When I was eight years old, I sat on a hot Sunday morning in a ramshackle little church on the edge of town, where the Arizona desert encroaches on the city limits, threatening to swallow it up. The only potential candidates for swallowing this day were the little Pentecostal church and a seedy bar next door. I’d spent many sweaty Sundays in this church, listening to Cora Watson preach, watching her steel-gray bun in her hair bounce every time she snapped her head for emphasis, wondering if the whole lot would come down on the next Hallelujah!
On this particular Sunday, as I daydreamed through the sermon, however, a thought occurred to me: Grandma Watson (as all the children called her) was an oddity — a woman pastor — the only one I knew. I knew other women preachers and some who didn’t call themselves preachers, but preached nonetheless, but Cora Watson was the only woman I knew who actually pastored a church. My grandparents had begun attending this church after they retired from pastoring themselves; I couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t their pastor. But I suddenly become aware of how unusual she was.
In the holiness — Pentecostal denomination in which I grew up, there was a great deal of ambiguity about women in public ministry. In early Pentecostalism, women had played major leadership roles since formal ordination paled in significance against evidence of the anointing of the Holy Spirit on an individual — male or female. But as the charismatic moment waned and institutionalization set in, the freedom of women to preach and minister also waned. The number of women pastors has been declining steadily since the early 20th century.
As a child, I knew women preachers and evangelists, but most were my grandparents’ generation. I heard many stories that included women in public ministry, but I saw mostly women in unofficial ministry (without titles and with limited authority). Unofficially, women were leaders in almost every level of the church. Women led worship, directed choirs, played instruments, taught Sunday School (adults as well as children), testified, preached, prophesied, healed the sick, sat on pastoral boards (since no ordination was required), made decisions about how to spend church funds, and served as missionaries. Women were licensed as ministers and allowed to pastor, but without full ministerial authority. Over the years, the rules became more restrictive about which specific pastoral functions (like baptism, marriage, the Lord’s supper). Finally in the 1990s the trend started to reverse and some exclusions have been eliminated.
As a teenager, it seemed to me that women did most of the nitty-gritty work of the church, but as soon as a title or a paycheck was attached to the job, it was filled by a man. I came to the conclusion that God does call women to pastoral service, but the church
(men and women) would not allow them to officially occupy positions of power and authority. Both women and men in this church culture joked about men being the head, but women being the neck that turns the head. I learned all about manipulation through submission. I decided my church was old-fashioned, conservative, and anti-woman. I determined to find a more enlightened church.
I was surprised to discover that, other than a few “mainline” denominations, most evangelical denominations (in the U.S.) are even more conservative in their stance toward women in ministry than my own church tradition. Many of these churches don’t allow women to function even unofficially in leadership capacities. I developed a new appreciation for my heritage. At least I had seen women answering God’s call and using their gifts and talents in ministry — even if mostly unofficially.
About twelve years ago, while serving as a chief musician at an evangelical church, I began to sense God calling me into a pastoral type of service. A male elder at the church told me I must have “misheard” God — God doesn’t call women to leadership, he said (quoting a few choice Pauline verses). This did not resonate with my own experience of God or my heritage, but taken at face value these Biblical passages did seem to support his argument. I attempted to do some research on these passages, but I didn’t know how. Ultimately, this process landed me at Regent College, where I was exposed to the egalitarian teachings of respected evangelical scholars such as Gordon Fee, Stanley Grenz, and John Stackhouse. These men had nothing to gain (and much to lose) by holding open the doors for women to enter into the fullness of God’s calling.
Finally, my own internal struggle could be laid to rest in firm theological ground. However, this immediately raised another question. There are many women students at Regent College and most North American seminaries. Many of them are receiving training necessary for pastoral ministry. Surely, some are there because they feel a calling to lead God’s people. Why, then, do so few women respond to this call to pastoral ministry?
Why aren’t more women answering God’s call?
Certainly there are many cases like my own where women are specifically told God doesn’t call women, that they have misunderstood God. Often, however, women from churches that don’t prohibit women in ministry are also hesitant to respond to God’s call. Why? The reasons are many; we’ll consider only a few.
