Decades after many denominations first ordained women, there is still a dearth of women pastors, especially those serving at senior levels of leadership in the church. This is true, in fact, in churches that espouse egalitarian theology and employ female pastors. Many churches have yet to proactively identify and address the barriers that women clergy still encounter. A myriad of barriers—theological, cultural, historical, sociological, and institutional—continue to keep women clergy from flourishing at all levels of leadership and must be addressed for women in the church to gain equality with men. My research identifies systemic barriers that women clergy in egalitarian, evangelical churches in America encounter and offers solutions that empower women clergy to flourish. Empowering women pastors to flourish is a vital issue for women, for men, for the church, for the world, and for the kingdom of God. Women pastors are empowered when they have internal and external resources and the support to access opportunities at all levels of leadership in the church so they can fully actualize who God has made them to be, using their gifts and abilities without limitations due to their gender.
Today, the majority of mainline denominations, as well as some evangelical churches and denominations, ordain female clergy. However, even with this progress, many women pastors continue to struggle and encounter what many have termed the “stained-glass ceiling.”1 Women pastors often feel unsupported in their call to ministry and in their seminary education. They find few pastors willing to mentor or sponsor them. They struggle to find congregations willing to hire them and give them leadership opportunities. They experience other inequalities in the workplace, such as lower pay, lack of preaching opportunities, and lack of opportunities to advance to the highest levels of leadership—to positions such as senior pastor, solo pastor, denominational or network leader, or megachurch pastor.2
From 1976 to 1980, only about 6 percent of clergy in the United States were female. From 2012 to 2016, the percentage of women clergy increased to approximately 20 percent.3 Despite large percentages of female seminarians and increased numbers of female clergy in some denominations, women still lead only a small minority of American congregations. The growth of women in pastoral ministry at the end of the twentieth century did not lead to sustained growth for women in church leadership.
The overall percentage of congregations led by women has not increased since 1998.4 Barbara Zikmund, Adair Lummis, and Patricia Chang hypothesized at that time that clergy women would be allowed into ministry but at low to mid-level positions, that the patriarchal system within the church would continue to allow men to define the boundaries of ministry, and that clergy women would experience a reactionary backlash from men who do not want to relinquish power.5
In 2012, while women could serve as the head clergy person in three out of five American congregations,6 they served as senior or solo pastoral leaders in only 11 percent of congregations.7 Women led only 2 percent of evangelical congregations in 2009.8 According to the Benchmarking Women’s Leadership study, the biggest barrier to women clergy is advancing into senior positions in larger, more influential churches.9 In megachurches, the percentage of women senior pastors is significantly lower than the percentage for all churches. In 2018, less than 1 percent of American megachurches were led by a female senior pastor.10 Today, there are even fewer.11
With the decline of mainline denominations and the increasing significance of nondenominational evangelical churches, church plants, and megachurches with an almost completely male network of leadership, women face increasing challenges.12 Nondenominational churches have no prescribed theology, polity, or practice. Such churches, because they are not part of a denominational structure, have little accountability and provide few statistics regarding women pastors; however, one might assume the numbers are similar or even smaller due to the pervasive conservative theology in evangelicalism.
It remains a widespread phenomenon that, while many churches and denominations express willingness to ordain women, they do not encourage women to seek leadership, place them in thriving churches, or pay them as well as their male counterparts. Just as in other sectors, the appointment of the first woman to a position of power rarely leads to consistent appointments of women to powerful positions.13 Additionally, according to Kate Bowler, regardless of a church’s theological position on women in leadership, the preaching and teaching are overwhelmingly left to men. Megachurches are not hiring women for significant teaching positions, which indicates they also are not willing to hand over leadership to a woman. Very few women are found in the line of succession.14 This loose coupling of theology and practice describes the incongruity between official organizational policy and actual organizational practices that is prevalent in churches.15 While the number of denominations permitting female ordination has increased, unofficial practices often fail to implement the stated policies or strive to reach gender parity.
