When I was a little girl I dreamed of being many things. I rode my bike pretending it was a horse as I acted out scenes from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I sang and danced like Amy Grant in our living room. I taught my classroom of stuffed animals with my overhead projector. Never did I ever consider being a pastor or, even worse, a church planter.
So, what changed?
My senior year of college I was approached about becoming a youth pastor at a large church. I accepted the job, telling my parents (who had just paid for me to get a degree in elementary education and Spanish) that this was “a fun job that would get me back closer to home.” While I think I believed that, I also think I knew deep inside that there was more to what was about to happen.
After being a youth pastor for four years, with a boss that was more wrapped up in an abusive affair he was having than our ministry, I was approached by a trusted friend about planting a church. I will never forget the day I walked out of that friend’s office and told him my ideal job was to oversee ministry for kids through age eighteen. I knew that if we could pull this off, ministry would become much more than just “a fun job” for me. What I didn’t know was what it meant to be a church planter as a twenty-five-year-old woman.
There were the transitions and instability of young adulthood. We started planting the church while still working other jobs. Within a few months, I quit one job, got married, and came back to my job at the church plant.
And there was the difficulty of church leadership dynamics. While our church was explicitly egalitarian, I wasn’t present for the first month of the church’s life. We realized in hindsight that during that short time, my co-pastor had to make decisions that inadvertantly created a power dynamic where he was the senior pastor and I was less senior. Not only were gender and age working against me, but the “normal” system of top-down church leadership. It is simple to say we are an egalitarian church, and that we equally value both pastors, regardless of gender. The reality of how that plays out, however, is endlessly complex.
I never had friends that were pastors, and I certainly don’t have female friends who are church planters. Planting a church as a woman not married to your co-pastor is even rarer. It’s complicated, hard work, and also incredibly rewarding. We’re better together.
Based on my experience, I offer these seven pieces of advice to other women church planters.
You belong, even if you’re the only woman in the room.
The world of church planting is male-dominated, to say the least. Even in egalitarian settings, it’s easy to feel out of place. I once attended a local Portland church planter organization where everyone in the room was male except for me. The well-known pastor leading the meeting knew I was there, and even pointed me out to the room. Yet, he used only male adjectives the entire meeting when referring to pastors! Most of the others didn’t look me in the eyes until they could find some way to justify my presence to themselves. They first assumed I was my co-pastor’s wife. After I corrected them, they only became comfortable with me when I mentioned that I worked with kids and students. It was that day I decided I would no longer introduce myself as a “family pastor” but simply a “co-pastor.” I realized that I would need to be comfortable with the tensions of my role as a female co-pastor in a world of mostly male pastors.
When men are afraid to work with you, it’s not your fault.
As a feminist, I’m proud of what the #MeToo movement has done to bring to light the epidemic of abuse in our world and to hold men accountable. But, for a lot of men, especially pastors, it has reinforced a fear of working alongside women. Plenty of pastors already avoided mentoring or working relationships with women, citing the Billy Graham Rule. Now, afraid of doing something wrong, they try to avoid working with women even more. My age, gender, pitch of voice, and blonde hair immediately work against me when I gather with other church leaders. I used to feel shame, but I’ve learned to be brave and know that God called me, as I am. I don’t need to apologize for that.
See a counselor.
Being a church leader means carrying a heavy spiritual and emotional load. You work with co-leaders that are, well, people. That means you won’t always get along or agree, and it will be hard to love them at times. When this happens, I know I can’t simply talk to my best friends or my husband, because of course they’ll be on “Team Sarah.” They’ll create an echo chamber. And, if those you confide in are also part of your church community, you can create conflict and tension where it doesn’t need to exist. Don’t let your solution be to simply carry the burden alone. Find a neutral party you can process with, ideally a counselor. Or at least a friend who lives somewhere else and can be a neutral party. You need someone you can talk to in order to be a better pastor and team player, and without unduly influencing church members’ opinions of your fellow leaders.
