A Place for All Women in the Church?

Heather Penny


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a place for women in the church

a place for women in the church

I recently turned 43, and the 40s bring a sense of clarity that eludes us in our 20s and 30s (I’ll probably say something like this in my 50s as well).

Lately, I’m realizing the impact of the debate about the full inclusion of women in the church on my own journey.

Growing up as a pastor’s kid (PK), I was taught the importance of the church and the authority it held.  I worked hard to “get it right”, take theology classes, and submit to church culture.  And I waited for the church to ‘designate me and qualify me’ in areas that aligned with my leadership strengths.

A defining moment came when I interviewed for a youth pastor’s position in my 20s and was told that I was perfect for the job, but would never be hired because I was a woman.

Unfortunately, I allowed this to shape my career path as I held myself responsible for overreaching my appropriate gender role, and I carried the shame of this experience into vocational choices for the next couple of decades.

I turned to ‘women-friendly’ vocations where I could advance and receive the permission I craved to be who I was created to be.  However, I was still waiting to be allowed to lead and teach in the church.  As I waited, I struggled with intense emotions of frustration, depression, and anger.

Was this a cruel joke?  Did I have the gifts of leadership and teaching just to keep being told I couldn’t use them?  Why did I have to keep waiting as my male peers were given opportunities to advance?

And then it hit me…I was giving my destiny away. I was handing my power over to others to define who I was and who I could be.

The real issue shifted from something external to something internal.  From theological constructs of churches opposed to equity, to my no longer allowing others to define my destiny.  Owning my sense of destiny and developing the courage required to move more fully into my life became my new focus.

My paradigm shifted from trying to convince people I was equipped and capable to lead, to realizing that I had already been divinely designated and qualified by God.  Ultimately, I realized that we are all free to explore our strengths without apology and without human permission, but with a posture of confidence, clarity, hope, and optimism.

What I realized in the process was that the church is still asking questions about women that I’ve already asked and answered.  

I’ve observed that because the church is still discussing the question of “Should women lead?”, many women are ‘stuck’ in their developmental journeys.  Although I now live and work in circles that focus on healthy inspiring questions about the development of women, out of love for the church and the important role it plays in our world, my gaze continues to wander back.

I long for the church to become more relevant to a woman’s journey…and to ask better questions. Questions like “How can we empower all believers with leadership strengths?”

In my coaching practice, I ask men and women:

  • Who are you created to be?
  • How are you exploring your voice to offer it well?
  • What has been holding you back from moving fully into your destiny?
  • How do you want to enter into your story?
  • What story are you offering?
  • How do you want to build on your strengths?

These inspirational conversations offer hope not only to our personal journeys, but also to our world.  Ultimately, with better questions come better answers.

I hold an optimism that the church can be more relevant to the development of women…with a better understanding of scripture and an increased focus on addressing humanity’s need to be valued, recognized, challenged, empowered, and encouraged, regardless of gender.

And isn’t this what we all want? 

With this hope, I anticipate women moving forward with clarity and confidence as they begin to understand the importance of nobly taking their place in this world with the unique strengths and sensitivities women can offer.

We all have experiences that influence whether or not we feel welcome in the Church; what’s your story? Is there anything holding you back from moving fully into God’s calling on your life? 

Photo credit: WebStockPro. Used with permission.

Heather Penny

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  • Thank you Heather for your article.
    I am currently in leadership at a fast pace growing Non-denominational church. I am a licensed pastor, a children’s pastor, but will not be allowed to be ordained, nor an elder. There are acknowledged Elder wives, but they are not a part of the leadership where decisions of the church are made. I asked why they didn’t participate in the Elder’s meeting and was told, “they would bog down the meetings with too many questions and would want to discuss details.”
    I am the only female pastor out of 12, so I should feel privileged to be a part of this dynamic team. I was recently told that the other Children’s pastor will be promoted over me and would be my supervisor someday soon. I have been serving for over 12 years and he 3. I’ve helped the ministry grow from just a few kids each weekend to now hundreds of kids, with over 300 volunteers. Started a preschool and it has been successful and growing. When I asked why he was chosen over me.the reply was I should not question the authority over me and basically only men can be at the senior level of the church.The other Children’s pastor is good with the kids, he just has a hard time keeping leaders for very long, and releasing people into leadership roles.
    I am discouraged and sad that I have been a part of this team, yet not really a part of the team. I know I have been called to lead and thought I had done well; until just recently. Now I have been sad and been retreating into myself. I have tried talking to one of the pastors (my current supervisor), the discussions have been about the lack of communication, being overlooked or ignored. I was told, “you need to ask people more questions and make sure I stay in contact with the team, try to connect with them better.” (I find this ironic, since if I don’t know about a situation, how am I to ask about it-and the fact due to the growing staff my office was given away to another pastor (male), and I work from home now (considered a trusted privilege)- I end up giving apologies to him for pointing this out and leaving ashamed of my self for thinking too highly of myself. I have tried for years to connect with them and some of the pastors will talk with me briefly, but only if I ask them questions about their interests or families. It is a rare thing if any of them ask me about my life. Admittedly, I am in awe of each of the other pastors, they are all gifted and are amazing leaders. Recently, I have run out of emotional energy to even try to engage them in conversation, and now there is talk about why have I been so quiet and withdrawn. It is the only area in my life where I am so quiet; my volunteer team actually thinks I am an extrovert. When I am with friends we talk and laugh for hours. I am sad that after 12 years I am the odd woman out. (side note- there was one other woman pastor, she was the 1st female pastor at the church and a very strong leader and great pastor, she quit at the beginning of the year, and it took 4 people to replace all the areas that she lead)

