I hadn’t even talked to anyone yet. There were just a few brief emails to present the process, plus what felt like a lot of pre-interview forms to fill out.
On my third set of forms, I saw it: Briefly describe your position on women in ministry. There was a small, empty box waiting for my answer.
Last January, I applied for a ministry position at a church which I knew had a history of supporting women and men equally in all ministry functions. What I didn’t know was how clear that egalitarian support would come through in the hiring process. The question above was the first of several places addressing a candidate’s perspective on gender.
They also asked about it in my first interview. Despite having read my written response articulating my support for egalitarianism (including mentioning that I write for The Junia Project) I had to say the words myself.
After a few more interviews (there were 10 total), they sent me position papers about their key positions. One was a statement of several paragraphs about their belief in the equal gifting and functions for women and men in the local church.
In the end I was offered the job. The HR rep sent my information about the 403b, health insurance, and the church’s core values for me to review before my first day. It included this note:
STAFF GUIDELINES: To view our current Staff Guidelines, open the attached PDF. Please be sure to pay special attention the following sections: Women in Ministry, Grievance Procedure, Sexual Harassment/Respect at Work, Conflict Resolution.
Before I set foot on the job, there had been at least four points where the church made it crystal clear that they not only supported gender equality in leadership,they expected their staff to do the same.
To say it felt different than my previous experience is an understatement.
For example, one church told me they absolutely supported women in leadership, just not in the office of elder. Since the Senior Pastor is the only staff elder, that position must also be male. But otherwise, they had “lots of women” in key roles, leading teams, and on the platform on the weekend.
Once inside, the reality of the culture was that one woman on a staff of 60 had some leadership influence but was shouldering several burdens because of it. She sometimes gave announcements. Women never preached. One woman shared the job description of a male colleague, with the only difference being that her scope was local and his was international. She was paid half what he was.
Another church bragged about their egalitarian position, even pointing to their new denominational alignment as a sign of their commitment to having both genders empowered to lead and teach. That was true.
It was also true that one of their pastors, a staunch, vocal complementarian, had influence over most of the adult ministries. He had never worked with women who could lead, and micro-aggressions against them were commonplace. He oversaw premarital counseling and only gave out the Driscolls’ book. The senior pastor saw these things but did not consider them to be a big deal, saying that the young man knew where the church stood.
Pastors, search committees, and hiring managers in churches that support the full inclusion of women have both an opportunity and responsibility to vet candidates on their position on gender. As they do so, there are several things to keep in mind:
Don’t make assumptions about a job applicant’s position.
A woman applying for a church role is not necessarily egalitarian just because she’s female. An applicant who has served in an “egalitarian” church before does not necessarily agree with your church position on women. Instead…
Ask candidates to define their position in their own words.
Many churches tell applicants where they stand, and then ask them if they are ok with it. It’s very easy for someone to say they’ll be fine, but once they join the team they are anything but. For that matter…
A response like “I’m fine with it” should not be good enough.
If the church is fully supportive of gender equality, new staff should be as well. While there are certainly topics that church staff can disagree on, this is one where unity in advocacy is particularly important.
YOUR TURN: If you have been involved in a staff search for an egalitarian community, how do you engage with applicants on this issue? Do you have advice for others who are hiring?
Click here for a Spanish translation of this article.
MEREDITH MILLER is Curriculum Director for children’s ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, Barrington, IL. She recently worked with Fuller Youth Institute & Compassion International to develop an at-home experience to help families connect with God’s heart for the global family. Meredith, Curtis, and Riley enjoy exploring the Chicagoland area. She holds an M.Div. from Fuller Seminary. meredithannemiller.com