By Joy Allmond
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the heels of a divisive year—wrought with a pandemic, several painful cultural moments, and an intense election season—women gathered physically and online for the 2020 LifeWay Women’s Leadership Forum, Nov. 12-13, at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn.
Like most other events around the world, this year’s forum had modified attendance. For COVID-19 safety and compliance reasons, in-person attendance was capped at nearly 250, which included women spanning 21 states and seven denominations.
But most attendees—hundreds more—joined virtually from 41 states and two countries, the United States and Canada. This year marked the first-ever live stream of the LifeWay Women’s Leadership Forum.
Both in-person and virtual attendees heard from respected ministry leaders such as Angie Smith, Kadi Cole, Dorena Williamson, Jamie Ivey, Lisa Harper, Ben Mandrell and Ruth Chou Simons. Travis Cottrell and a praise team led corporate worship times.
Emceed by author and Bible teacher Whitney Capps, this year’s forum theme was “One,” based on John 17:21: “May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me.”
LifeWay author and Bible teacher Angie Smith delivered the opening keynote address of the forum.
“When I heard the topic of this year’s forum I felt so stirred,” said Smith. “The church needs to do a good job of modeling this (unity). We’ve started taking on the world’s definition of unity. What this often looks like is ‘unity equals uniformity.’ But that’s not the biblical definition of this word.”
Speaking from Philippians 2:1-2, Smith zeroed in on the word “intent” from the second verse.
“It means to be intent on purpose, to earnestly move in the same direction, to cherish the things we have in common,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we have to do everything the same way or agree on every single thing.”
B&H Publishing children’s book author Dorena Williamson, another main stage speaker, used Paul’s letter to the Ephesians to explain Jesus’ intent for the unity of the church—that it would be a gospel witness to a lost world.
“For (the church’s unity) to be a witness, we must put in the work of unity,” she said regarding racial tensions. “Paul gives us some uncomfortable words … stepping on all toes: ‘making every effort to keep the unity of Spirit through the bond of peace’” (Ephesians 4:3).
After describing some testimonies of unity work in her multiethnic church, Williamson explained: “These points of unity have come with great joy, but others come at a sacrifice.” And one of those sacrifices, she said in a Q&A with podcaster and author Jamie Ivey and moderator Whitney Capps, is having uncomfortable conversations about race in homes and churches.
“Kids hear what’s happening in our world,” said Williamson. “We must make our homes a safe place for our children to ask hard questions. … Tell them you’re new to the journey. Have no shame in continuing to learn and grow.”
During an afternoon devotional, Bible teacher Kristi McLelland, author of LifeWay’s “Jesus and Women” study, led the attendees through what biblical unity looks like in the day-to-day life of a disciple.
She emphasized the need for believers to spend time reading and studying Scripture. “The Lord gave us the Bible so we might know who He is, what He’s like and what it’s like to walk with Him,” she said. “We don’t simply read the Bible—we interact with it.”
LifeWay President Ben Mandrell urged leaders to have unity in mission by spending time with people in their spheres who are far from God—and to lead those in their ministries to do the same.
“There’s one thing that will always unite us—the mission of outreach,” said Mandrell as he spoke from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. “What does it mean for every person within the church to do their part in spreading the gospel? Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth are a challenge to all of us.”
As Paul spoke to different types of people, Mandrell explained, He adapted His style. “He didn’t use the same words or the same approach with every person. … What does it mean to ‘do evangelism’ today, in this context, when most people on your street believe that all roads lead to heaven? How do you speak truth to a person who doesn’t believe such a thing exists?”
Mandrell said in order to engage the lost in their communities, church leaders must set aside preferences in order to meet the needs of those they’re trying to reach with the gospel. It’s critical, he explained, that the church heed Paul’s words: to “be all things to all people” to win them to Christ.
“The church today isn’t showing that kind of adaptability,” he said. “Personal preferences can get in the way of reaching people. And my personal preferences aren’t as important as my personal relationships.”
And while it’s important for the church to be relevant, Mandrell said there’s a balance to strike so the church doesn’t try too hard to fit in with the world.
“We strive to create a peaceful, contemporary expression of the body of Christ,” he said. “We are focused on strengthening believers and introducing those outside belief. We want to speak the words of Christ in a culturally sensitive way, with as few distractions as possible. The power is not in us; the power is in the pure message of the gospel.”
In addition to keynote sessions, plenary events included a live recording of LifeWay Women’s “Marked” podcast, hosted by Elizabeth Hyndman, managing editor of LifeWay Voices, and Kelly King, LifeWay’s manager of magazines/devotional publishing and women’s ministry training.
Hyndman and King facilitated a conversation about women and seminary education with Dr. Emily Dean, assistant professor of ministry to women at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dr. Julia Higgins, assistant professor of ministry to women and associate dean of graduate program administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
During the two-day conference, women also attended various breakout sessions. Topics included biblical literacy and women’s ministry, navigating empathy fatigue, developing millennial leaders, reaching your city for Christ, and what Revelation reveals to us today.
Breakout session leaders included LifeWay leaders Carol Pipes, director of corporate communications and Juliana Wilson, social media and influencer relations strategist; as well LifeWay authors Mary DeMuth, Christine Hoover, Scarlet Hiltibidal, along with B&H Publishing author Mike Glenn and soon-to-be published author Elizabeth Woodson.
Those who purchased the 2020 event will be able to stream the sessions until November 2021. Anyone who missed the forum can still purchase it at LifeWay.com until January 2021.
The 2021 LifeWay Women’s Leadership Forum will take place Nov. 11-13, 2021. Early registration is available at a discount. Call LifeWay’s customer service department at (800) 458-2772 for more information.
Joy Allmond is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.