6 Reasons to Include Women Elders on Your Church Board: Part 1

Gail Wallace

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Marine Corps Women Drill Instructors

Woman_Marine-Drill_Instructor-Marine_Corps women on church boards

Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal ran a story on women’s roles in the military.

The story highlighted the determination of a group of female drill instructors not to be seen as clones of their male counterparts.  Although most of these women served in combat and now put in 140-hour boot camp weeks, they are still not viewed as “real Marines” by many of the men they work with.  After finishing a drill in full make-up and polished nails, Sgt. Amy Stokley explained the goal is to communicate, “Yes, we are Marines, and yes, we are drill instructors, but first we are women”, and to drive home the idea that leadership is not just a masculine trait.

It’s hard to imagine a setting where this perception would be more difficult to change…except perhaps in the church.

I’ve noticed that church members often expect women leaders to be male-leader clones. Even when a woman conforms to a more masculine style of leadership and demonstrates competence she may still be viewed as less effective than her male counterpart. We like to think that our evaluations of others are fair and objective, but the truth is that women and men are often held to different standards. For example, one study showed that women had to be 2.5 times more productive to be judged as equal to men in a performance review1.  A similar bias is often experienced in hiring practices. Several recent studies have shown that concealing the identities of musicians auditioning for spots in symphony orchestras significantly boosts the hiring of women.

It is no secret that the evangelical church in the U.S. is losing ground in terms of growth and financial stability.2   I think a restrictive view of women’s roles contributes to this decline and that reinterpreting that view will be necessary to reverse it.*

There are lots of good reasons to include women elders on your church board or leadership team. Here are just a few:

Spiritual gifts are not distributed by gender.

The apostle Paul recognized this and urged all believers to use their gifts to edify the church (I Corinthians 12:1-31). While a few texts restrict the actions of particular women in particular situations, when you look at the New Testament as a whole, the balance of scripture leans to the side of full inclusion. We find descriptions of women using their spiritual gifts to prophesy (Acts 21, 1 Corinthians 11) and to serve as house church leaders. Phoebe is identified as a deacon, Priscilla as a teacher. Junia was imprisoned with Paul, who describes her as “noted among the apostles” (Romans 16:7).  As often as Paul wrote about spiritual gifts, he had every opportunity to make a statement about gender limitations, but such a prohibition is not found.

Even so, passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are still misinterpreted and cited as the basis for male-only leadership. (More on the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2 can be found here.) This is like expecting the church to function with one hand tied behind its back.  Jim Henderson and Carolyn Custis James do an excellent job describing various aspects of this dynamic in their respective books, The Resignation of Eve and Half the Church.

Adding women elders strengthens board oversight.

Contrary to what you may have heard, egalitarians do NOT believe men and women are “the same“.  We are keenly aware of the differences, which is why we advocate for the full inclusion of women in leadership. Women often see things differently than men and have different lived experiences. Having qualified women elders on your board can lead to a more accurate and holistic perspective of the health and needs of the church body.

A mixed gender board also adds a level of accountability and protection for your church against abuses of power and privilege that have been seen all too often in recent years in church systems with all-male leadership. (This same principle applies to other underrepresented groups in your congregation. As much as possible, your board should be a reflection of the gender and cultural diversity in your church.)

Women have leadership strengths your board needs.

In Paul’s day, there were cultural and practical reasons that most leadership positions were filled by men; reasons that are no longer relevant today.  It is encouraging that credible firms like McKinsey have been able to quantify the value of contributions by women in leadership. Here are some of the findings:

1) The top four leadership attributes executives value most for success today—intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision-making, and setting expectations/rewards—are more commonly found among women leaders. (McKinsey)

2) Companies with three or more women on executive committees or boards scored higher on nine metrics of organizational effectiveness than their peers. (McKinsey)

3) A 26% difference in return on invested capital was found between top-quartile companies (those with 19-44% women board representation) and bottom quartile companies (those with no women directors). (Catalyst)

(It is important to point out that these benefits may not be realized by adding one or two women to your board as a “token” gesture. A great place to start would be to aim for 30% as a minimum.)