Many evangelical churches that employ female pastors have yet to proactively look at the practices, assumptions, and beliefs that create the barriers women clergy aspiring to leadership still encounter. Women pastors are empowered when they have the internal and external resources and the support to access opportunities at all levels of leadership without limitations. When women pastors are empowered, they are able to flourish and actualize who God has made them to be.
I contacted male and female clergy from evangelical, egalitarian churches with women in positions of leadership. Two networks of churches were surveyed. One network is comprised of a megachurch and its daughter and granddaughter churches which were planted over the course of several decades. The churches in this network identify as evangelical yet have a long history of employing female pastors and leaders at most levels of leadership. Since each church is governed independently, there is some variation in their theology and practice regarding women in church leadership. The second is a local network of a global, evangelical church-planting organization. The global church planting network is egalitarian and seeks to empower female church planters and leaders; however, the network is open to churches of various theological traditions. As a result, churches in this network have a broader range of views on women in church leadership and do not necessarily enact the egalitarian views of the global organization. The research sample included thirty-five church staff members, twenty-one men and fourteen women, of whom two were network leaders, ten were senior pastors, fifteen were associate pastors, and ten were ministry directors. While all the senior pastors were male, both men and women were represented as associate pastors and ministry directors. Participants were between the ages of thirty and sixty-nine.
For this study, contextual and perceptual information was needed. Contextual information primarily included the number of male and female pastors, elders, preachers, and ministry directors; theological views; human resources policies and practices. Perceptual information was collected about individuals’ experiences in church leadership. This study was particularly interested in females’ perceptions of barriers to their leadership, their perceptions of male coworkers, and male clergy’s perceptions regarding barriers female clergy encounter.
The data from this study’s questionnaires and interviews clearly show visible and invisible barriers preventing women from equally accessing all levels of leadership in congregations. Generally, while evangelicals support women in church leadership in certain roles, the highest roles are still off limits.16 The key findings for this study are:
- Women are underrepresented in leadership in egalitarian, evangelical churches.
- Female clergy encounter external barriers at multiple levels.
- Male clergy fall short in understanding and addressing barriers for women in leadership.
- Issues relating to sexuality, such as purity regulations and pornography, are a major barrier for female clergy.
- Barriers have a negative impact on female clergy.
- Current efforts to remove barriers are good but insufficient.
- Changes must be made at multiple levels to remove barriers for female clergy to flourish.
Key Finding 1: Women are Underrepresented in Leadership in Egalitarian, Evangelical Churches.
This study brought to light that there are especially few fully egalitarian, evangelical churches. Most of the churches in this study, while having female pastors, still put limits on women’s leadership. This demonstrates how intertwined evangelicalism is with complementarianism. Many faithful women are serving in evangelical churches, seeking to use their gifts and abilities for the church and the kingdom of God, yet constantly struggling to find churches that will free them to fully lead. Many female clergy and leaders choose to leave evangelicalism for this reason, opting to utilize their gifts in more liberal or mainline denominations or outside the walls of the church where there are fewer or no limits placed on them by male leaders.
The data from individuals and churches in this research paralleled the data for churches across America. Even in churches that seek to empower women, women are significantly underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership. Every church in this study has always had a male, never a female, senior pastor. The churches had an average of only 21 percent of pastors who were female. Additionally, the churches represented had on average 230 percent more women in ministry director positions than in pastoral roles. Data regarding the elder boards show a similar pattern. The average percentage of female elders reported was 22 percent, with only one church reaching the 50 percent, hence “egalitarian,” mark.
The numbers show that, while most of the churches represented in this study are seeking to hire female clergy and include women in most levels of leadership, almost all are falling significantly short of accomplishing their goals. While 97 percent of the churches represented reported that women can hold most positions of leadership except senior pastor or elder, only 54 percent of the respondents said they put no restrictions on women. Considering the actual numbers of female pastors and elders in the churches represented, it is clear that the practices in these churches do not line up with their theological positions or stated church policies.
