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Published Date: October 31, 2006

Published Date: October 31, 2006

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Christian Women and Leadership

I believe that God calls both women and men into roles of leadership with all the opportunities and challenges these roles entail. Scripture and church history make abundantly clear that women can and do exercise significant influence and power in a variety of contexts, including the church. Yet, most of the books and articles available on Christian leadership are written by and for men. In this paper, I will address some leadership issues with a focus on women as leaders.1

Five symptoms of the current crisis in Christian leadership

It’s a tough time to be a leader in today’s Christian circles. Of course, a few people are very eager to be “in charge,” but many avoid leadership roles and opportunities. They may be willing to help, but they don’t want to be responsible in the way leaders are expected to be. Perhaps they believe they lack leadership gifts, or that they lack “permission” to lead. But I fear that sometimes this reluctance emerges—especially for many evangelical women—out of fear of what might happen if we took the risks of leadership. I would like to explore a few symptoms of the current leadership crisis within American Christianity and culture.

1. In Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, Bob Woodward (the famous Washington Post reporter) described how the atmosphere has become poisoned for political leadership in the United States. This highly competitive, combative environment teaches people that leadership is dangerous. People who tackle tough problems or take a stand on issues can be hurt and even destroyed. Therefore we should either be self-protective and cautious, or ruthless and hard. Both of these reactions prohibit healthy leadership.

This poisoned atmosphere can even exist within the Christian community where commitments to a cause or position can come with a willingness to attack others’ motives, characters, and actions. In many Christian contexts, women leaders are attacked simply because they are women in positions traditionally held only by men. Not all criticism, of course, is undeserved. Leaders need to be held accountable. But many potential leaders—including women—would rather remain invisible than attract the kind of criticism today’s leaders receive. The instinct of self-protection and the accountability of leadership are contradictory impulses and they collide with each other. It’s difficult to lead when you’re trying to protect yourself in an environment of suspicion, distrust, and destructive criticism.

2. In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote that a time of radical leveling was coming, in which any head of wheat that rose above the field of others was in danger of being chopped off. Aspiring to excellence or greatness would be considered a sign of arrogance and struck down. In Australia they call this “the tall poppy syndrome.” The pressure to submerge giftedness or skill is sometimes felt within the Christian community, where leadership aspirations can be equated with prideful ambitions. As a result, leaders may appear reluctant and unsure of their abilities. Leadership aspirations are often tolerated when taken up by men who use the language of humility and service. But women who use the same approach are likely to be sharply criticized. The same behavior that is labeled healthy ambition in men is often labeled as arrogant pride in women.

3. Nathan Hatch’s excellent book on The Democratization of American Christianity identifies the diffusion of power and authority in American churches as another factor in the leadership crisis we face. The pew considers itself more powerful than the pulpit. American congregations believe they know as much, if not more, about faith and life as the church leadership. The impulse toward democratization can imply that anybody’s views, experiences, or desires count just as much as the leader’s do. Education, giftedness, skill, and experience are not taken into consideration. Church history, tradition, and theology mean little. At its extreme, this view feeds into the kind of subjectivist, consumerist Christianity which is so characteristic of religion in America. If we don’t like what we have over here, then we leave and go over there.

The democratization of Christianity affects women leaders in several ways. People in congregations where women are called to be leaders can simply move to more traditional congregations. When Protestant denominations engage in rigorous biblical and theological reflection and decide to support full equality and leadership opportunities for women, their decisions do not necessarily carry much power and influence in congregations. As women achieve levels of leadership that were previously denied them, the power and authority of those positions are decreasing due to democratized institutions and structures. Where majority views have not shifted due to ignorance, neglect, or apathy, women continue to be marginalized as leaders.

4. People who were once passionately involved in causes, including biblical equality, sometimes disengage due to “cause fatigue.” Some are discouraged or burned out. Some recognize with contentment or sadness that they’ve done all they can. Some conclude that enough progress has been made that there is no further need for activism. Sometimes people come to the end of a certain stage and they’re just plain tired. One reason we need to be in community or a small covenant group is for the care and energy that comes from others. It’s easy to get tired on the journey. We need the synergy that comes from the fresh voice or the new person. We need the sharing and prayer that a group can provide.

