Grace Church began in 1991 near Indianapolis and has grown into a mega-church of about 6,000 weekly attendees. Their vision for an electric, passionate church has helped allow Grace Church to expand into a second location. On February 9, 2014, Grace Church boldly adopted an egalitarian stance on women in church leadership and people of their congregation and across the globe have been encouraged by their stance. We got in touch with Tim Ayers, the teaching pastor at Grace Church to learn more about the changes that have been made to their church currently and what these changes will mean for Grace Church as they move forward.
LEXI FRIESEN: What were the driving forces behind changing Grace Church’s stance to support women in leadership?
TIM AYERS: About ten years ago, we took almost a year to study leadership in the Bible with all of the elders and their wives. We couldn’t come to a consensus on our theological perspectives. We all have to pick our battles to fight, and at the time, if we had pushed hard this decision could have split the church. Instead, we came to a compromise that women could do everything except be an elder, senior pastor, or weekend teaching pastor, but we agreed to revisit the conversation in five years.
That took longer than expected, but we felt that we needed to keep a promise to our congregation and to God to talk about this topic again. I led another nine-month study with our leadership team and we came to a consensus that this was something that needed to change. The by-laws of our church needed to change so we brought it up at one of our quarterly covenant community [member] meetings hoping that our church family wasn’t surprised by our sermon series and announcement. There were a lot of different emotions but about 88% of the people voted to change the by-laws!
LF: Who were the biggest (women) influences behind enforcing a change?
TA: That was probably the biggest complaint, actually. We lost about 300 people—people that we loved and who had been in our church for a long time and we don’t take that lightly. They asked, “Why now? There haven’t been any complaints by women, we haven’t had any gender issues, so why make changes now?” So, there weren’t any women pushing for themselves to be teaching pastors, but the pastors and elders felt that we had given our word to our congregation and to God and we had waited long enough to revisit the conversation.
LF: Why was it necessary for Grace Church to publically stand for women in leadership?
TA: Although many people probably thought we already were an egalitarian church, we wanted to make sure our community understood we we’d changed our position and our members needed to have enough information to wisely vote to change the by-laws of our church.
LF: You mentioned earlier that you addressed your membership in advance of the announcement, but how did you address the congregation as a whole, and how did they respond to what you had to say?
TA: After the leadership board made the decision, through a nine-month study as a mentioned before and a lot time praying, we still waited three months before we told only the covenant community [church members]. We told them we had created a four week sermon series discussing our human sexuality (a fear some of our congregation had was, “If we begin to let women loose in leadership, soon our church will endorse same-sex marriage”), how our church and staff make decisions, family structure, and of course we talked about our stance on women in leadership, and I was the one who presented that message. For the most part I would say people reacted well—they were either excited about the change, or had thought that was already our stance. But there are always people who aren’t ready for change like that. It was hardest on our executive level leadership because we were the voices behind the change. We had hoped that many people in the church would stay through love for one another and for the church, but some people couldn’t see past it. It’s hard because we still care about those people and we still see them around in our community, but they need to find a church that believes what they believe and build a new community there.
LF: What are some active steps that have been taken at Grace Church to ensure the empowering of women?
TA: I don’t think there is any doubt among our congregation that Grace Church wants to empower women in leadership. We want women, just like we want men, to have great access to resources and our congregation. We are creating a better structured pastoral development program because we are continuing to plant churches and we need strong people to help lead. This pastoral program includes women because we want them to be mentored and encouraged as well. We haven’t had a woman teach any sermons from the pulpit yet, but we are beginning to prepare women to do so. We want the first women to preach to feel confident in their abilities and to be successful. I hope to have women in our ongoing speaking cycle soon because their voices are needed, and I want them to be confident in knowing that! Most recently though, we added two women to our elder board as they were candidates nominated by the congregation and voted in accordingly. Both women are qualified for the position and we are glad to have them in leadership. Our church doesn’t have a political agenda—we just want to listen to the Holy Spirit.
For more information on Tim’s sermon:
Our Approach to Women in Leadership
The other three sermons in the series:
Roles Within the Family
Our Approach to the Bible and Spiritual Discernment