Explanations for the data are varied and barriers will be explored later; however, a few initial observations are relevant to this first key finding. First, some individuals reported that their churches are moving toward equality for women in leadership, indicating that their churches’ goals or policies to allow female pastors or elders were relatively new or in the process of implementation. That these churches are working toward full inclusion of women is encouraging. Nevertheless, many churches appear to promote tokenism, where they support female leadership in policy or in sermons yet settle for a low percentage of representation by women as pastors and elders. One female respondent described this phenomenon: “Sometimes I feel like people just want one woman in the room so that they can have ‘representation,’ but then aren’t concerned with including other voices around the table.” Another woman explained:
[I have] some frustration over the inequality on our staff between how many pastors and directors are male and how many are female, as well as how rarely a woman teaches from the platform. I don’t see a lot intentionally being done to raise up or equip new female teachers to bridge that gap. We voted to permit women to serve as elders two years ago, but we currently only have 25 percent of our elder board that is female and very little progress has been made for women in other areas.
Other data exemplifies organizational ambivalence and tokenism. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed said their churches only have females preaching a few times a year. It is not surprising that the frequency of female preaching is extremely low since all the churches represented have male senior pastors who are typically the gatekeepers to the pulpit. Additionally, female preachers notoriously receive negative pushback from evangelical congregations that maintain some forms of patriarchy. One interviewee reported that the only female teaching pastor at her church eventually resigned because of harsh treatment from congregation members who would walk out during her sermons and sharply criticize her teaching.
Key Finding 2: Female Clergy Encounter External Barriers at Multiple Levels.
Female church leaders in this study identified multiple barriers at every level: societal/cultural, organizational, and individual.17 These women gave lengthy, detailed descriptions of the barriers and struggles they have encountered, the personal doubt and pain that this has caused, and yet the love that they have for their work and the church.
At the societal/cultural level, female pastors described gender stereotypes, perceptions of leadership as male, and constraints on women’s choices in evangelical churches and evangelical culture. One woman said, “I know that many people in the congregation have more traditional views of women in ministry.” Another female said she feels tension from extended family members and friends who do not agree with her role in church leadership. Another said, “Being in a male-dominated profession, some men view me as weaker or not qualified. I still feel like I fight the perception of men being superior to women.” Another woman said, “I don’t think our leadership understands that the culture does not support women in leadership and equal participation.” Still another said, “Congregation members often look to the male pastor because that is who they see as ‘the real pastor.’” Here we see how gender stereotypes within evangelical churches rise out of the theological beliefs and historical practices of the church.
Women also reported many organizational-level leadership barriers. Several women mentioned blatant discrimination and harassment. Theological positions of the church, whether current or historical, that elevate men over women lead to microaggressions, discrimination, and harassment. As one female pastor said, “Systemic anti-female discrimination is ‘baked into the cake’ of the way our systems and structures currently are, but we don’t usually name it because the term feels inflammatory. We’re just so used to it, and we don’t believe anyone intends to discriminate.” Women mentioned that they are often assumed to be assistants or to work in children’s ministry, asked to take notes, and interrupted in meetings. They are told directly that women should not be pastors. They encounter conversations where “the men who lead our denomination stumble through conversations with women in leadership . . . because they just don’t have much experience interacting with women in leadership. They are far more comfortable interacting with women who are hosting, serving and assisting.” One woman said she is not taken seriously and has to “downplay her work just to avoid controversy from others who hold different views of women in church leadership.” Another woman remarked about having to listen to jokes about women and sexist comments.
Several women described barriers such as exclusion from formal and informal networks of male pastors. One female church planter described never being officially seen as a church planter or invited into conversation or collaboration with other church planters. Another female pastor described how a local network of pastors gathered only during the early morning when she was still taking her children to school. As a result, she was never able to interact or attend the network meetings. Other female pastors described how male pastors gather socially outside of work. One female pastor explained, “Many of them grab a bite to eat together, go catch a movie, go to a sporting event, work out together. These are not acceptable ways for me to build a relationship with them one-on-one, and I end up feeling like I don’t have a level of comfort, relationship, and trust because we simply aren’t in the room together except to do work.” One female pastor described that the only way that she can build relationships with her male peers is to plan a dinner with their spouses present. For single, female pastors, even this option is not available.
