I grew up in an evangelical denomination that limited its female members to a narrow list of roles in congregational life. Women could run the community preschool, oversee and teach Sunday school, VBS and Awana, and organize potlucks and special events. Don’t get me wrong, these are all important ways to serve, but when I left for college and joined a different denomination, I began to see my heritage through a different lens. I wondered, were these few roles fulfilling to all women? Was every woman able to use her spiritual gifts? (And for that matter, was anyone encouraging the women to discover and use their spiritual gifts?) How many of the women realized that their gifts were better suited to roles other than the nurturing and teaching of children or event planning? And how did those women handle the tension between their gifts and the roles they were allowed to fill?
During the 9 to 5, the women I looked up to were nurses, bank VPs, teachers, attorneys, artists, sales reps and accountants. They were devoted followers of Christ, competent and respected leaders in the community and corporate world, educated, well-spoken, talented and creative, yet at church they were not permitted to lead any part of the worship service, serve communion, usher, receive the tithes and offerings or speak in any way from the stage or pulpit. The only exception was during our biannual missionary week when one of our many female missionaries would testify from the pulpit about the ministry she was doing abroad. No one ever spoke about the great contradiction we embodied by commissioning women missionaries to lead abroad even as we limited the mission of the women in our local churches.
The truth is that God calls women to a wide array of roles in the church and the world, roles that include, but are not limited to, the teaching of children and fellowship ministries. Many of us can testify that the Spirit has sent gifted women to competently and wisely lead our churches. And few of us would dispute that all Christians are equally charged to carry out the great commission. While not all women will be called to be pastors, every woman in our churches should regularly hear of her worth as a child of God and disciple of Christ. I believe that it’s the responsibility of pastors, elders and lay-leaders to ensure that the women and girls in our congregations are seen, valued and heard, nurtured in their gifts and call, and given opportunities to serve among us as their gifts direct – all to the glory of God. To our detriment, this does not always happen in our churches.
If you are looking for ways to encourage and better integrate women in the life and leadership of your congregation, here’s a shortlist of ideas.
- Connect to the heritage of women – You’ll only value the gifts of women more when you tap into the rich history of our contributions to the life of the church. Check out any number of church history books, but especially those from your own tradition that catalog prominent women in your history. In the ECC, we have this great book called The Unfolding Mystery of Yes: Women Who Were Forces for Change from www.covbooks.com. I’ve used many of these inspiring biographies as sermon illustrations and to frame meetings and events.
- Make women visible to your congregation – Sometimes a girl’s vision for her future is limited by what she sees. Churches can make a big impact on the lives of women by making sure the contribution of women is visible and affirmed. Did a woman do something significant behind the scenes? Thank her from the pulpit. During your services, invite women to share their testimonies, read the weekly scripture, lead communion or prayer, or give the benediction.
- Create mentorship pathways for girls and young women in your congregation – I’ve noticed that mentoring happens more naturally for males in the church because so many youth pastors and youth leaders are male. We must be intentional and strategic about coming alongside our girls and young women. How can we nurture their faith and help them discern their spiritual gifts and their unique call to live out the great commission? Whatever your discipleship strategy or system, there’s a vast amount of research and history that tells us that women grow best in relationship.
- Diversify your staff – For many churches, staff is one man or a group of men. Both your staff and your congregation would be enriched if you added a woman to your staff. If you anticipate a staff opening, expansion or reorganization, why not pursue one of the many gifted, competent, experienced and educated women clergy actively seeking positions in your denomination?
- Ask a woman to fill your pulpit – Every pastor takes the occasional vacation and needs someone to preach in their absence. Recruit a gifted lay-woman from your congregation, a female colleague, or a woman pastor from a neighboring church. My denomination provides a list of women available for pulpit supply: http://www.covchurch.org/resources/bge-preaching-list/. If your denomination doesn’t, maybe you can get one started!
- Supervise your staff consistently – As an advocate for women clergy, I hear many stories of struggle from my sisters. I know of churches that pay their male and female pastors differently even when responsibilities, education, experience level and hours are equal. Some male senior pastors weekly meet one on one with their male staff, but inconsistently meet with their female staff. I’ve had male supervisors call me “sweetie” while they addressed my male colleagues by their names or by “pastor.” While you may believe that women and men are equally called and gifted as pastors, you should also treat us as equals and as professionals. There may be ways in which bias has leaked into your practice as a supervisor. Noticing inconsistent habits is an important step in living and leading justly.
I’m sure there are many more ways to encourage and empower the women in our churches. I look forward to seeing your suggestions in the comments section!