the shape of leadership

The Woman in the Room

Working together in ministry should be normal, not weird

JoAnn Butrin on November 15, 2023

I started my medical missionary career as a young, single woman working in an African nation with a male-dominated culture. The local men often referred to me dismissively as “the child.”

At one point, a woman who had been on the mission field a long time took me aside and said, “You may feel devalued because of your gender. You can fight it, resist it, and complain about it, or you can determine to gain the respect of the church leaders.”

Taking her advice to heart, I steeled my resolve to work hard, serve faithfully, and fulfill what God had called me to do.

I thought I was making progress when I heard an older pastor pray, “Thank you, Lord, for sending these ladies here. Even though they are only women, they have hearts like men!”

It was supposed to be a high compliment. Nevertheless, the not-so-subtle assumption behind that sentiment was that men are superior. We were only women, after all.

We like to think such attitudes have nothing to do with American culture, but I’m not so sure. It may not be as overt, but we constantly hear that men are the natural leaders, the strong ones, those who belong in authority.

Over time, we might even start believing it. This is internalized patriarchy. Even as we talk about egalitarianism, harmful messages we have encountered in our families, churches, and communities continue ringing in our ears.

Within the Assemblies of God, we affirm men and women as equal in God’s sight, but we are still waiting for reality to catch up with our verbiage. Nearly 29% of U.S. AG credential holders are female. Of 10,438 lead pastors, only 662 are women.

Young women experiencing the call of God are looking for opportunities to step into ministry roles and receive pastoral mentoring. But not every church has normalized men and women working together. As a result, some called women will take their gifts and leadership potential elsewhere.


Making Space

Those early experiences on the mission field were my introduction to ministry as a woman. I later spent 17 years serving as the only female member of a ministry team. I also led another team of men.

Admittedly, it wasn’t always easy. Everyone had to learn and grow — including me. There were no instruction manuals, but we leaned on the Lord and into our individual and collective strengths.

Early on, there were times when I was defensive and felt a need to speak to every issue so others would take me seriously. But as I gained confidence, I found wiser ways of interacting with my colleagues.

Eventually, we came to see one another as partners in Christ’s mission and developed a great deal of mutual respect. What changed? For one thing, we normalized my presence in the room.

Since my recent retirement, I have been reflecting on lessons gleaned around those tables of leadership. I’d like to offer some advice to women who find themselves outnumbered as ministry leaders, as well as men who are occupying most of the seats.

Considering how long it has taken women to get into the room, on the platform, and around the table of leadership, we must not fail to steward those gains and create even more space so our daughters and granddaughters can say “yes” to God’s call.

It is incredibly important that we get this right. As the belief statement for the Network of Women Ministers says, “The image of God is best reflected and the Church of Jesus Christ is healthiest when both men and women are empowered to fulfill their calling at every level of ministerial leadership.”

We have the right theology and governance, believing God empowers and calls both men and women and affirming their right to occupy any position of leadership within the Church.

Yet as we look around, we see few women serving as lead pastors or organizational leaders. That raises an obvious question: Why are the wheels of progress moving so slowly?

In addition to cultural inequities affecting women everywhere from corporate boardrooms to hospital operating rooms, theological disputes over gender roles continue to hold back part of the Church.

Although the Assemblies of God has adopted an egalitarian stance, some of our churches remain functionally complementarian, blocking women from certain positions of ministry and leadership.

The intent of this article is not to lay out the biblical case behind our theology of women in ministry — something many others have faithfully and persuasively done — but to challenge leaders to examine our views and practices and identify gaps between what we say we believe and what we’re doing about it.

My desire is to see more women rising to leadership roles in ministry until the Church reflects the gender diversity and unity God intended.

Considering how long it has taken women to get into the room, on the platform, and around the table of leadership, we must not fail to steward those gains and create even more space so our daughters and granddaughters can say “yes” to God’s call.


What Women Can Do

Following are four things I counsel women in ministry to keep in mind.

1. Reject stereotypes. Most women have experienced firsthand the frustration of combatting stereotypes. So, we should be careful not to perpetuate them in any form.

When I entered my role as the only female on the team, I realized I had some preconceived notions about men. For example, I thought all men were analytical, unemotional, and even a bit sloppy. I eventually recognized these assumptions were not only erroneous but unfair.

Because I had bought into such stereotypes, I subconsciously assumed any struggle I had with my male co-workers were the result of gender differences. Sometimes gender dynamics played a role. Other times, my own biases were the main problem.

Identify and let go of any assumptions that might be keeping you from viewing and treating people as unique individuals rather than stereotypes.

2. Develop self-awareness. I strongly recommend women (and men) in leadership examine themselves using quality self-assessment tools.

When I finally did this, I learned I had a need for control and often reacted defensively. Recognizing these tendencies was the first step toward learning to work and communicate with greater emotional intelligence.

Mentors and therapists are valuable partners in this process. Mental health professionals can help with identifying triggers — circumstances that stimulate negative emotions — and managing responses.

3. Establish boundaries. Women often feel they must work twice as hard to get half as far as their male peers. Unfortunately, that makes us vulnerable to internal and external pressures to do and be all things. This is why thinking about boundaries is important.

Ask yourself, How much extra time am I willing to commit to my role? What am I being paid to do? Is everyone on the team sharing the load, or is it disproportionately falling to me?

Welcome and appreciate the diverse gifts, personalities, experiences, and perspectives God
brings to your team. Give women the freedom to be their authentic selves.

