men really champion the sisters. But how do we create spaces where we can work together? And it’s not this competition thing, but it’s really a complementarian thing where people are moving forward together.

Rhonda: I love that meeting one another in humility. I love that picture.

Julie: The road to leadership, you mentioned this when you got married and you were jealous of your husband, he was in ministry. The road to leadership is most often very different for men than it is for women. Can you talk about what you might say to your younger self, married self today knowing what you know?

Rhonda: Yeah.

Julie: What would you say to a young woman who has a call and she sees her husband or other men getting opportunities that she doesn’t have?

Leanne: Well, I would say to myself, chill out. Seriously. I felt like I was always behind. I always felt like I was trying to catch up to something, and I wish I had just relaxed and enjoyed the seasons that I went through. So I was a stay-at-home mom for 12 years with ministry on the side, speaking here, doing this, that kind of thing. And looking back, those are some of my most cherished and probably most influential moments when it comes to the impact that I had with my children and their friends and the parents and all that kind of stuff. So I wish I’d enjoyed it more and trusted.

We talk about seasons in a woman’s life, and I think men have seasons as well, for sure. But for women, I think maybe they’re a little more pronounced because we bear the children, we feed the children, breastfeed. There is things in biology that are just true about what it means to be a mother. So for the mamas out there, I would just say just trust the season and don’t hurry through it, because pretty soon you’re going to be a grandma like me, who is everything that I had dreamed of doing is what I’m doing. And God is so faithful in that.

Rhonda: He is. I don’t know why that waiting out seasons is so… Well, when you’re a leader, there’s something in you that’s somewhat of a driver. There’s somewhat of a driver if you’re desiring to lead or to move something forward. And so I think it can be difficult to just trust, like you’re saying, just trust. And even what you were talking about in terms of naming women, I think. I wonder what it would look like to have communities around women in every season where they’re being named in that season as valuable and as a worthy leader and contributor. I think about that in some of my most secret seasons where if just, I wonder what would’ve turned in me if someone would’ve still seen me in that secret season, in that more hidden season. So as you go about your work with women, what are ways that we can help to name others around us in positive ways? How can we do that?

Leanne: So the identity course, which is what that discipleship journey eventually became, really speaks to this question because pretty much what it does is it names people. People need clear teaching, first of all, on what we believe about women in leadership. I couldn’t believe the confusion that women had. I come from a Pentecostal background. We are egalitarian. We believe that the spirit gifts as the spirit wills and that women are free to lead and all that kind of stuff. So as pastoring in that setting, making the assumption that women knew that, that men knew that. And wow, there is so much baggage to unpack when it comes to that. And so I think we need to be super clear with women that they are indeed free to lead, and that if God calls, there’s no obstacles there.

Second, I would say discipleship. Helping people understand what their spiritual gifts are, understand what their strengths are. We use strengths finder with our discipleship so that people can… You just have a fuller picture of what they bring. There was a theologian named Ted or Ed Clowney, and I actually got this from Tim Keller listening to something that he was speaking on identity a few years back at a conference. And Ed Clowney said that when we become a Christian, we all have the same last name. That’s Christian, but the life of a disciple is to understand what their first name is. And that clicked for me because our first name is that thing that we offer, that thing that we bring to the table that the rest of the table needs in order to function at its best. So for me, my first name, and this might not be a surprise to Julie, but my first strength is activator. I like to see things happen. I like to make things happen.

Tomorrow is way too late, that kind of thing. But paired with that, I’m also a relator because I love to connect with other people. Well, that’s my first name, that’s what I bring. There’s so much I don’t bring, oh my goodness. But then I’m placed in this community, in this body, where together, women, men, all of us are contributing to something that actually can have impact. So I think that micro discipleship is really important. We do a lot of macro discipleship where I’ve got books on my shelf here of where we disciple people in broader themes, which is great. But there’s something about being really specific with people, and you can’t scale that. You cannot scale that. This is what I’ve learned. Discipleship is person on person with vulnerability.

And that’s how people are transformed. People are not transformed through a lot of preaching, which breaks this preacher’s heart because I love to preach. And yes, there’s moments for preaching where the Holy Spirit just meets us and absolutely. But how people grow is in smaller settings, person on person, vulnerability, calling it out, prayer together, spiritual gifts and operation. That’s how people grow. And so I think if we can emphasize more of that. I’m 54 now, and so I mean, I’ll never retire, but my husband and I, we tend to do blocks of about 12, 13 years of ministry. That’s how we’ve done it through the decades. And this phase is all about discipleship, small scale discipleship. And for me, it’s raising discipler so that they know how to do this. They know how to name people, they know how to call people out. They know how to support people as they take those risks, those risky moves. Yeah, anyway.

Rhonda: What a gift. Thank you for saying yes to that. And thank you for go and enduring through every season to come to the clarity that God’s given you about your current call. So we ask this of everybody that talks with us, but what is forming you right now? What are you reading or listening to or paying attention to that’s really feeding your soul? We talk about our inside being bigger than our outside and our external ministry not eclipsing what God is doing on the inside of us. So what’s feeding you?

Leanne: Yeah. Well, interestingly, this fall, I just joined an online Bible Study Fellowship group.

Rhonda: Okay.

Leanne: I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. So I’m on the road so much, and so I’m finding it really hard to be in small groups, and there’s people that I work with and what have you. Anyway, so I challenged myself to join an international Bible study group, and we right now are… My book is right here, and we are studying the time of the judges. And I’m not drawn to Old Testament. I’m more of a Paul girl. What did Paul say? But that’s been feeding me to-

Rhonda: That’s great.

Leanne: To study and to meet weekly with others to talk about. So yeah, that’s just what comes to mind right now because it’s brand new.

Rhonda: That’s great.

Julie: We have some women that write back to us and say, “Our church group is looking at your podcast,” and if someone watches this or listens to this and wants to know more about the identity course, can churches order that and go through it in small groups? Or how does that work?

Leanne: So what we do is we train facilitators to take groups of people through. And so it’s not just… And it’s all online, so-

Julie: Okay, good.

Leanne: It’s all very accessible. But we actually train people how to do the identity course. And we’re actually slowly building a four-part discipleship journey. The second one, the second course is called Thrive, and that’s all about spiritual formation and self-leadership. The third course is called Relate. And that is just in development right now. And that’s about our relationships and how we do them and how to do them well. So people can contact me at… Well, you can go on the… Hmm, will you include my email with this?

Rhonda: Yes, we can do that.

Leanne: Okay. Yeah, they can email me [at leanne.mcalister@paoc.org] and I can certainly help them with next steps of discovery.

Rhonda: That’s great. That’s great. Well, thank you so much for being with us, Leanne.

Julie: Yes, Leanne.

Rhonda: And it’s just a joy to hear about what you’re doing, and we didn’t even get to get into some of the cross-cultural work that you’re even able to be a part of and everything, but we just say blessings on you and on ZOE Network, and we hope to partner with you in raising up and activating a generation that says yes to the call of God.

Leanne: I love it.

Julie: Thank you.

Rhonda: Thanks so much for being with us today. Thanks for listening in. I pray that you are blessed and motivated by what you’ve heard today. If you like what you’ve heard, we just ask you to click subscribe, and we look forward to more conversations with you in the future.