One female pastor described the male organizational culture present in many evangelical churches:
Circles of pastors are very heavily dominated by men, especially within our denomination. It is physically and emotionally draining to swim in these waters. I don’t feel that my spiritual gifts are used fully because of my gender. Our culture is not used to female leadership and does not welcome it. I feel that I work on a male dominated staff and on male dominated teams. All positions of power are held by males. Our senior leadership team has one female (out of six) and our elder board only recently opened to include women.
In the example above, one can see how a church with egalitarian policy can still be highly patriarchal and exclude women. As this pastor describes, women often feel exhausted and isolated in such cultures and lack the ability to infiltrate the leadership structure.
Several women mentioned a lack of mentoring and sponsorship as a significant barrier. Only 29 percent of women reported receiving formal mentoring at their churches. One female explained this is often due to the policies surrounding the interactions of men and women in the workplace—informally called the Billy Graham Rule and linked to the purity culture in evangelicalism. There is a general fear and discomfort regarding sexuality which is managed with rules and structures that govern interactions between men and women. One female stated, “Given that most ultimate decision-makers are male and married, women are an unspoken threat, and this precludes women from engaging in important conversations and team development in ways that their male counterparts are able.” One female pastor explained that her senior pastor will often invite younger male pastors to accompany him as he engages in various responsibilities so they can learn through shadowing; however, she is never invited to do this type of mentoring because of her gender.
Several females reported unequal standards and salary inequality. While one female pastor specifically identified that she was not receiving equal pay for equal work, another described a different type of salary inequality specific to pastors who are working mothers. She describes her situation this way:
It sometimes feels like I have to get twice as much work done in the same time. It feels like this is more so than for many of my male colleagues who are fathers. I haven’t been salaried at 40 hours/week since I had my first kid and decided to cut back to be there more for the kids. I have been between 25–35 hours for the last ten years, but it often seems like I do as much or more actual work than many of my male colleagues who are still at 40 hours. I have learned to work extra hard and be extra efficient with my time in order to keep up with others, but sometimes I see some of my male colleagues working with a greater sense of spaciousness and relaxation in their work pace, and I feel envious of that.
Additionally, several females reported that, because women are not typically accepted as pastors, they feel they need to be “faultless, hardworking, and absolutely exceptional in order to justify [their] leadership positions.”
Finally, women mentioned individual-level barriers in ministry. First, some women described communication-style constraints. One woman described, “I don’t feel that ‘female’ styles of leadership and communication are valued and respected.” Another stated that “strong females have on occasion been viewed as contrarians. The women that I have seen move up are generally more compliant and accommodating.” Likewise, another woman said she feels that she must be “nurturing/warm/indirect in how [she] communicate[s].” Another woman stated, “When I preach, I am aware that my female voice is a barrier.” In each of these examples, female clergy are not accepted as they are and must change their personal leadership style to accommodate both men and the congregation.
Many women mentioned their own psychological glass ceiling in which women undervalue their own abilities, often due to the cultural, organizational, and interpersonal barriers encountered over a lifetime. One female reported, “For a very long time, I doubted my ability to be a pastor. I felt like I didn’t have permission, like I had to apologize for my calling. I wondered if I made this up because plenty of people think that women shouldn’t be pastors, that God doesn’t call women to be pastors.” These messages are often internalized, causing women to doubt their gifts and calling. As one woman said, “The internal conflict of feeling God made me a leader but being unsure if I can lead in the church world is a mind game on good days and numbing on others.” It is also well known that women face competing responsibilities for work and family. Several female clergy mentioned that they carry a heavier burden than the male pastors whose wives carry the majority of family responsibilities. One female pastor said that, as a working mother, she is “trying to keep up with the men around [her] but with less time.”
