“If we have exceptional female pastors to point to, other churches will consider hiring a female pastor.”
This phrase continues to be repeated by those in leadership when asked how local churches might be encouraged to be more open to having a female pastor. At first observation this phrase seems supportive and maybe even a little bit like common sense. If you see an exceptional pastor, why wouldn’t you want that for yourself and your church?
Only, what happens when a female pastor is not exceptional?
Should a woman’s merits, talent, gifts, or even her chemistry with a specific congregation be used as a plumb line by which all other women in ministry are measured? Are the only women capable of being great pastors those viewed as “exceptional”?
The answer should be a resounding no.
Maybe the biggest problem with this thinking is that it lays an unnecessary burden on an already burdened vocation. Added to reading, writing, preaching, balancing budgets, fixing clogged toilets, counseling church members, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, is a glaring “oh, and do all of that exceptionally for the sake of women in ministry everywhere!”
It is an impossible standard. No one is good at everything – let alone exceptional.
While one female pastor might be an exceptional preacher, she might not be an exceptional caregiver. Where one pastor might be a great administrator, she might not be a great counselor. We are all gifted differently, and to expect one person to be exceptional in all areas, is not only unfair, it is counter to the illustrations of the Church we see in scripture.
Scripture is clear, we are all gifted differently. We should not be envious of the gifts of others, but use the gifts we have for the kingdom of God. If we expect one woman to be exceptional at all things, we are robbing the church of one of its greatest messages; that it takes all of us, working together, to illustrate the kingdom of God to the world.
Promising a church an exceptional pastor sets them up to not only miss out on a wonderful pastor, but to miss out on using their own gifts and talents for the kingdom.
Not only can one woman not be good at everything, everyone has bad days. You are sick, your kids are sick, your dog is sick. The sound system fizzles out. A congregant says “I need to talk to you, Pastor” when you first walk into the building, and it’s the day leadership is there to check in on you.
Just because one woman has a bad day does not mean every day is bad, or that women are not great at pastoring. It doesn’t even mean she’s bad at pastoring. One woman’s bad day (or year, or decade for that matter), should not define every other woman’s ministry.
Holding exceptionality as the standard by which every female pastor is judged leaves a very small window for women to climb through, leaving many others behind. Not only is this a high standard that many feel incapable of reaching, this is a standard completely subjective to the people who are placing it as a standard.
Exceptionality means different things to different people. The problem with defining exceptional in the context of church is that in recent years it has tended to mean the pastors with the biggest ministries, the best preaching, or the most charismatic personalities. In a faith tradition where few women are leading, this is an impossible standard. It is difficult to point to the exceptional preaching skills of a woman, if she is not placed in places to be heard in the first place.
This high standard leaves many, if not most, women feeling inadequate or ill equipped, and leaves so many burdened on Sunday morning, as they try on the twentieth outfit in the mirror ensuring perfection, thinking “maybe this isn’t really what I’m called to.” Or trying to balance too many things, and when things fall apart, being used as an example for “why we won’t hire a woman again.”
In my first full time ministry position I was told “we really wanted a man, but now that we know you, you are definitely an exception.” The thought was meant to be a compliment, but it did not feel like one. Why was I an exception? There were plenty of women in ministry as gifted as I am, if not more so, who would have been tremendous in any of the positions I have held throughout the years. Holding me up as the exception did not elevate me; it lowered others. That’s what exceptionality does more often than not. Everyone loses when we use “exceptional” as the plumb line for measurement.
It isn’t that there aren’t exceptional female pastors (I know many), it’s that our definition of exceptional is far above what most human beings can be. Pastors aren’t exceptional because they lead the biggest churches, preach the best sermons, or have charismatic personalities. If that is the measure, we all lose. If that is the standard, women will never be placed in bigger churches. One must jump through many hurdles in order to pastor a big church, and most women are getting lapped seven-fold by the men who get those opportunities before them.
The plumb line for measurement shouldn’t be this rigid view of “exceptional” but rather “look at these called, gifted, and faithful women.”
The stories we share shouldn’t always be ones of exception, the few who were able to jump over hurdles and climb through small windows to somehow make it to the top beyond all odds. We should be sharing stories of female pastors who stand up in the midst of adversity to preach with love in their hearts. We need to seek out and elevate women who have been in ministry for years, who have never preached in front of thousands, but who week after week preach to their faithful few.
The narrative has to change. The stories should sound different than exception, they should sound gracefully and beautifully ordinary.
We should start sharing the stories of women bailing out flooded basements until the early hours of Sunday morning. The stories of women who weep at bedsides of beloved congregants as they pass from this world. The stories of women answering phone calls at 2 in the morning, visiting jail cells and sterile hospital rooms. The stories of women who are in so many ways inadequate and unexceptional, but still reflect the greatness and grace of God to those around them.
Maybe holding up faithful instead of exceptional will relieve some of the burden. If nothing else it illustrates a much better picture of our calling. It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where we were never called to be exceptional, but faithful. It shows churches the type of pastor they need, and the type of church they can be – a faithful one.
At the end of life, when we stand before Jesus, it is not exceptionality that we will be applauded for but faithfulness, as he says “well done, good and faithful servants.” It’s not the pastors with the best sermons or the ones who juggled the most programming who will be the most esteemed in the kingdom of God. It is those who serve without looking for any esteem at all. Those who are last. Those who are faithful.
So maybe instead of pointing to “exceptional women”, we point to an exceptional God and the incredibly faithful women and men who get to serve God as pastors.
I may never be exceptional, but I hope and pray that I am, and will continue to be, faithful.
MORE ON THIS TOPIC: In the excellent book Dare Might Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women Halee Gray Scott writes about how this idea of “the exceptional woman” impacts all women in leadership. See a summary of the chapter here: The Myth of the Exceptional Woman.