By Jill Richardson
When my pastor asked the college students at our small church what they felt God calling them to do, no one expected my answer.
“I think God is calling me into ministry.”
“Great! What kind of ministry?”
Laughing, I answered, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take your job.”
The congregation didn’t laugh.
“I knew then I would eventually have to leave the church that introduced me to Jesus.”
As a new believer, I had no idea women might not be “allowed” to be pastors. My parents, teachers, and professors told me I could be whatever I chose. It never occurred to me that the church, of all places, would deny that. When the pastor took me to lunch that week to explain, I didn’t know how to respond. I knew I was called. I knew then I would eventually have to leave the church that introduced me to Jesus. He knew it too, and he tacitly gave me permission to follow that call.
Women, who have traditionally been the majority of the church, are leaving it in record numbers. From 2003 to 2019, women left the church at rates three times that of men.
Reasons are legion. Busyness, economic needs, skepticism of authority and institutions, increased mobility, and later marriage/children are all factors. All of these, though, are also true of men.
Women have other reasons, related to my naiveté as a 20-year-old.
Barna surveys uncover those details: “Pointing to the disconnect between the consistent messages girls are receiving from the culture as they grow up (‘You can do anything you want; there are no limitations for you’) and the limitations the church places on women, women are asking ‘Why are there glass ceilings at church when I don’t have those in the rest of my life?’”
Many women (and men) imagine a church they won’t want to leave. We’re struggling with roadblocks, even in places that welcome us — on paper at least. Why the great exodus of women in particular? I invite you to imagine women leading with their full voices. That picture will give us the clues we need and the future we anticipate. Let’s imagine:
- 100 percent of a church’s people freed for gifted ministry
Nowhere does Scripture indicate that certain gifts are given only to men. We can assume then that gifts of leadership, teaching, discernment, wisdom, and preaching are distributed equally.
Women spend their careers honing these gifts. They lead in boardrooms, teach in classrooms, establish vision in nonprofits, and bring wisdom in therapist offices. Why would we stifle these needed talents?
Imagine the energy of a church fully unleashing the gifts of all of its members. Imagine the brilliant ideas for community involvement, revenue streams, or building use that lie untapped right now in the mind of some woman or teen girl in your congregation. The church defrauds itself, and God’s calling, by shackling half its members’ gifts.
“Imagine a church where leadership is not a competition but a team.”
- A church that is more connectional, empathetic, and team-oriented
Whether by nature or social pressure, women tend to have these leadership qualities more than men. Obviously, these are generalities, and many women and men don’t fit them. Nevertheless, churches miss something with all-male leadership that often silos off in a hierarchy. Imagine a team that gathers at a table to trade ideas and form bridges, not silos.
Women are more likely to intuit how church decisions will affect members. Imagine a church where leadership is not a competition but a team, working to disciple people who they see as humans with real hopes, traumas, joys, and obstacles. Maybe our discipleship dilemma would see breakthrough.
- Vision and teaching that brings new perspectives, histories, and stories to the table
From their experience, women notice context men can’t. We bring a new look at tired and inaccurate interpretations. We bring stories that must be reckoned with before we can blithely teach about forgiveness, injustice, or relationships. This is exponentially true of women of color.
For instance: This week I taught about divorce. A painful event that no one plans, divorce has been taught through a male lens. How do I know this? I know because a perusal of Micah 2:16 (where we read the phrase “God hates divorce”) shows a context of men discarding the “wives of their youth” for younger models. What God hates is the practice of tossing aside women who cannot support themselves in order for men to feel better about their midlife crisis. I’ve never heard the verse read in its entirely when teaching on this topic.
It’s not an academic trifle. Women I know have been abused and impoverished because they trusted this abridged perspective. The advisability of Christians divorcing aside, we’ve done serious harm that could be avoided if women’s insight and experience were sought. Imagine the hurting people who might be consoled if women preached some of the Bible’s key stories.