Finally, women noted the barrier of conscious unconsciousness, by which men deliberately choose not to notice the role that gender plays in the workplace. One woman described it this way: “I think the church’s inability to have hard conversations about sexism and gender discrimination means that my concerns are minimized and have no official standing when I bring them up.” Another female said, “I want to honor the guys I serve with. They are great. They just don’t see what they don’t see.” Another said, “Male pastors do not really even understand or recognize fully the power differential that exists.”
Key Finding 3: Male Pastors Fall Short in Understanding and Addressing Barriers.
The majority of men in this study lacked a deep and nuanced understanding of the barriers that female clergy encounter. When male clergy were asked to name and describe such barriers, they most often mentioned “bad theology and exegesis,” “cultural bias,” “tradition,” and “centuries of discrimination and marginalization.” While these are significant macro-level barriers for female clergy in evangelical churches, they are only one class of barrier. Men were significantly less able to identify mid-level organizational barriers and micro-level individual barriers. Their descriptions of the barriers women encounter lacked the depth, nuance, and emotion in the women’s descriptions. Additionally, male clergy in this study generally failed to mention how their own actions and church policies contributed to the barriers female clergy encounter. They mostly identified barriers at the societal/cultural level which were peripheral and external to their own experience and ministry. These male pastors separated themselves from the problem and externalized the blame and responsibility, placing it on women rather than identifying the real barriers in their own churches, which could be a direct result of their leadership, structures, and policies that hinder women from seeking leadership roles. Significantly, only two of the males surveyed mentioned barriers that existed in their church, their own complicity in erecting barriers for women, or their effort and attention toward removing barriers for women.
One male senior pastor and network leader who was interviewed identified that he is egalitarian in practice and “almost there theologically,” yet he has no female elders on his board even though the church constitution allows female elders. As he stated, “It just happened that the first elder board was all men.” However, in the nine years of the church’s existence, this pattern has continued. The male elder board has expanded to include more men, and there are still no female elders. This pastor says that he approaches hiring in the same way. He hires the most qualified person regardless of gender. Currently, one of five pastors is female. By both action and inaction, this pastor has erected barriers for female clergy and leaders even though his stated policy and desire is different. Additionally, he lacks depth of understanding regarding the impact of these decisions on women, and he has relinquished his power to enact change and justice for women.
Key Finding 4: Sexuality Is a Major Barrier.
One of the topics this study probed was how issues related to sexuality restrict women in church leadership. This study investigated topics such as the Billy Graham Rule and other purity regulations not found in secular organizations, as well as the impact of pornography and recent sexual scandals in the church. Eight-six percent of clergy in this study reported that their church has a policy regarding the interaction between men and women on staff. Eighty-one percent of men described a litany of personal boundaries and church policies that govern their interactions with women in church leadership. The purity rules at these churches forbade traveling with the opposite sex, as well as lunches, coffee, or other social activities. Meetings with the opposite sex had varying boundaries such as requiring that they occur in public spaces, within view of others, in a room with a window, only at the church office, with a third-party present, or requiring the knowledge of a supervisor and/or both spouses.
The underlying assumption is that, without these boundaries and rules, men in particular are putting themselves in situations where they might face false accusations or encounter undue temptation. Other assumptions are that men and women cannot have healthy friendships and are unable to manage their sexual desires. The females who responded assumed the majority of the burden of these rules. None of the men reported that these rules negatively impacted their work, but 79 percent of women said that they did, many of them adamantly and in detail describing the negative impact on their work, relationships, and leadership. They were the ones who reported feeling lonely and lacking workplace friendships, missing mentoring opportunities, and being left out of meetings, conversations, decisions, and ministry opportunities.
One senior pastor said, “Pastors set up boundaries so that they have the image of accountability, but it’s all a smokescreen. True accountability is relational. I think those that have the most boundaries have something to hide. If you are inclined to moral or sexual failure, you will find a way regardless of the rules.”
