Women in Church Leadership – Disappointed But Not Despairing - Featured Image

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

  • Scott Cochrane

    My take, Nancy, is that we won’t see great inroads being made until, as church leaders, we learn to ask better questions. For example, I don’t think the question for our day is “How do we get more women in church leadership?” Rather, it should be, “How do we ensure we have the most gifted, qualified, Christ-centered people leading our churches, REGARDLESS of gender?”

    When churches learn to ask THAT question…watch out!

  • Jac Higgins

    This is disappointing to hear. All I can say is we miss YOUR leadership.

  • Catherine Ellison

    Thank you for taking the risk to write this, and to encourage the anger free rhetoric to be gone and for real discussion and exploration of “what next?” to happen! Yes, as Scott says below, the issue should always be “gift based” leadership, not gender based. However, as in the days of affirmative action attest, sometimes you have to work hard and push at the status quo before the valid principle of operation is solidly in place.

  • Charlie McClelland

    Leaders lead, they are not “hired.” Your article highlights the fact that church has become a corporate business, rather than a family.

    I have struggled with Paul’s–“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:12, NIV) from a different point. I wonder if we are not fooling ourselves by saying a pastor has “authority.” People who do not like what I preach can move their membership without my permission. A soldier cannot leave his unit any time he wants. He is under authority. He must do what his commanding officer tells him. No must do what I tell them, unless I have hired them. Pastoring a church seems to be more like herding cats than commanding a company of soldiers.

    The whole discussion about what a church allows women to do or not do seems to assume the church has that authority. For example, Paul teaches about divorce, but nowhere do I see him give the church the responsibility to regulate who gets married. No where is there any sense that the church had any role in the wedding. Paul writes so individuals can make informed decisions about marriage.

    The same is true of women in leadership roles. Paul did not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man. But who gives men any authority today? If there is no hierarchy of authority for the church in the Bible. All elders were chosen by an apostle or the deputy of an apostle. So we do not have any Biblical Elders today if we do not have living Apostles. The issue is leadership.

    If a woman leads, someone will follow. If she is leading and no one is following she is just out for a walk. Maybe it is tied to her gender, or maybe not. There are many young, old, black, white etc. preachers who feel God has called them to pastor, they just cannot get a church to second that motion.

  • Kelly Fair

    Nancy, thanks for this good word – honest, prophetic, encouraging, challenging, loving. I can’t help but think of our daughters & our son & wonder what they are observing, thinking, & evaluating based on what they’ve seen in the local church. Our generation’s pastors, elders, & leaders (I’m in that group) have unintentionally or intentionally modeled a theology that needs to be re-examined, a theology whose frameworks include the priesthood of all believers, gift-based contribution & the oneness of Christ (Galatians 3:28). Furthermore, many male leaders keep spinning their wheels in the mud of a hierarchical structure that’s found in Genesis 3 (the fall) rather than getting traction on the solid ground of God’s original intent found in Genesis 1 & 2, the very thing Christ came to restore. I’m confident in my children’s awareness & willingness to take up their responsiblity making God’s Kingdom visible to their world. I’m even confident that they could see for themselves their spot as leaders in the local church. My prayer is that the church wherever they are, will be able to see that as well, & give them room to lead!

  • Melissa Mills

    As a women who leads, I am extremely grateful to be part of a church who actively look for ways to encourage female leaders and raise up the next generation of them. It is essential that we do this because as Nancy rightly points out, we are still in the era of redefining what is ‘normal’ in church. Society allows me to lead in the field of politics, economics and education, but history told me that I couldn’t lead in the church. Thank God that I’m now part of a church that is telling my 8 year old daughter that she is leader and God needs her to step up to lead his church alongside Godly men, so that the church becomes that ‘fullest expression’ of His kingdom. This is a lonely position to hold in our country.

  • Shari Luebbert

    Hi Nancy,

    I met you at the Orange Conference a few years back. Your experiences in ministry encouraged me to simply love Jesus and serve His church however He leads me. God used your wisdom and passion to re-ignite a desire to plant a church. With my husband’s full support, we have begun that process.

    other day, my four-year-old granddaughter pointed at the library where Tapestry Church meets & told her friends that
    it was Grammy’s church. I thought, “Wow.” She will grow up thinking a
    female lead pastor is the usual. I got a glimpse of her standing on my
    shoulders, being catapulted as high as God chooses to take her. She can
    love Jesus and serve Him with no barriers whatsoever. I love it!

    Thank you, Nancy, for continuing to serve God beyond man-made limitations.

