Dismantling Hurdles to Women in Leadership

Will everyone who has the qualifying credential and who is eligible to serve in this leadership position please stand?”

The atmosphere was still as the chairman’s petition echoed through the District Council assembly. As I surveyed the room, I noticed the people who slowly began to rise were the ones who always stood.

Few women were standing, although many were well-qualified to fill this district position, including myself. To stand or not to stand? Wrestling within myself, I sat there listing every reason why I shouldn’t budge.

As a full-time pastor, a wife, and a new mom, I felt conflicted over what taking on another obligation might mean for my family.

I wondered, Can I balance all these responsibilities? Am I willing to pay the price?

It felt like I was choosing between two callings and purposes — those of my home and the ministry.

I also considered the culture of the organization. I would be working within an old system and confronting antiquated paradigms. Was I willing to put in twice the work only to be heard half the time?

Socialization, uneven expectations for women compared to men, internal insecurities, and a lack of confidence all made my mental list of reasons why I shouldn’t stand up.

As the list continued to grow, I remained seated. In that moment, I saw it as self-preservation. But looking back on that experience, I now see it as self-sabotage. I forfeited my potential to lead and perpetuated a culture in which hurdles for women persist.

The internal hurdles women face often arise from external hurdles society or systems have placed before them. We need to remove these hurdles if Pentecostal women are to step into the leadership roles God has opened for them. Here are four ways to start:

1. Model the Change

A disconnect often exists between our beliefs and practices. We preach, “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. ... Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:16–18). Yet we don’t always promote gender inclusivity in church leadership.

We need to highlight biblical stories of women leading confidently. We need to talk about the valuable contributions of women — and not just on Mother’s Day. We need to inspire women and girls to see themselves as potential church leaders and instill in men the value and possibility of women in leadership.

We also need to model what we preach by providing opportunities for women to step into leadership positions. In the local church, perhaps that means promoting a female youth pastor to an executive pastor position or planting a church with a woman in the lead pastor role.

At a district/network level, it could mean opening up a position for a female executive presbyter. To truly create an inclusive culture, we must be willing to model the change we wish to see at every level of leadership.

2. Promote Partnerships

Throughout the Bible, we can find examples of God-honoring partnerships between men and women. Consider Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah and Barak (Judges 4–5), Paul and Priscilla (Romans 16:3–4).

Yet women in our churches who are pursuing God’s call to ministry often have little support and limited access to mentoring from male leaders. We should be intentional about promoting partnerships between men and women that develop and empower females.

Male ministers can help facilitate change by empowering women to lead.

Shawn Andrews is an author and CEO dedicated to closing the leadership gender gap. She wrote, “We can overcome structural barriers with mentors and sponsors, but it’s important to understand the difference between the two. A mentor is a person who helps guide and advise someone to grow in their current position. A sponsor is a person who serves as someone’s advocate to help her move toward her next position.”

First, women need male mentors who will create spaces for them to gain firsthand experience, invite them into networking circles, and invest in their success.

Second, women need male mentors who will acclimate them once they step into leadership roles — coaching them, walking them through their new placements, and showing them how to lead in predominately male organizations.

Finally, women need male sponsors who will stretch their character and leadership skills — not just helping them arrive at leadership positions, but also equipping them for the long haul.

3. Level the Playing Field

A 2014 report from Pew Research Center said, “About four-in-ten Americans point to a double standard for women seeking to climb to the highest levels of either politics or business, where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves.”

Help level the playing field by clearly defining the expectations of leadership positions. Women are not merely making a decision to step up based on their qualifications, but they are also considering how a leadership role would fit into their family and life context.

Reevaluate social networking and traveling protocols. Sometimes, much of the dialogue that plays out in board meetings takes place first on the golf course or over lunch. This puts female colleagues who are not included at a disadvantage.

In addition, it is often easier for a man to get on an airplane or rush to an evening dinner after a long board meeting. Women are more likely to have childcare considerations.

Invite women leaders to join your team for lunch. Use family friendly venues, and host social networking events that would not exclude women from participating.

When it comes to meetings, provide advance notice and consider the hybrid option of both in-person and virtual participation to accommodate the entire team.

4. Shatter the Stereotypes

We need to move past the stereotypes other women and the Church in general have about females in ministry. When I stepped into my first pastoral role, there was an unspoken expectation I would play the piano, lead worship, serve as a Sunday School teacher, lead the women’s ministry, or work in administration.

If hurdles persist long enough, people begin to accept them and adapt to them. We must be willing to do the hard work of overcoming hurdles in our congregations. Women need to see other females — single and married, young and old, with and without children — leading churches and ministries.

Just as it is important for women to create partnerships with male mentors, it is equally important for women to partner with one another. We need to see women across geographical, ethnic, and generational lines unite to coach, mentor, and encourage one another.

Through networking, women in ministry can share their experiences, triumphs, and struggles, and provide one another with understanding as together they step over hurdles and into leadership positions.

Male ministers can help facilitate change by empowering women to lead. They should seek to include women at every level of leadership, and train other male ministers to do the same.

Pastors should identify two or three emerging female leaders they can mentor or sponsor. Churches should examine their current systems and structures to see whether they are hindering or promoting women in leadership.

Together, we can dismantle hurdles and build bridges that reflect a healthy biblical image of men and women accomplishing God’s purposes.

This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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