I have been pastoring full-time for ten years now. A decade. It seems like yesterday that I received a phone call from a friend on a large church staff, asking me if I would consider coming to work there as a care pastor. I clearly remember the moment, because I thought he was asking me if I knew of someone who might be interested in the job. I was attending seminary at the time and had a lot of ministry friends. It never once occurred to me that he was asking me if I wanted the job.
I was so stunned I had to sit down on the floor while he clarified. “No, I am asking you. I would love for you to come on staff and work with us.”
In all the churches I’d been in up till that point, every single pastoral position was filled by men. Sure, I knew women’s ministry directors, but no women who were actually pastors leading men. I did, however, know a lot of women who were filling the roles of pastor without the title. Before that phone call, that was my reality, too. I had been a pastor for years, but no one had ever acknowledged that gift beyond thanking me for volunteering and leading other women.
It was a bumpy first few years for me as I entered into ministry in this more intentional way. I remember how scared I was to step into leadership. How often I doubted myself. How easy it was to defer to the men on the staff because they had more experience and power. How hesitant I was of sounding too strong. How I would beat myself up after teaching at our recovery service, uncovering all of the things that were wrong with my message. But over time, I slowly gained confidence. God’s spirit continued to strengthen me. I moved out of a steep learning curve and tipped over into feeling more certain that this was the work that I was called to do despite the obstacles (and there were certainly quite a few of those!).
After two years and some unexpected twists and turns, I, along with a friend and fellow pastor left our positions at that church. Together, we planted The Refuge. That was eight years ago. Shifting from a hierarchical complementarian leadership model to a co-pastoring, fully egalitarian one was an interesting transition, because it required me to participate in a different way than before. I couldn’t hide behind someone else’s authority. I couldn’t leave the decisions to the one with the “final say.” I had to step into full and equal leadership in our community in a way that I had never done before.
In the years since then, I keep realizing what a gift it is to be part of a community that values women as equals and lives it out in tangible ways. I am still learning and there are certainly challenges (not so much inside our community, but more so when I intersect with the broader church).
Here are some of the things I keep learning about equality in the church:
It won’t come without intention. The grooves of patriarchy are strong and deep. Even when people have sincere hearts and feel convicted by the Scriptures that men and women should be equals, change doesn’t drop out of the sky. It takes a lot of work to cultivate equality in the church and involve women and other underrepresented groups in all areas of life and leadership together. We need to work hard to invite women of all ages into leadership roles very intentionally and to call out their gifts.
We must provide ongoing support. Asking is a first step, but then we need to keep looking for ways to support the ministry work of women in unique life circumstances. Honoring issues related to childbirth and parenting is so important, in addition to providing training and encouragement so that women can sustain their work.
Equality is fostered through true friendship. The more we can practice friendship together as men and women, brothers and sisters, alongside each other in the body of Christ, the more we can learn to lead and live together as equals. Friends are never “over” or “under” each other; they are always alongside. My friendships with men over these eight years have been incredibly transforming and would have never happened if we had only intersected as pastors and leaders and not as true friends.
Many people think we’ve come further than we have. There is still a misperception that women have come a long way in the church and so talking about equality isn’t necessary. That is definitely false. Sure, things have tilted slightly and I personally see more women sitting at certain leadership tables than ever before, but we need to remember power is not so easily shifted. We have a long way to go until women have full and equal power alongside men.
It comes at a cost. Making choices about equality in churches and shifting power is no easy task. People may leave. Resources may wither. Feathers may be ruffled. It’s so important to cling to the reality that the ways of Jesus have always been against the status quo, come at a cost, and require sacrifice.
I believe wholeheartedly that the work of Christians for Biblical Equality is helping shift the tide and is bringing greater healing and wholeness to the church.
Here’s to continuing to learn together….