  • Mary Holder Naegeli

    I was ordained in the PC(USA) in 1987 and have served two congregations, ten years as an associate and nine years as a senior pastor. When it was “time to leave” that second church in 2006, I could not find a new call despite rigorous applications. I went back to school and finished my doctoral dissertation eighteen months ago. Still nothing. I wrote about this in my own post a week ago—— and some of the comments surprised me. They pointed to the roadblock they saw, not MEN opposed to women in ministry leadership but WOMEN! In the 1980s this was the case in my personal experience, but I had not seen that so directly lately. Why women would feel they don’t really want a famale leader is a mystery to me, but the sociological barrier runs deep. I think the other big reason is that a Catch-22 is operative these days: it’s a buyer’s market, and those with previous experience in senior pastor leadership get priority. Not to mention the “Golden Demographic” of male under 40, married, with two school-age kids, ostensibly to “attract young families to the church.” I don’t think the studies demonstrate that this is a valid link, but that is what people believe.
    I share your disappointment that any progress we might have seen 10-15 years ago seems to be vaporizing. The church is squandering many gifts that have been given by God, and I lament the loss. —The Rev. Dr. Mary Holder Naegeli, Minister-at-Large, San Francisco Presbytery (PCUSA)

    • Lisa Lucas Turnbull

      I would agree that it is most oftent the women who have the most poblem. A wise friend suggested that this is due to the fact that my leadership redefined their understandings of themselves and they were uncomfortable with that. I found that giving birth and mothering as a pastor made it even more volital with some women. Of course I also have had many women supporting me as well.

  • jennicatron

    Beautifully written, Nancy. Filled with grace and humility. Thank you for the leader you have faithfully been for those like myself who were inspired with a the courage to lead because of your example.

  • Cathy

    Thank you for this Nancy. I have stumbled across your post this morning after another frustrating meeting last night when an opportunity to preach was given to a layperson (not seminary trained) in our small church…when I sit at the table with seminary training and experience preaching, but I don’t have the magic gender. It is frustrating. Add to that fact my leadership and teaching gifts are not welcome in my church in any area but kids ministry. While I have had children, my passion and gifting are elsewhere. My call to ministry was undeniable and one I can’t easily walk away from, but I’m wondering where I could serve in the Church. Not sure it’s better for women anywhere else. Your post affirms my reality so I guess I find some comfort knowing there are others in my boat, but I am discouraged.

  • Laurel Griffith

    For most Christian women, servanthood brings respect and followers but no title or office. My influence developed through time as I seek to live out what Jesus taught. In many situations, I have had opportunity to contribute but my ideas and opinions must be less direct and come through less organized channels. When a woman who is called to teach or lead in church leaves one community for another, she goes right back to the beginning because she brings no title along with her. I began a Christian magazine as a way to reach people in my community. I began a tutoring ministry for at-risk kids as a way to change lives. My ministry was never affirmed by church leadership but was supported by business owners, and volunteers who love Jesus and His church. I have the luxury of influencing without worrying about financial support. This has freed me to be creative. Unfortunately, women who spend as much time in ministry as I do usually need some monetary compensation so they are forced to take their talents and gifts other places than the local church. The body loses many who would make significant contributions if they had the right avenue to serve.

  • Dave Patchin

    Thank you Nancy for an honest and forthright challenge to pursue the Lord on this issue. Regardless of our theological stance, God gifted everyone and His plan involves the whole body, not just some of it. We all need all of us working together to accomplish what He called *all* of us to do!

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  • Lisa Lucas Turnbull

    This past week over 60 women clergy met together to battle the loneliness of ministry and grow in leadership skills. We discussed much of what you write about. But we were encouraged because 30 years ago there were less than 10 women serving United Methodist Churches in Louisiana. And now, not only are there many more than 60 but a woman Bishop is leading us! We heard the stories of courage of some of the brave clergy women leaders who have gone before us 200, 100, 60 years ago. It was a beautiful time. We are not alone. Disappointed – yes; despairing – never. I have been encouraged at the 5 churches I have served as the Pastor in Charge by the welcome of the majority and the conversation with the minority. I have rejoiced in watching girls begin to dream big and realize their power and responsibilies to share their gifts. I have wept at the changes and acceptance I have received by those who through conversation and observation gave God a chance to speak to them through me. What an honor to be a woman in ministry at such a time as this!

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  • Dana Jewett

    You helped form the women I am today. I was in my late 20s and early 30s and there was a heart connect when you or Nancy Ortberg would teach. That is not to take away anything from John or Bill or anyone else. It’s not about subtraction, it’s addition. A deep bench of varying skills and personalities allows for such deep and rich learning. We need to grab hold of women like Heather L and ensure they have a platform to open minds and, more importantly, hearts for Christ – encouraging action and empowering both men and women to be the hands and feet with love and compassion. You made a difference.

  • RonSimkins

    Thank you Nancy. (And, Scot McKnight for leading me to this delightful blog.)

    Sorry writing this has to feel risky to you. That alone shows how far short we are falling as a community of followers of Jesus.

