Guest blogging elsewhere this week. I took a big swing with this one… Maybe I shouldn’t have done that the week right after Easter with tired-pastor-brain. Feel free to leave a comment here or there.
Let’s start with an exercise. Open a second tab on your browser, go to google, and type the words women’s ministry. Then click the ‘image’ tab. Welcome to the great Pink Sea, only to be rivaled by Julia Robert’s blush-and-bashful wedding in Pretty Woman.
Take a few minutes to sail down your screen. Notice the monochromatic backgrounds, headlines, and lettering. Did you catch all those hearts? What about the abundance of gerbera daisies? And the butterflies you’d find in a Disney sticker book? Oh, and the rose-shaded cross!
Dotting this sea are a few pictures of actual women. They’re usually huddled together holding mugs, holding hands along a sunset backdrop, or holding the Bible and laughing. I’m surprised to see a fair amount of racial and ethnic diversity in these pictures, but that’s where the diversity ends. All the women in these photos are clean, well-groomed, and they match in an eerie way. They’re all smiling big, happy smiles.
As a pastor, and particularly in my role as a pastor to women in a large congregation, I look at these “women’s ministry” images and scratch my head. How do these monochromatic designs represent the curious and sincere, struggling yet resolved, broken-but-being-restored disciples that I see around me each day?
I wonder too, how these images shape perceptions about ministry to women. Will a visitor to our websites see these banners, logos, and photos in all their pink smiling glory, and think — there’s the place for me!? Or will she feel (again) the need to be a certain type of woman, or to have it all together?
More importantly, how do these images shape perceptions about the ministry of women. Might these hearts and flowers water-down the vibrant gift that women are to the church? Might the Pink Sea limit our vision for the powerful impact that women have in the churches and communities across the globe?
Be honest. When you think of “women’s ministry,” do you imagine pastel fluff, or do you see something more dynamic?
As a pastor to women, these are the questions and concerns that constantly rattle around inside me. This keeps me up at night praying for wisdom. It keeps me thinking strategically and planning creatively. I take my job very seriously because women’s ministry is not fluff. In my world, women’s ministry is something substantive and strong. It’s something that brims with the power to transform.
Fundamentally, women’s ministry it’s about people who need God. Yes, the people I minister to happen to be female, but they may or may not like pink, or chocolate, or flowers. The women in our churches have lives of significance. They have demanding careers, complex relationships, and varied hobbies. They suffer loss and experience pain. They wrestle with big questions. They doubt. They accomplish great things. They fall down and crawl toward hope.
I know that God that can lift up the weary. God has the power to heal the broken. His Word is life and light to the doubting and confused. God is what women need. And my job as a pastor is to hang a neon sign above his inn and welcome every traveler.
And yes, we women might gather around a table with mugs of coffee and a pretty centerpiece, but we’re there to talk about real life — the sting of a friend’s betrayal, the excitement of love, the pain of miscarriage or divorce, the fear of failure, and the challenges and joy of leadership in its many forms. So for every picture you see on the internet of women smiling or laughing, you should also imagine them focused and serious, mopping up the tears and coffee they spilled when they shared about a new loss.
Ministry to women should unleash the power of God’s good news in a disheartening world. It should be about truth telling, authenticity, hospitality, and healing. Whether the venue is decorated or bare, women should able to come as they are, to tell their stories, to encounter God and learn from his Word.
The women I see in the church are far more complex and varied than the images and shades stereotypically assigned to them. The women I know are smart, capable, inquisitive, and intelligent. They are leaders and entrepreneurs, inventors and teachers, artists and engineers, managers and students. Some are rich and others poor. Some dress to impress, others wear only what is comfortable, and a few come to us in musty, tattered clothes because that’s what they have. All of these women come to the church looking for a place to belong. They stay because they discover that God is the source and sustainer of life.
I want women’s ministry to be so dynamic that it welcomes a CEO and a recovering addict, a stay-at-home mom and a pediatrician, an ivy-league professor and a woman with a GED. I want a ministry that makes room for mess. A place that’s a refuge from the grind of comparison that we women put ourselves through. A place where a woman wearing pink heels and red lipstick sits beside a woman with black combat boots and a bad dye-job, and sees a friend.
