Veteran US preacher Iverna Tompkins, well known for her tongue-in-cheek humor, once famously said: “For a woman to be accepted as a preacher and church leader, she has to be twice as good as a man. Fortunately, that isn’t difficult.”
Oh, the irony! Because of course, without opportunities to learn and develop, it is very difficult for women to acquire platforms, ministry, or leadership excellence.
One of the key issues faced by women in the church is the lack of provision for ongoing leadership development. Even in churches that espouse gender equality, women woefully lack leadership opportunities, especially on the platform. When they do get up to speak or give direction, they may quickly lose credibility because they lack the expertise that comes with training and practice. What is forgivable in a man who is gaining experience may be considered obnoxious in a woman, and proof that she shouldn’t have been on the platform in the first place.
While the concept of women in church leadership is becoming increasingly acceptable, that acceptance is more often based in talk than in action. Unless determined church leaders advocate on their behalf, there will be no opportunities for women learn and develop their craft as speakers and leaders.
Only in a minority of Christian settings are women’s leadership skills recognized, developed, or put fully to use. The church has been called the hope of the world, but this hope will never become a reality if the church under-utilizes its troops.
It’s time the body of Christ went beyond talk and worked on empowering women to lead accordingly. Official support means nothing if it doesn’t translate into leadership jobs for women.
So how can we facilitate the development of women leaders by the quickest and most effective means possible? Education, perhaps? A theological education is only one part of the answer, as thousands of women unable to use their ministry degrees know full well. A master’s degree may never translate into a leadership position for the woman who has earned it. A doctorate does not a senior pastor make, if the doctor happens to be a lady. Education is important, but it’s not enough.
When Jesus was developing the future leaders of the church, he didn’t choose the Twelve and send them off to seminary. He drew them close to himself, working intensively with them for a full three years. Subsequent to his resurrection, instead of staying around because the disciples weren’t ready for such an awesome responsibility, he handed the brand new church into their trembling hands, fully aware of their ignorance and that their leadership capacities were not yet fully developed. It was a brave move, but one that was entirely normal for Jesus, who continues to hand his church over to the unformed leaders of every generation.
We have a word for Jesus’ method of leadership development: mentoring. However, for a number of reasons, mentoring isn’t easily available to women called to leadership. This must change.
We can’t just presume that if women are good enough, they’ll make it, nor can we send them to Bible schools and seminaries and hope they’ll find their own way from there. We need to develop mentoring streams for current and emerging women leaders. This means reforming cultures and practices that make mentoring unavailable to women, learning how to do mentoring, and clearing the way for women to actually step into leadership roles.
I asked a handful of female leaders how we can make this happen. What follows is a distillation of their suggestions.
What We All Can Do
We all need to be involved in mentoring women, and to make that work, there are things we all need to work together on, regardless of our gender.
1. Embrace cross-gender mentoring
Leadership must be intentionally modeled in a gender-equal format in order for a reshaping of culture to take place among women and men. Women make up about ten percent of church leadership. If only same-sex mentoring relationships are acceptable, every woman in leadership would have to take on an impossible number of mentees. Unless male-female mentorship is an option, most emerging female leaders will never work with an experienced mentor.
Unfortunately, the church’s fear and suspicion of cross-gender relationships holds women back from leadership. While not totally groundless, fears of falling into adultery through male-female mentoring relationships are overblown. Secular leaders manage to have cross-gender meetings and relationships without illicit affairs. If the world can sort this out, why can’t the church?
Just be sensible. When you meet for coffee, do it in a public area. Meet in offices with glass walls or doors. Why not try cross-gender group mentoring, especially with developing leaders, but make sure that everyone is equally involved and that one sex doesn’t dominate. Sharing space with people of the opposite sex is a normal part of life, and there’s no reason Christians can’t navigate it successfully.
Ephesians 4:12 instructs leaders to equip the saints for works of service, without a single mention of gender. The church needs a culture that embraces mentoring, regardless of gender.
2. Set clear expectations for mentorship
Be aware that mentoring is generally for a season, not for life. When you enter into a mentoring relationship, lay clear ground rules, including what you can expect of each other, and how long the mentoring season will be for. If you begin with a three or six month agreement, it’s entirely possible to extend that for however long it continues to suit both parties, and is far better than being locked into a mentoring relationship that isn’t going anywhere.
