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The View from the Pulpit

Honest Advice for Women in Ministry

My male colleagues exclude me from discussions and do not listen to my ideas. I feel like a “fish out of water.”

About thirty years ago, when I began teaching as the first (and, for ten years, as the only) female at my school, I noticed I went through several transitions with some of my male colleagues. First, on a local scholarly trip, I found that throughout the evening they talked to each other as if I was not there. I felt they regarded me as a child who can be seen but not heard. Although they invited me to join them on other trips, I never went again. Second, when in our academic meetings I forced myself to contribute, my comments were often met in laughter. (The child should never have spoken!) Third, when they realized I had gained a certain amount of influence, some of them planned methods to undercut my suggestions. (The child had become unruly.) So, I went through three stages; ignored because I was of no significance, laughed at because I was different, undercut because I was threatening. What made a difference? As a faculty we took an educational trip abroad and, for once, we all got to know each other as mature individuals outside of academic concerns. Then, when we returned, I was treated with more respect. The situation also improved when other male colleagues began making a point of announcing that I had my hand up during meetings, encouraging my participation.

When you are facing exclusion from your colleagues, be affirmed by the Word of God. The Apostle Paul said that God chose the ones “that are not” in order to nullify the ones who “are” (1 Cor 1:28) and Mary praised the Lord, prophesying the Lord has “lifted up the humble,” while bringing down “rulers from their thrones” (Luke 1:52). We cannot allow the negative opinions of others to become our own opinion of ourselves because in God’s sight we are significant. The best technique of all is to ask for prayer from supporters for important forthcoming meetings and to engage key colleagues individually ahead of time to discuss those issues you believe to be important. And, remember to advocate for others as others once advocated for you.

For other practical advice, look for William David Spencer’s article “From Locker Room to Meeting Room: Restructuring Groups for Both Women and Men” in the forthcoming Some Men Are Our Heroes, eds. Jewel Hyun and Cindy Lathrop, as well as Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church, eds. A. Besançon Spencer, W. D. Spencer, and Mimi Haddad.

Rev. Dr. Aída Besançon Spencer is professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a founding pastor of Pilgrim Church in Beverly, Massachusetts.

My seminary professor has publicly made it clear he believes women should not be in church leadership.

None of my MDiv professors were supportive of women’s leadership in the church. In one course, the subject came up in every class session, as my professor was spurred on by male students, and I, the only woman in the class, was never called on. What advice do I have for other women living such a story?

  • Remember that God is your authority, not any college or seminary professor. At the conclusion of seminary, I left a denominational missions meeting where I refused to sign a statement discriminating against women pastors only to find a message on my answering machine inviting me to preach elsewhere. God truly has the final word, so give him your emotional energy. School ends. He doesn’t.
  • Concentrate on the people who do support you. For me, there were specific female pastors who listened to me for hours as I went through seminary. Find those people and spend as much time with them as possible.
  • Remember that you can shake people’s worldviews just by loving Jesus. Love those professors, too, and find things to genuinely affirm in them. Ask them questions based on your thorough research. Seek to influence— rather than to defeat— those who may oppose you. A male classmate told me once, “I thought all women leaders were heretics who didn’t respect God’s Word. But then I heard you thought it was okay for women to preach, so I knew that my assumption couldn’t be true.” Your life will preach to those around you as much as your professor’s lectures do.

Laura M. Rector (MDiv, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Some of my parishioners think my leadership style is too “feminine” while others think it is too “masculine.” I just can't win!

An elderly male congregant once wrote me an irate email claiming that the problem with a women pastor like me is that I am not feminine enough to be a maternal figure, but I am not forceful enough to “get the job done” like men do — a description of a true “lose-lose” proposition!

I have found the book Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders helpful for understanding this nuanced challenge. Authors and psychology professors Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli propose the metaphor of a labyrinth to replace the old “glass ceiling” metaphor in the business world. They write:

In everyday behavior on the job, women encounter more obstacles to their leadership and authority than men do. Women who are too assertive, competitive, or even competent can at times threaten others, who then resist female influence and leadership. This resistance to their leadership can lower evaluations of women’s personalities and skills, obscure women’s contributions to group tasks, undermine their performance, and even subject them to sexual harassment. At the same time, women can be criticized for being too nice. Men, unlike women, do not bear the burden of having to be especially likable to be influential or to be accepted as leaders, nor do they have to establish themselves as clearly superior in ability (p. 117, emphasis mine).

