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Even Egalitarian Churches Limit Women's Leadership

by Rachel Heim Rausch | November 03, 2021

Editor's note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!

If you were to walk into any church on a Sunday morning and take a minute to observe the volunteers, the majority would be women. Obviously men volunteer as well, but their fellow sisters in Christ outnumber them tremendously. This stands in stark contrast to church staffs across the country. Although we are starting to see more women represented (usually, in the form of administrative workers and children’s directors), our church staffs have always been and are still predominantly made up of men. Even in churches that affirm women’s abilities and God-given right to lead, teach, and shepherd, there is still a shortage of female pastors.

Women make excellent leaders, though. Our high emotional intelligence, listening skills, and problem-solving abilities (just to name a few) contribute to this. So why aren’t there more female pastors? After all, it’s 2021, and we have never had more egalitarian churches than we do now! I cannot answer this question perfectly, but I can explore the topic and provide ideas we—and especially male egalitarian pastors—can apply to our church culture to create a more balanced ministry workforce.

The Problem of Time

The first thing we must acknowledge is the fact that change takes time. I pursued an undergraduate theology degree and graduated in 2014. In most of my upper-level classes, usually made up of thirty or so students, there was always one but no more than five other women. There was a time in recent history when that number was zero.

The first day of classes usually consisted of me scanning the room for another woman and being disappointed when she told me she was pursuing a degree in women’s ministry, children’s ministry, or yes, even a “Mrs.” degree (young women in search of a future pastor to marry upon graduation). While there is nothing wrong with any of those pursuits, I was always let down in my realization that not many other women were trying to become pastors without “women’s” or “children’s” preceding the title.

In the seven years since I’ve graduated, more and more women are taking those theology classes. But it will take time for there to be enough women side-by-side with their male counterparts at universities for those young men to see in reality, not just theoretically, that women are just as gifted and called as any man. There will be a day when qualified applicants for pastoral jobs will be more balanced between the sexes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight.

The Problem of a Calling

This leads me to my next thought, which is that of interpreting a “calling.” I have no doubt that both men and women experience the call to ministry equally. However, in the past, when women have experienced a calling, it was often disregarded for the sake of complementarianism. When women have displayed spiritual gifting suitable for leadership, they have been limited to certain ministries.

Yet when a man is called to pastoral ministry, that calling is celebrated. He is described as humble, obedient, brave. Women in the same circumstances are given the highbrow, questioned, and told to pray more about it instead—even by those who believe that the Bible affirms women in pastoral leadership. As you can imagine, this makes it confusing for women who are trying to interpret their calling.

Instead of assuming God is calling a woman to children’s ministry, you can ask her how she feels God calling her to use her gifts. Paramount though, is being intentional to not limit a woman’s calling, even by accident. You let women know that they might be called to teach, or plant a church, or go to seminary with your words not just your actions. For example, while some women will recognize that God has called them to lead and will verbalize that, many women and men alike need guidance in processing their calling. In these conversations, encourage them to not limit themselves to what tradition or the status quo has dictated. This is particularly important in your youth group, which is often where these callings are first felt. If you can encourage more young women to recognize a call to leadership or pastoral ministry, you will see more women in those college classes I was talking about—and then more women in the pulpit.

The Problem of Healing

Lastly, let’s not forget the importance of undoing damage. Damage has been done to women in the church. Complementarian beliefs are often deeply ingrained inwardly, even subconsciously, in both men and women.

I work at a very contemporary, very egalitarian church. I am in a pastoral role and sometimes preach, but I still hear comments that while not spiteful, invoke the idea that men are the only ones who can or should truly lead (at least in a senior pastor position). While we as a church staff affirm my ability to lead alongside my male coworkers, it’s never really talked about from the stage.

I have a feeling this is the case in many churches.

How will people in your congregation know your stance on gender theology if you do not preach it? This is where you have to practice discernment and balance. You are not called to create division, but if you genuinely want to see more women stepping into pastoral roles, you have to educate your laypeople. When laypeople read 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34, they might not realize these verses can and should be interpreted to support egalitarian beliefs. They are not just verses to be ignored or shrugged at but can actually deepen our understanding of the early church and our views on gender.

You have to undo the damage that an overly literal interpretation has caused by educating your congregants. You can do this in a way that isn’t pushy, but with love, patience, and an attitude that it is okay to disagree yet remain united. There is no reason to be hesitant to talk about women in church leadership from the stage or pulpit at your church.

The Challenge We Face

My challenge today for egalitarian male pastors is to verbally affirm leadership qualities in women, not just men at your church. Like I’ve said, even egalitarians have complementarian habits. Make it a point to use your words as you encourage female leaders. At my last church, whenever the pastor asked somebody in the congregation to guest preach, it was a man. This pastor believed that the Bible supported women in a teaching role, and there was no shortage of women in the church who had the gifting, experience, and talents to do so. So, in the five years I was there, why was a woman never asked to preach? These things might seem small but make a big difference.

Lastly, examine your thinking outside of your propositional belief that women “can” be pastors too. Do you believe the church will benefit when women are teaching just as much as men? If your answer is yes, then this isn’t just a theological issue to debate over coffee with a peer. You need to fight for it. If you think your congregation will experience more growth when both men and women are equally pouring into their spiritual journeys, you aren’t just supporting a “feminist agenda,” but fulfilling your calling as a pastor. If you believe that the gospel will be spread more effectively when both sexes are preaching it, then you aren’t just advocating for “women’s rights”—you are striving for Christ to be made known in this world. This is the goal of all Christians, male or female, pastor or layperson.