3. Mentor by doing life together
One of the most powerful aspects of a mentoring relationship is doing life together. If your idea of mentoring is a meeting where the mentee answers questions and reports on the hoops you’ve asked her to jump through, you’re mistaken. That’s supervision, not mentoring.
Mentoring makes a point of listening, not just talking. Many would-be mentors get this very wrong. It’s true the mentee wants to hear from you, but if you’re the only person doing the talking, you’ve missed the point. Everyone wants to be heard, and to have the right to ask questions, or to explain their perspective. The mentoring relationship will be far more effective if there’s a balance of conversation, and a willingness to learn from each other.
Eat together, worship together, and find ways to hang out together. Once again, be wise in this. If you’re having a social event, invite the mentee’s whole family, and vice versa.
Mentoring works well in open and transparent relationships. Don’t just address the do’s and don’ts, rights and wrongs, but ask God to help you impart what it is to live a Christlike life as a leader. That happens more naturally when you’re doing life together.
What Women Can Do
After a lifetime of being told they are not suited for it, a call to leadership can be extremely difficult for women to embrace. Developing mentorships and stepping into leadership can take a lot of courage.
1. Value yourself
Many women miss opportunities because of fear, low self-esteem, and shame. It’s easy for women to undervalue their gifts and worry how they will be perceived if they take initiative in applying for a job or asking for a raise. Other times, women are ashamed of their leadership call. Or, they fall into a trap of comparison and are afraid to be open and honest with mentors. Don’t let this be you. You have what it takes.
Experienced women in leadership may fail to mentor others because of their own low self-esteem, thus denying emerging leaders the opportunities to grow. This reinforces systemic inequality. Be the one to break the cycle.
2. Don’t hold back
Many women are more ready than their male peers to take on certain roles. In such cases it is important for women to step forward and apply for the position, even if they are sure they’ll be rejected because of their gender. By applying, you raise awareness, and you prevent people from excusing their all-male staff by saying women never apply. When it becomes normal for people to see applicants of both genders, attitudes will change. Plus, you never know, you just might get the job.
Don’t wait for permission to act. This is hard for many women, who have been told their whole lives to be submissive. Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. Leading requires decision-making. You won’t always be right, but that’s okay. Learn from it. People learn more from you when you deal with challenges than when things are going smoothly.
3. Acknowledge your leadership call
In order for a woman to be a good mentor, she must first see herself as a leader. This is the basis from which she will find and create ways to empower women to lead, as well as teach them how they can empower others.
Many women think they won’t be good mentors because they weren’t mentored themselves. But someone needs to break the cycle. Make the decision to reverse the trend and be a good leadership role model for other women and men.
4. Find the right mentor or mentee (and don’t take it personally if it doesn’t work)
If you’re looking for a mentee, seek one out intentionally. If you’re not sure who or how, try inviting a whole bunch of potential mentees to your home for a six-week study or discussion. In the process, you will find some with whom you have the right chemistry, and who are open for more. Don’t underestimate chemistry. You can’t make someone be your mentee; they have to want that relationship. If they don’t, don’t take it personally, it’s just that the chemistry wasn’t there. Move on and find someone who does want to learn from you.
If you’re looking for a mentor, request some time with leaders you respect who are further along in their ministries or careers. At your initial meeting, briefly and clearly explain your current situation, your hopes for your future, and ask them if they would consider entering into a mentoring relationship with you.
Be aware of issues faced by your would-be mentor. They may have time constraints that would prevent them, or if it’s a cross-gender relationship they may feel awkward. There are countless reasons they may not be able to work with you—don’t assume you’re the reason they declined. If one person says no, don’t give up. Ask the Lord to provide the right mentor and see what he does.
5. Make a point of caring about both genders
If you’re a leader, you have deep wisdom and powerful characteristics to impart. Both women and men will benefit from your leadership. Let it be seen that you are about being a leader for everyone, not only women and not only men. When you do, you will challenge stereotypes and normalize the leadership of women.
6. Acknowledge the help you receive
When you find men who are advocating for women to be in leadership, resist the urge to simply pour out your frustrations on them. Make sure you also acknowledge their help and encourage them, too.