The same pastor said, “Any male pastor that says he hasn’t looked at porn is a liar,” yet 43 percent of pastors in this study reported that pornography use by staff has never been addressed in their churches. Pornography is worsening the power differential between men and women, and this plays out in everyday interactions, even for clergy.18 Many churches and pastors may be unwilling to grapple with the connections among pornography, violence, discrimination, and attitudes toward women because men still lead close to 90 percent of churches and pornography use is equally prevalent among male pastors as in the general population.19 It is unknown how the meteoric rise of the availability and accessibility of online pornography is impacting women in the workplace, especially in the church where leaders choose to remain silent about pornography within a religious system that condemns such behavior.
The current way churches are addressing issues of sexuality within church leadership is neither healthy nor effective. One female interviewee pondered, “How many women have to be impacted by men’s sexual issues?” She says, “The elephant in the room is sex. . . . No one is talking about porn.” As a result, she theorizes that this is the reason she as a single woman struggles in relationships with male colleagues. Rules, avoidance, repression, fear, and silence regarding sexuality and pornography do not create healthy relationships and work environments where women can flourish in leadership.
Key Finding 5: The Negative Impact of Barriers on Female Clergy
In multiple ways, the women surveyed communicated that they care deeply for God, their church, and the men with whom they work. Most communicated that they simply desire to be free to lead uniquely as women and to be valued as female clergy. They want equality at all levels including opportunity, title, pay, and voice. They want to be understood, to fit in, and to have friendships with the men in church leadership. The women in this study want male clergy to know that being a female pastor is different and difficult. One female pastor said, “I wish [male pastors] carried a deep empathy for all the additional pressures, decisions, and limits I face from without and within and that empathy would move them to equip, empower, and encourage me even more.” The female clergy communicated that they are constantly aware of their gender. They feel pressure to prove themselves, to prove that they belong in the room and at the table. They battle self-doubt because of the barriers they constantly encounter. Female pastors also want men to have a firmer grasp on history and theology so they can be advocates and allies for women in leadership.
The women I interviewed mentioned doubts about their pastoral careers to varying degrees, even though all are strikingly gifted leaders. One said her supervisors do not seem to have a vision for her continued growth in leadership, which causes her to doubt and lack vision for herself. She wants to grow in leadership but wonders, “Maybe I’m just being pushy and trying to get my way, and I am supposed to be the submissive one.” Another female pastor struggled to find her way into a pastoral role despite a strong calling, clear gifting, and holding a seminary degree. She feels confident there are no other churches that would hire her, so at a time when she was lacking leadership opportunity, she almost left her pastoral role for a secular career. Another female pastor pointedly said, “The church is a hard place to be. The rest of my life is fine.” She is thinking of leaving ministry so life will be easier. She said, “I’m not going to be part of a system that doesn’t give me a voice anymore. And many churches are still like that.”
Key Finding 6: Current Efforts to Support and Empower Female Clergy Are Insufficient.
Most male pastors in this study mentioned concrete steps they are taking to support and empower women in leadership. The male leaders mentioned promoting theological education and ordination; including women at all levels of leadership; training, mentoring, and advocating for women in leadership; listening to and giving equal voice to women; promoting female teaching and preaching; publicly affirming women’s leadership; and changing policies such as allowing female elders and requiring female candidates in the hiring pool of open positions. Additionally, the male pastors identified that female leaders need male allies who are both peers and superiors, policies and procedures that safeguard equitable treatment, “an unapologetic and overt egalitarian culture and leadership stance,” and a change in “policies (whether written or cultural) that favor the empowerment of men over women.” These are all good and credible ways to support and empower female clergy. It is encouraging that most male clergy who were part of this study were aware that women are underrepresented and are actively seeking to make positive changes for women leaders in their churches.
