At the beginning of June I'm taking part in the Welsh Castles Relay. It's a 20-stage relay race from Caernarfon to Cardiff and I'm running 12 miles up and down a mountain first thing on the Sunday morning. My running club has entered two teams and the logistics of getting us all to the right place at the right time is mind-boggling. And there's always a risk that someone might drop out at the last minute through injury or illness. But I have a plan. If someone's ill, I've got my husband lined up to fill into the gap. The fact that he hates running, doesn't have a competitive bone in his body and would rather spend the weekend taking photos is neither here nor there. He's married to me after all – surely that's enough?
Well no, it's not, is it? You don't become a runner, or a photographer, or an anything just by being married to someone who excels at those things. So why does the Church persist in that 'buy one get one free' mentality of expecting the spouses of leaders to be leaders in their own right? You see it in conference line-ups where a speaker's bio tells us who they're married to and little else. You see it in churches where the vicar's wife is still expected to run the youth group, lead the women's Bible study and provide pastoral care to all and sundry or she's seen as deficient. And you see it on some church websites where the 'about us' page reveals a smiling couple as the leaders, even though only one of them is trained and employed for the role.
Don't get me wrong – I know lots of gifted leaders who are married to gifted leaders; some lead together and some in completely different spheres. What I disagree with is the idea that marriage alone equips someone to lead. I don't think 'becoming one flesh' is about turning into carbon copies of each other and doing all the same things. This philosophy elevates marriage above its rightful place in the community and turns it into a route to influence and opportunity which is unhelpful and unfair.
And as it is usually women who are the 'get one free', I think this idea is particularly damaging in the conversation about what kind of leaders women are called to be. It suggests that the gifts of women are somehow legitimised through their husbands and it panders to the view that a woman can only lead if there is someone who is in charge overall. It implies that married women are safe to give opportunities to while single women are slightly suspect. And it means that many single women get overlooked and undervalued.
Letting marriage qualify someone for leadership can mean that opportunities are given not on someone's gifts or abilities but primarily on relationships, which leads to some spouses being given responsibilities beyond their skill set. People rail against quotas because of the potential they have to promote under-skilled women and overlook talented men; it seems to me that the 'marriage = leadership' equation can produce the same result.
If someone's gifted for leadership, let them lead. If they just happen to be married to another leader and are called to do it together, then great. But let's resist the temptation to elevate people above their skills and potential just because they're married to someone who's in charge. We can do better than that.
Jenny Baker is the author of Equals – enjoying gender equality in all areas of life (SPCK) and has an Msc in gender. She is a co-host of the Gathering of Women Leaders in London. She works for Church Urban Fund and is a trustee of Amos Trust and Tearfund. Follow Jenny on Twitter.