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Published Date: July 30, 2014

Published Date: July 30, 2014

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Alongside: Man and Woman Co-Pastoring Together

Our names are Kathy & Karl.
We are educated, committed evangelicals.
We’re both happily married (to other people!).
We believe in the local church, its power to have an impact in the community.
We are co-pastoring a new church plant together
People think we’re crazy–that it can’t be done, that it’s too complicated. 
We think it’s fun.
This is our story.

We met while on staff at a large suburban mega-church. The church began as a unique place that catered to those who were the least likely to attend church. It had a history of inclusiveness and risk taking, and it was a place where the broken were not just the audience, but also the pastors. It was definitely unlike any church we had been a part of . Karl was the teaching pastor and Kathy was the adult ministry pastor–both jobs that we loved. For a man in full-time ministry, Karl had a pretty good gig and for a woman, Kathy had a strong voice on the pastoral team and was allowed to teach in some smaller venues. Things seemed fairly progressive for the evangelical church. Unfortunately, some strategic leadership decisions shifted our ability to stay on staff and we left. Job opportunities started opening up almost immediately for Karl, but he knew that he did not want to minister in the more typical, safe, predictable, middle class environment. And Kathy was told things like, “The grass isn’t greener. You’ll never have a chance to influence more women than this at one time. You’ll never find a church whose culture won’t be messed up for women anyway. This is as good as it gets.”  It was terribly hard not to believe this strong message. What if they were right that Kathy had just left the best possible role she could ever hope for as a woman in an evangelical church, and that this was the beginning of the downward spiral of her ministry career? In not so subtle terms, the message she heard was “your ministry will not exceed beyond your ministry to women.” But Kathy had experienced a growing affirmation of her gifts of leadership and teaching. Men, as well as women, were finding healing, and they were also finding new ways to live. What do you do if God has made you to be a pastor?

Karl had a vision for something more. He had a dream that it could be different. Kathy shared the dream but was afraid to say it. Karl said “This is possible, you were made to be a pastor,” that there could be a place to live out our giftedness and our theology too, and that both men and women have something strong and powerful to offer in leading the church. So we started on the path of planting a church that would have a few important distinctions in place right from the start: We’d have plural leadership from the beginning—no senior pastor but two (or more than two in the future) co-pastors, along with a core team, who are committed to sharing leadership and complementary gifts. We’d be egalitarian. We’d minister from a place of brokenness rather than from the old-school model of “leaders are supposed to be strong.”   

That vision has become our church, called The Refuge. We are a wild and wacky group of people who seem to really want to do church differently, who believe it can look more like a community than a corporation, and who like the idea that women are not suppressed but rather have a strong and equal voice in leadership. Our leadership team has 4 women on it and 5 men. We didn’t choose these people because of their gender; we chose them based on their gifts and talents and the diversity they each bring. We are just getting into a groove; we know we have a lot to learn but we also already know it is so possible to do this, that men and women can actually work alongside in ministry. People often think it must take “more work” to pull it off. Of course it doesn’t take more work; all ministry relationships always require a lot of work.  This model just takes a different kind of work. And we believe the results are a church that is much more healing for people, more whole. Maybe it is even more how God designed it and how the early church functioned, with gifted and passionate men and women, educated and uneducated, slave and free, Jew and Greek working alongside each other spreading the good news about Jesus. 

So how did it all come about, and what does it look and feel like in action? What has it been like for us as a man and a woman working alongside each other in ministry? Here are some of our perspectives:

What motivated you in the first place to team up with someone of the opposite sex (who wasn’t your spouse) as a co-pastor?   

