Expanding Women in Ministry

One of the arguments of our new book,The Blue Parakeet, is that any church that calls itself biblical must permit women to do now what they did in the New Testament, and that includes prophesying, teaching, praying and founding churches. I was encouraged by the following letter. We want to hear today from those folks who are working at opening ministries to women … what are you struggling about? what gains are you finding? what strategies are helping? why the resistance to do what the Bible permits women to do?


You do not know me, and I can only imagine the amount of email that you receive each day. I want to say this is a complimentary email – as the subject line may cause you wonder.This is in reference to your wonderful new book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible

A little about me and the church I pastor. I am pastoring in an urban
church in the West. We are very much focused outward –
concerned with issued of poverty, hunger, homelessness, human
trafficking, and immigration – all of which are right outside our door
in the form of people (or cracked eikons) everyday. I just came to this
church from a church in the Midwest. As progressive as this church is,
I was surprised to find that they had never empowered women to serve in
any and all capacities.

I just read The Blue Parakeet and noted your comment on page 150 where you said, “I
(and my colleagues) failed our female students at TEDS, that we should
have engaged this debate ‘tooth and claw,’ and that had we done so the
Evangelical Free Church as well as that seminary may have been a much
more liberating institution than it is today.”

I simply wanted to tell you that we as a church have just made the
decision to practice what we feel is “biblical equality” and open the
all ministry roles (paid and volunteer) to both men and women. We have
been suggesting collegial and well informed resources to those who are
struggling with our decision – and your new book is on that list.

I write you simply to say “Thank you.” Thank you for your scholarship,
dedication to Scripture, obvious love of Jesus, and candidness with

which you write. Thanks for all your hard work – it has served to shape
my thinking, challenge my own private “status-quos”, and further my
understanding of Jesus. Have a wonderful day.

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  • Thanks for sharing this e-mail, Scot. And thanks to you, pastor, for taking the time to share your journey with us.
    I am hopeful that this thread will be what Scot is calling for — a place for those who are working at opening ministries to women to share their stories, rather than a rehash of the arguments already had on many threads on women in ministry. (Feel free to visit those threads in the archives!)
    Having struggled twenty years to get to ordination and then another six years to actually being hired by a church as a member of their pastoral team … I have been down just about all of the various paths. I have even recently finished Scot’s fine book, so I know what he says about us “blue parakeets” who have been set free to fly and sing.
    Ironically, I am finding that I am moving away from more traditional pastoral expressions (how ironic is that!) and toward more like the kinds of communities David Fitch and Neil Cole and Alan Hirsch are talking about.
    I think you and these brothers (and many others) are fostering a greater openness to recognizing and encouraging those the Spirit has gifted — whether they are women or others who have been “othered” by those whose hermeneutic too often results in “frozen accommodations” (as my mentor used to call them) from the “that was then” context.

  • Amen!
    I’m thankful to be a part of a denomination which ordains women to the ministry: The Evangelical Covenant Church.
    My copy of “The Blue Parakeet” has been lent out for some time now (and I miss it). But I think it’s quite helpful and quite convincing in showing us what God was doing with women throughout the Bible, and even more so in the New Testament. I hope this book gets a very wide read and is discussed, because it opens up needed areas of discussion on just how we read Scripture. And I much look forward to rereading it.
    (I’ve recommended it to an ex-professor who loved it and has recommended it to others, and I’ll continue to get the word out on it.)

  • joanne

    This is such good news. I feel encouraged. It’s good to hear that churches are wrestling with this in thoughtful ways. When we stop to think critically about women in ministry, many questions surface.

  • AprilK

    I also just finished Blue Parakeet and appreciated the section on women in ministry.
    Peggy — I’ve been part of a house church network for 2+ years and am finding it’s no easier for women to function as leaders there than it was in a conventional church setting. Although I’m not dealing with ordination issues, I still find myself struggling with leadership issues. My husband is often the one acknowledged as the one of the “leaders” of our group (and I get to lead alongside him) when, really, he has less leadership desire and gifting than I do (and he’d be the first to say that!). Our leadership structure is very flat, but some leadership and eldership is required of any group of people. Out network is overseen by a man who understands the Bible as saying that women can’t serve as elders, but can and should lead in any other area in which she is gifted to lead.

  • Scot McKnight

    April K,
    This is a good point and I’d like to hear what others are experiencing:
    Do the new house churches have as male-shaped of a leadership mechanism as traditional churches?

