Fourteen years ago, my family and I planted a United Methodist congregation in Evans, Georgia. We were what is called in church-planting circles a “parachute drop,” as we had no preexisting relationships in the community heading into this venture. In the days of birthing this church, we had no idea how blessed or how challenged we would be by this venture. The work of starting a new church is challenging for the best among pastors. In this work, women planters especially must be eyes-wide-open to the gender-based differences that can create natural barriers to success.
George Barna reports that between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of women pastors doubled; yet, the rate of growth among women church planters has not kept pace. Dave Olsen, who directs church planting for the Evangelical Covenant Church, has studied thousands of female pastors in mainline churches and has followed the handful of female church planters in his own denomination. His conclusion? “Neither the church nor the culture is ready for women to plant churches.” Church planting is still a ministry field very much oriented toward men. How can the church best affirm the call of women uniquely gifted to start new churches so they have the most opportunity for success?
For the sake of advancing the kingdom of God, this is a question worth answering. Women who plant churches stand at the intersection of Acts 1:8 and Gal 3:28. As an evangelist, they are actively engaged in developing new systems for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in their “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even to the ends of the earth.” As women in church leadership, they embrace the freedom of Gal 3:28, believing with Paul that in Christ all are gifted and called to serve. From this intersection of Acts and Galatians, women view the future of the American church, and it is urging them to lead. After all, the fields are white for harvest and every hand is needed.
Women who hear God’s call to church planting must have every resource at their disposal so they can bear much fruit. What resources can be unleashed so women can succeed as planters, leaders, and developers in the twenty-first century church? What changes must be embraced so women are better equipped to master the natural barriers they face? What strategies will best help them lead past those barriers so they can successfully plant and sustain kingdom-advancing communities? Let’s begin with a look at some of the barriers faced by women who plant and lead churches.
The Theological Barrier
The argument against female leadership within the church begins in the Garden of Eden, with the question of whether female subordination is a fact of creation or a result of the fall. A resurgence in reformed theology leaves many believing women are not designed for leadership. Wayne Grudem, a prolific advocate of the complementarian worldview, notes that Adam was created first, before Eve; therefore, Adam is the leader and Eve’s role is to follow (Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism [Multnomah, 2010], 67). Further, Eve is referred to as a “helper” — indicating her role as an assistant to the man as he leads. John Piper is quick to point out that women can lead women and children, just not men (Anugrah Kumar, “John Piper Explains Why Women Shouldn’t Lead Men,” Christian Post [October 30, 2011]). Piper makes it clear that this is not just a matter for the home. “We are persuaded that the Bible teaches that only men should be pastors and elders … it is unbiblical, we believe, and therefore detrimental, for women to assume this role” (John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers”). Clearly, women — especially theologically conservative women — face a significant theological barrier to leadership, a barrier that will not disappear in this generation. Women must cast a wider net in order to gather a congregation and raise up leaders.
The Perception Barrier
Consciously or not, many view women leaders in a different and perhaps negative light. Most people have an opinion about how they want their leaders to act; yet, the leadership style of women may be different from what is most usual or comfortable. Since the Fall, men and women have been pitted against each other and their stereotypical behaviors have become the norm for measuring likability. When women violate that norm, they pay a price in reputation; people tend to link assertive behavior with men and find it unattractive in women. This perception places women in a double bind. “In experiment after experiment, when women achieve in distinctly male arenas, they are seen as competent but are less well liked than equally successful men. By the same token, when women performing traditionally male roles are seen as nice, they are liked but not respected” (Robin Ely, Herminia Ibarra, and Deborah Kolb, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” Harvard Business Review [September, 2013]: 18). For women themselves, this attitude creates an inner tension even while it adds pressure to the work of effective leadership.
Self-Image: How Women Leaders Perceive Themselves
Much like the proverbial chicken-and-egg question, it is difficult to say which comes first. Do leaders, or does their impaired self-image, create negative perceptions that disable their leadership capacity? The answer is, “Yes.” Self-image and outside perception feed on one another. Women who struggle with a negative self-image as they enter leadership roles will find themselves on a steeper climb than those who don’t. Yet, even women who enter leadership with a healthy self-image will certainly find it threatened as they come face to face with the challenge of leading against a negative tide of opinion, a tide often unacknowledged, even unknowingly so.
The Double Bind: How Others Perceive Women Leaders
Add to this internal pressure the external pressure of a double standard and it is remarkable that as many women succeed as do. The presence of a bias in how leaders ought to act has been well documented. “The mismatch between conventionally feminine qualities and the qualities thought necessary for leadership puts female leaders in a double bind” (Ibarra, Ely, and Kolb). This leaves women with a personality problem to solve. Do they allow themselves to be true to their tendencies as leaders, risking the respect and enjoyment of their colleagues? Or do they remain true to gender stereotypes and place at risk their potential as leaders? The impact of these predicaments is often underestimated and possibly ignored in Wesleyan circles, where it is often assumed that the question of whether women can lead has been answered and is therefore no longer a conversation worth having.
The Resource Barrier
The resource barrier presents its own kind of double bind. Because women may not be able to keep pace with rapid-growth models, they may be seen as less successful than their male counterparts when they don’t meet benchmarks in targeted timeframes. When women don’t produce church growth at the same rate as their male colleagues, available denominational funds will default to the faster growing churches. Women are measured by the same yardstick and also punished by that yardstick.