5. The last factor I’ll mention that can make leadership difficult, especially for women leaders but for men as well is—oddly enough—success. Success brings its own challenges along with the rewards of opportunity and influence. “To whom much is given, much is required.” The challenges of servant leadership, of continual growth and learning, of using power appropriately, of handling finances and difficult issues, of communication and conflict management, are not easily met. The lure of addictive work patterns, the challenge of juggling the needs of family and friends, and the struggle to stay physically and spiritually strong can take a huge toll. But as I look over more than forty years, I can see the astonishing ways in which God has been at work. I was taught that women could not or should not do the kinds of things that I have seen thousands of women do as faithful followers of Jesus Christ—work as evangelists, church planters, psychologists, missionaries, professors, provosts, and presidents. God has opened doors for me and for many women all over the world.

When you visit different parts of the world, you see not only the desperate situation of millions of women and girls in extreme poverty, but also the ways women have made significant progress as leaders. Women lead most of the house churches in China, where Christianity is experiencing astonishing growth. The number of ordained women ministers in my own denomination has grown from less than one hundred to thousands. I remember a trip to Australia in which the debates about women’s ordination spurred an enormous public controversy. I went back to lecture at Ridley Theological College in Melbourne a decade later and met dozens of ordained women who were serving congregations and leading other ministries. There is still a very long way to go, but some of the changes have come astonishingly fast.

You may find the challenge of leadership to be overwhelming right now. But I want to tell you that God has done incredible things in the lives of women and men for the health and well-being of the church. The journey will be ragged and long because of the centuries of history to overcome. But look at all the ways in which, step by step, women are discovering what God wants to do through them, and using their gifts and callings. And, praise God, many men have come alongside. I appreciate the men who have encouraged women to take their rightful place as partners in leadership and service.

I want to underline one danger of success: the temptation is to say, “Oh good, doors are open for women; I’m so glad we don’t have to fight that battle anymore.” Wrong. Some doors have opened for some women; many doors remain closed for most women. Many of the open doors have led to satisfaction with tokenism, in which a few women are included but decisions continue to privilege men overall. The “glass ceiling” is very real in Christian contexts. These are just a few of the many realities that still need to change in order to reflect the will of God.

Colossians 4:2 says to “be constant in prayer; keep alert with thanksgiving.” Practicing thanksgiving for what God is doing is a good way to stay alert in leadership. If God has given you a passion for biblical equality, if God has given you a passion for reconciliation and justice, just the fact that this is in your heart is a sign of hope, because the Holy Spirit has put it there. You don’t have to look for hope somewhere out there in the world. If God has put it in your heart to care, you yourself are a sign of hope.

Many Christian traditions believe that the local congregation is a provisional sign of the kingdom of God in the midst of the world. I’m convinced that God cares about the partnership between men and women, God cares about breaking down the walls that divide people from one another, and God cares about the dignity and equality of all people. If you live out this reality, you are a provisional sign of the kingdom. God is at work through you as one instrument among many to demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom. Leadership is possible because you are in tune with what God is doing and wants to do in the world. And leadership is necessary because the kingdom has come in Jesus but it has not yet fully come. Every time you pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” you are engaging in a revolutionary act as part of a kingdom community. Just as God exists eternally in community, so our relationships with one another reflect the love and unity of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Further, when we pray in unison with other Christians, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we open ourselves to do the will of God. We can rejoice because God hears and answers our prayers in and through Jesus Christ.

Defining leadership

A leader is someone who makes a difference through influencing others. Very simple. Leaders can make positive or negative differences. Christian leaders seek to make a positive difference by influencing others toward the purposes of God. There are three basic postures of leadership: leading from below, leading from above, and leading from the side.

Leading from below

Many people don’t consider themselves leaders unless they’re an ordained pastor, or a president, or in a top position. But a leader is not necessarily the person at the top. A leader is a person who makes a difference by influencing others. So where are you? Are there other people around you? Can you make a difference in anybody else’s life? Then you have leadership potential. Measuring ourselves according to hierarchies based on formal titles and positions can make us focus on deficit rather than possibility. But when we focus on possibility, we start to discover opportunities to use our influence.