  • I think the fear of rocking the boat or pushing people beyond where they are comfortable often prevent women from actually doing anything. even if officially a group supports women in leadership, they place the worries of the opponents above the calling of women. So often even if the argument is won in favor of women the practical reality of us serving is never realized.

  • Scot, you ask “Do the new house churches have as male-shaped of a leadership mechanism as traditional churches?”
    I would say yes. Generally house church are run by a couple. Even if the couple shares church leadership, the wife gets stuck doing the behind the scenes stuff – getting the house ready for church, preparing food, keeping the kids occupied. Such things are shared by congregations (but still done by women) in churches with buildings, but when a church is in your home it all falls on you.
    In our house church we tried to split leadership and teaching responsibilities, but practicalities didn’t always work that way. But I’ve yet to see a house church run completely by a woman and I would love to hear about any out there.

  • Rebeccat

    I have been surprised that the few emerging churches which have tried to get started near me have come out of denominations which do not ordain women. I’ve been praying about it, but I have a hard time attending a church which prohibits the full participation of women. It’s probably a phase I’m going through, but I honestly don’t even like walking through the doors to attend weddings and stuff.

  • Julie @ 7,
    I know what you mean, but “I’ve yet to see a house church run completely by a woman” bugs me. I’ve yet to see any church “run completely” by any individual, and wouldn’t want to.

  • Your Name

    My husband and I are in the unpleasant position of looking for a new church home and somehow the issue over whether the church allows female leadership has become a big deal to us. Our previous church did not support female eldership but as I am not called to that and we were young and just took it as ‘gospel’, we were never bothered by it. I led cell groups, worship teams and house meetings regularly, but still the letters from the church would be addressed to my husband!
    It has shocked us both how much it matters to us in chosing a new home but we have concluded that it is more than just a statement of that church’s doctrinal belief, but it is about the whole gamet of how the leadership will treat and liberate their congregation unto service.
    Of the churches we know in our area, it is actually the more traditional denominational churches that ordain women and have an inclusive (and I believe Godly) approach to the issue. It is the newer, ‘non-denominational’ churches that seem to find the idea of female eldership or Apostolic ministry to be in direct opposition to God’s Word on ‘headship’ and ‘submission’.
    I have studied in as much depth as my intellect can muster and I just can’t understand their reasoning.
    In terms of housechurch – we have led various housegroups / cell / house church meetings over the years and it was always me who felt led and enjoyed teaching / preaching / led on counselling and my husband preferred to listen, deal with the kids and serve the coffee.
    This means that if we do try and settle ourselves for the compromise of a ‘female-excluding’ but non-denominational, church, I fear they will have a very hard time understanding us, let alone encouraging us to flourish and serve God to the max.

  • AprilK

    My experience is the same as Julie describes. A couple leads, but the man is the main leader while his wife serves as hostess and/or children’s ministry. Also like Julie, I have yet to see a home church where the woman is acknowledged as the “main” leader.

  • April K, Julie, “Your Name” and all….
    I would tend to agree that many house churches continue the male-shaped leadership traditions … in those homes where leadership is also male-shaped. There are some groups, however, that are moving out of the more recent (few hundred years) traditions and reaching farther back to older traditions. (This is why I have come to embrace the function of “abbess” as I explain in this post from last year: http://abisomeone.blogspot.com/2007/10/why-abbess-instead-of-mother-superior.html )
    I believe that God has called my family out of the recent tradition that is both male-shaped and hierarchical into something that is more, body-like. This will not be female-shaped and hierarchical, either, but hopefully God-shaped as we learn what it means to really live in the nitty-gritty give and take of authentic community (or as Hirsch says, communitas), where there is room for the emergence of the action of the Holy Spirit from anywhere in the community — and the leaders are first and foremost followers of Christ, through the Spirit.
    It does take a while to detox from the system, however … but we’re making progress! Embracing this paradigm shift takes lots of very intentional study and brainstorming and listening from all sides … all the things that Scot talks about in his book.
    I’ll be out for a few hours, but I will check back on the conversation later.

  • RJS

    Scot (#5),
    I’ve never been part of a House Church – but have been part of small groups and such. The experience Julie (#7) and AprilK (#4,11) describe would seem to me almost inevitable (although I am sure that there are exceptions).
    I would expect House Churches and small groups to be worse in this regard than institutional churches (except of course those institutions with strong male leadership doctrines and practices).
    With no structure to confer authority, the informality leads to predictable interpersonal dynamics. Leadership is assumed…and maneuvered, unconsciously more than consciously. With couples involved there is always the issue of the dynamic of those relationships as well.
    Its a tough situation in general, and a tough situation to know the truly Christian response in particular. After all, the Christian call is to love for neighbor, service and so forth… The Christian call is not for assertion of self and rights.