One male senior pastor described how he had assumed leadership of a church where women could be ordained and serve as pastors, but at the time he was hired there were no female ordained pastors. He took intentional steps in his hiring, and now 50 percent of the pastors on his staff are women and three are ordained. Now he is starting the conversation about changing the constitution so that women can serve as elders. This is a great example of a male leader taking steps to empower female clergy.
Female clergy listed additional ways they desire to be supported in church leadership. These included mentoring, flexible work schedules, paid maternity leave, childcare support, and female peers. One female pastor explained that she desires open discussion on gender issues “without the fear of being identified as a pot stirrer and therefore disruptive.” Another woman said she wants to see “active advocates for women in ministry—and not just the idea of women in ministry—but the actual women in ministry around them.” Another female pastor said she desires “respect and willingness to follow from those around me (especially powerful men); intentionally calling out my femaleness as a strength and not a handicap; a relationally-driven, emotionally-attuned work environment.”
Despite good ideas and notable progress for female clergy in evangelical churches, there seemed to be an assumption by the male pastors that their churches have sufficient policies and practices to fully empower female clergy, yet according to the data, their efforts and results are small compared to the longevity and enormity of the issue. As noted earlier, all the churches represented in this study have male senior pastors; on average, the number of female pastors is 21 percent; the average percentage of female elders is 22 percent; and most churches only have women preach a few times a year. Only half of the respondents to the questionnaire reported that their church had taught on egalitarianism or gender equality in a Sunday service. Twenty percent said that women are not actively recruited for open positions at their churches. Only 14 percent reported that their church has set and attained goals for gender equality. Another 29 percent said they have goals for gender equality, but those goals have not been attained. A sizeable 57 percent reported that their church has no goals for gender diversity in staffing. Fifty-seven percent reported that supervisors have no training on gender issues in the workplace, and 63 percent reported that power dynamics have not been discussed with church leadership. Clearly, the current efforts by male clergy and churches, while good and encouraging, are not sufficient to solve the problem.
Key Finding 7: Changes Needed to Remove External Barriers for Female Clergy
This study has confirmed what female clergy know intuitively and experientially. While women clergy have made some progress, they still encounter ongoing systemic, structural, theological, and individual barriers as they seek to flourish as leaders. Many male clergy in this study are making efforts to be part of the solution, but there is much more to be changed. Dismantling these barriers will require a multi-layered approach. There is no quick fix to a problem that has become entrenched over many centuries. This research brought to light four concepts that are important for churches that want to dismantle barriers for female leaders.
Theology Is Important.
Evangelical church culture is entrenched in complementarianism. If we hope to free women to lead, we must first break down the underlying theological barriers that prevent women from attaining all levels of leadership. Many evangelical churches have taken a soft complementarian stance, which allows women some leadership and freedom while keeping men in power. Evangelical churches often take this middle position, hoping to keep people on both sides of the “women in leadership issue” content. Recent historians have again proven that patriarchy and hierarchy in evangelicalism is an unbiblical, historical-social construct linked to militarism, racism, and power.20 Until churches fully dismantle this theological foundation, women will continue to be marginalized and disqualified for the highest levels of leadership.
A female pastor in this study described how her senior pastor is most concerned about preserving unity among people with differing views of women in leadership. Even as he is attempting to elevate women, he said, “We are not going to fly the flag of feminism.” Yet, in taking this approach, women continue to absorb shame from feeling less than men and assume the consequences of such an approach. Churches must loudly and bravely address the issue of women in church leadership as an essential issue for the church and the kingdom of God. When half of the church’s members are suffering, we must address the theology that is foundational for perpetuating this inequality and injustice.
Policies Are Necessary.
Very few of the pastors and churches in this study have clear policies, procedures, strategies, and action plans to address barriers for women in leadership. Churches have been able to avoid implementing such strategies, even though secular and Christian organizations have developed tools the church could employ. Without clear strategies and action plans churches will maintain the status quo. Churches and leaders must be held accountable so real progress can be made for women clergy. Systems do not change through good intentions.
Men with Power Must Act.
