Creating Positive Change for Women to Lead
What every church leader can do
You have really nice birthing hips.”
That was my introduction to ministry leadership as a young woman. I had recently moved across the country for my first job after college and was volunteering to lead the nametag table for my church’s singles ministry picnic. I was energetic, naïve, hopeful and ready to share Jesus with everyone I met. The 45-year-old divorcee’s creepy comment took me completely by surprise.
I had no idea what to do. Was he joking? Did I somehow send a wrong signal? What is the right way to respond to this? I awkwardly tried to laugh it off in the moment, but I’ve never forgotten how suddenly out of place and vulnerable I felt.
Thankfully, I had some great leaders who came beside me, rolled their eyes with me, and helped me discover other ministry experiences that were the exact opposite — affirming, uplifting and a whole lot of fun. Had they not, I am pretty sure the “birthing hips” guy and a handful of other unfortunate encounters would have derailed my passion for serving in ministry and eroded my trust in the people who make up the Church.
Today, as a church consultant and an executive coach, I spend a lot of time helping church leaders equip and empower women. Opportunities to discuss this controversial topic came up whenever I taught at conferences and leadership training events. More and more pastors began asking me how they could best develop the women on their teams. I could tell they were genuine in their desire, but as we discussed what they were already doing, it was clear their efforts weren’t always helpful.
I feel great compassion for pastors who want to honor God in leading and developing all their people well. They often encounter challenges that are unexpected and confusing. Many are leading in congregations and cultures with built-in biases that can be difficult to identify and overcome.
The good news is there are things every church leader can do to create positive change.
Be Aware of Sticky Floors
You’ve likely heard of glass ceilings, those invisible barriers women and minorities must overcome to advance in the ranks of leadership. While it’s important to identify and break down these organizational and systemic barriers, the reality is many women also battle “sticky floors.” These are culturally conditioned mindsets and habits that can hold them back from seeking opportunities, sharing viewpoints or stepping into leadership.
I once accepted an invitation to participate in a meeting of executive pastors of some of the largest and most influential multisite churches in the world. Though it was an incredible opportunity, I found myself falling into some classic sticky floor tendencies. I was cautious about speaking up in any of the formal conversations. I even slid notes to my pastor so he could add my thoughts to the dialogue because I thought I didn’t belong in that prestigious room of leaders and feared my perspective couldn’t stand on its own.
When there was a lull between sessions, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, so I started picking up dirty plates and empty cups instead of joining the conversations the men were having around me. I worried about being away from my family for a night and wondered whether it was worth it as I battled the inner perfectionism that made me self-conscious the entire time.
I later discovered I actually had as much multisite experience as the other leaders in the room. Those notes I passed to my pastor ended up being influential insights. And those intimidating male executive pastors were not only comfortable with me being in the room but have since become some of my biggest champions.
The insecurities I felt in that executive meeting are common among women who serve in male-dominated environments or who grew up without many female ministry role models. It is helpful for you, as their leader, to learn about these tendencies so you can recognize them when they surface, and encourage the women on your team to overcome them. Your support can go a long way toward helping them break free from those sticky floors.
Explain Your Theology Often
Communicate your beliefs and practices about women in leadership — and do it often. Don’t assume that because the Assemblies of God ordains women, or because you have women on your team, everyone on your staff and in your congregation fully understands your position.
As their leader, you must fill the gap between what your theology prescribes and what the women in your church actually believe they are capable of contributing.
Some members may have come from more limiting church or family environments. You may be surprised to learn that what you think is common knowledge is hazy on the front lines of day-to-day ministry, especially if you serve in an area of the country where assumed gender roles and biases are more prevalent.
Failing to talk about your beliefs on a regular basis could mean missing out on a lot of leadership potential.
I remember talking with Sarah, who leads the greeter team at her church. Sarah gathers the group for a quick team huddle each Sunday before service, but she often feels conflicted about how to lead this meeting.
Although Sarah sees women leading in her church, she isn’t sure what her church believes, and her conservative upbringing makes her tentative. Sarah also senses pressure from the men on her team to not be too strong or direct in her leadership. This makes Sarah wonder whether she should pray for the team out loud or whether it would be better to ask one of the men to do it instead.
Sarah wants to be in line with her church’s beliefs and win the respect of the other volunteers, but she frequently feels awkward and fearful. She doesn’t want to do something wrong. Yet Sarah knows she’s supposed to be leading them!
Aligning your church’s views with your practices will free leaders like Sarah to represent those beliefs well and lead with confidence.
Protect and Engage Women
The Church is not immune to sexual immorality, infidelity and harassment. Sadly, we see the scandals in the headlines. Because of this, we need ministry and leadership practices that protect women, the integrity of our leaders, and the reputation of our churches.
