They say the journey to the top is a lonely one. While that statement is meant to address most leadership positions, it is the ever present reality of women in church leadership. When a woman enters the pulpit at most moderate evangelical churches they are often the first or one of few women that the congregation has ever encountered in that role.

She becomes a pioneer,
a trailblazer,
and too often, a scapegoat.

Those who have listened or cringed during her sermon rarely recognize that she has had to develop a thick skin in order to take on the role of pastor and preacher. She has already memorized the passages of scripture that she routinely uses to defend her calling, she knows the precise literature to direct her naysayers to read and she is ready for the potential criticisms that may follow.

Unfortunately, this is what she expected.

From the moment she recognized God’s call to be one of his daughters who prophesy, she expected congregations, board members and traditionalists to put up a fight,
to question and
to worry
about the challenges and the ethics of a woman who leads.

Thus it is not the individual congregations that make being at the top lonely, after all in their wrestling for truth they have chosen a “she” to lead them. No, it is not the obvious ones who make her feel small or alone. It is not the congregation that hurts her with their initial awkwardness, rather it is the community of pastors, colleagues and fellow church leaders that often leave her surrounded, yet unsupported.

I had a recent conversation with a colleague and I was amazed at all of the connections he has developed within his denomination and among other pastors. He spoke of deep connections with local and distant pastors with an air of ease that I was not familiar. I listened with curiosity as I evaluated my own encounters in similar circles, which proved to have vastly different outcomes and much more shallow engagements with fellow pastors. As I reflected and thought about the differences between us the answer to my question was simple:

I am a woman and he is a man.

From my youngest days as a church attendee I have been warned to avoid “the appearance of evil” when it came to building relationships with male members of the church. We were often separated for spiritual conversations and prayer, as though God disapproved of mixed gender conversation. We were often cautioned about the dangers of exposing ourselves emotionally in the presence of the opposite sex. Thus, friendship outside of mild professional “hellos” and “how are yous” have always been portrayed as tenuous and even dangerous ground. This set the stage for ideas that men and women need not build relationships with one another, for fear of our insidious lack of self control, and more importantly our innate inability to have real friendships with the opposite sex. Once we reach adulthood, in the world of the church, we find ourselves still cautiously separated. Strangely, in every other sphere of life we see that men and women are quite capable of friendships that are real and conversations that hold depth.

Yet, in the church setting this gap between the sexes proves hard to mend.

We were separated for spiritual conversations and prayer, as though God disapproved of mixed gender conversation Click To Tweet

I have sat at many tables of pastors where I am the lone female voice. As I enter the room there is often an element of surprise and curiosity, all which grow exponentially when they discover that I am not a children’s pastor who has found herself in the wrong room, but a lead pastor coming to join her peers. The reaction to this news is always varied from the theological wheels turning, to the congratulatory remarks as though I have just been ordained in their presence. In gatherings of mixed evangelical and mainline traditions this could be excused by their unfamiliarity with women in church leadership, Yet the reaction is often the same in circles of  pastors where women have been ordained and empowered to preach for decades. Somehow, although they support the teaching, the theology and love to brag about their denomination’s acceptance of women at the “table,” they find it very hard to accept the woman who is seated next to them at their table.

So how do we change the dynamic from one where women are more than invited to join but are also welcomed to get comfortable, put their feet up and feel at home? How do we move from celebrating the token women who join our leadership ranks to embracing fellow leaders and colleagues who work with us.

From Invitation to Welcome

On two occasions I entered settings where I was the lone female lead pastor in a gathering of men who were a part of a denomination that celebrates female leadership. On both occasions the initial reactions of my colleagues were less than welcoming. In one group a member made it clear, within the first few moments, that they took Paul’s teachings to mean that a woman should not teach a man, but that they appreciated enough about the denomination that they were willing to overlook such issues as non-essentials. At the second gathering, as I joined the conversation a male pastor asked, as I was introduced to the group: what changes to content, topics and conversation needed to be considered, now that a woman was present.

On both occasions the individuals were left feeling satisfied that they had communicated their feelings honestly, while I was left with my defences up as I weighed the dwindling possibility that this could be a safe space of dialogue among colleagues and friends.

In both cases the situation was redeemed by voices of other men at the table who countered these “confessions” with a reprimand, and offered reassurance to me that this is where I belonged.  They reset the tone of the conversation to be one that moved beyond the invitation and extended into a gracious welcome.

Engage rather than Ignore

I recall being asked to sit on a citywide ministerial committee that was actively looking to move away from an all male leadership team. As I joined this group it became clear those who found my presence a sign of progress, versus those who felt it was unnecessary. As ideas were shared and plans made, I was often talked over and reminded that “it takes time” to get the hang of it all. The new male board members had a different experience, they were listened to, uninterrupted – their ideas considered, applauded and accepted. Following the initial meetings I made a decision that I was not going to be ignored.

I would engage and I would lead when the opportunity arose.

Where the status quo had decided to ignore me, rather than to engage with me; I refused to follow their lead, and slowly but surely, I was listened to more than I was not. When we invite women to lead along side us, there is no greater disappointment than when the invitation is for a show of equality, rather than true equality. To be made welcome and comfortable is to be given the freedom to engage, dialogue and discuss openly as peers regardless of gender.

There is no greater disappointment than when the invitation to women is a show of equality rather than true equality Click To Tweet

Befriend rather than be afraid

When we welcome and when we engage, we begin to change the culture of fear that permeates the church – the fear that women and men working together will lead to immorality and temptation, rather than collaboration and friendship. Women who are lead pastors or part of a leadership team have fewer opportunities to connect with like-minded women – so it is the responsibility of the majority to take up the cause of the minority. It is up to male leaders to find ways and opportunities to include the women – not at arm’s length, but as comrades, collaborators, colleagues and friends.

We are not simply the token female voice or mentor for future female leaders, rather
we are people with ideas,
with suggestions,
with experience,
in need of support,
encouragement and

While the temptation in society is to dismiss the voice that is different and to downplay the perspectives of the stranger or the newcomer at the table, there is always a better way:

female and male leaders can
ask each other questions,
listen to one another’s answers,
encourage each other’ endeavours,
pray for one another,
mourn together,
have fun with one another and
learn to celebrate each other’s victories together.

This is what it looks like to be invited and welcomed, to be engaged rather than ignored, to be considered a friend rather than a threat. This is what it looks like when we do Kingdom work together.

Join us to continue this conversation at In the Company of Women: Reclaiming & Envisioning Shared Leadership in the Kingdom, May 19, 2017, Toronto, ON, Canada. Stories from Sarah Bessey, Linda Ambrose, Keitha Ogbogu, Elle Pyke, Jared Siebert and many more!