I remember when I had the script for my life figured out. I was going to marry a Christian man; he was going to get a call to the mission field; I was going to go with him, have the babies, support him; and we were going to be the world’s greatest missionaries. Then the mission board turned us down. My script was absolutely destroyed. Eventually I realized that if God puts it in your heart to care about people coming to faith in Jesus Christ, if God puts it in your heart to care about community and partnership within the body of Christ, if God puts it in your heart to care about poverty and injustice, you don’t have a choice. If God puts it in your heart, you have got to do something. It doesn’t matter what your position is, or if it doesn’t fit your script, there is no excuse for failing to respond to the call of God, whatever the circumstances.

Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 21 has been powerfully important for me. God, the landlord, gave the talents—ten, five, one. The person with ten invested it, the person with five invested it, the person with one took it out and buried it under a rock. Which one is held accountable unto judgment? Not the two who used and multiplied what the master had given them; only the one who acted out of fear, who said, “I knew you were a harsh master so I went out and hid your talent, and here it is, back again.” This parable applies to women in the life of the Christian community. God gives talents and so often women are taught to say, “I only have one. If I have only so little, then I should play it safe. I can put it under a rock. You can’t expect me to do anything when I’m so limited. Nobody should hold me accountable; I have only a small portion compared to others; I’m not responsible to increase it; I’m not a leader.” Then, the master comes. He says: “It’s time to account for what you’ve done with what you were given. Why didn’t you take what I gave you and invest it for the kingdom?” That’s leadership: taking what God gave you and investing it in what God cares about. God will hold us accountable for what we do with what he has entrusted to us.

Those who lead from below have minimal formal authority and relatively little control over key decisions regarding life and work. My first job in the church lasted more than eight years at low pay and no benefits in a 4,500 member church. Every year I was told that there might not be enough money in the budget to keep my position. This was an emotional roller-coaster every time because my family was financially dependent on me while my husband was in graduate school. I was also told that “one of these days we will find a pastor (male) with the right credentials to take over your job.” When they eventually did hire an associate pastor, I was asked to take him a package. His wife met me at the door and said, “Oh, you’re the person that he is replacing.” I stayed for several more years, but I endured constant anxiety about my job security. Although I ran programs involving thousands of people, I was never asked to make my own budget requests. In positions like this, other people make decisions that affect your work and life.

Under circumstances like these, it’s tempting to shrink your passion into the size of the box that others give you. Instead, we need to take responsibility for fulfilling the vision God has given us to the best of our ability. “The one who is faithful in little, God will give responsibility over much.” Whatever the external constraints are, you need to learn as much as you can learn, give as much as you can give, and stretch as much as you can stretch while learning how to trust God with the insecurity. I can now testify that leadership from the top can actually feel more insecure than leadership from the bottom. If you don’t know how to be a leader from the bottom, you’re not going to know how to be a leader from the top.

Many women and ethnic minorities in leadership have to learn how to handle themselves as tokens in a predominantly white male culture. It is still too often true that some organizations and boards are open to a few women or non-white minorities but they would not tolerate an equal or greater number. It is awkward and even, at times, demeaning to be invited into a group mainly for diversity’s sake, not because anybody really valued your particular strengths or contributions. People in the position of tokens can feel pressure to work extraordinarily hard at perfection, or, at the opposite extreme, to refuse to actively contribute. Whatever the reason you were invited into the conversation, God has a plan. God is present and, in his grace, you are not required to be perfect. Offer as much of your passions, gifts, and skills as you can in that particular context and trust that God will multiply your influence. If you cannot serve unless somebody clears the ground for you, then leadership is going to be very difficult. Leadership involves clearing the ground for yourself, taking all the help you can get, and being able to handle the weeds.

Membership in a congregation gives you an opportunity to exercise influence and power, but very few members of congregations ever use it. In many cases this is probably because it would call for moving from invisibility to visibility. When there are things you care about in your local congregation, start asking questions during congregational meetings. Instead of inwardly complaining about who gets nominated for a position, nominate someone else. You can propose a plan for action. You can actually make a difference.

Leading from above

The literature that sharply distinguishes male and female leadership styles seems overly simplistic to me, in part because it never quite fits my experience. Women differ from each another just as men do. Different contexts often require different approaches. Whenever someone suggests that woman leaders are always more relational, empathic, or non-authoritarian, I think of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Servant leadership, which is the New Testament model and mandate, is not a call to weak or passive leadership. The question of style relates to context, giftedness, skills, and experience. It has to do with using the gifts God has given, as 1 Peter 4:10-11 teaches, in ways that reflect the character God desires. Gifts are not discovered looking in the mirror. Gifts are discovered on the firing line. There is no way to discover if you have the gift and calling for leadership without getting involved in a context that requires the exercise of those gifts.

