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Published Date: June 30, 2021

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How Can Churches Encourage Women Leaders?

In the second of several conversations sponsored by CBE and our 2021 conference partners in the UK, Charles Read, priest and director of liturgy and reader training in the Norwich Diocese, asked conference speakers: What are the leadership strengths of women and men, and how can churches better value and foster a diversity of leadership styles?

This blog was adapted from the first half of a recording of a conversation over Zoom.

The Speakers:

Sean Callaghan is an activist who focuses on the challenges of conflict, gender, and livelihoods, primarily in Africa.

Natalie Collins is a gender justice specialist, speaker, and trainer on male violence against women and wider gender injustice. She wrote Out of Control: Couples, Conflict and the Capacity for Change.

Pontsho Segwai is the advocacy and child protection manager for World Vision South Africa. Her passion is seeing males and females being treated equally, as is God’s original plan.

The Conversation:

Charles: Do men and women tend to lead in different ways and if they do, how can we help churches to appreciate and make good use of the varieties of leadership styles?

Pontsho: I certainly do believe that men and women lead in different ways, but is it because of our nature or is it part of how we’re nurtured? It’s a bit of both. We’re socialized differently as males and females, we tend to find that women are perceived to show a more emotional, more democratic kind of leadership. That usually is more about the way women have been socialized, to be more interpersonal and care more about relationships, whereas men’s leadership is perceived to be task-based and assertive. We lead in different ways, but churches can work to ensure that they challenge this.

In a [World Vision] workshop, for instance, we normally discuss with church and faith leaders whether leadership should be gift-based or gender-based. We look at what types of leadership roles are usually given to women and what kinds of roles are given to men. We want to come to an understanding that we should be focusing on the fruit of the spirit that they exhibit, which talks about their character as well as the gifts that God has given them. It’s important for us to have this discussion that a certain role cannot be given to someone just because they are male—it’s important to see if they are gifted in that particular thing.

Sean: I’m a bit of a data geek so I Googled the topic and one research paper that really struck me was a Pew Research Center report. They also say that people have a perception that men lead in a task-oriented way and women lead in a more interpersonal way. Men are more decisive and better at risk taking so they should do military and economic type leadership and women are more compromising and compassionate and they should do social services leadership. I fundamentally disagree. That tends to be the pattern, but I think as Pontsho said, it’s more because that’s how we’re socialized.

There are some great examples of women who lead in a “male” way—being decisive and taking risks. We look at COVID responses around the world and see that countries led by women have done better. I would suggest that’s not necessarily because they’re more compassionate and softer but because they’re more decisive. I think it’s very much how we are socialized more than who we are as humans.

Natalie: I saw a viral video of a grandma who’d taken her grandchildren out to their farm and her little grandson was jumping in these puddles of mud and splashing around. Then his sister said, “I want to do it granny, I want to do it.” She was told no, you’re not allowed. Very early children are socialized into different ways of being—the girl felt she had to ask for permission and was not given it and the boy didn’t ask for permission and got to be the center of attention.

We see across societies that the way we’re conditioned and the way we socialize children has huge implications for what they think they have permission to do. There are real issues with women and men being socialized into different ways of being, which then influence leadership and what is and isn’t acceptable. When women lead in ways that are perceived as male, they are often seen as domineering and aggressive. Race comes into this too. If you’re a black woman, you’re going to be perceived in a different way than a white woman.

The systems, particularly in church, mean that women who are less submissive and less passive are going to struggle to be given leadership roles. Some of it is about limiting people who don’t perform according to the way we expect. Those systems are perpetuated from childhood onward. And our experiences as men and women are different. Women are much more likely to have been subjected to violence by men, so if you don’t have women in positions of leadership, you make it very difficult for women to feel they have a safe space to talk. There are issues around privilege and entitlement, and assumptions about who owns space and who takes up space. There’s also this idea that women talk more than men. Yet all the research shows that in group contexts, men talk more than women, and if asked to assess who spoke most, they generally say women spoke more. It’s about perception.

I think we absolutely need both men and women to lead, and particularly we need to be raising up women because we’re in a context in which women constantly face barriers.

