Editor's note: This is a CBE 2020 Writing Contest honorable mention. Enjoy!
I began studying for ministry when I was 34. My youngest child had just started kindergarten, and with a quiet house during the day, I began to dream about a career in ministry. My calling didn’t happen all at once but came to my attention gradually as I became more and more involved in various ministries at my church.
I grew up in an environment that did not encourage women in leadership, so it had never really occurred to me that I might be able to do other things besides teach children. But one day, I looked at our pastor and thought, “I wish I could do what he does. I would love to be a pastor.” And God’s still small voice in my heart replied, “That’s a good idea.”
Four years later, I graduated from seminary with my master’s degree in divinity. I was hired full-time as an associate pastor at the perfect church. Not a church without problems, but the exact kind of church I had hoped to serve: medium-sized, with a staff team of both men and women, supportive of women in leadership, and providentially located in my husband’s hometown.
It was my dream job, and it still is. I thank God for his gentle prodding that led me out of an uncertain and fearful desire to lead and into this wide-open space where all of God’s gifts to me can be explored, including preaching, teaching, and administration.
I may not have been in ministry very long, but my journey to this point has revealed at least four principles based in Scripture that I think are especially helpful for women entering into church leadership. I hope that my story and my humble advice will encourage and strengthen you.
1. Be confident in your calling and gifting.
1 Corinthians 12:7 says, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” We know that “each one” includes women, so none of the Spirit-given gifts listed in the rest of the chapter are off-limits to you. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you have gifts that the church needs. It would be detrimental to the common good of the church for you not to develop and use them!
As a girl, I was painfully self-conscious when speaking in front of a group. I dreaded giving presentations at school and was absolutely mortified if I was required to participate in a skit. And yet, numerous people over the past six years have confirmed my gifting as a preacher and teacher. I feel God’s presence when I preach in a way that I rarely feel at any other time. I can say along with the apostle Paul that I feel compelled to preach (1 Cor. 9:16), despite my nerves.
When I have scriptural insight to share, it burns within me until I can pass it along to others. In the past, I taught women’s Bible studies and children’s Sunday school to satisfy this urge; now I preach and teach publicly as well. I have seen the positive effects that my preaching has had on others, and the encouragement of my congregation has helped to reassure me that God is using me in this way.
What ministries have you been involved in that have drawn positive affirmation from others? Allow your Holy Spirit-fueled passion to guide you as you serve him and let the encouragement of other believers confirm your calling and build you up. Whatever your spiritual gift is, use it with confidence, because God has made you competent to serve (2 Cor. 3:4–6).
2. Seek out role models, both male and female.
The apostle Paul also wrote, “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). It is a biblical principle that we should actively seek out and follow older believers who are leading faithfully in their various areas of ministry. Don’t simply watch them but try to learn as much as possible from them: take notes, ask questions, get referrals. Find a mentor.
Although I never saw or heard from a female pastor growing up, there were many female Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, older students, missionaries, and pastors’ wives that I admired and sought to emulate. Later on, as I considered attending seminary, I began reading authors like Barbara Brown Taylor, Jen Hatmaker, Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, Ann Lamott, and Brené Brown, among others.
From these role models, I learned that it is okay for Christian women to be outspoken, passionate, and even loud. Some are thoughtful, deep thinkers, some champion causes dear to their hearts, but all of them stand confidently for what they believe and teach with authority. None of them are afraid to be smart, nor are they afraid to be completely open, honest, and vulnerable. Their strength has inspired me.
Over time I have met other female pastors, but unfortunately I have not known them well enough to really follow their example in ministry. Even so, I have been so encouraged by the male pastors who have taught me, advised me, and supported me, even if they didn’t know it. I remember once hearing a pastor preach with such passion and conviction that he ended his message in choking sobs. His courageous, Spirit-led display of emotion made me feel that it might be ok for me, a person prone to tears, to cry in public.
Find role models that you can relate to in some way, regardless of gender. Seek out people who you would like to emulate and pay attention to how they live. Don’t be afraid to develop your gifts by studying the examples of inspiring men and women of faith around you.
3. Find a senior leader who will have your back.
As a woman in ministry, you may need someone to vouch for you the way that the apostle Paul vouched for his female co-workers. In Romans 16:1–2, we see Paul doing this for Phoebe in his letter to the church in Rome:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Two thousand years later, female leaders still often need other leaders, sometimes even male leaders specifically, to defend and support them to gain credibility. Hopefully the day will come when this is no longer necessary, but that day is not here yet.
In my first year as a pastor, I was meeting with a group of siblings to arrange a memorial service for their aunt. Their mother was elderly and unable to attend the meeting, but she had strong opinions on how her sister’s memory should be honored. When she learned that a woman would be officiating the service, she asked if the senior minister was available instead. I tried to be gracious, but with some internal bitterness I went to ask our senior pastor if he was free on the date they had chosen. He was not, but either way he refused to take on the memorial. What he said to me I will never forget. He said, “The next time someone asks you if the minister is available,” and here he looked me right in the eyes, “tell them you are the minister.”
I am the minister, and so are you! Find someone who will advocate for you and remind you often that you share authority to preach and teach too.
4. Work to please God, not people.
A verse that constantly challenges me is 1 Thessalonians 2:4: “…we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.” This verse reminds me that it does not matter if some within the church do not approve of my role as a full-time minister because I am a woman. They may think I ought to be at home more with my children, but apparently that is not what God thinks.
God led me out of my role as a full-time, homeschooling mother to a new role as a pastor, and he has confirmed this calling. My husband is also completely supportive. The church I serve called me as their pastor and affirms my gifts. It is of no concern to me whether someone else thinks I heard God wrong. I have been entrusted by God with the gospel, and my job is to please him in all that I do. Remember, if God has called you to a certain ministry, then it is to him that you are ultimately accountable. Don’t let the desire to gain people’s approval distract you from his voice and his guidance.
May God fill you with his Holy Spirit and provide the confidence, role models, defenders, and heavenly focus that you will need. If God is for you, who can be against you (Rom. 8:31)? Go out and serve, knowing that you are fully equipped with his power and authority!
Photo by Thomas Vitali on Unsplash