    As one who has spent a lifetime in ministry hoping to see our leadership structures become more “familial” and less “corporate,” I want to be sure that we do not use that value as an excuse for failing to confess and repent that we still are far short in allowing our
    sisters to fully utilize their leadership gifts. The “glass ceiling” is real and evident in most levels of “up front” leadership in most churches.

    Those of us who use doctrine to justify this oppression do so in a very inconsistent
    manner since we ignore in the same passages the commandment to “honor the king”
    and to “serve our masters well as slaves.” And, those of us who see the
    trajectory of the New Testament as pushing us toward genuinely honoring the
    gifts of our sisters usually do it better in theory than in practice. We should
    not pat ourselves on the back for saying something is good and not doing it – I
    think Jesus and James both said something like that right?

    Some of the best sermons and most life challenging teachings I have ever heard have been by women – including one by a 25 yr old just yesterday. (I am 70 yr old; so the age gap can also be overcome by the Holy Spirit working through the Word.) Nancy is right; let’s pray for
    more and repent for how far behind God’s curve we are at present.

  • Dana Baker

    I had a chance to sit next to you, Nancy, at a staff meeting at a church in New England, a number of years ago, when I was still still struggling to find my voice as a woman in ministry. And you really encouraged me. I think your assessment in this article is very accurate, but I am still hopeful because I totally agree when you say “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.” I think this is how things will change. And I am seeing those voices more and more.

    I am thankful to be on the staff of a church that encourages me as a pastor and encourages my voice in a wide variety of settings both at our church and in the wider Body of Christ. I am thankful to have benefitted for the past couple of years from an amazing mentor, who has been the senior pastor of a local church 15+ years. She has taught me so much. But I have also been with a number of young women in the past few years who are struggling with the limitations being placed on their gifts in many church settings. I have a good friend who lives in the midwest who has struggled to find a church staff position commensurate with her gifting. But we don’t give up and we can hope by our presence, if we are faithful and obedient in our callings that we may influence others to reconsider their positions on this topic. So thanks for taking the risk – you are such a respected leader and I believe your reasoned voice will make a impact.

  • Dawn Denise Grepke Modlin

    Wow! This really spoke to my heart. I am a woman who has been gifted by God with leadership and teaching but am not encouraged in my mainline denomination to use it as fully as I could. I really appreciate your encouragement to not give up and to keep using my gifts. Thanks Nancy!

  • Kelli Wommack

    Nancy, just found this blog. Thank you. Your words resonate deep within this heart of a girl called over 20 years ago and wondered what in the world God could be thinking. I am blessed by your leadership and challenged by your words. Would so love to be mentored by someone like you…

  • Beth Bramstedt

    Nancy – I want to say thank you. Not just for this post, but for your ministry and your book “Gifted to Lead.” I have been on staff at my church for over 20 years. I started in college, have led for years, but just recently got ordained. I am the first female pastor in our church. It has been an interesting journey, and one I couldn’t have completed without the encouragement and inspiration in your book, the way you lead, and in hearing you speak. I agree progress seems slow, but hope is blooming in many places. I now lead a group of women that I affectionately call “Created Female.” We are a community of faith discovering our unique place in God’s kingdom. I will be preaching this weekend on “The Man Who Changed Everything” based on John Ortberg’s book. My talk is on how he changed equality. I will also be teaching a theology class this fall on women in leadership in the church. So, I am excited about where God is leading in this area, and I am thrilled to be a part. Thanks for being a pioneer!

  • Brianne Johns

    Thank you so much Nancy. I am a 34 year old youth pastor and so lucky to have been called to full-time ministry for the past 12 years. God has blessed me with some amazingly supportive men in the church who partner with me on a regular basis. I resonate with every word and dream you have for the future women in church leadership. The journey has not always been easy and I can definitely say that I can often become an easy target and doubt the calling God has put before me. I still ache at times to be a a part of the boys club or even the pastors wives group… Even after all this time, I wish I knew where I fit. I want to be there for the next generation of women leaders because I feel like there is an incredible lack of needed “girls club” support. In all of this I feel passionately called and equipped to lead others and serve my God. I look up to you in so many ways. Thank you for your words. You feel like a close girlfriend encouraging me over a coffee date. You are brave for putting yourself out there. Let’s get vulnerable!

  • Chaplain Bill Herrmann

    Nancy, I applaud You & Commend You before Our Lord Jesus Christ for this Blog Post.Speaking as one who was led to form an Online Church Fellowship, I am in Fellowship online with many Sisters-in-Christ Jesus who demonstrate Spiritual Leadership and Devotion in Prayer and Christian here at Berean Bible Chapel Online Church Fellowship. I would not hesitate to have them Preach or Teach on our 5:00pm-7:00pm EST Berean Bible Chapel Online Church Fellowship Blog Talk Radio Broadcast. I am Sharing this Outstanding Message.