Jo Dee Ahmann saw a problem in her church: another faltering startup ministry. And she believed she knew the solution: coaching. As a life coach, she realized that she had the gifts to help.

“I love the process of discovery—taking disjointed thoughts, feelings, emotions, and events, and talking through it all until a way forward emerges,” she said. “I could help give that ministry the structure it needs through coaching and walk with it until it’s successfully run.”

Her skills had been welcomed before by the leaders at Independent Bible Church in Port Angeles, Washington. She’d taught a class on basic coaching skills to the pastors and elders. So she told church leaders what she saw and offered to join the staff as a ministry coach. Initially, the pastors were excited about the idea and asked her for a job description.

But then there was a pause—and a question. How should a complementarian church involve women?

“What does it look like for Jo Dee as a woman who has these shepherding gifts . . . to serve with her gifting in our church?” said Aaron Bacon, the church’s lead pastor. “She has that gift but can’t fulfill that office, formally. I see these passages with more freedom, but within certain bounds. This is where the line gets a little fuzzy.”

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) met 33 years ago in Danvers, Massachusetts, with the goal of clearly articulating God-given gender roles. The result was the Danvers Statement and the theological position that the original signers, including John Piper and Wayne Grudem, termed “complementarianism.” When it came to church leadership, they said, the Bible was clear: “Some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”

Over the years, CBMW leaders have been seen as the voice of the movement, and they frequently weighed in on new versions of the debate over women’s roles in church. But as the national conversation turns to other issues, complementarian churches still struggle on a local level with the broad biblical standards set forth by Danvers. As more pastors embrace a “generous” complementarian view, committed to helping women use their gifts, they find themselves debating gender roles on a case-by-case basis as they seek to apply the teaching in specific contexts.

Can women serve on the pastoral staff if they don’t teach men? Can they lead a Bible study that includes teenage boys? Can they make financial decisions that impact the church? What about reading the Bible or praying in a service? If they can teach a class on a topic like coaching, can they also join the pastoral staff to focus on coaching?

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Women in complementarian churches are left doing “gymnastics,” according to Wendy Wilson, executive director of Women’s Development Track. As they try to figure out what complementarianism means for them in their particular situations, tension can build.

Grudem, one of the architects of the Danvers Statement, doesn’t personally see much tension. There was conflict over women in ministry in the ’80s, he said, but in the past 30 years, “my impression is that most churches have long ago settled their position of roles of men and women in the church and there isn’t nearly as much turmoil and controversy.”

But Grudem agrees that complementarianism doesn’t spell out what women can and can’t do in every church context. He says that’s because Scripture doesn’t give instructions for each and every situation. According to Grudem’s book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, there are 81 common tasks in a church and 67 of them are biblically open to women.

For anything else, pastors just need to make a judgment call, Grudem said.

That can be a difficult solution, though. When women in some complementarian churches ask where the lines are, they are accused of challenging authority, being disruptive, and creating problems.

If women have to ask their pastors how they can serve on a case-by-case basis, it’s imperative that the men not feel threatened by that process, said Denny Burk, current president of CBMW.

“Every shepherd needs to be open to feedback from the sheep,” Burk said. “That doesn’t mean the sheep are leading. It just means that a good shepherd will be attuned to the struggles of the people he serves.”

In recent years, the conversation around gender in the church has focused more on transgenderism and “unbiblical notions of justice and representation,” Burk said. In complementarian churches, the issue of male headship is settled. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for ongoing teaching and discussion about how that works out in practice.

“Unless and until pastors resolve to bring clarity, they will leave both men and women floundering,” Burk said.

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At Moody Bible Institute, a traditionally complementarian institution, pastoral studies professor Pamela MacRae teaches a class for men training to be ministers. One of the things she focuses on is how to pastor women.

“Many women have felt that overbearing influence,” she tells students. “There is a place for overseers and elders who are charged in a unique way for the ministry of the church. But that does not mean they are to be overbearing.”

When complementarian men don’t listen to women, MacRae said, they’re missing how God works. The Bible shows God speak to men and women.

“I want men to faithfully learn from those who God puts in their path,” she said, “to engage deeply with what God meant by having both prophetesses and prophets. I want them to contend with what God intended for the church when the Holy Spirit was poured out on both men and women.”

Other complementarians emphasize the need to be clear about titles. And perhaps rethink the labels for lay ministers.

“If churches are going to use non-biblical language like ‘executive leadership team’ or ‘missions committee chairman,’ ” wrote Jonathan Leeman, the editor of 9Marks Journal, “then they should be more careful about explaining to their congregations whether those positions represent elder leadership or diaconal leadership. They should work harder at keeping every position inside of one of those two lanes.”

Not all complementarians work in completely complementarian contexts, of course. In parachurch organizations, there is often a mix of ideas as believers come together for a common mission. The varying views can prove challenging for leaders, said Jim Stamberg, an area director for SEND North, a division of SEND International, which commissions about 500 missionaries in Asia, Eurasia, Europe, and North America.

“In ministry, there are so many needs,” Stamberg said. “I want to make sure we are not unnecessarily restricting people from serving in whatever capacity they’re best suited for. The challenge is doing it in such a way that we don’t ostracize or polarize people on either side so we can focus on the mission at hand and try to move forward in unity.”

SEND North has recently created husband-wife leadership teams, allowing women to be part of strategic decisions alongside their husbands. Members recently voted on whether to change the bylaws so that women could serve on the organization’s governing council. The change failed to pass with the needed two-thirds majority—the vote split right down the middle.

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Conversation is an important key to working through continued differences and finding ways to include women while focusing on theology, according to Wilson. Women’s Development Track conferences allow people from churches and nonprofits to talk with others who believe in the authority of Scripture about beliefs, concerns, and tensions surrounding women in ministry.

“Give yourself an opportunity to listen to each other,” Wilson said. “We don’t have to agree with each other. If I don’t agree with that, ask, ‘Why? Is it because it’s what I’m used to? Or is this God’s heart for me?’ ”

In Washington State, Bacon is trying to lead his church through this conversation. The church leadership is not reconsidering its beliefs about biblical gender roles but is reviewing practices, operations, and bylaws to see whether they communicate the church’s position on intentionally finding ways to include women’s gifts. The current structure may not actually reflect their beliefs.

Bacon noted, for example, that the bylaws specify different roles for deacons, who serve in financial matters, and deaconesses, who handle food and hospitality. The pastor would like to create a joint servant leadership team that allows both men and women to serve as they are gifted.

He was initially concerned it could be disruptive, he said, “but healthy disruptions are okay.” Informal conversations with key leaders, have been “very encouraging” so far, he said.

But it’s more than just theology at stake. Pastors also have to consider tradition, personalities, generational differences, fear of change, and the potential for church splits.

“Timing is everything,” Bacon said. “You could have a wake of devastation from pursuing the right thing but in the wrong timing. I want to make sure there is movement in the right direction. Going slow ensures that everybody is part of the solution.”

For Ahmann, who sees a problem in her church and has the skills to fix it, that means the question of how she can serve is being followed by a long pause. She has to be patient while the church that has welcomed her skills in other situations thinks through the specifics of this one. Thirty-three years after the meeting in Danvers, details are still being worked out.

“The ultimate goal is that Jo Dee is able to serve in a way that aligns with her God-given gifts,” Bacon said. “What does that look like? I don’t know. That’s what we’re grappling with together.”

Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist living in Colorado.

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