Karl: Simply put, for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a co-lead pastor. I have always been suspicious that one person could be “Jesus Jr.”  I know my own lust for power and recognition demands that I am in a place where I must listen and submit to others. I do not think I am unusual in this weakness. In our present situation, I didn’t do anything special except notice that Kathy was a good pastor and shepherd. My primary motivation was to team up with someone who was gifted and called to pastor, who shared my weird counter-cultural view of church. I can honestly say I did not “notice” she was a woman. We both have a “love/hate” thing with the church. We love what it once was, and could become. We love the “Bride”, the people as individuals. But we hate it when the church is run like IBM, when leaders are forced to have all their hang-ups resolved, when hierarchy supersedes giftedness, and when only the “together” person is valued.  

Kathy:   I honestly never thought it was possible that a church would “let me” be in senior leadership. I knew I might get to be involved in leadership but never at the place of strategic influence. Karl really believed it was possible and was willing to pay some of the cost to make it happen, and I agree with him that it wasn’t so much about me being a woman and him being a man. It was just that we had complementary gifts and this same dream that the church didn’t have to be so corporate, stifling, and limiting.   We both felt somehow the church was missing something—diversity, equality, and risk.         

What are the obstacles and challenges to this working arrangement?

Kathy:  For me, it’s standing up against the establishment. Sometimes I feel stupid, like I “shouldn’t be” leading because good evangelical women aren’t supposed to. So a lot of the time I feel more insecure than I should, and I bring that dysfunction to the team. We also have to be willing to not worry or care about what people think of us; if I let that get to me, I’d be ruined. I recognize that a big part of my story is letting shame silence me, so I know I have to continue to model this “pushing” through as a pastor. One of the things I love about The Refuge is that my brokenness is in fact my pathway to minister. My story, my woundedness and pain, and what Jesus has done in my life is what I have to bring; others seem to connect with it. I am “comforting others with the comfort I have received,” as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1. Another obvious issue is that many people theologically disagree with our position on women in ministry. They also think it can’t be done– that eventually we’ll “fall,” because it just isn’t possible for a man and woman to work this closely in ministry together and not mess it up. I have to be honest, I hear that nagging voice that says “you cannot do this.” But we just keep talking about it as a team, praying and seeking God’s direction to stay on course.

Karl: For my part, believing I am supposed to pastor is not a big stretch for me. Since coming to Jesus over 30 years ago, people have affirmed that gifting in me. I do not have to explain or overcome any suspicions. That is not true for Kathy; it’s still uncommon for a woman with an evangelical persuasion to be a lead pastor. This awareness adds a layer of brain damage that would not be there if Kathy were male. I am not saying that is anything Kathy asks or expects of me or that it is even particularly taxing. It is just there.  I do not think that gender is much of a challenge to our working together. The issues that we all face in ministry working relationships are no more or less evident in our situation.

We both are very opinionated, way too insecure, slightly addicted to approval, like being right, and the list goes on. So what do we do? We laugh about it more times than I could ever remember. I have actually come to love it when my ego and insecurity are leaking out, because I am part of team that can see it, call it what it is, and then be able to laugh about it.

What adjustments have you made to make this work? 

Both of us: We made it very clear from the start that this was a team effort with our spouses, and they were in on the whole idea from the beginning. Both of us are married to people who are very secure and have their own careers and giftedness. We set the stage initially on the potential pitfalls, things to guard against, what we needed to be hyper vigilant about, and how they were feeling about the whole idea. Now we are working on checking in and continuing to develop our friendship as couples. Probably the most significant and unique adjustment is that we never meet alone. For us, it just makes sense to always protect ourselves and each other, and ensure that no one can be suspicious. Just as importantly, it actually helps us live out our dream of always working in teams.

What has been the most difficult part?

Kathy:  The hardest part has been leaning into it and being willing to lead confidently even when it’s scary, standing up against criticism and doubt, not caring so much about what people think, and listening more intently to God’s call and direction in the midst of all of this. It also hurts my feelings when people outside of our body “assume” that I’m Karl’s assistant. He has done everything possible to not communicate this, but people are so stuck in the old paradigm that it just isn’t natural to think differently. We try to laugh about it, but sometimes it still gets to me. 