Navigating a labyrinth is an apt metaphor for being a woman leader in the church — I don’t feel like I am crashing through a glass ceiling so much as making my way through the complex twists and unexpected turns of leading as a woman. According to my disgruntled congregant, as I tiptoed my way through this labyrinth, I veered too far away from the feminine and at the same time steered away from the assertive side. That’s a tough — and very treacherous — road to walk.

We must remember that we are called to be more concerned with being Christ’s disciple and less about fitting cultural expectations. In order to navigate the labyrinth as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we must follow only Jesus, listening for his voice, discerning his way, avoiding culture’s strident calls to be aggressive and self-aggrandizing, yet seeking his courage to keep from being too passive or agreeable when we need to stand up for what is right and just.

Rev. Alison Moore John is pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Brookline, Massachusetts.

I feel like I’m going to fail and that when I do, everyone will use it to confirm their beliefs that women shouldn’t be in ministry.

Growing up in a very traditional denomination, I was taught that according to Scripture, God calls solely males into the ministry and that women must be submissive to men and be silent in the church. I will be forever grateful for Christians for Biblical Equality for introducing me to writings by highly respected evangelical scholars that interpreted difficult biblical passages differently than my denominational leaders did.

During the week of my seminary graduation, in May of 2003, I received an unexpected call to serve First Christian Church in Beaumont, Texas as their interim pastor and, a year later, as their senior pastor. Occasionally when a struggle arises in the congregation, a little tape from my past plays in my head that says, “If a man were pastor here, he would be able to handle this situation quickly and efficiently.” There is another tape that echoes in my head at times: “Maybe the church would be better off with a young man with two cute young children and then the church would grow and lots of young families would join.”

When doubts arise and those old tapes start trying to play once again, I remember that:

  • The Spirit of God, who called me as a shepherd serving under the Great Good Shepherd, is equipping me to feed the flock.
  • My community of faith, friends, and family are upholding me in prayer.
  • I see God’s miraculous hand in circumstances in spite of my human frailty.
  • I am surrounded by the communion of saints that includes myriads of named and unnamed women throughout the ages who have answered the call and have been empowered, commissioned, and ordained by the Spirit to do the work of ministry.
  • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13).

Rev. Brenda Griffin Warren is senior pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Beaumont, Texas.

I wonder whether I’m being compensated differently from my male colleagues.

Max Weber, founder of the academic discipline of sociology of religion a hundred years ago, astutely observed that whatever we designate as “sacred” becomes “uniquely inalterable.” Whether cast in the harsh rhetoric of John R. Rice in 1941 (Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers) or in the candy-coated language of “complementarity” by John Piper and Wayne Grudem in 1991 (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), the result is the same: When God’s name is attached to any form of misogyny, for sincere Christians, that teaching becomes unalterable. It stands firm and it guides both attitudes and actions.

That reality has helped me understand (and forgive) the many times over the last six decades that I’ve been ignored, my voice has been silenced, and my contributions have been discounted. In particular this has been true in two areas. Often I felt excluded from discussions among male colleagues, or the ideas I’ve put on the table have been ignored. A second area has been the pain of knowing that a male colleague has received a larger salary for essentially the same level of responsibility and performance. Dealing with these realities is always a balancing act between speaking up when simple justice has been compromised or knowing when to smile and let go of the desire for respect or equity.

While I have not always coped well with those “facts of life” in this fallen world, two truths have made a difference for me. First, most colleagues don’t intentionally hurt me; they simply act out of training from infancy about gender (see Weber’s The Sociology of Religion). That helps when I need to challenge them. Second, in the end it is God’s smile that matters. That helps when I need to let go.

Dr. Alice Mathews is the former academic dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she continues to teach as the Lois W. Bennett Distinguished Professor Emerita in the areas of women’s studies and educational ministries. She is known for her participation in the daily radio program, Discover the Word.

I’m tired of constantly having to defend my call. I just want us to move past the “women in ministry” question and serve Jesus!

The biblical account of Esther has long been a favorite of mine. Even as a child it captivated my imagination, most especially because God used a woman to save his people. I remember wondering if I would have the same courage should I ever find myself in a similar situation. Do you remember the part of the story when Esther walked into the throne room (Esther 5:2)? She couldn’t be sure the king would allow her in until he extended the gold scepter. He did, and she entered confidently to make her request.