Charles: Does the church or society covertly encourage women to be more like men when they lead?

Natalie: I don’t think that’s an issue so much in the church because women who don’t conform to gender stereotypes often don’t get opportunities to lead. It’s the same for men who don’t perform masculinity in ways that are acceptable within the church.

We should also acknowledge that there’s an expectation that most leaders come with a wife, like buy one, get one free. This is about who’s doing what within the home—a lot of men come with a person who does most of the emotional labor for that couple. Where women are single or come with husbands or partners who do not do that emotional labor, there’s another challenge:  women are often expected to do a lot more because there’s an assumption that they’ve got someone at home.

Pontsho: During the Channels of Hope training, we had sessions where leaders would be expected to bring their spouses so we could hear from women. Where a lot of churches in our context are led by men, we have challenges where Scripture is interpreted as women need to be quiet in church and they cannot lead certain discussions, they cannot be pastors or apostles or prophets.

The church is still growing in terms of acknowledging that women can lead—we see so many instances where Jesus worked with women, where Paul acknowledges women’s leadership. We’re lagging behind in terms of acknowledging that women can lead a church and have a spouse, but the expectations are not the same as when a spouse is a woman. There’s so many other tasks that are set for that particular woman.

Sean: I’m the only man in the room in just about every project I work on. (The one project where I’m not the only man is the most faith-based project.)  Very often I’m the only white guy in the room as well, and I’m almost never the boss. But whenever we go to a meeting, everybody always talks to me—they assume I’m the leader because I’m the white guy in the room. I literally would say, “No, actually it’s my colleague here,” and they still talk to me and talk to her through me. It is so ingrained that men are leaders and women aren’t.

Natalie: I have the opposite situation—when I go to conferences and I’m there as one of the keynote speakers, they say, “Are you here to take notes?” Everybody assumes I’m not the person in charge. People make assumptions based on who they think is in charge or who they think matters. I quite like being that person because you get to see how they treat people who they think aren’t very significant.

Charles: How do we encourage churches and other places to begin to or extend valuing diversity of leadership?  

Sean: When I was in my 20s I shared a house with three women, one of them severely disabled. She led a disabled movement in South Africa that had a slogan: “Nothing about us without us.” For me that is the key, nothing about women without women, nothing about racial minorities without racial minorities. Whatever the “us” is, if you’ve got older and younger people of both genders and many races, you’re going to have better decisions and better leadership than if you have one white guy trying to make decisions for everybody.

Pontsho: Talking about servant leadership has become cliché, but I believe that’s really one of the things that Jesus did so well for all of us. We can truly say if we are followers of him, this is one aspect that we should be integrating into how we lead churches. We see so many examples of how he embraced women and engaged with them in different scenarios, and how his own leadership (which some people may see as feminine) was very well balanced. The key here is for churches to understand that it is not about honoring one versus the other but acknowledging that even God himself has both masculine and feminine characteristics and we see that in how Christ led.

The story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples always comes to mind. But how willing are we to serve others even as we lead? In Africa we see a lot of faith leaders treated like kings, elevated above everybody else. Is it about being served or serving? That’s a critical question. We need to be honest enough to ask if we are Christian, are we really following Christ in how he led? That’s a discussion the church needs to have.

Natalie: I think that men need to be looking after the kids and making the sandwiches. We need to see men doing a lot more of the emotional labor and we need to see women encouraged to trust and value themselves. Male-led theology argues that pride is the biggest kind of sin that Christians have and that’s probably true for a lot of men. But most women are conditioned to sacrifice themselves. What we need is women learning to believe in themselves and to believe God has called them and God is guiding them toward purpose. Their meaning isn’t just to serve somebody else’s vision. God has called them. I always say to young women, the most radical thing you can do as a woman is to trust yourself. So, men get in the kitchen, make the sandwiches, look after the kids, and do the emotional labor so the women in your lives, whether a partner or other women in the church, can do what God’s called them to.
Learn more about CBE’s online conference, September 10–11.

More conversations with CBE’s 2021 conference speakers:

What Are the Consequences of Theological Patriarchy?
Women’s Equality and How Churches Respond to Abuse
Making Space for Women Leaders in the Church of Ireland