(Ladies, I wrote this in 2001 and published it with Foursquare Women International. Although it is a long teaching article, I think you will find it still speaks today. –Susan)
Stacking wood, killing rattlesnakes, helping with round-ups and deer hunting are all memories from my childhood. Growing up on a large ranch ten miles from the nearest town seems an unlikely place to develop leadership skills. Actually, it was the seedbed for many of my future attitudes towards women in ministry. Ranch work needs to be done regardless if you are male or female.
Other memories include the three-day, all-girl campouts my dad required that I organize the last two years of high school. He believed that the organizational skills learned from such activities would benefit me later in life. All the menus, shopping, “security from the boys”, and weekend activities for 20 girl friends were planned and delegated by “little ol’ me.” Dad was a firm believer that a girl could be anything she wanted to be. He required that I get a college education even though I struggled with a learning disability called dyslexia.
It wasn’t until I left home that I encountered attitudes towards women that are now called gender biases. Working in Los Angeles during my years at LIFE Bible College brought a few of these attitudes to my attention. But where I really encountered them was when my husband and I came to Atascadero, California 26 years ago to pastor a small, growing church of 13 people.
Assuming that my husband and the men of the church had the same attitudes towards women that my dad had demonstrated, it was a real shock to learn that my leadership was not always appreciated! Of course, part of the problem was I wasn’t very mature at the time, but even so, many of the men in the church seemed to believe a woman’s place was in the home. Personally, I had no problem with enjoying my home. (We have six children and have home schooled for over 17 years.) However, my ministry call is one of pastor/teacher and I was not inclined to lay down God’s call on my life because others had a problem with women in ministry. Addressing this challenge has been a real learning experience. It has not always been pleasant, but has been a necessary requirement for change, both in myself and in others.
Many women begin ministry alongside their husbands in a pioneer church or “church plant.” They often take care of organizing childcare, Sunday School, social events and leading the women’s ministry. As the church grows a husband finds his salary increased, but the wife is often disregarded. Later a church building might need to be built or rented and more staff added. Again, the woman who began ministry beside her husband is taken for granted while church finances are used for “more important needs” than paying her a salary for her growing ministry within the church. One might think that the scriptures that state that a workman is worthy of his hire and that teachers should be given double honor only apply to men. Even though a woman may be licensed and ordained, she is not always regarded as a “real” pastor!
Frustrated, and needing more family income, these gifted women resort to taking their talents and gifts into the “market place.” Some of our most successful Christian professional women are those who could find no place for their abilities within the church. This is a gain for our communities but a loss for our churches! Unfortunately it also communicates to the unsaved that the church is not interested in gifted and talented women.
God also raises women up within a congregation to do specialty work such as counseling or administration. But again, their ministry is often minimized because of their gender. One talented children’s worker applied for a job as a Christian Education Director at a local church. Her application was rejected on the basis of her sex. The church leadership made it very clear that they only wanted men as paid ministerial staff. What made it even harder for her was the fact that the man hired was less experienced and had less training than she had for the job.
Gender Challenges are a reality. How you respond to them will determine a great deal about the kind of woman leader you become. Following are a few of the things I have learned in over 26 years of being a woman in leadership among people who have not always recognized me as such.
Pray! Spending time with the Lord to gain His perspective is necessary whenever we face any type of challenge including those that are gender related. Our true snapshots of discernment, or our imbalanced perceptions based on offenses, must be sifted through and put into perspective by the One who sees the situation from all angles. Only Jesus has the wisdom and authority we need to address the obstacles we face as women. Only from the source of His grace can we confront the obvious or hidden prejudices of those we seek to serve.
Prayer is not just something we do as we tuck the kids into bed at night. It is the atmosphere of communication between God and us that should surround everything we do throughout the day. When we step out of this atmosphere we run the risk of addressing our trials from the standpoint of our old sin nature. Whether we are confronting the demonic or processing a relationship with another person, both must be approached with the strategy and grace gained from sitting at the Lord’s feet.