These findings should not surprise us. 

When God said “it is not good for the man to be alone”, he was not referring just to the marriage relationship, but also to the mandate given to both Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28).

In light of Christ’s teaching that there should be no hierarchy in the New Community (Matthew 20:25-28), it is hard to understand why some evangelical leaders continue to hold on to an “equal, but” view of women. It’s time to let go of our expectations that women leaders should emulate men and encourage them to develop their own unique approaches to ministry. As more women are included as “real leaders” in key areas of church governance and ministry the paradigm will shift and we will grow more comfortable with their leadership.

More good reasons to appoint women elders can be found in Part 2.

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For more on the egalitarian position on women in leadership, read Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders by Marg Mowczko.

More research about how women lead and how the benefits of including women in senior leadership can be found here and here.

Footnote  1 See Biernat, M., Tocci, & M.J., Williams, J.C. (2012).The Language of Performance Evaluations:Gender-Based Shifts in Content and Consistency of Judgment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 186-192.

*For a detailed discussion of the state of the church , see You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman, and The Great Evangelical Recession by John S. Dickerson.

Gail Wallace

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11 Comments

  • How do we get the men (usually the leaders in the church) to recognize and implement this? It has to start with them empowering the women for leadership positions (other than
    Children’s ministry, etc.)

    • That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it Carmeli? I’ve been thinking about this but no good answers yet. Our church has had women elders since it’s inception 25 years ago and I come from a denomination that has always ordained women, so this whole situation really baffles me. Hoping others have some ideas for change!

  • Gail, I couldn’t agree with you more. Women add value as leaders. I am looking forward to your next installment.

    • Thank you, Grace. Now I want to write a whole post on the nature of that value. And I know I owe you an email. Sorry for the delay!

    • Inspiration is good! Thanks, Yvonne. Bring all your gifts to the table!

  • Poignant thoughts, Gail. I love the clarity. It is powerful to see it laid out so clearly. I’m already anticipating the next 3 points!

    One thought that came to me as I was reading, was the ideal of the church leading in the development of women. What if the church could be a place that was leading the development of women participating well in their worlds…as women? It was interesting to hear you discuss the military because as I work with women professionals in corporate America, I just heard the phrase last week from a client, “If I could just be more like a man in the workplace.” It was very revealing to hear the message she was telling herself regarding how her gender influenced her levels of success. She is now embracing a whole new paradigm shift that her womanhood has a unique value to offer the workplace that contrasts her male colleagues….and it is good. What if the church actually was a leader in opening these conversations? What if the church was a part of influencing our world regarding equity and honoring what the individual brings to the table regardless of gender? What a powerful role the church could play in a world struggling with personal identity and honoring the unique ways we have all been created.

    • Thanks, Heather! I completely agree with you about the church leading the way in helping women (and men) develop their leadership gifts. Many women have stepped outside of the church walls to use their abilities. This makes it harder to find women to fill leadership spots when we have them. In turn, this perpetuates the idea that women aren’t good leaders or speakers. A vicious cycle, really. It’s already hard to convince many gifted women that serving in leadership roles in the church is worth it – probably should write another post about the many reasons women are hesitant to step up!

    • It’s interesting, Heather, to hear your provocative idea about the church leading in developing women leaders. I believe that the church in Corinth was just such a church. Wives who never received a formal education and women who had left behind their lives as heterae (courtesans) and prostitutes were speaking our publicly for the first time, “praying and prophesying.” in fact, women leading in worship and preaching was one area that Paul actually commends the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:2). In a way, church was a training ground like Wellesley or Bryn Mawr when they were founded. The church promoted women’s leadership and it was a safe place to practice one’s spiritual gifts. And it’s precisely because of this new found freedom that Paul wants to provide further instruction for women and men leading in the church. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (which admittedly can be difficult at points to understand especially in translation), Paul is not calling for an end to women leading in the church but simply encouraging them to exercise their public gifts in an even more effective way by paying heed to decorum. And in alternating verses,he does the same for the men in the church.

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