    I’m at a loss of what to do. I love the ministry, for the kids, for the families to share the love of Christ with them and equip them for their walk with Him; basically to love them. I have been raising up leaders in the ministry, but now I feel guilty for encouraging any female to grow in her leadership gifting, because I know it is limited.
    And now, after 25 years of ministry, I am considering quitting and pursuing a secular job. I know I am a leader, I just feel liked I’ve been pushed off my path in the church.
    I hope there will be a day where anyone called and gifted to lead in the church will be allowed to, male or female; even in senior leadership. We just aren’t there yet.
    Thank you again, sorry for the length.


    • Tammy — I don’t want to discourage you from seeking secular work, because certainly that’s a valid calling. But also consider ministry in an egalitarian church. There are such places. Many churches would be glad to have a woman like you in a leadership position!

    • Hello Tammy~

      Thank you for sharing your heart. I empathize with you. It sounds like you have worked hard to honor your position at the church. I believe you get to live and work in an environment that supports, engages, and grows your leadership ability. For the purpose of perspective, might I offer an observation that has helped? Leaving a position at a church does not mean leaving ministry or leaving God’s calling on our life. We get to invite God into this powerful next step of our journey. In my personal experience, secular jobs have been very healing and inspiring with much ministry impact. In addition, it empowered me to later re-enter churches in a much more restored place. Please feel free to reach out…I work with many women transitioning into a greater story they are meant to live with God. My heart is for you and your journey.

  • Thank you for sharing your story, Heather. I was told at an old church of mine that women were not supposed to be pastors, but God has shown me while here at APU that he does call women to be pastors and that he has called me to be one. He has brought me to a church where I can use my gifts and develop them. I do have hopes for my old church though. Early this year a pastor preached on the Timothy passage and I heard it on CD and it was very egalitarian.

    • Ahhhh…yes….this is why I am such a big fan of APU. It might also have something to do with the fact that APU is where I fell in love with my husband (of 20 years) in biology class. I am glad to hear your paradigm shift in this area…when God calls us to participate in a life of ministry with Him it is an honor…and I believe it is a friendship that He is really inviting us into.

  • I was brought up in a church that had female leadership — my grandmother was an elder, and she served on the committee that hired a female pastor for her church. And now I’m an elder in my church. It wasn’t until I got involved in ecumenical circles that I learned this isn’t the case in every denomination. So now I get rather righteously indignant on behalf of gifted ladies like yourself who are needlessly punted aside. It’s demonstrably wrong, because many great congregations have female leaders. It upsets me that others think we’re evil and unbiblical for encouraging women to employ their gifts.

    • Yes, it is upsetting, Kristen. Thanks for your thoughts on this. It’s hard to understand when it is all you’ve ever been exposed to, but it has been a powerful journey for me to take as God has invited me into new circles and inspiring conversations addressing the empowerment of all individuals. I keep thinking of Galatians 5:1…it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.

  • Fantastic article and mirrors my own journey in so many ways. I did not become a Christian till I was in my early twenties but then worked hard to subjugate my leadership call. It was years before I realised that God is not unbalanced – He doesn’t create us to lead and then demand that if we love Him we’ll sit on our giftings and never use them.

    The years have not been without challenge but they have been fruitful and fulfilling as I’ve worked to not only build and develop leaders but have also managed to help create a Kingdom culture in which the gender of the leader is not inspected, but rather their capacity to lead and do the job they’re called to.

    I love what you’ve written and will definitely check out your website… you’ve put this so well.

    • Thanks, Bev! I appreciate your feedback….honestly, I felt a bit vulnerable sharing my story, and it helps to know others can relate. Aren’t we all looking for community to share our stories to be heard and valued? Most importantly, don’t we want to transcend what has blocked us to move into great lives? I would love a conversation…feel free to call or email.

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