Pioneering Together, Part 1: Welcoming a Female Minister
In fifteen years of full-time ministry service, I have been the first and only female minister on two different church staffs. I know a thing or two about being the only female. I have worked with incredible male ministers who were supportive, kind, and engaging. I have served under elderships who love me, shepherd me, support me, and sometimes challenge me in very direct ways to grow and mature. I am grateful for these colleagues, friends, and mentors. No doubt, God placed some of these men directly in my path to grow me into a more mature follower of Christ.
I feel compelled, though, to give voice to the experience of being the first female on staff at a church. Many females are now entering our churches, serving on staff at congregations that have just recently wrestled with critical questions and Scriptural reflection that led them to hire a female. A church leadership team may decide that they can and ought to hire this minister for a particular position, but most likely they did not consider what needs to happen to create a hospitable environment to fully integrate her as a member of that team.
Deciding that a she can hold a ministry staff position and treating her as an equal are two very distinct issues.
I am involved in several networks of female ministers and ministry leaders. We have safe places where we can share holy conversation and confide to each other many feelings about being a female on a ministry staff. We believe that our male-driven leaderships will not understand these feelings or welcome these awkward conversations.
To be clear, rarely have I heard from women who were intentionally hurt by the actions of their male colleagues. Rather, the difficult experiences they face typically result from their colleagues not thinking intentionally about including them on staff. Beginning the day the female minister was hired, this lack of intention was set up with a simple statement, “We will treat you just like the male ministers.” Simple. Promised. Direct. You are an equal; we will treat you as such. The statement is filled with faith and hope from elders and ministers who are blazing new territory by adding a female minister to their staff.
Soon, though, some women begin to feel:
Unclear about roles and duties.
Male leaders, if you have read this far, let me offer a word to illuminate this subject. The women you work with are different than you, and they desperately need you to acknowledge that fact. When you do, you begin to peel back the layers of how you function in ministry and then begin to notice the hidden social structures that keep them from being full participants on your leadership team.
Hidden . . . not revealed . . . unintentional. No one is casting blame here! Promise.
Consider these questions:
Have I recently talked with the female minister about something other than church business?
Have I encouraged her spiritual walk or spoken a word of encouragement or praise into her life?
Does she get invited to lunch or coffee as often as the other ministers? Or at all? By other ministers and elders?
When there is an elder meeting, whether formal or informal, is she invited into the conversation and given an equal voice?
Does she have a safe outlet to share her hurt, pain, and family struggles?
As you read, you may be tempted to answer, “Of course she has all these things in her life!” So let me ask you these questions:
Have you had coffee in her office and asked her about her experiences on staff?
Do you actively seek ways to include her in lunch plans or other staff get-togethers?
When she needs spiritual encouragement, are the elders available—and without a “two men to one woman” rule?
Are elder or minister conversations passed on to her, secondhand, after lunch appointments or sidewalk meetings?
Can she show emotion without being labeled emotional?
My guess is that most church leadership teams have room to grow. We are pioneering what it means to have men and women serving on ministry staffs together, equally gifted and equally called. Creating a welcoming environment is an important first step.
In my next two posts in this series, I will provide helpful ideas for making your ministry staff a more hospitable environment for the minister who happens to be female. Next week I’ll explore some of society’s expectations of leaders of both genders, and the following week I’ll present strategies for how to create space for more authentic relationships among male and female church leaders.
How about you? What questions or situations have you encountered as your church has pioneered together the addition of female leaders and staff on your leadership team? I'd love to hear from you via email.