I am a part of a Christian tradition that has ordained women as elders since its inception during the American Holiness movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The first church in which I ever served as a pastor was founded by a female circuit rider who planted churches across west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The church’s second pastor was also a woman. That church has had nearly 90 years of fruitful ministry, producing numerous pastors, pastor’s spouses, missionaries and dedicated lay people. It has a long and rich history of serving the community in significant ways. I couldn’t be more proud.
But there’s a shadow side to this story. While numerous women filled the roles of pastor and church planter in those early years, those numbers began to decline significantly over the decades, dropping to only 3% of the total number of ordained elders at the lowest point. Our polity said we supported women in ministry, but our practice did not.
Even now, with the percentage of women in vocational ministry roles on a slow rise in our denomination (33.7% of newly ordained ministers in 2017; about 20% of total ministers), many of our leaders are still smiling and nodding when it comes to supporting women in leadership within the church, but failing to actually put it into practice.
This problem is not isolated to one denomination. It is a common story in many traditions that claim to officially ordain women. There are at least three reasons these denominations are falling short:
- Some men and women don’t yet have an imagination for a district or regional group of churches to be led by a woman, a board chaired by a woman, or even a pulpit filled primarily by a woman.
- Many of our leaders don’t want to do the humbling and challenging work of creating space at the table for both genders.
- Others don’t know where to begin. They are unsure if their actions are helping or hurting their sisters in Christ. And, they don’t know how to begin to take strategic steps to creating space for women in ministry.
I am encouraged, however, as I see so many people want change. There are practical ways to combat this systemic problem that crosses cultural and geographical boundaries. Together, we can advocate for women in ministry and women in leadership. By doing so, we can strengthen the church and fulfill the mission of God for the Church.
These 12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry are not all-inclusive, and while these suggestions are largely meant for those in leadership, they can apply to anyone; lay or clergy, male or female, young or old. It is my hope that they help us move forward into a vision of shared leadership in the Church!
12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry
1. Call Her Pastor—If she fulfills the requirements or holds an office of ministry, then call her Pastor. Even in the most casual settings, we tend to use the title of “Pastor” to refer to male pastors, but we’re often guilty of using ‘Ms.’ or no title at all for women in similar roles. Failing to call women by their proper titles devalues their calls and demeans their contributions. Publicly calling a woman “Pastor” creates an understanding in the imaginations of everyone – from the oldest man to the youngest girl – that women can be pastors!
2. Publicly Affirm Her —Research shows that women are far less likely than men to claim affirmation for themselves. Women are socially trained to downplay their own value. We can level the playing field by intentionally and publicly affirming the roles that women play. We when do this, we build the social capital of the women around us, and bring attention to the contributions that women are already making.
3. Nominate Her—If your board does not have an equal representation of men and women, begin to shift the tide by nominating women. Women cannot be elected if they aren’t on the ballot. Instead of placing two men on the ballot or a man and a woman for a given position, consider offering two women as options. Qualified candidates are out there. And if you struggle to find some, then begin by mentoring them up and coming women in your congregation. This type of action is critical to initiating change in the gender disparity on leadership boards.
4. Appoint Her—When a board or leadership position is vacated mid-term, appoint a woman as a replacement until she can be officially voted for at the end of the term. This gives your congregation a chance to see a woman lead and begin to adjust to the idea.
5. Make Room for Her—If you glance around your board room or over your preaching calendar and notice that women are not well-represented in important places, then it may be time to make room by moving over or stepping aside. Sometimes the greatest sign of a good leader is a willingness to give others the room to lead.
6. Put Her in the Pulpit—Fill the pulpit or the platform with women. If you find yourself in a position to influence who preaches and teaches publicly, then use every opportunity to provide space for women to fill those roles. Don’t reserve those opportunities for when you’re out of town on a holiday weekend and need a warm body to fill-in. Instead, begin to offer women the first and best of the schedule—Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, or a mixed-gender district gathering of pastors and leaders. Create frequent and intentional opportunities. Traditionally, women are granted those opportunities far less frequently than men. Yet, when given the chance to hone their skills and utilize their gifts, women are equally as dynamic and powerful preachers. What’s more, women bring an essential voice and perspective to the community that is otherwise missed altogether.
7. Listen to Her—When a female leader from within your organization speaks up, validate her opinion, her boldness, and her ideas. Remember that in a room full of men or a structure dominated by men, it often takes significant courage for women to share ideas. Lean in. Listen to the vision and ideas God has given her. Make sure she knows she is safe, supported, heard, and valued.
8. Celebrate Her Accomplishments—Did a woman represent your organization as a part of a lecture series? Is a woman your organization’s highest achiever in her studies? Voice public acclamation of these things! Our cultures assume and expect this type of accomplishment from men. In order to reshape the imaginations of leaders and develop the imaginations of future generations, men in particular need to learn to vocally highlight women’s accomplishments.
9. Stand up for Her— When people use a condescending and demeaning tone toward
women, call them out. It’s perfectly acceptable to say kindly but firmly, “I’m sorry. That type of
conversation doesn’t represent who we are.” Or to female colleagues when necessary, “You
don’t deserve to be spoken to that way. I appreciate you and your leadership. You are valuable.”
For every voice of affirmation a woman hears, remember she has likely heard 10 voices of
10. Seek Her Out—Perhaps there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of well-qualified female candidates. Don’t be easily dissuaded. Seek them out. Talk to colleagues. Spread the word. Women are not often waiving their resumes from the pews like white hankies, but they are there. Highly educated, smart, strong, well-spoken and capable leaders are sitting in the shadows of church leadership longing for the opportunity to utilize the gifts and fulfill the call God has given them. You may have to ask them more than once, but the women who feel a call will answer.
11. Use Your Position for Her Benefit—If you are a male, you sit in a position of power. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been in charge of anything in your life. If you find yourself in a room of mixed genders, your voice will be among the loudest, your position among the most influential. This is the reality of the 21 st century world. Listen first. Speak last. Serve as an advocate for your sisters in Christ by building them up to others and putting them in positions of influence.
If you are a female in leadership, use your position to encourage and empower other women. Posture yourself as an advocate, a cheerleader, and a champion for other women.
12. Lean into the Discomfort—As there is a shift toward gender-equality in leadership, there might be some moments when things feel different, even uncomfortable. Age-old habits and norms might be challenged. Perhaps it won’t be business as usual. That’s o.k.
Respectfully articulate the discomfort, lean into the change, and ask for grace in the process. Take time to celebrate the changes you observe and create space for personal and systemic transformation.
The key to faithfully walking out the biblical image of gender equality is to seek out opportunities to take practical, purposeful steps in that direction at every turn. It takes intentional effort, as does everything about partnering with God in the work of restored creation.
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