Bottom line? I just want women’s ministry to bring women together and point them to God. And then we get to stand back and watch God do BIG things, like forgive sin — and free women from addiction or perfectionism — and teach them to live as beloved and fully empowered disciples. Pink daisies are not the centerpiece of this ministry. God’s power is.
Moving to a new state and starting a new job usually drains most of my creative energy. I’ve been butting up against some writer’s block the past few months, but thankfully I was able to get some coherent thoughts on paper last week.
Every once and a while I guest blog elsewhere. Follow this link to my latest contribution to the Biblical Gender Equality blog sponsored my denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church.
Occasionally I guest blog elsewhere. Here’s my latest post for the Biblical Gender Equality Blog for the ECC — The Women Who Follow Jesus.
(This post was originally published by the Commission on Biblical Gender Equality Blog of the Evangelical Covenant Church. To see the original post and comments, go here.)
My friend John (not his real name) is the lead pastor of a small church. One day, as we talked ministry over coffee, John said, “Women aren’t gifted preachers.” His manner was as startling to me as his message. He spoke casually and with assurance, like this was an indisputable fact. I asked John how many women he’d heard preach in his life. He said three. One was during summer camp, the other two during chapel services at Bible college.
In 2011, a Covenant church hired me as their interim associate pastor. Preaching and teaching were part of the job description. A married couple in the church believed so strongly that women should not preach, that they left the church shortly after I was hired. They’d never heard my testimony, heard me preach or seen any of my gifts in action. All they needed to know was that the new pastor was a woman.
Many Christians form negative conclusions about women preaching with a simple reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Sincere, devoted followers of Jesus, some of them my family and friends, believe that women who preach are sinning. But for those of us who’ve been called to ministry, and for the men that advocate for us, it’s not that easy. We believe these seemingly prohibitive passages – like all scripture – must be examined, interpreted and applied under the light of the full gospel. We believe these verses must be reconciled with passages like Galatians 3 and Ephesians 2:14 and 4:16.
I think this debate often comes down to a matter of authority. I can’t speak for all women, but I certainly didn’t go to seminary, become a pastor or get ordained to get attention and status. Not a step of my spiritual journey has been motivated by the desire to have spiritual authority over others. I wanted to serve God, the church and the world in love. More than anything, I minister out of obedience to God.
If I’d known how difficult a life’s work it is to lead and serve the church, this would not have been my recurring prayer since childhood: God, my life is yours. Show me how you want me to serve you.
If I’d know that, as a female pastor, pain and persecution would more regularly come from my brothers and sisters in Christ than it would from unbelievers, I might not have had the courage to follow the call to ministry.
It’s this call that will not let me escape or quit or back down from the pulpit. God called me. God’s love compels me to preach. Sometimes I’m so in awe of the privilege and responsibility of preaching, that I feel like nothing I say could be enough. I wonder – who am I to pass on God’s story? (Really, who are any of us?) Then I remember that God gave me the gifts and talents needed to shepherd his people, and it all comes down to this – who am I to squander them?
As the children of God, we’ve been beautifully crafted in God’s image, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, joyfully adopted into one family, and commissioned to spread the gospel. Because of Jesus, I have a testimony that can encourage the broken-hearted. My testimony is just as critical as any of my brothers’. God called me to add my voice to the chorus of preachers around the world spreading the gospel.
When I preach, I’m usually trembling inside. It’s a quaking of both holy fear and abiding joy. My sermons spring from the joy of what Christ has done for me and for us all. As a woman, I don’t preach just because I can, because I’m entitled, or because I think I’m great. I preach because God is great.
I preach because of God and for God.
I preach because the gospel heals and I want to spread that medicine.
I preach to worship God and so that others might worship God.
I preach to proclaim God’s matchless glory.
I preach as surrender to God.
I think if you’re doing it right, preaching requires surrender. Surrender of ego, personal opinion, and your agenda for your congregation. To preach well we must first listen well, to the Spirit that is in us and in the text.
Preaching requires all that we are. In my experience as a congregant, the most powerful sermons always have personal stories. When preachers are vulnerable and share their stories with others, something incarnational happens; God takes a seed from one heart and sows it into another.
My experiences as a girl and as a woman are elemental parts of my testimony. After I preach, women often come up to me and tell me that the sermon connected with them in powerful ways, ways that the stories and experiences of a man could not. That is why I believe God has called women and men to preach, so that his gospel might penetrate every human heart.