Every church leader should have a servant’s heart. However, serving does not mean becoming a doormat. Overworking to gain respect can have the opposite effect, keeping others from viewing us as equal team members.

Strive to do and be your best. But remember God called you to ministry, not perfection. The notion that good isn’t good enough leads to burnout for many ministers, especially women. Don’t put an impossible burden on yourself — or allow anyone else to do so.

4. Demonstrate godly strength. Most women who have risen to leadership in the Church have had to be strong. We’ve pushed past barriers and forged new paths to gain a place at the table.

Of course, not everyone will appreciate this quality.

In When Women Lead, author Carolyn Moore says, “If a woman acts like a leader — if she is assertive or aggressive in her style — she will not be as well-liked as her male colleagues. Yet if a woman leader behaves in more feminine ways — if she uses a softer tone of voice, demonstrates more feminine behavior, is less aggressive in meetings — she is less likely to be respected.”

The reality is you’ll never please the naysayers, so focus on pleasing God. Be strong in the Lord (Ephesians 6:10). Make Jesus your role model, growing in humility, peace, compassion, and grace. That’s the kind of leader God can use for His glory.


What Men Can Do

Following are four ways men can encourage and support women in ministry.

1. Welcome diversity. I’ve spoken with a number of men in leadership who thought they understood how to work with women — until they encountered a female colleague who didn’t fit their preconceived ideas of how women should look or behave.

It seems obvious, but not every woman will act and think exactly as your wife or mother does. Welcome and appreciate the diverse gifts, personalities, experiences, and perspectives God brings to your team. Give women the freedom to be their authentic selves.

Don’t expect a female co-worker to speak for all other women in your church or community, but do hear and value her input.

Get to know the women on your team as individuals. Openly acknowledge their unique contributions, calling out the leadership qualities you see. Sincere words of affirmation and encouragement can mean the world to someone who is feeling insecure about being the only woman in the room.

2. Listen attentively. I have often heard women on male-majority teams say, “I don’t feel like they really hear me,” or, “They just aren’t listening.”

Everyone deserves to feel heard. Use attentive body language to let team members know you are listening and interested in what they have to say. Ask follow-up questions to be sure you understand their comments correctly.

Men frequently dominate meeting discussions, primarily because they tend to outnumber the women in the room and often hold the positions of power.

Be sure the female voices at the table are being heard. Some women I know have been talked over so many times they no longer try to articulate their ideas or perspectives. This represents missed opportunities — not just for them, but for everyone involved.

3. Practice respect. Don’t tell jokes or humorous stories that portray women in a negative light.

Normalize men and women working together rather than treating it as something strange. Constantly pointing out that a female co-worker is the only woman on the team may leave her feeling isolated and self-conscious.

Maintain appropriate boundaries when it comes to physical touch. Even when praying, ask permission before touching a woman.

An occasional friendly elbow nudge or back slap between male co-workers may not be a big deal in some settings, but no touch is the best approach when working with women.

We must lean into the privilege of working and ministering together as called
men and women.

4. Champion women. If you report to a woman, let everyone know what a great leader she is.

If you are leading or mentoring women, open doors of opportunity for them. Help them develop their leadership skills. Invite them to preach. Commend them to other leaders. Even small gestures can make a big difference.

Call out inequality and poor treatment. If a male colleague says something disparaging or inappropriate about a woman, speak up and call it out.


Life Stages

Each life stage brings benefits and challenges for those in ministry. The best way to support a team member at any given time may depend on his or her unique circumstances.

Young people just starting their careers often bring energy, passion and big dreams. Especially if they are single, they may have a bit more time to devote to ministry, and their enthusiasm can inspire others.

Of course, young adults still have a lot to learn about life and leadership. With that development often comes greater maturity, confidence, and reliance on God. Mentoring will help them reach these benchmarks. Just be sure you don’t overlook the women on your team when identifying and investing in future leaders.

Those with young kids need understanding and patience from leaders. Managing time and negotiating childcare issues can be a constant challenge. This is especially true for women, who often bear a disproportionate share of caregiving and domestic duties, regardless of their career status.

Being a wife and mom while leading in ministry is something I never experienced, but I greatly admire the many women I know who manage these roles with excellence. Those serving around them should extend ample measures of grace and practical help.

The empty nest phase can bring fresh infusions of time and energy. However, many middle-aged people soon find their aging parents needing more time and attention. Again, the caregiving often falls to women.

Leaders in this situation need care and support, especially when there are gaps or absences from work. Generous leave policies and flexible work arrangements make it easier for people to navigate life’s challenges at any age or life stage.

As retirement draws near, leaders may wonder what their contribution will be when they no longer have a title or position.

I just made that transition and worked through such questions. I read The Gift of Years by Joan Chittister, who inspired me to believe the later years can be the best. Chittister points out that the experiences we gain should prepare us for service and fulfillment beyond the workplace.

Regardless of their circumstances or stages, help all your team members reach their potential in life and ministry.


Come Together

We must lean into the privilege of working and ministering together as called men and women.

Men, consider and seek out women to fill vacant pastoral, board, and organizational positions.

Women, make sure your resumes are in district/network offices. (I’ve heard district leaders say they don’t have any resumes from women on file.)

Let’s normalize men and women working together. Developing diverse teams requires intentionality, but it is worth the effort. The best chance we have of reaching the world for Christ is by coming together to proclaim the good news to all people!


This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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