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.