If you believe that women aren’t gifted preachers, I invite you to listen to the sermons from Triennial XIV. Using a variety of styles, each of the featured speakers powerfully preached the gospel. Through these women, the Spirit brought healing, accountability and forgiveness to me and hundreds of others. I was challenged, inspired and empowered. Their sermons continue to impact my life.
Our sisters have the good news in them, news that can transform our souls.
Will we listen?
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!
Not long ago my father talked to a prominent pastor who also leads a seminary. The seminary’s branding is all about having a shepherd’s heart, encouraging students to emulate the Good Shepherd, Jesus. Somehow my father and this pastor came to the topic of women in ministry and the theology that separates egalitarians and complementarians. Dad shared some of the struggles I’ve encountered being a woman in ministry. The pastor responded with, “I don’t mind when people have [egalitarian] views, I just don’t like it when they get angry about it.”
When my father relayed the conversation, I asked him to repeat it several times. A few days later, I questioned him for exact wording. I didn’t want to make assumptions or emotional responses based upon them. When it was clear that this was the pastor’s actual statement, I let myself feel fully the disappointment and frustration that I had been holding back.
One of the most difficult things about being a female pastor is the lack of compassion I see among Christian men, especially pastors. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard men give these responses to the topic of women in ministry:
“This isn’t my issue.”
“This isn’t a primary theological issue.”
“This isn’t a salvation issue.”
“I don’t know why they get emotional about it.”
“I just don’t like it when they get angry about it.”
These sentences are usually followed by one of two responses. The speakers either shrug, frown slightly and politely turn the conversation to a different subject or they begin quoting isolated verses from scripture and very pointedly ask, “Well, what do you do with this verse?” The tone that is used unmistakably implies that a female pastor’s vocation can be nullified by theology that hinges on a single sentence from 1 Corinthians or Timothy.
This post is not a theological foundation for women in ministry. Instead, this is a plea to influential men in the church, to elders and leaders and pastors who believe women are NOT called to ministry in the same way as men. Will you please take three minutes to read this post in its entirety?
My plea begins with a question. As shepherds of God’s flock — as called, gifted and appointed leaders of the church — do you believe that empathy should be a part of your leadership?
We all probably know or have served under excellent leaders. In my opinion, the best leaders are those who are quick to listen and slow to offer their own opinion. Excellent leaders never use their opinion or beliefs as a weapon against another person.
The pastors I admire the most are those who solicit the stories and experiences of people different from themselves. They earn my respect because their actions reflect that of the Good Shepherd. Jesus was a leader who ushered angry, frustrated, misunderstood and hurting people — even his enemies — not onto the stage for a debate or between the ropes of a boxing ring but to a table where they could share a meal. Sitting face to face, breaking bread and sharing wine and stories, Jesus had ample space and time to listen well. Across a table he could watch their faces, the theater of human emotions. The ministry of Jesus was fearless engagement, patient listening and compassionate conversation.
Return with me to the topic of women in ministry and consider a few more questions. To disregard, to show apathy, to minimize or to go on the verbal offensive when one (or many) of your flock holds a different theological viewpoint from your own — are these the actions of a good shepherd? Is this showing empathy like Jesus? Unfortunately, what I have encountered, first as a faithful church-goer and later as a woman in ministry, very often falls far short of Jesus’ example.
From childhood until age 26, every pastor I encountered was male. I grew up in a wide-spread evangelical denomination whose global missionary work is noted in church history books. I went to a non-denominational Christian college and a trans-denominational Christian graduate school, both evangelical and highly respected by people across the theological spectrum. I earned a B.A. in Biblical Studies and a Master of Divinity. In these programs men were the majority among both students and professors. I now serve in a denomination that has been ordaining women since the 1970s but the local churches rarely hire pastors from the large pool of licensed and ordained female candidates. All that to say, I know what I’m talking about. I have a testimony about women in ministry and my testimony is true. My story and experiences parallel those of so many evangelical women in ministry, so I invite you to read the following as a trustworthy generalization.
Since childhood, I have seen and heard of the great work God is doing through female missionaries the world over. They are giving voice to the oppressed, rescuing women and children from sexual slavery, planting and strengthening churches and preaching the gospel. But when these women come home on furlough, many of them are not called pastor by the churches that support them financially. They can “share their testimony” on Sunday morning but they are not permitted to “preach.” They may lead a church in Africa or Asia or South America where the gospel is spreading like only good news can, but many denominations would never allow them to do so in the United States.