Our culture in general is one of male dominance. Although this is changing, the church has been slower to respond to these changes than the rest of society. This is especially ironic since it was evangelicalism that gave birth to the women’s rights movement in the 19th century.
The Bible is male-dominated. Both Testaments were written against a background of male dominant/patriarchal societies and seem to assume male primacy. Any casual reading reveals that women are under-represented by today’s standards. It requires more effort for women to paint themselves into the picture as active participants than for men to do so.
The ministry of women is not actively encouraged. Even churches that do not bar women from pastoral ministry do not often actively encourage it. In a position paper on “Women in Ministry,” the Rev. Dr. Janet Peifer of the Brethren in Christ Church suggests that even in churches that permit women in ministry leadership, people might not even realize it because few of them:
- have heard even one sermon which would condone and affirm it;
- have seen or read a book or an article condoning or affirming it;
- have known any female pastor to serve as an exemplary role model;
- have been exposed to responsible principles of biblical interpretation on the controversial passages about women…
In an article entitled “Women in Ministry: Challenging Cultural Obstacles,” Dr. Lee M. Haines, General Superintendent Emeritus of the Wesleyan Church, challenges the leaders of his denomination to commit to even more active encouragement — to “practicing the Barnabas principal…championing the cause of one or more of these daughters of the church.” Quoting C.S. Cowles, Haines declares:
All God-called and Spirit-filled potential ministers are “dead in the water” until someone in a position of authority recognizes their gifts, invites them to participate in increasingly responsible forms of ministry, supports them in times of challenge and encourages them along the way.
Churches are afraid to hire women pastors. Even in denominations where women are ordained, many local churches aren’t comfortable hiring women pastors. Many congregations hold back from accepting women as pastors because they fear dissension in the church or loss of esteem in the community for being a woman’s church.
Women are afraid they’ll be seen as trouble-making and pushy feminists. Many women find their self-worth in what others think of them and are reluctant to be considered strident or liberal. In the media and in some of the “mainline” churches, the issue of women’s ordination is closely linked with the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Often Christians in the evangelical church react against what they consider the apostasy of liberalism, and as a result, the women’s ministry issue is tainted. Those calling for true equality of the sexes are found guilty by association.
There is a shortage of readily available role models. We recognize the tremendous importance of role models in every aspect of our society. They are indispensable in influencing a woman’s understanding of and response to her call to ministry. I believe this is the primary reason women fail to answer God’s call to ministry — they often don’t even recognize it as a possibility.
I recently heard from a member of our congregation, the mother of a very gifted young teenage girl. She thanked me for my leadership and for opening her eyes to new possibilities for her daughter.
“We’ve never seen a woman lead the worship service before,” she said. “I told my daughter, ‘Look at her. God could use you in the same way.’” Women are not men and will not lead in the same way men do, but young women and young men need to see what feminine Christian leadership looks like.
The difficult road ahead
Clearly there are complex reasons why women fail to answer or reluctantly answer God’s call to ministry. Those who do will very likely face a difficult road. They will encounter the same struggles as their sisters in the marketplace, but their wounds will often have salt rubbed into them: people questioning their hearts, their motives, their commitment to Christ — the very commitment that brought them to this road in the first place!
So why answer this call?
Because the Scriptures have a lot to say of the servant leadership of one who is “despised and rejected of men.”
Because the church would be better for having more leaders who know what it is to lead from positions of weakness.
Because in Western society, the perceived anti-woman attitude of the church brings shame to the gospel of Christ, and it was to avoid such shame that Paul wrote the very passages that are now so controversial.
Because one day we will give an account concerning the use of our gifts — not to our church officials or family members or friends — but to God alone.
Because we owe it to our younger sisters and daughters who are now just beginning to hear God whispering in their ear of things they can only imagine.
But primarily because Jesus said, “Those who would be my disciples must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” The cross for women called to pastoral ministry may very well be indifference or even hostility from the religious community and isolation from peers; why should we expect to be different from our Lord? It may mean bearing labels we’re not comfortable with; he did. It may mean being misunderstood; he was.
God is not calling us in spite of our being women; he is calling us because we are women. Let us answer his call, take up our cross, and follow him.