In leadership from above, one of the temptations I found was to deny the power and influence I had, which means refusing to take full responsibility for it. I also found it tempting to delay difficult decisions involving colleagues, out of a desire to be liked or respected. These temptations may be due to a desire to soften the threat that a strong woman presents to many people. It may be easier to minimize the power you do have, limited as it always is, in order to avoid intimidating others by actually using it. But people can be hurt if a leader refuses to act in a timely and sensitive way when action is needed. Leadership opportunities come with real responsibility. Instead of denying the power that you have, think seriously about how to use that power for the most good.

Leading from the side

Learning to influence from the side is an unusual kind of leadership, but I’m convinced that it is the main form of leadership that most of us have the opportunity to exercise. Leading from the side means listening to what’s being said and watching what’s being done, so that you are aware of what is happening and why. It also means knowing when and how to speak so that your proposals and concerns are taken seriously.

Potential leaders will stay marginalized if they do not learn how to influence decision-making in their context. Who really decides? When and how do they do it? This involves learning what other people care about, not just attending to your own concerns. Much of leadership is about networks, relationships, partnerships, and alliances. It’s not about position, it’s about people. It’s about who you talk to, when you talk to them, and what you talk to them about. Do you waste the conversational opportunities on cynicism and gossip or do you use the conversations to build relationships, to encourage, to help?

Leadership is about people—influencing people, listening to people, understanding what inspires them, forming networks, relationships, and alliances. Remember that cynical old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? Guess what! The universe is personal and it is about who you know and how you relate to them. God made it that way. The challenge is to take what you know and who you know and put them together productively. So pay attention to people, where they are, what’s happening to them, both men and women. Consider the needs and concerns of the people around you. This is a very important part of leadership from the side.

Four criteria for effective leadership

1. Leaders need to be intentional rather than purely accidental. Sometimes people find themselves in positions of leadership unexpectedly, but leadership that lasts and makes a difference must be intentional. Leaders must decide what difference they want to make and then be deliberate about making it happen. So many people just show up. Being intentional is asking yourself, “What difference do I want to make and how do I want to make that difference”? Intentionality requires focusing, thinking, praying, strategizing, knowing where you want to go, and having a plan to get there.

2. Leaders need to act with purposes that are broader than the purely personal. Purposes that matter go beyond personal advantage, power, and status. A few years ago my younger son went with my husband and me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. My son had a great time at the concert. In the car on the way home he said, “I know what I want to do with my life.” We were so thrilled. His dad and I thought, this is it! All the music lessons were paying off. So we asked, “Stephen, what do you want to be when you grow up?” He said, “I want to be a conductor.” We looked at each other with a surge of pride that music had captured his spirit. We said, “Why do you want to be a conductor?” He responded, “Because everybody has to do what the conductor says.” He was interested in the power, not the music. That was purposeful, but not necessarily what we had hoped for.

As Christians, we should use whatever power and influence we have out of a love for God and neighbor. “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). It’s not about power. It’s about using the influence and the gifts that God has given us to make the maximum difference for good in somebody’s life. This means being purposeful for God, allowing God to shape what we want and what we care about. Caring about the needs of the poor and oppressed in this broken world of ours is one of the grandest purposes you could ever have in life.

A fifteen-year-old girl in Uganda was abducted from her village by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel army led by remnants of former dictator Idi Amin’s forces. They captured young children, put rifles in their hands, and ordered them to kill. This girl was taken from her family and forced into a life of brutality which devastated her body and soul. Then she was given to a forty-year-old man as his fourth wife. She lived as a slave in his family. Finally, after long seasons of violence she ran away. The first time she ran away they caught her, whipped her, and brought her back. The second time she ended up in a World Vision center in Gulu, where former child soldiers were given care and rehabilitation. Women surrounded this girl with love and helped her find healing. That girl’s restoration was a wonderful thing. Beauty shone through her face because she had been loved into a new life and a new reality—that’s worth being a part of.