What Men Can Do
Men, you make up the majority of church leadership, so you have a major role. You’ll need to be available to mentor and train women, but there’s much more you need to do. You need to be an intentional about making space for women, you need to be an advocate, and you need to challenge cultures that are biased against women’s leadership.
1. Mentor and serve alongside women
With men making up the vast majority of church leaders, you will need to mentor women. There is no reason you can’t do this safely and ethically. When you do, you will empower emerging leaders, and you’ll model healthy cross-gender relationships and leadership.
When you go out to serve your community, or if you go on a mission trip, don’t just take men with you. Take emerging leaders of both sexes with you, exposing them to ministry outside of their context. If the proper arrangements for logistics like accommodation are made, this is completely acceptable. Not only will it give female leaders experience, but it will also normalize the concept of women ministers in the place where you are ministering.
2. Be an intentional and vocal advocate
Most leadership networking in church circles is male-dominated. Even the most supportive male leader is generally unaware of the minefield being faced by women at the same event! Make specific choices to introduce women leaders to their male peers and to senior figures. Speak well of them, give room for their opinions, advocate for them, and be ready to open doors that only you can open.
Intentionally give female leaders a platform to lead and teach. Publicly and repeatedly celebrate them, tell their stories, and make it clear that you believe we are all equipped and called equally. In doing so, you are shaping the culture. It’s true that some people will be unhappy with you; they may even leave your church or organization. Choose not to take the path of least resistance.
3. Be willing to step aside
This is one of the most difficult and important choices you can make. If women are given an equal chance at leadership, men will have fewer opportunities to lead. Would you step aside to make room for a woman behind your pulpit? Would you turn down an opportunity to speak and instead recommend an up-and-coming young woman you mentor? Someone has to step aside to make room for new voices. Have the courage to be that person.
4. Watch your mouth
Don’t make sexist jokes. Male privilege prevents men from realizing how humiliating it can be to be joked about because of your gender.
And in your eagerness to praise your wife, please don’t brag about how “smoking hot” she is. Praise her, but for important things. When speaking of a woman, leader or not, value her character and gifts rather than what she looks like. These things may seem small, but they’re shaping the culture of your church.
What Churches Can Do
Churches are the architects of Christian culture. If the church is going to welcome women into leadership, local churches need to adjust their practices and think about the cultures they are building.
1. Positive discrimination in hiring
Organizations that intentionally address leadership inequality are the only ones who are going to bring about change. There is a dearth of women in upper levels of leadership in every church structure, and it is difficult to raise women into senior leadership without female role models and mentors, especially in organizations where cross-gender mentoring is frowned upon. This means change isn’t just going to happen naturally.
Institutions must be prepared to use positive discrimination to achieve gender balance. This means that when a male and female candidate are equally qualified for a job, they choose the woman. This will require some very difficult decisions, and some very intentional decision makers, but it’s worth it. Remember that up until now, in the vast majority of cases where a man and a woman are equally qualified, the default has been to choose the man because he is a man.
2. Challenge traditional role expectations
Many churches have very specific expectations for women. For instance, they expect the pastor’s wife to serve as an unpaid and unacknowledged leader in the church, whether or not she wants to or is gifted for it. There should be no such ministry title as “the pastor’s wife.”
Even more frustrating, a main avenue for women to lead is as a male leader’s sidekick. This leaves no room for single women gifted for leadership, or for married women whose husbands aren’t leaders. Such women find themselves hitting the glass ceiling even sooner than others.
3. Take risks and create opportunities for women
Let’s take some risks. Let’s build opportunities for women into our programs. Let’s find ways to facilitate their growth and development as speakers, leaders, and people who hold senior positions.
Train your leaders in mentorship, and require that they mentor both genders each year. Require sermons and classes about biblical gender equality. Make it a rule that some percentage of your pastors, elders, deacons, council members, etc. be women. Host events and programs that encourage men and women to interact, learn from each other, and do life together. Your church’s priorities and policies can either enable or cripple efforts to develop female leaders.
Each of us, male or female, church leader or congregant, has a part to play in ensuring that women are active participants in church leadership. Only then will the church embody the hope that is God’s kingdom. Let’s be architects of a kingdom culture.