  • I love this quote as well,
    “I (and my colleagues) failed our female students at TEDS, that we should have engaged this debate ‘tooth and claw,’ and that had we done so the Evangelical Free Church as well as that seminary may have been a much more liberating institution than it is today.”
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Because the fact is, the women will never be set completely free until the men stand up and give them their liberty. But because the issue of women and the church is not a painful/hard one for most men, who also happen to be the leaders who set the standard, the understanding continues to be that women are meant to be assistants by virture of their gender.
    I recently wrote on my blog about my first visit to a church led by a female…it was oddly NOT odd! I should have known… 🙂
    I’m looking forward to reading Blue Parakeet, btw. I am so glad you mentioned the “woman issue” in there, because the conclusions we come to on that issue have everything to do with the way we interpret the Scriptures. Thank you for being a voice, Scot!

  • Dianne P

    1. We are finding difficulty finding a non-denominational church here in AZ that is not uber-conservative (in our humble opinions) – that is, that doesn’t make a big deal about the submission of women, the sin of homosexuality, the sin of voting Democratic, and the other usual suspects. For the first time in our lives, we find ourselves looking for a church home among the Methodists and Lutherans (ELCA) – both here in AZ with women pastors.
    2. We were part of a home church (Quaker) some decades back. They were a pretty liberal crowd and I don’t recall dominant male leadership – though I suspect it was tilted in that direction. Overall I recall it as a gender shared experience.
    3. I do agree with Travis – I don’t want to see any church – home or otherwise – run completely by any one individual. In my years in the corporate world (mainly engineering and scientific types as I was in the research side of the pharmaceutical industry), we women struggled to NOT succumb to the male style of leadership with one person at the top. We didn’t see gender advancement as simply replacing one man with one woman, but rather to assert a more collegial style as acceptable. And yes, many men do well with that style as well.
    We worked hard to credit our team members at meetings (rather than gather credit for ourselves – against the prevailing male advice at the time), to gather input and actually consider it before making decisions, and to conduct meetings politely, without yelling and bullying. Kind of a Jesus Creed style, I guess.
    The person-at-the-top model is not important to me. But having women serve in the power of their gifts be not only ok, but intentionally welcomed with open arms, heart, and mind – that is important to me. And yes, I do think it has to be intentional, because it’s all too easy to unconsciously revert to the old. As Peggy so well puts it, it does take awhile to detox from the system.

  • eleanor

    I am a woman in a non-denominational church who is in the preaching rotation and holds high offices within the church. I have a degree from TEDS (concur that it was an inhospitable place), and am genuinely called and gifted for these positions.
    What our leadership finds interesting is how many visitors and short-time members we lose because we allow women into positions of authority. It takes a lot of the joy out of preaching to know that every time I get up there, we’re going to get complaints and people leaving in a huff—not because of what I say, but because of my gender.
    We joke around that part of my function is to weed out people who are not right for our church. But I really hate that. I’m not sure my male colleagues understand what it’s like to keep going in that kind of atmosphere year after year.
    A few weeks ago a woman I’d never met come up to me in a restaurant and asked me if I was that woman who preached at ____ church. When I said yes, she told me she wanted me to know that her husband did NOT walk out on me when they visited our church. She meant that as a compliment.
    She said I was one of only a handful of preachers they’d ever heard who “really made Scripture come alive.” But that it was too bad they could not come back to our church because I was a woman and shouldn’t be preaching in the first place.
    I’ve got to wrap my head around comments like that all the time.
    Just wanted to comment that even if the institution changes, the women it allows into leadership are going to have a rough time of it. I don’t expect this to change anytime soon.

  • To clarify, I didn’t mean that one person would be in charge of everything, just that she might be the central visible figure that people see and relate to.

  • EricW

    eleanor wrote: A few weeks ago a woman I’d never met come up to me in a restaurant and asked me if I was that woman who preached at ____ church. When I said yes, she told me she wanted me to know that her husband did NOT walk out on me when they visited our church. She meant that as a compliment. She said I was one of only a handful of preachers they’d ever heard who “really made Scripture come alive.” But that it was too bad they could not come back to our church because I was a woman and shouldn’t be preaching in the first place.
    I’ve got to wrap my head around comments like that all the time.
    Don’t even try. I read your post and tried to wrap my head around that comment and all I got was a pulled muscle in my neck. Ouch!

