Redefining Religious Leadership

By Kay Lindahl and Kathe Schaaf

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The impact of the Parliament of the World’s Religions is hard to quantify. Each gathering sparks action in the personal lives of the attendees, but also in the creation of interfaith groups and organizations around the world. This story is about a new network of women who were inspired by the December 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, Australia.

Clockwise from top left, Kay Lindahl, Kathe Schaaf, Kathleen Hurty, and Guo Cheen


The Divine Feminine was alive at this gathering. In one conversation after another people were talking about Earth-based spirituality, the Sacred Feminine, feminine principles, the full inclusion of women, women’s leadership, and the critical global issues facing women and their children. Little pink buttons with the question “What happens when women lead?” showed up sprinkled liberally among the 6,000+ attendees, and a full page of workshops was listed under the Program Cluster “Women in Leadership.” One woman observed with surprise and delight: “The Sacred Feminine is the rock star of this Parliament!”

Four of us chanced to meet there and were drawn by this spirit to come together. We wanted to explore what it means, coming from spiritual and/or faith centered perspectives, to be women leaders in today’s chaotic world. We knew that women’s leadership is currently a hot topic, but observed that what was missing was any conversation about the importance of spiritual grounding to anchor, deepen, and empower women’s authentic leadership.

Our global experiences at the Parliament inspired us to learn more about women’s spiritual leadership in our part of the world — North America. As we came together to explore, we discovered:

  • While many current initiatives focus on women’s leadership, most do not put an emphasis on the spiritual needs and issues unique to women; and that may represent some of the most significant barriers to activating authentic leadership.
  • The community of spiritual women in North America is a complex pattern of overlapping networks, initiatives, and impulses. Individual women are often strongly identified with a particular segment of the larger community: secular feminists, feminist theologians, spiritual activists, subtle activists, religious women, interfaith women, women of spirit not affiliated with religion, Earth-based spirituality, spiritual seekers, and others.
  • Many women’s organizations and networks are structured in traditional ‘masculine’ ways, utilizing hierarchical leadership models and processes which may not invite the deepest feminine wisdom or effectively catalyze social change.
  • Numerous initiatives and networks exist for spiritual and faith-oriented women. The current moment represents a powerful opportunity to build a larger field of collaboration, passion, and action, to strengthen bridges of understanding, and to connect our diverse networks in a web of spiritual presence and active leadership toward global transformation. 

Our conversations led to the creation of a new organization in 2010, Women of Spirit and Faith. Its core principles model a different way of working: shared leadership, collaborative practices, circle processes, deep listening, mindfulness, and compassionate action. We exist to invite the many brilliant threads of feminine spiritual leadership into relationship and to support emerging patterns for transformation.

We started with questions – in fact, questions are at the heart of our work. What does it mean to be empowered women of spirit and faith? What is the Divine Feminine calling us to do, to be?

In the course of 2010 we hosted numerous phone calls with groups of women, held an initial retreat with 25 women to dig deeper into this vibrant collaborative effort, became incorporated as a nonprofit named Women of Faith and Spirit, developed our website, and began work on a major interactive conference which we called The Alchemy of Our Spiritual Leadership – Women Re-Defining Power. It was held in April 2011, with 150 women attending. The gathering was built around a series of questions explored through circle dialogues, inviting the wisdom and experience of every woman present.

We had sent an invitation to Alchemy to the editor of Kay’s books. She was unable to attend but wondered if we had thought about writing a book based on the Alchemy’s topics. It was a new idea for us, but after a conference call with her, we wrote a book proposal and signed a contract to edit an anthology of 26 women’s voices. We were on a short timeline; our first draft was due in six months. We organized the book with the same questions we explored in the Alchemy conference:

  • How do I express being an empowered woman of spirit and faith?
  • How do my spiritual values inform me about living with the challenges and blessings of diversity?
  • How do we stand for the greatness of each other?
  • How do we catalyze our collective transformational power as women of spirit and faith?

We invited each woman to respond to the question that most spoke to her. Working with an amazingly diverse group of women was a gift. Each one had her own style and way of approaching the questions. Yet we discovered a profound sense of commonality in our journeys. In claiming our own voices, we embody the variety of paths on the spiritual journey.

The approach we take is circular. We have fostered a group of young leaders to expand the effectiveness of our core circle; we encourage the development of loose, self-organizing circles; and we host book events which model the circle approach to the discussion of key questions. We have learned that it is in the quality of our questions that we are led to new ways of responding to them. We asked…

What have we learned about new models of leadership grounded in feminine principles and lived in the world with grace and power?

This art piece was created collaboratively at the Alchemy conference.

What is being asked of you as an individual woman looking for ways to make a meaningful contribution at this time in your life?

How do women begin to collectively step into the opportunities before us now in the most powerful way and with the most impact?

How do we find our way forward, together, for the greater good?

We do not need to have all the answers. All we need is curiosity, safe space to have deeper conversations with others, and the capacity to listen with open hearts. Answers take root in this rich soil, and we find ourselves launched into exciting new frontiers of leadership, led by spirit and fueled by our own passions. Skylight Paths published Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leaders: Where Grace Meet Power earlier this year.

The Larger Picture

We welcome you on a journey into the mystery and potential at the intersection of women, spirituality, and transformative leadership. None of the four of us could have predicted the amazing years since our Melbourne connection. Our journey is just one of hundreds across North America and around the world. We’d like to highlight a few of them.

Circle Connections

The mission of Circle Connections is to foster the empowerment and connection of women and girls to start, sustain, and unite circles that are dedicated to take action for the greater good.

Gather the Women

Gather the Women (GTW) was founded in 2001 to “create a global community of women committed to practicing compassionate and collaborative use of their power, offering a container for exchange and partnership through local and regional gatherings, conferences and events.” The organization’s Covenant of Leadership states that “our greatest value will be creating a place where all women can gather with the assurance their gifts will be honored.” Visit the GTW website to read the full mission statement and Covenant of Leadership values.

Millionth Circle

The mission of this organization is to seed and nurture circles, wherever possible, in order to cultivate equality, sustainable livelihoods, preservation of the earth, and peace for all; to bring the circle process into United Nations – accredited nongovernmental organizations and the Fifth United Nations World Conference on Women; and to connect circles so they may know themselves as a part of a larger movement to shift consciousness in the world.

The Spiritual and Religious Alliance for Hope (SARAH)

SARAH was founded in Orange County, California, as a women’s interfaith organization in response to the events of September 11, 2001.Women of diverse faith traditions gathered to share their highest and deepest values and to explore new solutions to old problems. We immediately saw that action as well as dialogue is essential. SARAH is a community-building organization founded on shared leadership with an advisory council of eleven women and “SARAH Sisters” worldwide. We are committed to creating a loving, safe, and harmonious world through our personal actions and community service.

Women’s Earth Alliance

Women’s Earth Alliance (WEA) partners with community-based organizations globally to uplift local solutions to issues of water, food, land, and climate change by providing women with trainings, resources, and advocacy support.

Women Transcending Boundaries

WTB was formed in the wake of September 11, 2001, by a group of women concerned about the harassment of Muslim women in the community. Ten years later WTB is an established local grassroots organization of diverse interfaith women dedicated to community service and education. Through programs, events, and social interactions, we seek to nurture mutual respect and understanding by sharing information about our diverse beliefs, customs, and practices and working together to address our common concerns in this post-9/11 world. We educate, serve, and share our personal and collective experiences with the wider community.