I have worked with students for over 30 years. Many of the most interesting conversations emerge during their first year away at college, when they are encountering many things outside of their comfort zone. Several years ago, I received this phone call from a student in her first year at a well-known Christian college:
Kelly: [familiar name shows up on my Caller ID] Hey Becki! (not her real name)
Becki: [voice quiet, almost a whisper] Hi Kelly. We need to talk!
Kelly: Becki, why are you whispering?
Becki: Because I’m hiding in my closet.
Kelly: WHAT? Are you OK?
Becki: I just got in a horrible argument with some guys in my dorm. We were swapping funny stories about our youth pastors, and I was telling them a funny story about you from camp, and it was going fine until I said “she.” They jumped all over that and told me that women can’t be pastors!
Kelly: Ah yes—that.
Becki: I had no idea! You never prepared me for this!
I just smiled and responded, “I shouldn’t have to ‘prepare’ you. Becki; I have never believed that any of you needed to be taught about women as pastors, because I think it’s better just to live it!”
She laughed, somewhat relieved, and we kept talking so she could process her experience. In the end, I sent her a couple of articles and books that I felt gave the best explanation for women in leadership, and welcomed her to the next step of the learning process.
I have plenty of other anecdotes in this vein. Suffice it to say that in pursing vocational ministry since 1984, I have suffered some bumps and bruises along the way because of my gender. However, while I have faced resistance at various points, I have also had many years of incredible experiences and relationships along the way.
Before I continue, I would ask that we reframe this conversation: can we move from “Women in Ministry” to “Women in Leadership?” I do not think there is a church in America that could last more than three minutes without women serving in ministry! Think about who answers the phones, runs the nursery, coordinates the coffee hour, directs VBS, and arranges the potlucks… See what I’m saying? Clearly, the question is not one of whether or not women can minister, but whether it is biblically and theologically sound for them to lead.
There is not space here to engage in this conversation in depth. For solid theological exploration on this topic (in terms of affirming that women can lead), I commend you to Christians for Biblical Equality and The Junia Project among many others. My favorite book, hands down, is a simple and starkly insightful book titled The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. It is actually a book about hermeneutics that does a fantastic job explaining how to read all of scripture, and sets the stage for understanding a biblical basis for women in leadership.
For the time being, let’s get practical. In my career I have worked in parachurch ministry, church ministry, as a campus pastor at a Christian high school, as a professor at a Christian college, and now as a member of executive leadership for a denomination. What are the top three things I tell young leaders about what they should know about women in ministry leadership before entering the fray?
1. Save Your Bullets.
As I noted in the beginning, in these past 30 years, I have seen woeful little progress in changing the hearts and minds of some brothers and sisters in Christ who are still deeply entrenched in believing in male headship in church, marriage, and life. If you are invited to work in a context where this is the prevalent attitude, my advice is simple: don’t do it. It’s not worth the heartache, and you use the majority of your energy in fighting for something that has already been won in many quarters. Save your bullets for the real battle: advancing the kingdom of God.
2. You are a Pastor who is Female, not a Female Pastor.
I learned at the outset of my journey that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) To avoid being an “angry female,” seek to be a humble servant leader. Who happens to be a woman.
3. Lead According to Your Gifts, not your Gender.
I have learned the hard way that there are many different leadership styles. Much of how we learn to lead is from mentors, and I am sad to say that I had very few female role models. As one friend of mine calls it, I have benefited from many Benevolent Male Advocates (BMAs!) That being said, it took me awhile to realize that while I desperately needed their encouragement and support, I did not necessarily need to lead like those male mentors. I needed to lead in the way I felt gifted to lead, and that has been a slow and deliberate process of learning over many years.
Some will tell you that there is a male approach to leadership and a female approach to leadership. While there are some generalities that I could agree upon, I would also say that each person, male or female, leads a little differently. May we contribute to that larger conversation as we enter leadership, inviting everyone to lead in the ways that fit them best.