Do I Stay or Do I Leave? A Dilemma for Women in the Church

Teri Ruonavaara King


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Do I Stay or Do I Leave1

Churches need to shepherd women leaders as well as men

Earlier this year we shared a guest post titled “Why I’m at a Church That Doesn’t Support Gender Equality”.  The post led to a robust discussion of the pros and cons of staying versus leaving.  Today a seasoned leader shares a consequence of staying in a complementarian church that did not come up in earlier discussions and is worth considering.

Do I stay or do I leave?

This is the question a Christian woman faces when she realizes that her pastor and church leaders do not believe in women serving in the gifting and calling that she has.  What it comes down to is that a patriarchal or complementarian pastor often chooses not to shepherd a woman with a calling to serve in certain ways (especially teaching, preaching, or leading). They clamp down the glass ceiling and refuse to assist her spiritual growth in those areas.

The work of a pastor is fashioned after the work of a shepherd who watches over, protects, nurtures, encourages, and loves the sheep.

John 10: 11 I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His [own] life for the sheep.  When a sheep wanders off and is hurt, the good shepherd runs after that one and guides or carries it to safety.  If a lamb is caught in a crevice the good shepherd does whatever is necessary to free the lamb and heal its wounds. The good shepherd sings to the flock at night soothing their souls encouraging peace.  When danger encroaches, the good shepherd chases away the enemy even fighting or killing them if necessary.  The good shepherd has eyes on each member of the flock at all times for their betterment, safety, and joy.  Jesus is our example of the good Shepherd.

After 40+ years of serving in teaching, preaching, and leading capacities I’ve accepted the fact that pastors and leaders who do not believe in women ministering in these ways will simply not shepherd women in their spiritual development.

We are on our own there.  I have done well enough in many churches of shepherding my own growth, but there is always a point where help is needed and we have to go elsewhere for it, or we simply don’t get the help we need.

It has been my experience, and that of most gifted women I know, that only pastors and leaders who believe women are equally called by God in all areas will unquestioningly nurture and shepherd women.

Some will allow women to teach women but not the men.  Some will allow women to teach a mixed group under certain circumstances. And others will even allow women to preach. But the question should never be what is allowed, but rather what is God doing that we can encourage, support, and release.

Here’s a question for my fellow sisters who find their heads bumping against a similar glass ceiling:

Can you get by where you are without the freedom to pour forth from your spirit the living waters that God has put in your soul? Is there someone in your church who will minister to your soul to release you further?

John 7:38 Whoever believes in Me [who adheres to, trusts in, and relies on Me], as the Scripture has said, ‘Rivers of living water will flow continually from within them.’” (NIV, AMP)  

I want to encourage those who are in these struggles to never give up.

God will always provide a way.  It just may or may not be where you are.


Teri Ruonavaara King

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  • I think there are a number of women who have left the church for this very reason. They are called to lead, but never released to lead. I think it is time to bring change! Let’s do it!

  • In France, I was part of a group who created an organisation to raise the egalitarian issue. You cannot imagine all the bad words we received. I would never have guessed such hatred comments, even from women. Critisizing the magistrate is considered as being “protestant” and wanted to split from the catholic church. And it’s them who tell us: if you are against, you can leave. Our speech is to say: no! I’m baptised, I’m meant to be priest, prophet and king and I belong to this CHurch as much as the men do. I’m not a child, I’m baptised and part of the People of God just like Vativan II defined it. I won’t leave and I won’t shut!

    • so sorry that anyone has to go through the pain of hateful attitudes and words. These are the enemy’s arrows. Sometimes it takes effort to raise up the shield of our faith and block their effect in our hearts and lives. Hang in there sister. God is for you. Lord Jesus is watching and I believe the Holy Spirit is proud of your stamina and spunk.

  • This is a societal problem…an ongoing gender issue that is almost as old as the Earth. I’m not sure if women have not in part created it as mothers who give their sons better treatment than daughters…because somewhere, the attitude of some men that makes them believe not only that they are entitled to better than female privileges but also that sometimes makes certain men belligerent and even derogatory towards women has to be rooted in a generalized belief that what they think is the truth. This doesn’t come down from Heaven…it is a learned behaviour that needs to be rooted out bleeding and dying from the hearts of male children. The time has come for mothers, and perhaps especially fathers to identify their own attitudes…I see, all the time, mothers coddling their sons as if they are so much more special than their daughters, and fathers tutoring their sons to believe they are superior to women…this is far too common in the homes of North America…and if this continues, no amount of church intervention will change the seriously faulty upbringing of boys, especially, but also girls. Churches that are Comp. are especially dangerous in furthering this attitude by telling girls to stay “in their place”…With what I know now, I would not allow my daughters to ever attend such churches that exacerbate the problem of bad upbringing by enforcing the status quo.

