Throughout the course of this year, we at Freedom to Lead will be intermittently featuring segments called “These Are Their Stories.” We will be telling stories of men and women throughout Asia and Africa who have been impacted by God’s work in their lives and leadership through Freedom to Lead.

We have heard from Owen, Stephen, and Matthew. This week we hear the story of Elizabeth* from East Africa.

*to protect their identities, these are not their real names

For forty years she has been a leader in the church as an evangelist and church planter, and also as a minister among women and orphans. For forty years she has labored with various teams and has overseen numerous projects. She has seen a lot of changes in Ethiopia – both in the church and in the culture – since her beginnings. She has a lot of wisdom to share based on these experiences. But today she is seeing things perhaps for the first time.

Elizabeth’s Story

Elizabeth grew up in a small town not too far from the capital city of Addis Ababa. A godmother-type figure was the one who raised her while her parents worked. She remembers her guardian taking her to church at a very young age. When she was a little bit older she was able to move back home to live with her parents and siblings. One day a church opened up next to their house. She remembers that they were singing. They were familiar tunes, songs she remembered hearing as a very young child. Intrigued, she went over there by herself, if only for the music. For two years she kept going back, drawn especially to the singing. One day the pastor was preaching from Romans 12 (“Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn”). Something stirred in her heart with those simple words and she immediately accepted Jesus as her Savior upon hearing them. She was 12 years old. Her first work as an evangelist was to her own family.

After graduating from university she was assigned to be a teacher at a high school outside of Addis. She had to leave the home church she dearly loved to be in a place where there was no church. So, she started her own church. Her strategy was simple: communicate the gospel to others. When they accepted Christ, they came to worship together. And that was how a church was planted. It was her first among many.

In her early 20’s Elizabeth took on many roles. She was an evangelist, a teacher, a healer, faithfully serving everyone there. Eventually she would move to the capital city to serve as a leader of women and youth, working in various districts. Her focus then became the central region of Ethiopia where she became a coordinator (Chairman of the Women). For forty years she has been traveling around going from church to church and from project to project as a coordinator and manager. Her heart is especially drawn to orphans and poor families from Muslim and Orthodox backgrounds. She said, “this opened the door for me to communicate the gospel with those people, too. It is a good place for me.”

Elizabeth is now in her early 60’s. She is an integral part of the Ethiopian church. She is an influencer of influencers.

Participation in The Garden Project

Four years ago, Elizabeth started participating in The Garden Project, the leadership development program of Freedom to Lead International. She gathered every six months with about 25 of her Ethiopian brothers and sisters from various denominations and cultural backgrounds to discuss together and to dramatize through story the leadership principles of Jesus. In between those times she would be stewarding the resources she’d been given and transferring the material to her own groups of leaders and influencers. And every six months she would report back to the group the kind of impact this had on her people.

“It Has Changed My Life”

Recently Elizabeth said, “Starting from the beginning when I learned from these leadership modules [in the Garden Project], it has shown me every time something from my life. Normally when I listen to these kinds of messages I am listening for the other person. But this one – these modules – speak directly to ME. It has changed my life.” She went on to explain how even when she has served in the church for forty years as a women’s coordinator covering central Ethiopia, she’s realizing for the first time how she can be more effective in her ministry by improving some the mistakes she’s made in the past. She has a deep desire, for example, that her team understand their purpose. She admits that she is not always leading for the better change of others and is learning how to build others to their highest potential.

When talking about transferring the teachings to her own group of leaders, she spends significant time talking about the images and stories. She says,

“More than just sitting her learning, when I go and teach, these images and stories speak to everyone! I’m with the others to teach them, which means that even though I am teaching them, these images and stories also speak back to me. The pictures and stories look like very simple ones, but it has a great relevant message to send. The message impacts all of life very much. These images and stories are remaining in our heart, remaining in our life. And I have seen this in the others as well.”

Women of Influence

As a woman of influence leading other men and women she closed by lending some perspective as far as the value of The Garden Project for women as leaders. Her face lit up when asked if a program about leadership in the church was relevant for women, too. “YES!” she said.

In fact, she went further by saying,

“It is more valuable for women than for the men, I think. It is very relevant for the women. I have seen it, you know? In our culture – in Ethiopian culture – women are not encouraged to learn, to go to college, to study the Bible. Nobody encourages them to go. They don’t have the opportunity to learn the skills and to learn the Word of God. But, this program allows them to do that. Even though they may not be an official leader in the church, they can lead their family, they can lead their children. And when I give this training to the women, those who took the training under me, I have seen the life in their family. What they were and what they are now.”

Elizabeth closed with these words, “Women can be put in places of influence. Very much. Very, very much. Keep it in your mind that as a woman, God has influenced you to influence others.”

May it be so.

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