In research recently done by Susan R. Madsen of Utah Valley University, an interesting similarity among women leaders was found. Surveyed women said the reason they are leaders is because they had supportive family and friends—most notably their fathers—who helped them discover their voice and encouraged them to be leaders.
My family certainly played a role in encouraging me to be a leader, especially my father. While I was growing up, my dad always believed in me and held me to high standards, pushing me to do my best. Even as a child, he valued what I had to say, and he took interest in the things I was interested in. He’s still one of my biggest supporters today, and I have no doubt that this lifelong support helped give me the confidence to lead.
What’s often difficult for women, though, is when we leave the safe confines of our support systems and enter the world of leadership—whether in ministry, the workplace, or elsewhere. Women face unique challenges in leadership, including direct opposition. Despite this, “women now occupy almost every conceivable role in public life. They manage companies, build cities, and start civil-rights movements. They care for children, volunteer at schools, and lead worship. They practice medicine, create art, and run countries”—according to a recent article in The Atlantic. On the other hand, women make up less than 40 percent of managers in the workplace—despite making up over half the U.S. population—and they’re paid nearly $11,000 less than men.
Women Face Unique Challenges
Recently, we surveyed you, our readers, and we learned so many great things about you and what you face. For starters, nearly all of you minister on a volunteer basis—even if your title is minister or pastor. And while that fact utterly frustrated me, it also brought a smile to my face thinking about your determination and commitment. Of course, so much of church work consists of things we love to do—things we offer to do free of charge. But I also know this can be a huge hindrance to women leaders, especially when that role requires a significant time investment. It can force women to lead elsewhere in order to financially support their families. Others may have to take on other work so they can volunteer and still have the financial resources they need.
There were several other challenges specific to being a woman leader that you voiced through our survey. Many of you shared that you struggle with communicating effectively with male coworkers, not being taken seriously in your church, and navigating the lack of ministry opportunities available for women. You also talked about the frustration of balancing your time—not so much in the clichéd home-work balance sense, but in balancing a full-time ministry workload in your 10 available hours each week. The problem is even more acutely felt if you’re not paid for your work. After all, many households depend on the income women provide.
Mainstream research supports much of what you experience. Women leaders in all sorts of contexts face many of the same issues. In many ways, we can learn from women breaking into other traditionally male-dominated fields. Certainly the church environment is (and should be) different than that of an engineering firm, but women leaders in both fields face some of the same issues, and we may be able to learn from and support one another. For instance, women in technology, engineering, and craftsmanship fields and women leaders in the church are often the first women in their role and often primarily work with men. In addition, even if women haven’t been kept out of the field intentionally, many of the men aren’t exactly sure how to treat the women who are there now. With ignorance often comes snafus that range from chuckle-worthy to cringe-worthy. Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently said in an interview with The Atlantic that, “when a position is held by men for a long time, there’s a paradigm that gets built . . . so as women move into positions and take them, then you have to change the paradigm.”
Women in the church feel this immensely. After all, few churches have women in upper levels of leadership, and even fewer have women lead pastors. Of course, theological understandings of women and leadership vary from denomination to denomination and from church to church, and these affect the leadership opportunities for women. Even in churches that affirm women in leadership, though, male leaders often outnumber women leaders. And that’s despite the fact that women outnumber men in congregations.
Knowing this, I was amazed to see on our survey the diverse ministries that you are involved in: women’s ministry, small groups, discipleship, administration, teaching, pastoring, worship, youth and children’s ministry, hospitality, outreach, missions, diaconate, arts, refugee, and more. What a beautiful picture of the church! What’s more, you expressed confidence that God has called you, and that he is using you in powerful ways. Despite the many hurdles women leaders have to jump, you are staying the course, committed to living out your calling, and I, for one, am grateful.
Two Things You Need to Know
As a result of our survey I have a few quick messages for you. First of all, we see you and we hear you. You probably don’t hear that enough, and we at Gifted for Leadership want you to hear that continually from us. We see the work you’re doing, and we hear the tough stuff you face. You are not forgotten. You are not invisible. We are in awe of the ways you’re living out your God-given calling.
Secondly, I don’t want you to walk alone. Many times, women leaders are surrounded primarily by men, and while we love our brothers in Christ, there’s great benefit to some time alone with our sisters. Far too often women get the bad rap of being catty and trampling on our fellow sisters so we can get ahead. Some women openly say they don’t like other women because they’ve experienced these negative effects (I have been this woman in the past). But one very important thing I’ve learned as a woman leader that was put so nicely by Robert Ingersoll is this: We rise by lifting others. (Ingersoll, by the way, lived from 1833–1899 and was an abolitionist and supported women’s suffrage!)
My prayer is that Gifted for Leadership is a safe space for women in ministry—for you—to be encouraged, hear others’ stories, find practical tips to help you lead effectively, and feel part of a movement of women leaders. You are not alone, and we want to help you fully embrace your calling and lead in the strength of being a woman. We don’t all come from the same denomination or tribe, but that diversity only makes us stronger. Thanks for being part of Gifted for Leadership. We’re cheering you on!
For an overview on what women leaders in the church face, read “Blessings and Burdens for Women Leaders.”
Amy Jackson is managing editor of Gifted for Leadership.