God has a purpose for us in a world that desperately needs to know his love. Being purposeful about sharing that love gives meaning and dignity to our lives as well as providing new possibilities for the lives of others. The brokenness in this world can be overwhelming. I’ve visited villages in the interior of China where I have been told no outsider has been for forty-five years. I watched as mothers thrust their smiling children into my arms and realized that in three days of visiting different villages, I’d never seen a girl. Where were they? Aborted? Adopted? Abandoned? Does God care? Oh, yes, God cares. Injustice will not be overcome by accident. Injustice is overcome by purposeful leaders.

3. Leaders need to be persistent. We’re not going to win these battles in short sprints. That’s another reason we need a Christian community around us, another reason we need the spiritual disciplines of prayer and worship, and another reason we need the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to keep transforming us and giving us hope and strength and courage, because persistence is required to overcome evil. “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). It means not giving up when you don’t succeed the first time, or the tenth time, or the fiftieth time. But continuing and continuing and continuing so that God can do what God will do when we are faithful and persistent. We are like bulldozers, which just say, “I don’t care what you put in front of me, I’m coming anyway.” If it’s up, if it’s over, if it’s around, I’m coming anyway. I’ve got a community to help. I’ve got the power of God within and persistence, persistence, persistence. If you want equality between men and women, if you want to overcome the barriers of ethnicity and the injustices of poverty, if you want to win lost people—persistence, persistence, persistence. At the end of my life, I want to be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

4. Lastly, leaders need vision. According to Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, a leader is a person with a vision, and a vision is a picture of the future that evokes passion in people. What’s the picture of the future that evokes passion in you? A future where women and men work together in the church, rejoicing in their differences as well as in their similarities? A future in which a lost world is being redeemed and made whole? A future where Christian universities explore truth and love with confidence? A future where ministries focus on the King and the kingdom and where leaders use their gifts for service rather than power? Persistence is not possible without passion. Passion flows from a clear vision of a hopeful future. Where does vision come from? At the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, that wonderful Old Testament story about leadership and restoration, Nehemiah asks for news about the survivors in Jerusalem and Judea. When he heard that the walls of the city of Jerusalem were broken down (meaning that the defenses against all enemies were gone), he sat and wept for days. Then he humbled himself before God and prayed. Only then did he begin to plan and act.

I think that sometimes we need to weep in the face of human suffering. We need to pray and seek the mind of God. Then we need to grasp how great the love and power of God is to reshape human reality. We need to consider the good news of what a loving God has done, how broken the world is, and the gap between God’s love and human lostness. Let a healthy discontent take over our souls so that we decide, by God’s grace and power, that things do not have to be the way they are. God wills something more, something better, something good. Even something great. Because God is still working, we will pray and we will plan; we will work and we will not quit because what we do matters.

We want to be sure that our vision and passions are godly, rather than passions for vengeance or parochial advantage. We need to be freed of passion which only trades in power. The church has done that over and over again in its history. But pray that, rather, God would give vision and strength that would be used in the spirit of Christ for good, to build up and not to tear down.


The ingredients of leadership involve doing your homework, mastering the processes and content of your disciplines and contexts. Every system and every structure has a process, and if we don’t master the content and the process, we can’t make the difference we want to make. Discipline gives you focus and the ability to persist. Define success for yourself or somebody else will define it for you, and it won’t be worthy or necessarily right. Always try to share the journey rather than going it alone. Leadership takes time, and it’s hard in this era of the double-shift when we’re juggling and trying to balance. Leadership means taking risks. You can’t know in advance how things are going to come out, but you have to be willing to try anyway. Leadership invites attacks by prejudiced or thoughtless people. Leaders may get wounded. But leaders, by God’s grace, make a difference in the world.

Leaders get to see with their own eyes what God is doing. I know a small boy with some very real handicaps who has this sweet little face. It’s a face that a mother or a father or a grandmother or a grandfather should fall in love with. His caretaker told me how his parents saw his problems and didn’t want him. When they tried to get rid of him, this woman decided to come alongside and love this child. As she was hugging him, she said, “I’ve given a lot to this child, but he has meant all the difference to me.” Leadership is costly but when it is done in the spirit of Jesus, is connected to people, and is about God’s love, you receive so much. There’s a lot of joy in being a leader for Jesus Christ. May God give us all encouragement, hope, and strength as we exercise influence in the place where God has put us, with the people God wants us to reach.

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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