I did not grow up seeing many women in church leadership, at least not behind the pulpit or on the platform. My home church had no female ministerial staff nor women deacons, and I don’t think I heard a woman preach until my college years. My ministerial mentors have all been men. Even though I did not have female ministerial models to illustrate what a call to ministry might look like for a young woman, I did have some strong female voices in my life. I had women who helped me find my own voice–even if I use mine in vastly different ways than they used theirs.

My maternal grandmother, Marie Gaskins Prince, learned how to find her own voice out of necessity. Widowed in her early fifties while her daughter (my mother) was not yet a teenager, my grandmother moved her family back home to south Georgia to try to make a living farming the family’s land. She learned to make her way in a man’s world, and she became a shrewd and respected businesswoman. She had a quiet way about her, but I remember noticing when I accompanied her to the tobacco warehouse or the local diner for an early morning breakfast that she commanded the respect of the male farmers. When she spoke, she spoke with confidence, and the men listened.

My mother followed this model to find her own strong voice. As an educator, she used her voice to teach and advocate for children. At home and at work, those around her knew that she was not to be crossed! She was no-nonsense and all-professionalism, but she balanced that with fairness and compassion. Her voice could sometimes grow loud, but more times than not, it was a calm voice of steady leadership. I don’t think she ever set out to rise through the ranks of the school system, from teacher to administrator to superintendent, but when needs and the opportunities arose, she acknowledged the gifts in herself to meet the tasks ahead, and she said yes. In doing so, my mother became a pioneering woman leader in her community and a model for other women and girls for what strong feminine leadership can look like.

Mickey Foreman was a former English teacher who continued to direct the spring musicals at my high school in her retirement. On the stage, I learned from Ms. Foreman, quite literally, how to find my voice–how to project, how to articulate. She taught me the importance of pause and inflection. But I also saw her at church, where she was a leader who never failed to speak up about important issues in the life of the congregation. She was elected by the congregation as the only female member of the pastor search committee, and once the committee started to meet, the men elected her as chair. I remember the confidence and competence with which she led. Her voice was one I wanted to emulate, and she always encouraged me as my own calling to serve the church emerged.

These three women found their own voices in their own diverse eras, in different contexts, in ways that fit their distinct personalities. I’m grateful for their examples and for their intentional nurture as I was finding mine.

Julie Long is the associate director of Baptist Women in Ministry.