Spiritual warfare is often needed behind the scenes as we openly address gender related issues. Demonic oppression of women has been part of Satan’s agenda since the Garden of Eden episode. However, we must always remember that this war is against principalities and spirit powers, not the people with whom we seek relationship. It is from a position of prayer that we can begin to remove assignments of blindness and confusion. It is also prayer that will lay a foundation of favor needed to address individual biases.
Begin with yourself. Gender biases often lie hidden among those who assume they are walking free of such prejudices. Before we can ever address such a log in another’s eye, we must first make sure we have removed it from our own.
Many women in leadership positions often unconsciously view themselves as having less authority than a man who might be in the same position. They confidently lead women but hesitate when it comes to directing men. Perhaps they find men intimidating because of unhealthy male relationships from their past. Or, they acquiesce to a man because they misinterpret the scriptures and believe that women should submit to all men.
As women, we should defer to any person, man or woman, when he or she gives wise counsel. That is what mutual submission is all about among the people of God. We should also defer to a man when it is an act of scriptural submission. However, if a man does not have spiritual authority over us nor carries the abilities that we do for the task at hand, yielding to him can be detrimental and undermine what God desires to accomplish.
At the other extreme, one of the negative factors of the feminist movement has been an attitude among some of a superiority of women over men. Rather than gender equality, many in the secular realm have demonstrated a disregard for men. Unfortunately, this attitude has sometimes carried over into the Christian arena. We, as women in leadership, should be the first to model attitudes of honor, respect and graciousness towards the men in our lives.
Submit to your authorities and lead those under your authority, even if they are men. Honor and respect the men with whom you live and work. If any of this is hard for you, then read the accompanying article and some of the recommended reading. Study the scriptures, pray and receive healing from your past if necessary.
Communicate! Communication is necessary on many levels when confronting gender challenges. In our church, materials on women in leadership are available on the information rack and I regularly teach on the subject in our leadership training classes. However, I have also found it helpful when someone other than myself, such as my husband or a male elder, explains to new members of our fellowship what my role is as a pastor. Teaching on gender equality sometimes seems to be best received by those who need it when a man presents such instruction.
Perhaps you are in a situation where the gender challenge is within your own home or within the leadership of your church or organization. If you feel someone’s gender prejudice is holding you back from God’s call on your life, then consider talking to the person about it. This might be a hard thing to do depending on the situation. However, communication is the beginning to reaching a solution.
Communication might begin by simply asking the person what their views are on gender equality and women in leadership. Graciously inserting such questions as, “Why do you think that?” or “What is your scriptural basis for that perspective?” can help the person examine their beliefs. After they have finished, share your own perspective in a non-threatening way. Ask for their comments and freely give your opinions. Explain your own call to ministry and, if they are in authority over you, ask how they might help you fulfill God’s call on your life. Such dialog might continue over a period of months until a solution has been processed or a mutual understanding of your leadership role is reached. The important objective is to build a relationship that encourages communication about the issue of gender equality and women in leadership.
I have found that most people, men and women, will claim to be free of gender bias, but are actually taken aback when graciously confronted with their blindness. You might want to recommend some of the reference materials mentioned in this paper to those who need it or can influence others accordingly. In the accompanying article, “Playing Your Stereotype Too Loud?” by my husband, Tom, some questions are asked that require a person to investigate their own hidden gender bias. If you were in a position to do so, this would be a good test to have the leadership of your church participate in and then discuss.
Recently our eldership began to consider the necessity of adding an additional member to the pastoral staff. Our church had grown to over 300 people and we were holding weekly Saturday night and Sunday morning services. At the time, only my husband, a youth pastor, and myself were on the pastoral staff. As they began to talk finances I realized that they were considering hiring someone at a higher salary than I was currently being paid. When I graciously brought this to the attention of some of the elders the result was affirming. After sincerely repenting for holding unconscious gender prejudices and for having taken me for granted, my salary was raised.
Practice attitude adjustments. Don’t allow resentment or bitterness towards those who disregard your calling to rob you of your calling. Remember, you’re working for Jesus and in the eternal dimension of things it really doesn’t matter if anyone knows you are a woman in leadership. Just do the job Jesus has assigned you, behind the scenes if necessary.
