The glass ceiling for women in ministry only slightly cracked

I recently returned from the Exponential church planting conference in Orlando where I spent time thinking about women in ministry; especially women in church planting. I sat in on all three workshop sessions led or co-led by a woman in ministry who is a church planter strategist and a friend.

This strategist is the co-author of a recent book published by TCP Books entitled The Wholehearted Church Planter: Leadership from the Inside Out, and I serve as Senior Editor of these books. One session about women in church planting was co-led by Felicity Dale whose blog is Simply Church: A House Church Perspective. Felicity is also the lead author and editor of the new book The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the Church.

This workshop brought a diverse collection of people together to talk about the role of women in church planting. At least a dozen women present are currently planting congregations. The majority indicated they left their denomination of heritage to plant a new congregation. People with backgrounds in the Church of God [General Conference], Presbyterian Church—USA, Southern Baptist, the non-denominational world, and other groups talked about their journey to a safe place where they could be seen as the pastor of a new congregation.

Several are planting congregations through parachurch organizations as that is easier than getting recognized and supported by denominations. Some moved away from their denomination because it would not recognize women as pastors of new congregations.

Others shifted to another relationship because although their denominations said women could plant churches, the reality was that opportunities for women were limited. The glass ceiling was low and had only been slightly cracked. No breakthrough had occurred. One person reported the funding for individual females serving as a church planter was less than the funding given to individual male church planters. I did not have a chance to verify this.

Is Exponential Open to Women as Church Planters?

Theoretically the answer is “yes”. Practically subtle barriers exist—the glass ceiling—that are hard to break through. Two women planting congregations were present in the women in church planting workshop with their male spouses. In at least one case when they registered at Exponential it was assumed the male was the planter and the female was the spouse. That led the husband to write on his name tag the phrase “Not the Pastor”.

Only one woman was scheduled as a plenary speaker [among 20 or so speakers] during Exponential. Unfortunately she spoke at the same hour as this workshop on women in church planting. Thus, women had to make a choice between gathering with other women church planters and hearing the only woman to be on the main stage as a speaker. Let’s acknowledge Exponential is making progress. It is just incremental progress. It is not fast enough.

Is Your Denomination Open to Women as Church Planters and Other Leadership Roles?

I guess that depends on what you mean by open. Has the glass ceiling at least been cracked? Have women broken through as church planters with significant frequency? Have they broken through in other areas of ministry leadership?

Some denominations encourage women to pursue ministry preparation by means of a theological degree and ordination, but then have problems connecting them with a ministry position—much less as pastor—in a congregation. Many of these women would make great candidates to start new congregations.

Several decades ago it was cool for congregations, where the denominational polity allowed, to ordain women to ministry. However, that is different than saying churches want a woman as pastor. In one celebrated case it took 50 years after a church ordained a woman to Christian ministry before they themselves called a woman as their pastor.

Various denominational roles are open to women. A few weeks ago I met with congregational and denominational leaders in Indiana and Ohio. Three were General Presbyters for Presbyteries. Two of these were women. Other women who lead their denomination’s region were also present in dialogue settings.

If my memory is correct five denominations in the United States are led by women. They are Suzii Paynter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Sharon Watkins of the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], Katharine Jefferts Schori of The Episcopal Church, Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Jo Anne Lyon of The Wesleyan Church. For these denominations the glass ceiling is broken—perhaps still not shattered.

Even with this progress the overall concept of the glass ceiling for women is only slightly cracked.

George Bullard

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About the Author
George is President of The Columbia Partnership at, This is a Christian ministry organization that seeks to transform the North American Church for vital and vibrant ministry. It primarily does this through the FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community. See George is the author of three books: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential of Your Congregation, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, and FaithSoaring Churches. George is also General Secretary [executive coordinator] of the North American Baptist Fellowship at This is one of the six regions of the Baptist World Alliance. George holds is Senior Editor of TCP Books at More than 30 books have been published on congregational leadership issues.

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  • Bob Harris

    It seems to me that your argument, at least with regards to mainline and evangelical and mainline oriented groups (denominations/fellowships/etc) is weakened by the affirmation that FIVE of these groups have as their TOP EXECUTIVE or CHIEF SERVANT who? Women. I also think that the evidence of glass ceiling shattering cannot be measured only on the basis of how many women are positioned or appointed, and at what “level..” What about a more subjective factor such as attitudes toward women in ministry? Women in ministry or the dearth thereof, is not a matter of a ceiling but of seats available. As men exit ministry for more lucrative opportunities, for retirement, or by death, more seats will be opened up. And the economics of women in the pool of prospective employees will indicate that more will be available for the lagging-behind payrolls of churches. Unfortunately, women in ministry carry the same debt load, essentially, as do men in ministry.
    From what you have said about this particular conference, it seems as if it is organized by a group which is not only insensitive but lacking in political and economic awareness in the life of the Church. No one would reasonably expect Southern Baptists of their conservative Baptist counterparts to even be part of the conversation, as the more basic matter of the diaconate is rarely if ever under consideration for women; the congregations of this sort who do elect women as deacons want to ride that wave as long as possible, even hiding behind it so as not to address their position on women in ministry – church planting or otherwise. In other words, the claim of a glass ceiling or the lack of shattering or cracking thereof, is irrelevant. I don’t think there is a glass ceiling, because that phenomenon does not really apply to the Church; it is more appropriately assigned, in a sociological context of bureaucratic orientation (see Amatai Etzioni, for example), and churches only adopt the rules of bureaucracy in order to validate their theological orientations, not to help them either advance or constrain leadership. Churches adopt bureaucratic orientation and talk about glass ceilings and related topics for convenience; they cannot escape their theologies or views of the Bible. The problems you pointed out with the conference scheduling and numbers of women in ministry says to me that it is not a representative event with regard to church employment or opportunities for women to serve.

  • George Bullard

    Bob Harris, where do I begin. Let me just respond at one point for now. The supply and demand issue which would allow women to be in lead pastor roles can be easily resolved by encouraging and providing pathways for women in ministry to start new congregations. It would address a host of challenges int he short-term and long-term for a more egalitarian leadership in congregations and denominations.

  • Lui Albert

    A few years back, I was part of The Episcopal Church in discernment to become a Priest but after one year I left them. Their doctrinal views are extremely liberal outside of the Word of God. I believe they have caused more damage to the Christian church instead of building the church and saving souls for the Kingdom of God. There was entire congregations and dioceses who broke away when Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding Bishop. I disagree with their left wing agenda pleasing to men instead pleasing God almighty. I believe the National Organization for Women (founded in 1966) was born in hell and they are behind the feminist movement. N.O.W. is dismantling and corrupting families instead of building them by promoting their left wing propaganda that unfortunately has filtered the church. Fifty years ago, marriages and families followed Godly values in a God fearing nation and were solid strong. Have you wonder why was this? More and more the world has changed the church and not the church changing the world.