Women in Church Leadership – Disappointed But Not Despairing

Almost 30 years ago when I started serving on staff as a church leader, my role on the Management Team was somewhat pioneering, at least for our church. As the first female on that team, and later, the first female Teaching Pastor, I sought to do the work of ministry as best I could, hoping that my gender would actually not be a big deal or a barrier.  I am deeply grateful for the opportunities I had, for the adventure of learning in the trenches of leadership, for the men and women who opened up a place for me at the table and made room for my voice.  If you would have asked me way back then what the landscape of women in church leadership would look like by 2013, here is what I would have predicted.

By now, I thoughtwe would see a much larger percentage of women serving as Senior Pastors, Executive Pastors, Worship Pastors, etc.  Women coming out of seminaries or the marketplace, according to my forecast, would discover several opportunities in local churches to fully express their gifts, to lead with boldness, to teach from the pulpit on a regular basis.  I thought that men of my generation, and certainly those younger than us Baby Boomers, would be enthusiastic advocates opening doors for women, recognizing the value of hearing the female’s voice both strategically and through teaching.  While historically, women have found places to lead in Children’s Ministry and Women’s Ministry.  I’m sure I thought by now that those options would be greatly expanded, building on those arenas and spreading to areas like Evangelism, Spiritual Transformation, Church Operations/Finance, and the Board of Elders.

I am fully aware of the barriers to this vision – theological positions, tradition, culture, denominational policies, etc. But hey, I’m also an optimist.  I thought we would see tremendous openness to exploring these barriers.  I thought more churches would open up studies and dialogue and wrestle deeply with the issues, digging into Scripture, and risking the inevitable pushback and controversy in a passionate search for the truth.  I did not think all churches would see a wholesale transformation to the egalitarian view.  But I had hoped to see movement – significant steps to empower women as far as any church’s theology would allow.  And to be completely honest, I thought my male counterparts of the day would challenge and disciple other male leaders to  display greater courage, take more risks, go out on a limb to open up whatever doors they could, to share the power/authority and seats at the table.

So what does reality show us now in 2013?  Certainly not what I envisioned and prayed for.  More women than ever are going to seminary, comprising 51% of students in divinity school.  The “Faith Communities Today” 2010 national survey of a fully representative, multi-faith sample of 11,000 American congregations found that 12% of all congregations in the United States had a female as their senior or sole ordained leader. For Oldline Protestant congregations this jumps to 24%, and for Evangelical congregations it drops to 9%. Of all conservative Protestant congregations, 1% are led by women; of African-American churches, just 3% are led by women.  And what has surprised me most is that many of those in the younger generations – both men and women – are even more devoted to a hierarchal position on women in ministry than their elders.

I rarely hear of a women serving as a Senior Pastor (with the exception of some mainline denominations), Executive Pastor, primary worship leader, CFO, or consistent Teaching Pastor (teaching from the pulpit at least once a month or more).  I hear from women on a regular basis about their loneliness and frustration, their disappointment about not finding ways to fully steward the gifts they have been given in the local church.  It hasn’t turned out the way I hoped. Young women who are bursting with leadership and communication gifts are still not seeing the local church as a primary option for them – too many of them who have sensed a heart level calling on their lives are heading instead to academia, the arts, or the business world.

So yes, I admit I am disappointed. But I do not despair.  Why?  Because of women leaders like Jeanne and Tracey and Barbie and Suze and Caron and Nancy and Andrea and Heather and Kimbra and so many others who show up every day at their local churches and lead with boldness and grace.  The statistics may not give cause for celebration, but remarkable exceptions fill me with hope.  Sweeping change on any issue is not the norm for local churches and denominations.  And yet…one life at a time, one team at a time, one church at a time, some are discovering and benefiting from the outstanding contribution of a godly, gifted woman whose voice becomes vitally significant in meetings of a few and in gatherings of hundreds or thousands.

Recently I was at a small dinner party where I met a businessman who attended our church 25 years ago.  Now he lives in another state, but he took a moment to look me in the eye and tell me what it meant to him and his wife to see me lead and teach all those years ago.  He said it was especially validating to his wife, who also has gifts of leadership, and he expressed thanks to me.

To every woman who is showing up day after day to use your gifts as best you can, I simply want to let you know that you have no idea the impact you are having.  There are men and women who will be enriched by your voice and perspective. Young boys and girls also have their eyes on you – you show them what is possible and redefine what is “normal” in church for them.  When you wonder if it matters, when you want to give up and stop putting yourself out there, taking risks and reading the negative emails, when you feel lonely at the table, when you are not sure if you are even doing the right thing…please don’t give up. Remember your church needs your voice, and your presence is providing a richer, fuller, truer representation of the God who calls us all, male and female, into the life-changing work called full-time ministry. The wider church needs to see more and more examples of how your contribution matters.

And to the male leaders reading this…I implore you to ask yourself if you are doing all you can to be an advocate for the women in your setting.  Are you open to how God wants to use them? Are you willing to courageously explore this issue and listen to the Spirit and to your community, seeking where God would have you land?  Are you clutching to a male-only, boys club kind of leadership team; are you unwilling to share the pulpit – or are you humbly holding all of that loosely enough to make room for your sisters to join you at the table, to brainstorm at the flipchart, and to express their voice to your people?

This post was a risk for me to write, because I know how volatile the entire subject is, how divisive it can be.  I invite your feedback – whether you agree with me or not.  I only ask that we all learn to communicate our perspective with grace and care.  We’ve had enough angry rhetoric on this one.  Let’s just take a breath and try to humbly explore it together.  I know I could be wrong on any number of points.  I just want others to admit the same…and move toward greater understanding.  It’s my sincere hope that in 30 more years…in 2043…the picture of women leading and teaching in the church will look vastly different than it does today.  A girl can dream…

Nancy Beach | Coach

Nancy Beach is a passionate champion and voice for leaders and artists in the local church. For over 20 years, she served as the Programming Director for Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. Nancy was privileged to be one of the founders of that local church, also serving as a Senior Member on the Management Team and using her communication gifts as one of the Teaching Pastors.  She truly believes God is calling her to give back to emerging leaders, drawing from her experience, her strategic mind, and her intuitive heart.