The Benchmark Barrier
About 40% of women in business and political leadership believe they have to work harder or more than their male colleagues (Parker 31). Further, women report having to achieve higher standards and develop a more tailored set of management skills in order to compete with men (Kim Parker, “Women and Leadership,” Pew Research Center [January 14, 2015]). What is true in the secular world is surely true in an ecclesial world where the barriers are more obvious. Women leaders facing the same benchmarks as their male counterparts will have to work harder in order to reach those goals within specified time frames as they navigate past multiple other barriers.
The Pastoral Care Barrier
In a 2015 blog post, Carey Nieuwhof makes the argument that a pastor whose time and attention is focused on congregational care will lack sufficient time, resources or perspective to create church growth. This becomes a factor for women to acknowledge and negotiate, since women in general have a more nurturing, connected approach to relationship. Carol Gilligan notes that women tend to define themselves in terms of their relationships, “but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care” (In a Different Voice [Harvard University Press, 1962], 17). However, churches cannot sustain growth with a pastor-centered model. What people expect from clergy in general in terms of relational contact and pastoral care, they will likely expect from women, and more intently. Whether this ought to be the case is not the issue.
The Biological Barrier
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the seasons of life for women are markedly different than for men. From child-bearing years to midlife, women experience distinctive seasons that may present vocational challenges. This factor has been debated and discussed in volume after volume so the question of whether it ought to be isn’t to be answered here. The assumption is that it simply is, and is something women will need to acknowledge if they want to lead past it.
What Are the Solutions?
The emerging picture is not particularly attractive for women. There seems almost to be a fundamental dissonance between women’s ways of leading and the dynamics present in the church culture, particularly for planters. What tools and training can be placed into the hands of women called to the ministry of church leading, so that those who hear that call will have every resource at their disposal? At least six areas of possibility seem ripe for exploration.
Authority: When a United Methodist pastor is ordained, the bishop lays hands on her and charges her to “take authority as an elder.” How do women understand what authority looks like specifically for them? Do they have a theology of pastoral leadership wide enough to confidently include women (Jo Ann Deasy, “Father Images and Women Pastors: How Our Implicit Ecclesiologies Function,” in Doing Theology for the Church, ed. Rebekah A. Eklund and John E. Phelan [Wipf & Stock, 2014], 152)? There is a need for solid theological teaching to counteract cultural understandings of leadership as well as internal pressures to perform in prescribed but unnatural ways.
Identity: Any leader benefits from seasons of self-reflection and intentional exploration into their own self-image and ability to lead. Women need strategies to develop their own voice, authority and sense of identity as leaders.
Team-based Leadership Style: Because women in general are connected learners and value building relationships and working collaboratively, team-building becomes a natural strength for church development (Sharon Hadary and Laura Henderson, How Women Lead: The Eight Essential Strategies Successful Women Know [McGraw-Hill, 2012], 379; Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team [Jossey-Bass, 2002], 14; Mary Field Belenky, Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind [Basic Books, 2008], 102). How can women use collaborative leadership styles to their advantage? What coaching and resources will help them raise up the teams they lead?
Leadership mentors and coaches: Women need women leaders who can help them wade through the options to find the leadership identity framework out of which they can successfully lead at each stage (Catalyst, “The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership” [New York: Catalyst, 2007]; Herminia Ibarra and Jennifer Petriglieri, “Impossible Selves: Image Strategies and Identity Threat in Professional Women’s Career Transitions,” INSEAD [November 2007]: 21; Karen, O’Connor, ed., Gender and Women’s Leadership: A Reference Handbook [Sage Publications, 2010], 171). Mentors can also help women negotiate time management issues by helping them identify their personal pace and rhythm.
Networking: Networking is a key factor in the success of secular businesswomen. In short, familiarity breeds likability and respect (Shannon Kelley, “The Likability Problem”). What coaching and strategies will help women in church leadership cast a wider net while employing existing relationships to build new ones?
Play: Finally, women leaders need permission to lean in and enjoy this journey at a sustainable pace, recognizing that while they might have to work harder to make success happen in their context, there is also a limit to their time and energy. If a woman wants to succeed as a leader, she must value time with family and time to refuel. The point of leading is not just to succeed, but to enjoy the work God has given (“Shonda Rhimes on Running Three Hit Shows and the Limits of Network TV”).
Sheryl Sandberg ends her book on women in leadership by acknowledging that women do indeed have to work the angles in order to succeed. The fact that women have to negotiate biases and self-doubt is a sign they live on this side of Gen 3. However, their very willingness to navigate past those barriers will help them back across that line toward their created design even as they help the world move toward its completion, when all things will be made new again. Sandberg wisely and honestly gives this advice to all women, no less so to those who want to be part of that great kingdom-bringing work:
I understand the paradox of advising women to change the world by adhering to biased based rules and expectations. I understand it is not a perfect answer but a means to a desirable end. It is also true, as any good negotiator knows, that having a better understanding of the other side leads to a superior outcome…. My hope of course is that we won’t have to play by these archaic rules forever and that eventually we can all just be ourselves” (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead [Alfred Knopf, 2013], 48-49).