Karl: It is really hard to plant a church, especially when what we desire does not look much like what people have come to expect of church. Also, the lack of a good role model living out this theology is sometimes hard, but we do really love the challenge. I have some pastor friends who think I’m a little crazy to do this, but they trust me. And I often think of how Jesus was viewed as being a little crazy, too! I am looking forward to the day when some people will assume I am Kathy’s assistant!

What is the payoff? 

Kathy: I see a much healthier, well-rounded church body. It is so fun to have a diversity of voices instead of only one. It seems like the congregation somehow feels “safer.” We have many people in our body with deep wounds from the church, and I think knowing Karl and I are both their shepherds (in addition to the growing team of lay people called to shepherd, too) makes them feel safer and more cared for. I also get the benefit of really being challenged to grow. Karl pushes me to think of things I wouldn’t ordinarily think of. I am growing as a leader and developing parts of my giftedness that honestly I didn’t know were there in the first place. I am also beginning to heal from my own church wounds, knowing there are men in the evangelical church who really do not want me to be silent, who value my opinion and leadership, and who want me to minister alongside them, and not just for them.

Karl:  I love this work, in so many ways. I am not lonely. I do not have the pressure to have all the answers. In many ways, it is easier. Honestly, I do not know why anyone would not want to organize their church like this. It was extremely traumatic to have to leave a church we loved, to say the least. I do not know what would have happened to me if I had to do it alone. We have both had some extremely dark days, but our spouses and our friendship were invaluable. I like that Kathy and I (and others on our team) pastor each other pretty well. We are trying to practice on our team, what we dream for The Refuge at large. Kathy has helped create a safe culture/environment where I can be more transparent and not feel like a freak. I am becoming a better shepherd because of what I am learning from Kathy. I am learning how to go long term with people, how to be a safe person. My primary job and gifting has always been in the communication arena, and I think Kathy is learning to become a better communicator because of me. All of this makes us better pastors, better Christ-followers. The best part is that we are stronger, more creative, and more energetic than if we were alone. The sum is greater than the parts. Our team meetings are characterized by tons of tears, laughing,  energy and passion to really live out Jesus’ dream for the church. 

What advice would offer to someone who is considering this?

Karl: I think you need ask some hard questions before jumping into this kind of ministry together.

1. Do I believe and value this person’s gifts?

I would not do this just for the opportunity to live out an egalitarian theology. As important as that ideal is, it is not enough. Regardless of gender, is this a person you believe in?

2. Can I live with this co-pastor’s  shortcomings?

A person’s gifts and talents are usually what we notice when we think of teaming up, but all of us have a significant amount of baggage. Kathy and I often refer to it as our “weirdness.” Be honest. Can you live with that broken part of your partner/co-pastor if it never improved?

3. Are you good team mates?

Do you share significant value enough to be compatible and are you different enough to need each other?

4. Do you care about  this person enough to make their dreams as important as your own?

You will have to give up some of what we all love (and hate) about ministry: the spotlight, the credit, the feeling of being “the one.” Someone else will also get the, “Wow, you saved my life, you are the greatest human on earth.” But I’m thinking that is probably something worth giving up. 

Kathy: I agree with Karl that it is not just about gender roles but about complementary giftedness. Also, be prepared for the lack of great models in your community. Be ready to stand up against criticism. Unfortunately but honestly, the male pastor’s responsibility in making this happen is higher than a woman’s because of the assumed roles in the church all along. The male pastor is going to have to risk more, pave the way a little more, protect and gently fight for the oppressed when others won’t. I think the best way to go for it is to ‘just do it’ and not talk about it all the time. We don’t ever stand up in front of the church or the community and say, “We’re egalitarian.” We’re just trying to model Jesus’ way of men and women living the Kingdom out together. 

Our journey is far from over. We know God has so much to teach us, but we love that we are tossing out the engrained cultural stigmas and living out our faith with a community committed to equality, brokenness, and the hope of Jesus.

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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