During seminary I interned at a small church. The leadership of this church gave me complete freedom to develop and lead a ministry to our young adults, a demographic which made up 70% of our congregation. During my second year, I was joined by another female and two males interns. On our orientation day, the pastor announced secondary responsibilities for each of us. The male interns were expected to preach once a semester. We females were expected to oversee the hospitality ministry, which meant preparing coffee and cinnamon buns, passing out welcome bags on Sundays, and organizing monthly potlucks. I assure you that these responsibilities had nothing to do with the spiritual gifts of the four individuals.
“Women in ministry” is a hot topic in colleges, seminaries and churches around the country, in many denominations. We’ve labeled this a controversy, a debate or an issue but it is much more significant than these labels. It’s more significant because it concerns flesh and blood people, women who, like you, are created in the image of God. These women make up half the church.
I imagine that you believe that women have vital spiritual gifts, given by God. You probably even believe that women are your co-heralds and co-agents of God’s mercy, love, justice and peace on earth. Have you ever considered what would happen if you told all the women in your congregation that because of their gender, they cannot use their gifts (no matter the gift) in or for the church? What would happen to the spirit of your congregation? The vibrancy of your mission? Your ability to impact your community? Your numbers?
Have you ever had someone walk up to you and tell you are sinning because you, a man, have preached from the Word of God?
Have you ever considered what it would feel like to have people in a church whisper about you and the scandal you have created by asking to preach the good news to a congregation you know and love and have faithfully served? Have you ever been made to feel like a Jezebel when you asked to share the message of hope to the depressed, to pass real peace to the world-weary, and speak truth to the thirsty? I have.
Men, you are absolutely right when you say that women in ministry is not your issue. It is our issue. It is not exclusively a male issue or a female issue, it is a church issue. This is an important topic for all people of God because once we were all sinners. At the same moment and by the same blood men and women were cleansed and wholly forgiven of their sin. We were adopted by God and now we are a family. We are one body, the body of Christ, and as members of this body we are all fully redeemed and equally essential to carry out God’s mission on earth.
Brothers in ministry, when you fail to engage in this conversation or you only want to debate egalitarians into a rhetorical corner, you make us feel like opponents or enemies rather than siblings, friends or even welcomed strangers. Facing either dismissiveness or aggressiveness, why should people be surprised when we get defensive or emotional in response?
When men say they don’t understand why we get emotional about this “issue” or don’t like it when we get angry, they shame us for our emotions. (This may not be the intention, but it is the effect.) But aren’t we all — women and men — emotional beings, created as such by God?
A wise man taught me that emotions are the windows of the soul. As a counselor I’ve learned that heightened emotions like anger and tears are flags that mark deeper fields to be mined. That is why I was discouraged and frustrated by the response of the prominent pastor from my initial story. Here again is another man who, though he is called pastor and respected as the shepherd of thousands of believers, fails to realize that his way of leading causes pain to so many.
I promise you brothers, that if you ask an angry or otherwise emotional woman about her emotions, if you patiently and gently dig a little deeper, you’ll inevitably unearth red-hot pain. For women in the church, pain is the natural result of being told or shown a hundred different ways since childhood that you are untrustworthy because you are female. Anger is an understandable and justified emotional response to being treated like the second-class saved.
The second-class saved. That is who we feel like when you affirm our gifts and our important role in the church and with the same mouth you say that because we are women we cannot preach, teach men or be pastors. It hurts. It’s confusing and contradictory. Theology which restricts women from any pro-gospel actions and the force with which you defend such theology sends a strong message that women are not really fully redeemed. There are few messages that are as painful to receive as this one.
Brothers, you may never believe what I believe about the calling of women to lead the church. You may never verbally affirm the excellent leadership of women in your congregation but will you listen to us?
Will you try to comprehend that your theology, how you present your theology and how you lead your church may cause pain to women in your congregation?
Will you consider life and theology from a perspective not your own?
Will you take the time to imagine what it is like to receive the gospel as one of the persecuted or oppressed rather than the privileged?
Will you sit at tables with us and ask us to share our stories?
Will you shepherd as Jesus did, with empathy?