Editor's note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that one of my church’s leading families wrote a letter to the editor of our denominational magazine. In it, he criticized the Free Methodist stance on women pastors, fully and with notations.
I’d been aware of their disapproval—I’d simply thought it was personal, not doctrinal. As a new associate pastor, my responsibilities remained mostly behind the scenes. Not many people paid attention—but this family did. Shortly after, they left the church. Their decision didn’t make me popular.
A similar thing happened at my next church. There, the children’s director and her family found me acceptable as an associate pastor. When I became the senior pastor, however, we never saw them again.
I belong to an egalitarian denomination. I’ve never faced opposition to my calling as a pastor. Yet my story of congregation members leaving soon after I walked through the door isn’t unusual. Every woman pastor I’ve talked to has experienced the same.
Even in an egalitarian church, congregation members often don’t know the history or doctrine of the denomination as far as women are concerned. Patriarchal beliefs in American evangelicalism regarding women and men’s roles pervade most of our churches, even those that seem to empower women in leadership on paper.
Many lay members (and yes, even pastors) in egalitarian churches believe in complementarianism—and often, they’re not corrected or informed otherwise. This helps explain the exodus that begins, in my denomination and others, when a woman enters a church as pastor. It’s deeply disheartening for women pastors at the beginning of their ministry. It’s also destructive for churches already in the middle of a stressful leadership transition.
If churches are going to begin to truly welcome women in leadership, male leaders must recognize this danger in their own churches and begin to reshape thinking immediately. The time to prepare a congregation for a woman pastor isn’t when one is on the way. It’s now. Making it clear to your congregation that women can and ought to lead your church at any time forges a healthy transition to having one as pastor when it does happen. So male leaders, this list is for you.
Invite Women to Teach Now
Intentionally ensuring that people see a woman lead up front as often as you can normalizes it for congregation members who might find it unique or uncomfortable.
Here are some ideas:
- Before your next vacation or sabbatical, find a woman to fill your spot in the pulpit.
- Spend a few Sundays team teaching with a woman from the community or the congregation.
- Invite women in as guest preachers and listen in the front row. This tells the congregation that you not only “allow for” but fully support women in the pulpit.
- Swap pulpits with a woman pastor.
- Invite non-local women to preach or team teach via Zoom during your service. We’ve learned to do this now!
Teach Often About Women in the Bible
There are not very many male pastors who make it a habit to talk about the women in Scripture as often as they do the men. Have you preached on the faith and intelligence of Rahab, the strategic ability of Deborah, the leadership of Abigail, or the prophetic courage of Mary? When was your last sermon series on strong, heroic women?
It isn’t all praise and positivity, though. Pastors must also remember to teach clearly on the way women were treated in Scripture and how oppression or abuse occurred. Look at Hagar, the woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery in light of each woman’s experience in an oppressive culture and talk about Jesus’ refusal to contribute to or endorse that culture.
And of course, we cannot forget to emphasize the early women leaders of the church. For every reference to Peter or Paul, mention Lydia, Priscilla, or Junia. Teaching congregations about the rich history of women in Scripture who led bravely and boldly prepares them for the reality that this continues today.
Teach Your Doctrine on Women’s Equality
Our lead pastor years ago was teaching through 1 Corinthians, and he asked me to preach one week in his absence. The week in question proved God’s sense of humor—it was chapter 14. He wasn’t avoiding teaching on it—but many pastors do.
Don’t assume people know your doctrine or agree with it. Avoiding sermons and discussions about the church’s views on women or how to understand “difficult” passages might keep the peace, but it’s detrimental in the long run. Eventually, the woman who replaces you will have to deal with the fall out, as will the church you leave. Unequivocally and unapologetically teach what your church believes about the equality of women and men—and do it often enough that everyone knows where you stand. Don’t leave that as a footnote people are supposed to be aware of but aren’t.
Examine Those You Put in Leadership
I recently watched a church reject a female candidate for pastor because one of the board members didn’t believe in women as leaders. Yet he sat on the deciding board of an egalitarian church. Pastors, we cannot elevate people to leadership without being willing to confront their beliefs about women (or about other groups of people, for that matter). Yet we do it all the time. We like the person, trust him, think he’s a great guy. That’s not enough for leadership, especially when those who come after you will have to face down what you would not.
Before voting or appointing someone into leadership, ask questions.
- How would you feel if a woman were a pastoral candidate for this church? What would you do or ask her?
- What was your most recent experience working under a woman leader? Did you feel that she was competent?
- Do you support the doctrine of this church as it applies to women?
- How does your household (if married) reflect a belief in equality?
Decide Now You’re in It for Long-Haul Health
You will lose people. Assertively pursuing healthy gender equality in your church will cause conflict and grief in the short-term. It will be tempting to avoid that conflict. But that will only push the grief further down the road onto someone else when you’re gone. Choosing to honestly confront attitudes and beliefs that don’t fully respect women in all areas will require intentional planning and difficult conversations. Dedicate yourself to long-term health as opposed to short-term peace.
When we women pastors step into a church, we shouldn’t have to be surprised at letters to the editor or suddenly MIA children’s directors. With a little intentional allyship from the men who previously led these churches, we might not have to.
How A Pastor and A Church Changed Their Stance on Women in Ministry
Being Egalitarian Isn’t Enough: 3 Strategies to Cultivate an Egalitarian Church
We Need More Than A Hypothetical "Yes" to Women in Ministry