Iron Sharpening Iron Empowers Women Clergy to Lead

Through a two-year program, participants take part in executive leadership seminars, workshops, and more
News Iron Sharpening Iron

It is a glaring shortcoming in American congregations: Women clergy are vastly underrepresented in leadership roles.

But Princeton Theological Seminary is laying the groundwork for change.

Supported by a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. through its Thriving in Ministry Initiative, the Seminary has developed Iron Sharpening Iron (ISI). The bold new program is focused on empowering and advancing women clergy. ISI takes a novel approach, combining insightful and supportive coaching with rigorous executive leadership training typically found in professions outside ministry.

“When you look at what other fields do to advance gender equity, you see them investing in high-potential, high-performing women and supporting them in their leadership development,” says Anne W. Stewart, MDiv ’08, the Seminary’s vice president for external relations who developed ISI and directs the program. “In the clergy space, there is very little in that regard.”

The dearth of institutional support for raising up women clergy is evident in the statistics. Only 11 percent of congregations in the United States had women serving as the senior or head clergyperson, according to the 2012 National Congregations Study. During the intervening decade the figure has budged little.

ISI’s name comes from Proverbs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Stewart, a scholar of the Old Testament, says the name reflects how participants in the program teach and strengthen one another during what is a two-year journey.

Iron also denotes strength, Stewart notes.

Anne Stewart

“I think that’s important as we talk about women’s leadership,” she says. “It’s not delicate and fragile. It’s strength and confidence.”

Led by Stewart and Thais Carter, the program’s associate director, ISI is wrapping up its inaugural two-year session this fall. Twenty-one women have participated in the program’s seminars, workshops, check-ins, and small-group coaching, most of which were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Diverse in age, race, and experience, they welcomed the opportunity to come together. And they connected immediately to the idea of iron sharpening iron.

“The reason why I said yes enthusiastically to Iron Sharpening Iron is the recognition that God calls women into high levels of leadership and that we are gifted in powerful ways,” says Sarah Lund, MDiv ’02, senior pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Indianapolis, Indiana. “I wanted to be in a program that celebrated, affirmed, and supported women leaders in the church.” She adds, “I have been blessed tremendously by my cohort and by our coach and find those conversations to be life-giving, prophetic, and another beautiful way to partner in ministry to share God’s hope and healing.”

Sheree Jones, associate pastor at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in New York City (Queens), agrees.

“I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity to connect with some sisters in ministry,” says Jones, MDiv ’10.

Participants are being supported by an accomplished group of instructors, coaches, and facilitators. Seasoned clergy coaches helped them deepen their sense of calling. Experts in organizational leadership have taught modern leadership strategies, such as design thinking and change management. Sessions have included a workshop on conflict management led by a former FBI agent who was a hostage negotiator.

“He talked about the tools, techniques, and tactics to negotiate effectively and with a really high level of emotional intelligence,” Stewart says of that session.

The range of subjects covered in ISI reflects the myriad demands of modern ministry, and the program has already helped some participants advance in their careers.

Alice Rose Tewell says feedback she received from her ISI colleagues helped her decide that she was ready for a job change to become pastor of Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia. Now, she is leading her new congregation through a strategic planning process, putting the skills she learned in ISI into practice.

“(ISI) is the education that I have been searching for since I graduated from seminary,” says Tewell, MDiv ’09.

As the program welcomes its second group of ministers, Stewart says she marvels at the energy and inspiration that the first participants bring to their congregations and communities.

“They are the ones leading the way for the future of the church,” Stewart says. “And we want to support that in every way we can because their leadership matters, not only to the church, but to the world.”

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Pastor at Franklin Lakes United Methodist Church, New Jersey

Alison VanBuskirk, Class of 2015

“My call as a pastor centers on shaping a community where people can connect and be real with each other and God.”