In her her debut ‘Lessons in leadership’ column, Natalie Williams says God calls the unlikely
When I was first asked if I would become the leader of Jubilee+, I spent an hour and a half outlining all the reasons why I wasn’t the best choice.
Martin Charlesworth founded the charity in 2010 and I have been involved since the start, joining as a volunteer initially and editing Martin’s weekly blogs on the theology underpinning social action and justice. I was soon invited to become part of the leadership team, where my role grew until, eventually, I was writing books with Martin and heading up our communications and policy work.
In parallel, I was growing in leadership in my local church, too. I’d never wanted to work for the church – I liked being a Christian in a predominantly non-Christian workplace – but a combination of circumstances, including redundancy and a period of time on Job Seekers’ Allowance, ‘inspired’ me to give in to my pastor, who had asked me to join the staff team.
Some, like him, have seen potential in me that I didn’t see myself. Others have questioned me, saying: “We’re just not sure if you’re a leader.” So when Martin asked me to consider taking over from him as CEO at Jubilee+ in July 2020, what rushed to mind were all the things I wasn’t.
Martin and I are very different. He went to public school and an elite university; I had free school meals and went to the roughest secondary school in my town. He has been educated for leadership, with an expectation that he would excel. In general, people didn’t expect very much from me.
I’m also part of a church tradition that doesn’t have many women in primary positions of leadership. And I’m single – I’m not sure what that had to do with anything, but it suddenly felt like an issue. I have a history of depression too – another factor that shouldn’t matter, but I raised it because I wanted to cover all the objections I could think of.
Midway through the conversation, Martin pointed out that I wouldn’t disqualify anyone else from leadership on any of these grounds. He was right. But somehow, all my insecurities about background, class and life experience came to the fore.
In theory, I know a lot about biblical leadership: God “looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and chooses the weak (1 Corinthians 1:27), because his kingdom is upside down. But my mental checklist of reasons to disqualify myself was long.
Finally, Martin asked me a simple question: “Do you feel called to lead Jubilee+?” These words stemmed the flow of my objections, because I knew that my immediate and certain answer was simply: “Yes.” (Poor Martin could have saved himself 90 minutes of my external processing if he had led with that!)
My first lesson in leadership is one I’ve been learning over and over again: God chooses unlikely leaders, and this is good. It’s not just good, it’s beautiful and kind. He raises up the lowly. He confounds expectations. He transforms the “are nots” of 1 Corinthians 1:28 into the “oaks of righteousness” of Isaiah 61:3. And he delights to do it.
When it comes to our upbringing, family background and life experience, God doesn’t give us any grounds on which we can disqualify ourselves. This means he also doesn’t give us any grounds in these areas by which we can disqualify others. All are welcome at God’s table.