Be in community with people who respect your unique position.
As a pastor, you need community more than ever, but you also need to be discerning. You can’t necessarily talk about everything going on at work like others can, and you need a group that affirms that. I’ve come to appreciate the people who ask me how I am and are prepared to hear me say the truth with as many or as few details as I can add. For me this has come through a women’s small group that has held my hopes, dreams, prayers, and fears. They have shown up when I preach and been a smiling and nodding face. They have also been a voice of encouragement, although there are certain things we cannot talk about.
For those untouchable topics, find professional friends that can hold onto those life moments. For me, that looks like two women who are in parachurch organizations. We can talk about work, marriage, friendship and sexism. They hold me accountable to conflicts I don’t want to have at work, continue to help me find my voice, and remind me to be brave when I feel like I am drowning.
Not everyone is called to co-pastor, and that’s okay—we should do what God calls us to. But I urge women and men called to leadership to consider a co-pastor structure. It’s not easy, but I’m glad to co-pastor my church with a male pastor. His advocacy for me when I’m the only woman in the room has been a huge encouragement, and so has his eagerness to work together as we navigate the daily complexities of a sexist culture and teaching the Bible from our different perspectives as male and female.
And, we get to show that male and female co-leading is possible and good. People question whether men and women can work together, and insist on the Billy Graham Rule. But guess what? My old church was big on the Billy Graham Rule, but it didn’t stop my boss there from having an affair. We can rewrite the story when we model something better, with the support of our community.
The first time I got in a car alone with my co-pastor, I texted my husband to let him know, because the Billy Graham Rule was so engrained in me. He’s an engineer who rides to and from job sites with women all the time, and he encouraged me that he loves and trusts me. That if I’m going to be a pastor, I need to be able to do what the job requires—including being alone with my male colleagues—without texting him or feeling ashamed. The support of my co-pastor, who advocates for me in all-male circles, and the support of my husband, who affirms me in every way, make it possible for us to show that it’s healthy and good for women and men to lead together. It’s my dream that the kids in our church will grow up confident that there’s no reason women and men can’t both lead in the church and that, if they’re called to co-pastor, they can do that, too.
Advocate for other women.
My co-pastor has advocated for me, and without that, I wouldn’t be where I am. As much as it’s in my power, I advocate for other women. We need each other for community, for mentorship, for encouragement. We are laying the groundwork for generations of women leaders to come.
Sexism hurts, but together, you and your church can fight it.
If you’re a woman, you already know that sexism is everywhere, and even the kindest, most well-meaning people aren’t immune. Sometimes people don’t realize they’re doing it. Sometimes they think they’re doing you a favor, showing you “tough love” by speaking God’s “truth” to you. Sometimes, they’re just mean. No matter what, it’s a difficult position to be in as a woman pastor. How should we respond? Why should it be our job to respond to these comments? How will this comment or my response impact my relationship with this person? How will my response be judged, and what emotions can I show? The questions are endless, and I wish I had the answers.
I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to be hurt, and it’s okay to be angry. Let your anger be a fire in your belly to advocate for change and to challenge your community to be different from the world. If your instinct is to respond calmly and start a healthy conversation about women, ministry, and sexism, then do it. If not, that’s okay. Maybe that’s someone else’s job, not yours.
Regardless of your response, you should not need to bear the weight of these comments alone. If your church believes in having a woman as a pastor, it needs to stand behind you and do what’s necessary to cultivate a culture that recognizes sexism and patriarchy and works to root them out of every corner of our lives. If this means that someone who doesn’t believe in your leadership leaves the church, then that may simply need to happen.
Can women be church planters? Absolutely. I believe that the more we see models of males and females together, the more we see the kingdom. I read about a Jesus who sees women, touches them, goes to their homes, loves them deeply. If Jesus was willing to work against culture to interact with women, why can’t we today in 2018?