When you take time to listen, you provide validation and elevate women as leaders.
However, many common church practices tend to limit women’s access to important leadership opportunities, mentoring relationships and recognition from supervisors. This also sends the hidden message that women are temptations to be feared and avoided, rather than sisters in Christ. While these are unintentional consequences, we can’t overlook such realities if we want to do a better job of developing female leaders.
I suggest the answer lies in finding new ways to navigate our current culture. Guardrails churches may have relied on in the past, such as not permitting men and women to be alone together, don’t address our 24-hour connectivity and the digital access people have to one another today. And frankly, in a culture of changing sexual norms, such policies also overlook the fact that it may no longer be “above reproach” for a male senior pastor to travel alone with a young male seminary intern.
We have to consider better options that are inclusive of both genders and offer protection for all.
For example, although it is a common mentoring practice to take along a younger staff member when making a hospital visit or attending a conference, it is even more helpful to expand this practice by taking two people with you. This could be two men, two women, or a man and a woman. This adds a measure of safety by taking away the intimacy of one-on-one exclusive connections. It also gives women access to mentoring and training formerly closed to them because of gender-specific boundaries.
The goal should be to develop female leaders while keeping our churches healthy.
When we are both protective and inclusive, our personal leadership and our churches will be stronger for it.
Bridge the Diversity Threshold
The best ideas in the world cannot overpower culture, even if people really want to see change. We have to shift the culture before plans and strategies can take root and produce fruit. We do this when we bridge the gap between what we believe and what our culture is creating.
Symbols often communicate more effectively than words alone. The intentional use of symbols can influence and change a church’s culture. For example, adding a female to the senior leadership team is a strong symbol of inclusiveness.
However, there can also be unintentional symbols, such as having no women on the senior leadership team. People will assume women are not welcome to serve as leaders if they don’t see any on the team — regardless of the church’s theology.
One of the best ways to remedy this is by being intentional to add qualified, competent female leaders to your teams. Research suggests diversity has a threshold of approximately 30% to be effective. In other words, if you have 10 ministry leaders on a team, three to four of them should be female to be effective at gender diversity. If there are 52 sermons a year, at least 15 should be taught by, or involve, a woman. If you are interviewing candidates for an open staff position, at least 30% of the candidates should be women.
Many churches I work with fully support women in all levels of ministry leadership. Yet when they look at the concrete metrics of their leadership pipelines, pastoral recruitment practices, and preaching platforms, they are often underrepresenting female leadership. It’s not intentional, but it is reality. However, it is a reality we can change. When we start tracking our efforts, it’s easy to see whether we are making progress.
Seek to understand the perspectives of the women in your church by taking time to have conversations with them as individuals. Ask them about their stories and experiences, and then do your best to listen without defending, filtering or offering quick fixes. Use one or more of the following questions to start the conversation:
- What is it like being a female leader at our church?
- Have you ever tried to lead anything at our church?
- If not, why? If so, how did it go?
- What opportunities do you think are available to you?
- What roadblocks have you come up against when you’ve tried to lead?
- How does your own internal thinking impact your leadership?
- How can we, as pastors and church leaders, support you in your leadership?
So many women feel alone in the biases they face and the sticky floors in which they get stuck. The first and best gift you can offer women is asking questions and listening to their experiences. Giving women an opportunity to process the challenges they’ve faced demonstrates your compassion for their unique perspectives. It will also help clear up any misunderstandings or areas that need realignment within your church culture.
For most women, these conversations aren’t tightly hinged on hopes for pay raises and title changes — though these are often deserved! But women do want to know they aren’t struggling alone, unseen, abandoned or unappreciated. When you take time to listen, you provide validation and elevate women as leaders. You also gain priceless insight into how you can better lead your church to be inclusive of everyone’s gifts and contributions.
In my book, Developing Female Leaders, I address eight best practices for developing female leaders. Since its release, I’ve seen positive changes and heard many encouraging stories.
One senior pastor who read the book immediately called his board members and asked them to read it and commit to an honest conversation with him about the material. When the board met, they agreed to increase the pay for women on staff who were making less than men in comparable roles.
Another group of board members apologized to female staff members for being so ignorant of the challenges they face. They committed to work together toward eliminating bias from their culture.
I’m so encouraged by the leaders who are jumping in to this conversation and really working to make sure they are living out their beliefs in a helpful way.
There is still much to do. But we will continue to move in a positive direction as leaders rise up, embrace the sometimes awkward conversations, and do the hard work of leading change within their cultures. Together, we can identify roadblocks, open up dialogue, create solutions and become more intentional about developing everyone God calls to our churches.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of Influence magazine.