Women in Church Leadership: A Personal Story

Janelle Saaybe

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I grew up with parents who loved God in a truly relational way. Church was important, I spent most days of the week there from infancy onward, but what they wanted the most for my sister and me was to have a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus. My world growing up was also female-centric. I had no brothers, and outside of my immediate family the only cousins I regularly saw were all girls. I had two aunts that I regularly interacted with, only one of whom was married.

I say all of this because it would never have occurred to me to place women in a certain social sphere. The women in my life were in every sphere: stay-at-home mothers, working mothers. You name it, I knew a woman who did it.

Spiritually this was also true. My spiritual growth was impacted by women of God from the very beginning. It was Sister Mabel, during Sunday school, who lead me in the prayer to ask Jesus into my heart when I was four years old. It was Sister Helen who taught me about Passover and the amazing miracle God performed to rescue his people from bondage. It was Sister Rubie and Sister Sandy who, song after song, taught me doctrinal truth and the order of the books of the Bible. These women are just the tip of the iceberg.

The pages of my childhood are filled with women of God who poured into my life in amazing and valuable ways. There were men of God who influenced me as well and I am just as grateful for them. Not just for what they taught me, but for their willingness to work side by side with their sisters in ministry.

If anyone had asked me as a child and pre-teen if women should be allowed to lead the same as men, I’m not sure I would have understood the question. There were places where people thought women couldn’t do those things? It wasn’t possible! This was just my perspective of course. I don’t pretend to know any of the politics that might have been happening behind the scenes of my childhood. Maybe there were hard fought battles and maybe there were not.

All I know is that what trickled out to me was a clear understanding that God calls people to do his work. That’s it – just people.

In college, when I began to understand that some people believed women were unable to hold certain leadership positions I experienced two emotions almost simultaneously; anger and self righteousness. I was angry that people dared to believe that I was unable to perform certain tasks for the body of Christ just because I was a woman. But I also felt a sense of pride as well. After all my church believed that women could be senior pastors. My denomination believed that women could hold all the same leadership positions as men. We were so much more enlightened than these other people who didn’t see women as equal to men.

And then I began to feel a little uneasy in my gut. Sure, my church believed that women could be in leadership. It said so right in the statement of our doctrinal beliefs. But how many women senior pastors did I know? How many women preached from the pulpit of the church I attended every Sunday?

Does it really matter if a church believes in equality of women in leadership if they don’t actually put it into practice?

Belief and practice were not lining up and it was very distressing. For a long time I waffled back and forth between sadness and anger, not knowing where to land. I couldn’t draw a connecting line between those who thought women shouldn’t be in leadership and the men that led the churches I attended. The pastors I interacted with valued women. I knew this because I experienced it and saw other women in my life experience it as well.

There were so many strong female spiritual leaders in the church I had grown up in and in every church I had attended since; they just didn’t have the title of pastor.  And yet, I couldn’t deny that it rubbed me the wrong way to see the absence of women on boards, in the pulpit, and in spheres outside what is typically considered “women’s ministry”.  There were women in my life who were not only eager but qualified to serve and yet for whatever reason were not being given that opportunity. It was disheartening to say the least.

I’m not going to wrap this up with a neat bow. I didn’t come to an easy solution. In fact I haven’t come to any solution at all. Sarah Bessey experienced this type of tension in her own life as well and I love the solution she talks about in her book Jesus Feminist:

“We must lean into pain instead of resisting it.” (p.51)

It was painful to question the very system I came to know Christ in. It’s true though that by leaning into the pain I’ve began to see a way out of it. I often want answers to be a zero sum game where someone is right or someone is wrong; someone is bad or someone is good. But leaning into righteous pain has taught me that the answers I seek are not “or” but “and”.

The churches I have been a part of have always valued women, AND they need to work on putting their theology into practice. That’s okay. I’m constantly working on putting my theology into practice. I think I’ll be working on that until the day Jesus comes back.

I can be patient with my church family because I love them and they love me. What I need to do is not give up. The body is made up of many parts. I see one of my roles as being a reminder that while we are doing well with gender equality in leadership, we still have work to do.