Oddly, I have often come to see myself in the same place as Queen Esther when I consider the “women in ministry” question. It’s not that I have been called to “save my people,” but rather, that I have a sense of needing permission to enter. When I find myself in uncertain ministry settings, I realize I involuntarily brace myself for an adverse reaction when it’s discovered I’m a pastor. I sense the focus turn toward me and the tension mount as I wait to be invited in or ridiculed for daring to ask.

Our encouragement in the face of this tension is the truth that the Lord God has invited us all into the throne room through faith in Jesus Christ. We are called and must serve our God based on gifting, not gender. This knowledge stops my involuntary response and elicits a confidence that keeps me entering in to tell the story of God’s grace. No one said to Esther that a woman could not carry the message to save her people. They were grateful she was willing to accept the assignment. I long for the day when there will be no question about “women in ministry” and we can all just serve the Lord Jesus as he calls. Only then will the church truly be “…brought into complete unity” (John 17:23).

Nancy Parkhurst Leafblad (MDiv, Bethel University) is a pastor, former business owner, wife, and mother.

My congregation closely scrutinizes my clothes and appearance. Some are afraid that I am distracting men from worshiping when I preach.

This is a commonly expressed frustration of women in positions of ministry leadership. You may find yourself at the close of a sermon, feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit and the incredible, humbling satisfaction that God has used you, only to be confronted by brothers and sisters who comment on your haircut or object to the length of your skirt. While many men in ministry also experience criticism of their clothes and appearance, this is simply a more prevalent problem for women.

The tension is that women in the church are expected to be “put together” but not vain; to be beautiful and captivating but not sexual. The point where these tensions meet varies from person to person, and from culture to culture. The bottom line here is the question of responsibility. You are not responsible for your congregation’s decisions to lust or be distracted; your body and the clothes you cover it with do not cause another person to sin.

You are, however, responsible for your own actions and motives. Ask yourself questions like: “Why am I wearing what I’m wearing?” “Am I trying to find my worth or acceptance in my appearance?” and “Deep down, do I want to draw attention to myself or to God?” Ask the Lord regularly to help you examine your motives. And then put something on and forget about it! Trust God to give you a healthy perspective on your clothing, and find relief in the truth that we simply cannot please everyone (nor are we called to).

Consider also the root of this problem and what your church can do to address it. Is your congregation working to prevent the objectification of women both within your church walls and beyond? Is your youth group dissecting cultural messages about the value of outward appearance? Are you providing a place for congregants to heal from pornography addictions? Consider too how to address commonly-held gender stereotypes that can be used to justify sexual sin, such as the belief that men are more “visual” and therefore unable to keep themselves from viewing women in an exclusively sexual way.

Megan Greulich is the editor of Mutuality magazine.

My family does not support me in my call. I’m tired, discouraged, and wondering if I am mistaken in believing that I am called to ministry.

In my thirty-plus years of ministry, I have encountered hundreds of young women who are caught between their families, churches, and personal convictions that God has called them to serve him in professional ministry. Just recently a young woman shared that her father felt that she would be sinning against God if she pursued a career in ministry. Yet she felt that she would be sinning against God if she wasn’t obedient by pursuing her calling. How could she make sense of it all? It is extremely easy in this type of situation to doubt one’s self, call, and faith.

Two principles have helped me as I have faced this challenge. My own call to ministry was a source of tension in my family, as my father had a very traditional view of women in ministry. Over the years, I found that if I moved my conversations with him toward what we both shared, which was a love for God and a desire to serve him, then we could at least have conversations that weren’t contentious, even if we didn’t agree. He grew to respect my decision, even requesting that I preach at his funeral, which I did.

Secondly, when the doubts and discouragement come, we need to get back to the core of what we know. Doubts seldom come when we are doing ministry. It is during those times when we are preaching, teaching, or serving in many other ways that we most often have a sense of “this is what I was made to do.” Conversely, it is in conversations with others who question the appropriateness of our ministry or in the alone times when the doubts arise. We have to trust in that sense of confidence and calmness at the core of who we are, and trust that this confidence is from God.

Pamela Erwin (DMin) is the Associate Dean of Professional Programs and a professor at Bethel University (Saint Paul, Minnesota) with over twenty-five years of experience in the field of youth ministry as an educator, author, and practitioner.