    Sadly, children may be better served in the cause of Christ outside most churches.

    • so true, Judy. Parents teaching their children gender equality is half of the answer. It is hugely important.

    • As an Anglican priest (female) I appreciate the article particularly as it opens the question as to the impact the wrong message from the pulpit and the pastor’s example, has on our children. The misogynist teaches little boys that women are inferior and teaches the girls that a man will be the only true head of the church or the family. Equality in the church and in society will only come when families seeking a bright future for their children abandon the churches that teach inequality and scorn for any of God’s creation.
      There are churches that teach by word and example the future we seek for our children and our world: love, equality; employing everyone’s potential to the fullest; encouraging everyone to explore God’s gifts in themselves and their lives.
      If you are not in such a church, do as Mark instructed (6:11) when he told his followers, to leave without looking back; shake off their dust from under your feet, for such a church has not heard the Lord and has nothing true to teach. Go from there and find a church that is Christ-driven and blossom.

  • Thank you for faithfully serving God inspite of the obstacles you have encountered! Fighting for our own spiritual growth is so key. You pose a wise question.

    • thank you Leah. And what a beautiful name. Are you a Jewish Christian?

      As I think of the problem of nurturing the individuals of the Body of Christ and the jobs of pastors, teachers, preachers I am wondering how we can get this Biblical concept out. It seems that the job of pastor has shifted too much into an organizational administrative business.

      Many years ago I had a couple pastors whose door was always open. If they were there they were ready to listen and pray. This aspect of shepherding doesn’t happen too much today. But there is also the question of how does a pastor and also the preacher and teacher, go about encouraging both men and women to delve deeply into the Lord and find their giftings and callings for their lives.

  • Teri makes some really good points that us ladies need to consider, before remaining indefinitely in a church that does not support women in ALL their giftings. If for example you feel a strong call to teach (not to JUST women) and your pastor does not encourage that gift in you and give you opportunity to practice and develop that gift, then it is as if, a gift God Himself gave you, is going to waste…wisdom and revelation and hours upon hours of faithful Bible study and research…but no one to share it with…this is indeed a lonely place many of us have been in…but Teri makes us ask the question “Who will Shephard US, Who will equip US for the building up of the saints and the work of the ministry? How long should we stay?
    May God give us His direction, perhaps we stay far longer than we should.
    I also would like to encourage everyone to check out Teri’s blog. I got to know Teri years ago while living in Hawaii and have enormous respect for her studious love of Gods word and thoughtful research into the history and culture of Biblical times. She has read more scripture and more theological works than many pastors put together! I kid you not!
    Visiting her home on many occasions, I was also blessed by her choice to live more simply and humbly than most of us. Though she is a skilled business woman, she chooses to invest more of her time into seeking God and ministering to others than in her personal business and climbing the ladder of “success “.
    Though she is fully capable of worldly success, Instead, she persues Heaveny wealth.
    She is an excellent example of one who has spent her life, seeking first His Kingdom, instead of seeking to build her own.
    Thanks Teri for this thought provoking article and for the years you have sacrificed material things and the comforts of this life to invest in so many lives, such as my own…you will NEVER be forgotten and your wisdom will live on, I promise!
    They will not keep me silent forever!
    Thanks so much for being my inspiration to be who God has made me to be,

    • Hi Amy. 🙂 Haven’t heard from Amy for seven months and she emails me this morning. Nice surprise. You are so sweet and a little embarrassing. I want to say that I am not that special. But really we are all special to God.

      I do relate with you on the waste issue, but that is because at my age I am now counting the years I may have left to give the Lord. I feel the sense of time running out. How long does one wait before moving on. For me If I wait another year of patiently waiting to see if something will change, that is one year less for the Lord. And possibly another year of getting resettled is another year less for the Lord.

      It is complicated. That is why we rely on God for these decisions. But we cannot make a decision for something we don’t know the question on.