  • eleanor

    EricW (18) It’s really something, isn’t it?
    I can’t tell you how often our senior pastor and I are approached by first-time and short-term visitors who believe it is their duty to show us the error of our ways and why we are displeasing to God. This happens at least monthly, if not more often.
    Sometime I would love to ask other women in leadership whether they are as tired of this debate as I am. Really, I dream of being able to do my ministry without constantly being told my gender precludes me from it. I just don’t see that happening in my lifetime, at least in a non-denominational evangelical setting.
    I suspect this is one of those things that truly grieves the Holy Spirit. It’s one of those things I am looking forward to being answered on the other side.

  • EricW

    My blogposted experiences with “a woman in the pulpit” at a large church in the area:
    This is one church that likely can share a lot about how they got there and what the repercussions/experiences have been. It prompted the pastor of a large church we used to attend to warn of the danger of what this church was doing.

  • eleanor…LOL! I was also a “weeder”! Since I taught the new member’s class and other “assimilation” kinds of classes, I got the privilege of addressing the “woman pastor” issue right from the get-go. I saw those who were willing to stretch a bit stay around long enough to see it wasn’t as bad as they thought … and I also saw those who were too rigid, well, usually I didn’t see them again.
    I think all of us women in leadership are totally tired of this debate. And I think there are a fair number of men in leadership who are equally tired of this debate. Some of us are seeing it become a non-issue in smaller settings, which is what often keeps me from jumping into the conversation–unless I can tell that someone really wants to process the whole issue. I am willing to help process the context, but not willing to play the control-who-the-Spirit-can-use game. Scot’s book will be another helpful tool in my tool belt….
    Keep the faith, sisters and brothers. Isn’t this the age of change were entering? ;^)

  • MattR

    I have lead in a variety of church contexts; emerging, mega, mainline, and more simple-organic.
    As a man in leadership… I’ve noticed that even IF we say we support women in leadership, and believe it is biblical, the real issue is often the structures and habits of male dominated leadership.
    I’ve heard some say ‘we can’t find enough qualified women to lead!’ When the reality is they have defined ‘leadership’ in purely masculine terms, and created a ‘guys club’ mentality that makes it hard for women to break into the inner circle and become known and trusted.
    Yes… even in smaller house church settings, hierarchy can rule!
    I DON’T believe it has to be this way… it just takes very confident leadership to be able to listen and learn from those on the margins.

  • eleanor

    EricW (20), that was some interesting reading, thanks for the link!
    Peggy (21) I also teach the assimilation/new member’s class and do something similar. Over the years we have become quite deliberate in laying things on the line in this class, and not just about women in ministry. We have found there are several places where newer people get confused about our church, and the longer they’re confused, the worse it is for them when they finally realize we’re “not what they thought we were.” It is so much better for us and kinder to our short-term people when we do not lead them along.
    In our case, there are three things we emphasize along these lines:
    1) The women in ministry thing
    2) We are not a charismatic church [we have lively worship, but it is not charismatic, and there’s a certain percentage of new folks who come back every week hoping that some day we’ll speak in tongues or have a physical healing emphasis]
    3) We deliberately do not traffick in political issues, either from the pulpit or as mission emphases
    It is incredibly helpful to be up front with people about things like this. We lose folks, of course, but at least they know who we are.

  • MattR

    Sorry, “I have LED…”
    My brain is fried from just finishing a theology paper!

  • I don’t know if this will be encouraging to some of the women who have been through difficult times leading in hostile territory, but for many of us younger folks (I can only speak for myself), this is a complete non-issue. I wouldn’t be part of a church that restricted leadership to men. I’m committed to fighting for more equal, and Biblical, treatment of women.
    Unfortunately, as with many issues, we may just have to wait for some blinded saints to die off. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

  • I would have to say, with Travis #25, that as a younger Christian I see quite a divide between my generation and some of my older bothers and sisters in the Lord. Not that everyone my age I’m in contact with is ok with women in ministry, but far more than are ok with it in the older generation.
    And, perhaps even more importantly, there is a stark contrast in how people look at the issue to begin with. I’m from a pretty conservative area (West MI) and much of the older generation does not see this as an issue at all, that is just not done, we all know it shouldn’t be, so why bring it up? The younger and middle generations seem to take it as a serious issue whether they are for or against it, and see it as a discussion that needs to happen.
    I myself see women in ministry as Biblically fitting, and it seems that many of the people in my area are coming to that conclusion as well. Even a couple of the older leaders in my church have, after very cordial discussions with some of us in the church who favor of women in ministry, essentially said ‘I’ve just always assumed its wrong so I’ve never thought much about it, but now I’m not so sure, there seem to be good reasons it is ok’. That’s encouraging and I hope its a trend that continues.