Male church leaders hold great power. Multiple women in this study mentioned men who were key to encouraging and empowering them as leaders and opening the door to greater opportunities for leadership. One woman said, “I do not feel like I would have been successful or accepted as a pastor without the approval and support of a male pastor on staff. Only with that do I feel like I was able to move forward and seen as ‘valid.’” Similarly, another female pastor said, “There are men on staff and in leadership that genuinely believe there is an important place for women as pastors. If not for them, I would not be here.” One of the female pastors interviewed mentioned multiple male pastors who recognized her gifting, sponsored her for leadership roles, created space for her as a female leader, and acted as her ally. Without these men, she too would have left pastoral ministry.
Change Must Be Comprehensive and Accelerated.
Several churches and male pastors mentioned engaging in a slow and gradual process of change as they seek to empower women in leadership. Leading change in a church is certainly a difficult process. One pastor in this study called it a “bloody battle,” referring to the process of changing his church’s constitution to allow female elders; however, slow change is not tenable for many women as they daily bear the weight of inequality, the repression of their gifts, and the quenching of the Spirit inside them. While slow change is appropriate in some circumstances, it is not appropriate for dismantling the barriers for women in leadership. Complacency toward women in leadership must change if we hope to make progress for women in the church. This process will not be easy. Many will adamantly disagree. Difficult issues such as power and sexuality will have to the addressed, but in so doing, women will be freed to flourish.
This study has highlighted many barriers female pastors encounter in evangelical churches. Until pastors, churches, and other leaders are willing to identify and dismantle these barriers, women in leadership will continue to suffer and remain restricted in their calling, gifting, and service to the church. When barriers for women in leadership are dismantled, men, women, the church, and the kingdom of God will benefit.
Having women in positions of leadership in the church frees other women and girls to listen to their callings from God. It frees men and congregations from their patriarchal views and promotes comfort with and acceptance of women in leadership and women’s voices in the church. When women are equally included in church leadership, the church’s witness to the world advances. It is time for the church to recognize its complacency toward women and act for the sake of the gospel.
- Kate Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (Princeton University Press, 2019) 41.
- Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife, 41.
- Cyrus Schleifer and Amy D. Miller, “Occupational Gender Inequality Among American Clergy, 1976–2016: Revisiting the Stained Glass Ceiling,” Sociology of Religion 78/4 (2017) 388.
- Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate (Baker Academic, 2016) x.
- Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia Mei Yin Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Westminster John Knox, 1998) 132–33.
- Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2018) 10.
- Mark Chaves and Alison Eagle, “National Congregations Study,” 2015, http://soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf, 18.
- Knoll and Bolin, She Preached the Word, 34.
- The White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership, The White House Project (2009) 95.
- Bowler, The Preacher’s Wife, 61.
- When this article was first developing, I discussed with Ed Stetzer (executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, regional director for Lausanne North America, editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and founding editor of The Gospel Project curriculum) that no American megachurches were led by women. After this article was accepted by Priscilla Papers, we became aware of one such congregation.
- Roberta Hestenes, “Stained Glass Ceilings and Sticky Floors,” Fuller Studio, http://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/stained-glass-ceilings-and-sticky-floors.
- Bowler, She Preached the Word, 44.
- Bowler, She Preached the Word, 60.
- Mark Chaves, Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations (Harvard University Press, 1997) 14.
- Ryan P. Burge, “Researcher: Most Evangelicals Support Women in Church Leadership,” CT (June 30, 2020) 4, https://christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/june-web-only/research-evangelicals-women-leaders-complementarian-preach.html.
- The framework I use to talk about barriers for women comes from Amy B. Diehl and Leanne M. Dzubinski, “Making the Invisible Visible: A Cross Sector Analysis of Gender Based Leadership Barriers,” Human Resource Development Quarterly 27/2 (2016) 181–206.
- Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace (Fortress, 2000) 91.
- David Kinnaman, “The Porn Phenomenon,” Barna (Feb 5, 2016), https://barna.com/the-porn-phenomenon/.
- Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020).