The Missing Half of the Church Leadership Puzzle

The female ministry leaders you need are sitting in your pews.

Leadership Network has always been at the forefront of seeing churches accelerate growth and innovation. The average Leadership Network client church comes to us already thinking how they can best grow, multiply and make more disciples. While our primary work is with larger churches, we suspect every church shares these as goals, whether stated or not. Jesus told his church to make disciples, and pastors and churches continue to embrace this command.

We have discovered, however, that many churches are now recognizing they have been missing a factor in their overall approach. In fact, this missing piece has kept these churches from realizing their full potential. What is it? The development and engagement of female leadership.

There is a pool of leadership waiting to be released in most churches. This is why we are excited about the work of Kadi Cole and other female leaders who are helping the church better understand this issue. Kadi’s new book, Developing Female Leaders, is helpful for all churches, regardless of their theological stance. She helps the church move beyond current paradigms to empower an army of female leaders. This book is a needed resource for the church.

—Ron Edmondson
Leadership Network

“You have really nice birthing hips.”

That was my introduction to ministry leadership as a female. I had recently moved across the country for my first job after college and was volunteering to lead the nametag table for my church’s singles’ ministry picnic. I was energetic, naïve, hopeful and ready to share Jesus’ love with everyone I met. That creepy 45-year-old divorcé took me completely by surprise.

I had no idea what to do. Was he joking? Did I somehow send a wrong signal? What was the right way to respond?

I awkwardly tried to laugh it off in the moment, but I’ve never forgotten how suddenly out of place and vulnerable I felt. Thankfully, I had some great leaders who came beside me, rolled their eyes with me and helped me find other avenues and experiences that were the exact opposite—affirming, uplifting and a whole lot of fun. Had they not, I am pretty sure the “birthing hips” guy and a handful of other unfortunate encounters would have derailed my passion for serving in ministry and eroded my trust in the people who make up Jesus’ church. Oh, how much I would have missed out on.

If we hope to multiply the church and grow our own congregations in both size and truth, we need all the leadership potential God brings to us. Women in the church (and specifically in ministry) have been a hot-button topic for years. While women make up the majority of congregations (average 61%), they comprise only a small minority of formal leadership roles (less than 10%).

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As someone who has served in churches all along the theological spectrum of this issue, my goal is not to convince you that any one stance is correct. My purpose is to address the gap between where your theological line is and where the women in your church think your line is. The gap between these two points—the difference between a church’s beliefs and its actions—is where we lose massive amounts of leadership potential.

Many male leaders in the church today are taking big steps to invite women into places of leadership. In my book, Developing Female Leaders, I discuss the eight best practices churches can use to begin effectively developing the women on their teams. One of these best practices involves mining the marketplace for female leaders. The business world holds some of the most talented, responsible and admirable female leaders of any generation. However, few of these women are recruited by their local church to serve in ministry.

Why is this? On the one hand, it’s easy to assume that established, professional female leaders aren’t interested in leaving their careers to work in a church. This is often a false assumption. The truth is that many incredible women would love to use their marketplace skills in the kingdom—but their experiences and interactions lead them to believe they are not welcome. They look at the male-dominated ministry team at their church and think, I guess they either don’t need or want what I have to offer. These women also lack ministry mentors to help them effectively transition their incredible skills and abilities from one realm into the other.

On the other hand, some churches recruit women to fill only supportive or clerical roles. Though this is often done with good intentions in an effort to bring women leaders “onto the team,” it severely undermines the development of their leadership potential. This is not to say that administrative support isn’t incredibly valuable, but in order to develop leadership potential, we need to give leadership opportunities. Attending a meeting to take notes or make the coffee doesn’t build leadership capacity. Giving that female leader a team to lead or a project to manage is what builds leadership skills and helps her be respected as a fellow leader. Nothing kills motivation for a female leader more than being sidelined into busywork. Conversely, nothing accelerates her growth like giving her a challenging goal in which she can rise to the challenge.

How do we start mining the marketplace for underutilized female leadership? First, consider how many occupations the women in your congregation represent. In your congregation are women from all walks of life, with myriad gifts and experiences. When we surveyed over 1,200 women who lead in ministry, here are just a few of the professional roles they’ve previously held:

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• Attorney
• Executive director/president
• Doctor/dentist
• Small business owner/entrepreneur
• Professional artist/musician
• Corporate trainer
• Engineer (all types)
• Board of directors chairwoman
• Construction manager
• Publisher/editor/author
• Sheriff’s office manager
• IT/technology executive
• Translator/interpreter

These women are sitting in your seats every Sunday. Imagine how these skills—plus many, many more—could change the effectiveness of your ministry team. Female leaders are plentiful, and they are waiting to be recruited. They are waiting to discover that we need them to fulfill our mission.

When it comes down to it, any professional who transitions into ministry will need guidance, and women are no exception. This is the space where those in higher-level leadership roles have a huge opportunity to develop female leaders. We do this in many ways, from recruiting well to offering them genuine, honest feedback. We identify what might be internally holding them back and help them move past cultural obstacles. Many churches have higher-level leadership roles that women won’t fill, but few churches take the time to clearly communicate all the roles female leaders are welcome to lead. Where could they add more value to your church? Where could they maximize their gifts and move your ministry forward?

As church leaders, we have a responsibility not only to examine our theology, but our practices as well. It’s imperative that we not make only token gestures of inclusivity, but truly seek God’s will and way for inviting female leaders into ministry. There are many strong, capable, accomplished professional women in your church who can raise the bar of your leadership. Seek them out. Give them encouragement and strength. Equip them to live out God’s callings on their lives—and watch your team’s quality and competence soar.

It’s difficult to admit we may not have always gotten this right in the past. Thankfully, our God is a master of revealing our missteps and giving us a forgiving path forward into a new way of leading and loving one another. It’s our cultural responsibility to lead the way in this issue and set the moral standard for the rest of the world. What could be different in the life of your ministry and mission if you began to release the potential of the female leaders sitting in front of you every Sunday?

I can’t wait to find out.