  • I enjoyed the article I do you think it would be worth further conversation to talk about the difference between encouragement support and nourishing nourishing is interesting I’m in a church that fully supports women but most of my nourishment has come from outside of the structures of my denomination there really isn’t much to nurture women within the structure or in an intentional way which I think is needed some of us don’t even expect to be in there just to be not torn down

    • Hi, Cheri! I’m with you on this. Structure and intention is going to be key moving forward. Not sure how to get this done! I think it’s not going to happen until women are able to move into the leadership positions where these kinds of decisions are made. And there’s the rub. I’m encouraged that at least more women are moving into senior/lead pastor positions, which should help.

    • Yes, good thoughts, Cheri. I believe this is deeply important, especially for women. Men are encouraged everywhere. Whenever a man speaks up a little saying some insightful things he is patted on the back with suggestions he could be a teacher, preacher, pastor as if those were the only desirable jobs. But it is forgotten that it is Jesus who calls individuals into those works.

      So, what kind of restructuring do you think would encourage including women’s future with no gender restrictions. And how could we get pastors interested.

  • It can easily become a slippery slope when we look to a person, in this case an under-shepherd, to meet a perceived spiritual need. Change takes time and we have to be patient, careful of not ostracizing fellow believers in the process. To encourage women to leave a church because they feel they are not being shepherded is opening up a door that is too subjective to control. Re-educating people on patriarchy after centuries of traditional (albeit wrong) teaching is going to take some time. We can live it without proclaiming it in a loud voice. Our living it allows us to proclaim it quietly while making small differences that add up to big changes.

  • Thank you. Currently, I am not attending any church. I would love to find one that would be a good fit and encourage me to do what God has called me to do. Right now I do not have the energy to search for the right one. I feel God will have to open my eyes so I can see it.

  • It is hard for me to accept the truth you gently put here. But I know you are right. The tension of hurt I feel knowing my Pastor is refusing to pastor me in my gifts and the love I have for my friends and church is immobilizing to me. I desperately want the “way” God provides to be here-at my church. But how long do I wait for Him to move in my pastor’s heart? He is a good shepherd…just not to women with the gift of pastoring or teaching.

    • So sorry to hear this. 🙁 but know that God will let you know when. It has been in different ways in different places for me. When I feel like something is dying inside me, I know I have to find a place of fellowship where my joy can come through. Teaching and now preaching has been my joy for quite a while. It is like something alive that when I am teaching, as the Holy Spirit moves through me He leaves behind threads of joy that sustain me for awhile.

      These days I am reconsidering the concept that we can only fellowship at one church and serve one pastor at a time. I have believing friends at several churches. Small town. 🙂 And then the whole town goes to the YWAM services as well. :^)

  • I’ve attended a church like that, too, and eventually left it. I was experienced and mature enough to “shepherd myself,” but other issues called the question for me:

    1. I sat in worship services constantly tensed for when something would be said (or sung) that would upset me–sexist language, stereotypes, etc. (The previous pastor actually joked about how he hated the Men’s Retreat Sundays because the “shrill women’s voices” singing were so annoying. And that’s just one of many examples.) That is not a good place to be in during “worship.”

    2. I live in a progressive college town in Northern California. I was embarrassed to admit to neighbors or work colleagues where I went to church. I couldn’t explain their position on women in ways anyone could understand–or why I put up with it.

    3. Most importantly, I felt that attending a church like that was an ongoing bad example to my two young adult daughters.

    • I am familiar with how that hurts. There have been times when I have had to leave a church for a bit, just to find that peace that no matter what is said I can keep that safe place of peace within. Without that place protected it just isn’t good.

      so sorry 🙁

  • Thank you Teri, for voicing this common dilemma. My husband and I joined a small church this year. Before we committed, we took the Pastor and his wife out to lunch in order to get to know them. Although we discussed many spiritual and church topics in order to see if our beliefs aligned, I neglected to discuss his belief on gender equality in the pulpit. (My mistake.) Now, I am seeing that the leadership, Bible studies and fellowship is sometimes driven by a “good ole boy” mentality.

    At this point, we are staying and loving on the Pastor and slowly opening doors to discussion. We’ll see where it goes. He does allow Sunday School to be taught by a woman elder and he invited a woman evangelist to speak. All good signs.

  • Teri, your description of what a good shepherd (pastor) does and what I’ve seen out of some patriarchal leaders is a stark contrast.

    • yes, it is sad isn’t it. 🙁 Every human has potential within them that is untapped. Jesus, “the lover of our souls”, really wants to untie our potential by the Holy Spirit anointing and raise us up to do great things in Him. Pastors are supposed to be the hands, heart, feet of encouragement to believers. Pastors are supposed to be like family and get to know the sheep. Why do you think they aren’t they doing that very much?

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