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The Final Church Barrier for Women: Church Planter

I just came back from the Exponential Conference, the nation's largest conference for church planters. I loved it. Nearly 2,700 church planters, apostles, cultural missionaries, entrepreneurs, and crazy people - the kind who take "It's never been done that way before" as a dare. My friend Dave Ferguson and a team help guide the conference, and he and his brother, Jon, are geniuses at creating life-giving cultures. Exponential is one: attenders focus on reaching people far from God, so they drop sectarian emphases and doctrinal disputes and come together for vision, teaching, prayer. Speakers and attenders represent Anglo, African-American, Asian, Latino and other cultures. Plenary sessions were led by pastors from India and Indonesia.

But where are the women?

Are there no women engaged in church planting? Their absence was conspicuous:

? Of the 8 plenary speakers, the number of women was zero.

? Of the 96 speakers listed in the program, only 11 were women, and almost all of those were teaching in the spouses' track. Most of the few exceptions taught about kids' ministry. Even if not many women are planting churches, many are launching Christian ministries (e.g., Catherine Rohr) and dealing with common issues of casting vision, raising funds, and building healthy teams.

? I hate to mention that the worship band comprised 5 men and 0 women, for the band was chosen because it came from a church plant, a decision I applaud. But it reinforced that the main stage was a Women Free Zone.

Compounding the absence was some insensitivity:

? In one seminar, the speaker asked a church planter to tell his story. Afterward, as people asked questions, the church-planter's wife, who stood in the back, spoke up and answered several questions. Obviously, she was a key partner in this church plant; why had she not been invited to the front of the room to help present?

? In another workshop, the presenter referred to church planters solely as "men" and "dudes." Granted his theological conviction that churches should be led only by men, but would it hurt to use pronouns like "leaders" or "planters" instead?

So where are the women? (Apparently, Dave Ferguson asked this question of Anne Jackson, whose blog-readers found a few.)

I asked Dave Olson, who directs church planting for The Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination that has among its church planters about 10 women. Dave explained, "For every 1 church plant by a mainline denomination, there are 9 church plants by an evangelical group, and most evangelical denominations were more open to women's leadership 100 years ago than they are today - for example, Evangelical Free, Baptist General Conference, Assemblies of God, various Holiness denominations, and the Wesleyan church." So church culture doesn't support the idea of women church planters.

What about the culture at large? Dave explained, "I've studied thousands of female pastors in mainline churches, and their churches declined faster than those of their male counterparts. That's partly because when a woman becomes a pastor, some people leave because they don't like the change. It's also because women get placed in churches that are smaller, older, and have a faster rate of decline before they arrived."

What about churches that were planted by women? "Among our 10 church planters who are women, their churches are generally not growing as quickly as the churches of their male counterparts."

So neither the church nor the culture is ready for women to plant churches. Too bad, since in order for Christianity just to maintain the same percentage of the American population, we need to boost our current 4,000 church plants per year to 6,900. The massive increase needed is made more difficult when we automatically exclude as leaders 60 percent of today's college graduates.

Will the situation change? Olson reflects, "I think it will be different in ten or twenty years, because for women today who are age 32 or under, the thought of going to a church where women cannot lead is increasingly unthinkable."

April25, 2009 at 10:03 AM

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