I recently attended my denomination’s annual pastors’ conference. At the gathering, I saw men and women equally represented in the pulpit, on the worship team, and among those making announcements. The diversity I witnessed made me smile. I saw many women leaders in attendance and I celebrated them. Yet, I know that their journeys have not been easy.
There are female pioneers in the church ministering without mentors or role models. There are women with a gift for preaching who have been restricted and diminished by legalism. There are women with broken hearts who have been betrayed by the body of Christ. And there are women who have been forced to serve without an official title—simply because they are women.
Many of these women were born into churches that expected them to serve without any real responsibility or recognition. They have since shifted toward a leadership paradigm that fully affirms their gifts and purpose.
As I listen to the stories of these women, I feel a sense of solidarity. I get it. The rejections, the loneliness, and the eventual journey toward egalitarianism are part of my story too.
I was raised in a denomination where women were not permitted to serve in any leadership capacity. I attended a conservative Christian school where girls were required to wear skirts, except on Fridays when we were allowed to wear jeans. I remember a chapel service in which a guest speaker argued that women were morally weaker than men, citing Job’s wife as proof. None of this sat right with me, but I could not articulate it at the time.
As a young adult at a conservative Christian college, I wrestled with the fact that my professors of Bible and theology were all men. I didn’t understand the infrequency with which women spoke in chapel services or why, when they did, they used a podium but never a pulpit. I wondered why female students were excluded from a class on teaching God’s Word.
These experiences led me to believe that a pastoral ministry could never be an option for me as a woman. A seminary class on women and the Bible changed my life, as did a church’s exhortations toward a pastoral career. But, the challenges remained.
For instance, after preaching for the first time at a church, I was told that it was “entertaining” to have a blonde preacher! On another occasion, a volunteer at a worship service “offered” to help me put cordless microphone wires underneath my clothes before I got up to preach. There were times when I received more compliments on how I looked than on what I said. But, I kept preaching.
I am so glad I did. A young woman recently told me how inspiring it is to come home from college and hear me preach. Another young woman in our congregation regularly shares how meaningful it is to see me in leadership at our church. Many members of my congregation seek me out for pastoral counsel because they are confident that they have an advocate in me. I am humbled and blessed to serve a beautiful congregation where my voice is welcomed.
Yet, what do we do when we are called to and gifted for ministry, but are not welcomed where God has appointed us to serve? Likewise, what do we do when we are welcomed, but not fully respected?
We humbly dig in our heels. We stay. We stay, committed to using our voices. We stay, diligent in our service. We stay, forthright in our vocations. We stay, unflinching in the face of sexism. We stay, grounded in our identity. We stay, focused on our studies. We stay, rigorous in our preparation. We stay, wholly and fully committed to following where Jesus leads, even when doing so costs us everything.
The recent film Hidden Figures tells the amazing stories of three black women who, with grit and determination, shattered racial and gender barriers at NASA. Due to their unwavering commitment to excellence and their persistence in the face of extreme prejudice, they altered the course of history.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson didn’t want to work long hours, push for legal rights in court, apply for positions that were not open to them, or swim in a sea of prejudiced colleagues, yet they persisted. And because of their fortitude, things changed.
Recently, a fellow minister who serves a community in Asia was invited to a meeting with a leader on her country’s religious council. The leader asked her to sit at the front of the room, next to him. In a context where few women are invited much less welcomed, the meeting was a sign of miraculous progress.
Because of leaders like my friend and the women whose lives inspired Hidden Figures, our world is changing—it is moving toward greater justice and equality for marginalized people. This work requires persistence, humility, and faith, but freedom will come when brave women dig in their heels.