My church congregation questions if I can be both a good mother and an effective minister.

One of my single male colleagues once called into question my commitment to ministry because I had been unable to attend all of our staff meetings. At the time I was a wife, a mother to five children, and an almost full-time student. I felt that his statement was unreasonable, and yet I found myself feeling guilty because I knew that there would be other times that circumstances would prevent me from being present. Children get sick, cars break down, the dog throws up just as I am walking out the door, and other family members’ activities conflict with my schedule. But does the fact that I am a mother make me ineffective and necessitate that I step down from ministry? Interestingly, my colleague didn’t question whether or not I had been gifted by God to serve in the church, but instead seemed to imply that my inability to function exactly as other staff disqualified me from participating.

Many churches run on a business model that requires leaders to keep certain hours and show up for every activity, which can prove challenging for women with children. These expectations are not bad in and of themselves; routines and discipline are necessary for any entity to run smoothly. But, perhaps churches could benefit from a bit more flexibility. I wonder how many people (female or male) resist answering a call from God because they can’t perfectly meet the “requirements” of their church.

Motherhood has taught me the freeing truths that it is impossible for me to have all my “ducks in a row” and that God doesn’t require this of me. Instead, being a mother has trained me to endeavor to walk in the Spirit at all times — mothers must learn to prioritize and solve problems, be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, and lean more on God rather than our own understanding. Are these not all crucial skills for church leaders? Perhaps it is time for churches to re-examine their structures and make room for the many members who are gifted and anointed for ministry but may not be able to fit perfectly into the present church configuration.

Liz Beyer is bookstore coordinator for Christians for Biblical Equality. She is a wife, mother of five, and a worship and youth leader at her church.

I’m weary of being the first woman in my position.

There are many challenges women face as “pioneers.” Some challenges mirror those faced by women influencers in general, but they are exaggerated — intensified, if you will — when a woman is a “first” in any field. Other obstacles seem peculiar to “firsts.” Whichever the case, there are some common difficulties cited by women who set precedents:

  • A schizophrenic juxtaposition of high and low expectations (i.e., “she’s going to have to do the job twice as well” coupled with “she’s going to blow it”)
  • A confusing constellation of reactions from other females — anything from admiration, jealously, fear, and competition to outright rejection and opposition
  • Intensified tokenism, whether implicit or explicit (i.e., she’s the lone female face on the conference docket; the solo woman on the dust jacket endorsements; the logical choice for the “softer” perspective in a collaborative project; the only soprano voice on the panel)

While these problems are real, I believe the opportunities for female “firsts” are exponentially greater than the difficulties. Please understand that I’m no Pollyanna. The barriers, discrimination, invalidation, and outright abuse women still face within the body of Christ anger me on a regular basis. People who know me will tell you I have little tolerance for gender-biased behavior and will call both individuals and institutions out when they treat women as lesser beings in the kingdom of God.

However, I’ve also come to realize that the old adage rings true: what we focus on gets bigger. When I talk to women in ministry, I always take time to hear their stories of marginalization, disempowerment, and hurt. But these stories are not the conclusion. They are a crucial introduction — but only an introduction. The greater story is the unfolding of possibility that happens when women reconnect with their potential; re-commit to the hard work of personal and professional development; re-kindle their God-breathed curiosity and passion for life; and embark on new adventures of learning, creativity, and excellence.

In the end, our gift to the world is who God created us to be. As with the risen Christ, our wounds are indelible imprints on our stories. They propel us toward solutions, toward justice, toward life. But, unlike Christ, we have a tendency to get stuck in our circumstances and pain, cocooning in our scarcity narratives— the accounts of what we haven’t been allowed to do — instead of allowing God to transfigure us through new narratives — the accounts of abundance and the stories yet to be written of what we can and are doing.

Women who pioneer understand this difference. They don’t deny the past or numb themselves to the challenges. But they are continually called forward by possibilities. They believe in something so strongly — see something in their mind’s eye so clearly — they must make it a reality. It is this single-minded focus on what can be, not on what is, that fuels the illogical, life-giving hope that defines all greatness. Not a desire to be first, but a desire to co-create a brand new reality.

Sally Morgenthaler has been a pioneer in ministry for well over a decade. She is an author, an educator, and a speaker.

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