- A community of healthier marriages and singleness
One of the reasons women leave the church is that they are marrying later and the church, they say, has little welcome for single women. Again, in their daily work life, they find welcome and praise for their skills. But in the church? Crickets. Imagine offering single women significant leadership instead. The chance of your church becoming an attractive space for Gen Z and Millennial adults booms.
“Marriages where women feel equal, respected, and valued are statistically stronger.”
Similarly, respect for women’s leadership can improve marital health. While no theology guarantees safety, “virtually all the scholarly studies on domestic abuse and violence agree the premise men should lead and women be submissive is the most consistent predicator of violence against women.” Marriages where women feel equal, respected, and valued are statistically stronger. In fact, they’re healthier for the body, too — churchgoing is correlated with increased wellbeing for everyone except women in marriages where men take authority.
The Bible affirms both marriage and singleness that bless the community. Women’s leadership helps get us there.
- A lower incidence of sexual and power abuse
Nearly half of women say they feel no emotional support at church — and it’s not surprising considering the trauma many have faced.
Most of us have seen the names Hybels, Zacharias, Bickle, and Pressler in the news. We’ve heard of the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Southern Baptist Church. All of these stories have one thing in common — an authoritarian man who abused his power and a system created to protect him.
Again, women sitting on church boards and in pulpits won’t magically erase this possibility. Imagine with me, though, the healing waves that could pass through the church if women were in positions of power to act on behalf of the abused. Imagine the message that would send to women in the pews who feel unseen and afraid.
- A positive reputation
I don’t need to tell you that the church isn’t enjoying a moment of popularity right now. People are leaving, young and old both, because they see that what many churches practice isn’t what Jesus taught. We’re the butt of all the jokes. The saddest part is: It’s not persecution. It’s the consequences of our own actions come home.
If women in leadership could help create less abuse, stronger marriages, interpretation with more integrity, and less adherence to self-preserving power structures, how do you imagine people’s opinion of us might change?
- A closer tie to the early church and Scripture
Women don’t want leadership in ministry because we respect the Bible less but because we respect it deeply. We know the entire arc of Scripture goes from God pronouncing Eve an ezer kenegdo — a strong, compatible, equal image-bearer — to Jesus calling Mary to sit as His feet as a disciple to Paul commending his women co-workers in the gospel. We know our Lord took women’s minds and gifts seriously. We see them working and dying for the gospel for the first few hundred years of church history. We balance that against a theology that prioritizes a few (misunderstood) verses of Paul’s letters and are aware that the latter is the position that doesn’t take the entire Bible seriously.
“It’s impossible to put into practice what you can’t imagine.”
Imagine a church that wanted to be more like the one Jesus began on that Passover night. Imagine a church whose commitment to Scripture demanded an overarching view and unflinchingly confronted narrow interpretive choices. We’d all — not just women —be richer for that.
It’s difficult to imagine what you’ve never seen. It’s impossible to put into practice what you can’t imagine. In many churches, girls and women have never seen a woman in ministry leadership. Neither have boys or men. That’s why having a woman in the pulpit, teaching regularly, can change the entire trajectory of a church’s imagining.
The Free Methodist Church, like other Wesleyan denominations, is beginning an initiative called PreacHer Sunday for this purpose — imagining. We want to see a woman in every pulpit several times a year. It’s a small step, but it has a big payoff. Seeing women leading is the most important factor in learning to support them. What could happen if people saw women preaching in your church? Imagine it with us.
Jill Richardson, D.Min., pastors Real Hope Community Church in suburban Chicago. Her doctorate is in church leadership in a changing context, with a focus on the next generation and preaching. Her tagline is “Reframed: Picturing Faith With the Next Generation,” and her passion is to work with the next generation to create a healthy church for the 21st century. She is part of the steering team for Advocates for Women in Leadership, a group of women leaders in the Free Methodist Church USA. She also enjoys traveling, gardening, volunteering with World Relief, breaking out in random musical numbers, and a good cup of Earl Grey tea. Click here for her “The Light + Life Podcast” conversation with Brett Heintzman on “Advocating for Women in Church Leadership.”
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