Pioneering Together, Part 2: Empowering Her Leadership Gifts

Pioneering Together, Part 2: Empowering Her Leadership Gifts

This post is part of a three-part series. Find the rest of the series here: 1) Welcoming a Female Minister, 3) Creating Space for Authentic Relationships.

I was asked to interview at a rather large congregation. There was a female and a male candidate, and the congregation was going to choose between the two applicants. After the interview process was complete, I received a call to let me know that the male candidate was going to be offered the job. Honestly, he was the right fit for that church, but I was intrigued at the reason they gave for their selection. They said something like, “Some of the committee were a little put off by the way you lead; you are outspoken and confident. They expected a more subdued female leader, quiet and gentle in her beliefs.” Does that sound like a leader to you? It’s a stereotype—a societal stereotype that follows women into their ministry callings.

Leaders of both genders in the corporate world find this societal expectation difficult to overcome. This issue is even more complicated on church leadership teams due to the varying views of gender roles in the church (often with multiple different views existing in a single team), the mentoring that young men receive throughout their lives, and the fact that the female minister is typically the only female on the leadership team.

Many men feel uncomfortable in an all-female setting, and many women feel uncomfortable in an all-male setting. While I’ve seen men walk out of all-female meetings joking about too much estrogen in the room, I, as a member of our leadership team, cannot walk out of elders meetings complaining of too much testosterone, and expect to be viewed as someone who is taking her job seriously.

Inviting a female to serve on the ministry staff and giving her an equal voice in leadership are two very distinct issues.

When female ministers are hired and told, “We will treat you just like the male ministers,” this proclamation should extend to the table of leadership. Intentionality is key in creating a healthy, hospitable, and inviting space for her voice of experience on the staff and leadership teams. This intentionality assumes that the team values her unique approach to leadership and does not expect her to be someone she is not.

In some business and church settings, a woman may be expected to lead like someone she is not. And, when she does, she often receives considerable pushback. To help you explore this issue deeper, take this challenge before reading on:

Grab a piece of paper and write down 3-5 descriptors of a good leader.

In 2007, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership.” [1] In this report, the authors begin to unpack some of the hidden expectations placed on women as they try to advance into the top levels of the corporate ladder. Particularly, they note that society attributes different qualities to male and female leaders. Female leaders, they argue, have communal qualities, which “convey a concern for compassionate treatment of others. They include being especially affectionate, helpful, friendly, kind, as well as interpersonally sensitive, gentle, and soft-spoken.” However, male leaders are expected to have “agentic” (self-organizing and proactive) qualities, which include being “aggressive, ambitious, dominant, self-confident, and forceful, as well as self-reliant and individualistic.”

These expectations create a “double-bind” for women. Why? Men exhibiting these agentic leadership skills receive promotions, awards, and increased responsibility. They are rewarded for their individual contributions. However, women who display agentic leadership skills are labeled bossy – or other saltier words. Women leading out of their own giftedness and natural tendency toward community and compassion may not be viewed as true leaders. They might be labeled team players or contributors, no matter what skills, talents, and knowledge they bring to the table. In other words, a man may be more likely to receive individual recognition, while a woman may more likely be recognized as part of a team.

Now, review your list of 3-5 qualities. How does it compare to the above paragraph?

Sheryl Sandberg, author of the book Lean In, [2] also draws attention to the double-bind. She writes, “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives – the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men.”

Sandberg’s book reminds us of the societal codes that govern leadership teams and male/female interactions. For instance, women will typically wait their turn to engage a conversation, and men jump in forcefully. (Confession time: if you’ve been in a meeting with me, you know I’ve learned how to “jump in” like the men, but I have the worst timing!) And men are more likely to secede the floor to another male but expect a woman to wait her turn. These socialized behaviors play in the background of our interactions with each other and often make it difficult for mixed gendered teams to work well together. The outcome over time is that a woman learns to silence her voice until called upon—at best, through a raised hand, and at worst, only if asked—therefore limiting her ability to contribute.

If you have hired a woman for your staff, then “lean in,” as Sandberg says. Remember these societal codes. Many teams have found it helpful to establish a group covenant for communication that allows each person to have an opportunity to contribute despite these unwritten societal codes (this will also help your introverts and analytical thinkers to be more engaged). Conduct leadership assessments with your team to understand their individual gifts and personalities. This information will help to plan assignments based on giftedness rather than gender.

Finally, in most churches, the female minister is pioneering several new positions at once. She may be the first female on staff as well as the first minister with her specific role. A staff team that is pioneering together will be her biggest champions and, no doubt, she will return the support in full. She needs leaders who have her back, who publicly praise her abilities and contributions to the team, who encourage her to serve fully in her giftedness, and who understand that she may not have a voice for herself in leadership meetings or public assemblies. The church will be better served when the staff team has committed to serving out of giftedness and as an empowered team.

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.


[1] Eagly, Alice, and Linda L. Carli. “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership.” Harvard Business Review. September 1, 2007.

[2] Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Knopf, 2013.

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