Pastoring doesn’t need a title. Most things don’t in God’s kingdom. What’s more important is that you are obedient to do what Jesus has called you to do. Most of the people we know who move in the gift of pastoring are caring for people long before they ever move into the office of Pastor. If you are called to preach and can’t do it in church – go to the rest homes and soup kitchens! If you feel confined by gender challenges, then read the true story of Gladys Aylward in The Small Woman by Alan Burgess. Never given a leadership title at home because of being female, this woman went to China and impacted a Chinese ruler and thousands with the Gospel. Her story was eventually made into a movie entitled Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Resentment and bitterness will hinder your call as well as retard your spiritual growth. Eventually they will destroy you and defile others (Hebrews 12:15). Adjust your attitude if necessary and get to work!
Agree to disagree. Allow people the right to disagree with your conviction that a woman can be in leadership. It always surprises me when we occasionally have families leave the church after I have preached. It usually isn’t because of the message; more often than not they liked it. And it isn’t because they don’t know I am a pastor. Both our bulletins and visitors packets list me as such.
People leave because the reality of having a woman pastor has suddenly hit home and they realize that they have a personal conviction against women in ministry. Sometimes these people have become good friends and have known me as “the pastor’s wife.” However, the challenge really came when I stepped over one of their personal boundary lines concerning women in ministry—I preached!
I consider it very important to try and keep a good relationship with these people and allow them the right to believe as they choose. We try to part as friends knowing we have agreed to disagree. Some have come back years later and apologized. Others now attend other churches. Many still don’t believe that a woman should be in church leadership, but at least they now belong to a church that supports that belief and are not causing dissension in this church! We also can look forward to eternity together because what you believe about women in leadership is not a qualifier affecting your eternal destiny!
Keep Jesus as the source of your identity and ministry. Who you are and what you do should never be based on anything other then Jesus Christ. Because we are each being made into the image of Christ Jesus, He is to forever be the source of our identity. Only He can become the four cornerstones necessary for building security, personal worth and personality. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, (I Corinthians 1:30, NAS.)
His wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption are the spiritual weight that holds the rest of my identity in place. My wisdom is no longer tied into my dyslexic disability, but into the wisdom that Jesus has become within me. I no longer have to feel that I am all wrong – look wrong, act wrong and can’t do things right; because He took my wrongness and replaced it with His rightness. I no longer have to feel unworthy or unclean because my self-worth is that new person hidden in Christ, not the person I used to be nor my present failings and mistakes. And finally, I no longer have to be held captive to hurts or my past. Jesus has ransomed and delivered me.
Our identity must never be fashioned from a need for affirmation by other people or from our ministry. This is especially true in a church culture where gender challenges are present. How others regard you or your ministry cannot be the dictating force behind who you are! Only Jesus has that authority!
Furthermore, if your ministry becomes your source of identity you will end up being hurt and will hurt others. One very gifted woman leader I know made the mistake of confusing her personhood with her ministry. When the time came to choose between her growing ministry and a life that would eliminate much public ministry due to her dysfunctional family, she chose public ministry. Her public ministry provided her sense of self worth. The pain this caused her family has eternal consequences, as most of them now resent the God whom they think took their mother and wife away from them.
Women who are not secure in Christ Jesus will often confuse their identity with their ministry. When ministry ceases, their sense of who they are is threatened. If you lost your public ministry today, would it threaten your identity?
Be gracious! Graciousness, kindness and gentleness (which is “strength under control”) are to be the marks of a woman in Christian leadership. People with gender bias often assume women in leadership will have the personality of a “Roseanne” or an Amazon Woman. May we prove them wrong!
Some things aren’t to be a part of a woman in leadership: a crude mouth, gossip, criticalness, acting as a busybody, a controlling or manipulating way of leading, a disrespect for others, contentiousness, or being easily offended. It seems odd that I would have to mention these things, but in 26 years of ministry, I have seen too many women leaders who move in these ways. If this is true of you, then own it and change.