So in some ways the churches I’ve been a part of carried on the status quo, but they are learning. The men who run them are learning.

  • They are learning to place women in leadership roles without a second thought.
  • They are learning to preach about women from the pulpit not just on Mother’s Day.
  • They are learning to hire women to be youth pastors.

These learning men join my father who always let me know, not just in words but in actions, that he valued the spiritual leadership of my mother and expected great things from my spiritual life as well.

These men and others like them join the women in my personal story as people who shaped the person I have become – a woman who calls herself a Jesus Feminist.

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Janelle Saaybe

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14 Comments

  • I grew up in churches in Puert Rico where the women were not only on church boards but also pastors. However the strict “rules” put on the women for what they wore what they should and shouldn’t do etc made it difficult as a young women to see Gods love. I’m thankful yThat there are churches that showed me differently.

  • I love this piece! I’ve been in full time ministry as a youth pastor for over 15 years at my church. I feel supported and respected because of the gifts God has given me, and I also know that there is still growth to move towards. I was excited when all of the titles for ministry leadership became “Pastor” rather than “Director” regardless of gender. I’m now praying about beginning the conversation of women as elders with my church leadership. Thanks for the gracious encouragement to be “patient with my church family because I love them and they love me.”

    • Thank you for your reply Kelly! Change sometimes comes slowly and if we all gave up in impatience and moved on to church’s that are already where we want to go, who would be there to help the other ones move forward?

  • I wonder whether the imballance of woman in official leadership roles has anything to do with lingering doubts as to whether passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 really do restrict woman from teaching and holding positions of authority over men. This might be especially true since popular translations do reinforce ideas of female restriction. Thankfully there are more recent translations that do a better job on translating these passages. But I can’t help thinking that until more translations bring the textual issues to public light there will remain a motivational drag on pursuing a course that seems to go against the “plan reading of Scripture.” Fortunately we can at least point Joe and Janet Public, and Pastor Joe and Janet, to translations such as the VOICE, N.T Wright’s Kingdom New Testament, and the International Standard Version. I suspect this is needed even when a demonination has no female restrictions on leadership.

    • This a good thought and one that needs to be considered as well when we try to help church’s understand the need to empower the femal half of their congregation.

  • Position and practice are often drastically different, and it takes humility on all sides to recognize when a disconnect needs to be addressed. Thank you for your openness and grace in realizing we all have those blind spots of believing one thing in theory and yet behaving in a way that contradicts our supposed belief. Addressing blind spots is a tricky business but open dialogue and persistent application of grace brings us closer to God and each other in the process. I’m glad you’re a voice in the discussion.

  • Well said. I also grew up in a church where women poured into my life and held (unofficial) positions of spiritual leadership. I’m glad that official positions are becoming more common, but yes…we still have work to do to put the theology into action. We need more pieces like this that recognize the progress that’s already being made while patiently pointing out the work that still needs to be done.

  • A great article. Although I’ve never personally experienced feeling any less than equal, I realize that in the body of Christ this struggle does exist. Thank you Janelle for presenting it with encouragement and hope, and a respect for those of us who are just being awakened to this reality.

  • There is so much I appreciate about this piece. It’s honest and fair. You acknowledge the evolution of your thinking and you recognize that process at work in others as well. More importantly, it’s productive. Oftentimes I find conversations about “-isms” are simply not helpful. Debates about racism and feminism often vilify those groups in dominant positions (e.g. whites, men). I’ve always thought that if the end goal is in fact some sort of reparation, that end goal requires the efforts of both the oppressed AND the oppressors. So, I appreciate your inclusion of these voices in the conversation; your honest assessment of principles vs. practice doesn’t slam the door shut in the faces of those in the very positions required to make changes. Instead, you offer a perfect balance of grace and truth, like a gentle nudge in the right direction. Thank you sharing your heart on this matter, Janelle.

  • So true that lining up our actions with our theology is a process. Thankful for the people mentioned and you

  • Great piece! I whole heartedly agree with “Does it really matter if a church believes in equality of women in leadership if they don’t actually put it into practice?” Our true currency in any situation is the action we take.

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