One of the best pieces of advice came to me years ago from my supervisor’s wife, Betty Wymore. She told me not to hesitate to ask for hormone replacements when I got to that time of life when they might be needed. Boy, was she right! A few years ago, the “wicked witch from Atascadero” that I was quickly becoming, swiftly changed back into the “me” that I used to be with just the addition of a small hormone pill every day! If you find that graciousness is a thing of the past, don’t hesitate to get help.
Be equipped. The need to be well equipped for your call is especially true for women. We are up against a slowly changing culture of gender bias in the church and therefore have an obligation to be well trained for what we do. Unfortunately, many will hold us, as women, to a higher standard then they do men.
Avoid the assumption that having a call to leadership is the same as being equipped for leadership. For example, I know that I am called as a pastor/teacher and also as a writer. However, I took classes and courses to equip me in developing my writing and teaching skills as well as furthering my education in Biblical studies and in counseling, which I felt I needed as a pastor.
Furthering your education can be as simple as taking a speech class at your local community college or registering for a correspondence course from a Bible College. Leadership or administration seminars are available through many organizations. Research the steps necessary for obtaining a ministerial license and ordination if applicable. Ask others in similar leadership positions for reference materials or recommended reading. Find those within your arena of relationships that will hold you accountable for developing the skills needed to make you a better leader. These people should be those who won’t hesitate to tell you where you need improvement. Most of all, apply what you learn in your daily ministry. If you can’t apply it, you haven’t learned it.
Know your boundaries. Most of the women in the history of Christianity have had to deal with ministry boundaries that weren’t of God. Yet, many still were able to influence their arena of assignment. St Teresa of Avila is one such example.
Born in 1515, and entering a convent at age sixteen, this remarkable woman was able to reform the Carmelite convents and produced writings that mark her as one of the great Christian mystics. Although I don’t agree with all of her Catholic doctrine, I was struck by her ability to accomplish the things she felt God had assigned her within the boundaries of a very gender biased society. Even the Spanish Inquisition didn’t quite know what to do with Teresa of Avila. It was their practice to burn anyone at the stake that seemed “out of line” with the church and a practical, confident, spiritual and assertive woman often challenged their status quo.
Teresa was able to creatively accomplish her goals because she clearly understood the boundaries in which she had to work. She had the assurance of a man, but didn’t find it inappropriate to address her womanhood in demeaning terms. Such communication would often open doors for her ministry in high places where men ruled. Personally, I don’t think I could do that. However, I am not living in the 16th century as a woman leader!
What are the boundaries in which you have to minister? Is gender bias one of them? If such boundaries are tight and challenging, can they be addressed and changed? If not, how can you creatively accomplish your ministry assignment within those boundaries?
Pass on the baton. One of the most frustrating things our oldest daughter encountered during her time at Bible College was the open admission of gender bias among many of the young men. These were some of the future pastors of our churches! Yet they readily promoted their belief that women should not be in leadership positions within a church. Many late night debates over this issue are still fresh in her mind.
Passing the baton of gender equality on to our natural and spiritual descendents is our responsibility. What convictions are you passing on to the next generation whether in your home or within the church where you fellowship? Is there an understanding of the God given differences between male and female, yet a comprehension of their equality before God and in ministry? Do they have a scriptural foundation for their beliefs that will motivate their attitudes and behavior in marriage and in ministry? How well do you know the scriptures confirming such convictions?
Keep an eternal perspective. Remember that your real ministry is in eternity future. This life is just a training ground for eternal things. How you relate with others and process your differences is far more important to God than even your worship (see Matthew 5:23, 24). The gender challenges you currently face will be non-existent for you 100 years from now. However, the believers you have positively or negatively affected will still be at your side as you stand before the Lord. Choose your battles wisely and may eternity ring with the declaration that, as Deborah of old, you truly were a “Mother In Israel.”
Medwick, Cathleen. Teresa of Avila, The Progress of a Soul. New York, NY: Doubleday, c. 1999
Copyright 2001 by Susan Gaddis