  • Peggy

    MattR…LOL! I thought you were just extra “heavy” into leadership. :^) You know, like gravitas!
    eleanor…agreed! All the folks who successfully went through the classes I taught knew what we were all about as a congregation and were able to plug in and serve and get connected. The problem came a couple of years down the road when a few hundred folks new folks knew more about what we believed and were about (and actually were doing it) than some of the leadership who had been raised in that congregation. (I don’t know why they were not more grateful!?! ;^) ) I’m sure that is all too common, as well.
    Travis…I know that this is a non-issue for many of the younger folks. And there are lots of things than can and should be done to foster better communication and understanding … not just wait for God to “call those saints home” (hehehe, just an alternative to “die off” :^) ).
    All together now: change is difficult!

  • Peggy

    Mason, I totally know where you’re coming from — I grew up in Western Michigan (GR) myself! Thank you for engaging the conversations with those who just haven’t thought about the issue or the implications.

  • Interesting discussion here, I wish I could move The Blue Parakeet up to the top of my reading list, but alas, all my reading for Seminary comes first!
    In my mega-church we had a new pastor (about 10 years ago) who worked with the elders to create a new position on women in ministry (the old guard wouldn’t even allow women on staff to wear pants!) which was very inclusive, but the existing church culture was very resistant. Yes, the elders approved the new position and made it available to the public, but no teaching was done on the topic. We’ve had women in “pastoral” positions for quite some time but just called them directors. Then one day, the new woman hired for Outreach ministries was introduced to lead us in communion and the senior pastor (who wrote the new position promoting equality for women in ministry) inadvertently introduced her as “Pastor” and yes, some people left their seats, the phone rang off the hook on Monday, emails flooded the senior pastor’s email box, and I’ve heard quite a few people left the church over it.
    That was about 7 years ago.
    The issue is still not addressed up front from a teaching stand point – as far as I have heard, though perhaps it is in the plans and probably already included in the new members materials. But, I do know they are planning to publicly ordain the woman formerly introduced as Pastor 7 years ago. They also recently ordained the former Director of Women’s Ministry after she got her M Div degree. I attended this private ceremony – it was not publicly announced in any gatherings or pubic communications, but many people came who heard about it through the grape vine.
    When I first started exploring the possibility that what I had been taught about women in ministry was wrong (after I read “Growing Strong Daughters” by Lisa Graham McMinn), I was disillusioned for a while and wondered what else I had believed that was wrong. Talk about a crisis of faith! This crisis was one of the factors leading to my eventual enrollment in seminary. My big question is that if Christ is the great equalizer (Gal. 3:28) why is this still an issue in the church 2000 years later?

  • Don

    As a geezer, I must confess that the women in ministry issue has been settled and old news for me since my dad put his career and ministry on the line in the early 80’s pushing unsuccessfully for a woman to be his associate pastor. He called Fran Anderson to be Director of Christian Education in St. Paul and I only saw her as his peer. I could no more imagine ministry without women working alongside in their spiritual giftedness as I could insisting on have racially exclusive churches.

  • Erika Haub

    Having just recently accepted a pastoral call at a new church, I experienced a senior pastor (who has served his entire ministry career in that congregation) repeatedly lead the congregation through studies and teaching and papers and the like on questions surrounding women, the bible and the church, to the point that I was enthusiastically hired this fall.
    There was one family who I guess is still in process of deciding how they will handle my hire: their one issue? That I will regularly preach. This is new for me, this questioning of my place in the pulpit. I can say that when I learned this my heart sunk and I felt that dead pit inside that I have heard so many of my women peers describe in their life as ministers in the church.
    A new part of my journey, for sure…

  • eleanor

    Erika (31), I have one piece of advice on the preaching. I grew up in the 60s and 70s in the Methodist church when women were just starting to lead churches there.
    My most vivid recollections of the women preaching in those days were that they focused the majority of their sermons on women in the Bible and women’s issues, believing these had been ignored in the past by male preachers. You could set your clock by it.
    As a child and teen I was personally put off by this emphasis; it was as if they were doing a 180 in their zeal to “put things right” and ignoring the rest of Scripture in the process. To be fair to them, though, this was the era of emerging feminism, and they were pioneers who saw things through that lens.
    When I was called to ministry, one of the first things I decided was that I would preach the whole gospel and do my best not to do it primarily from a woman’s viewpoint.
    My advice is to be yourself in the pulpit and don’t think you have to bow to any particular agenda or be put into someone’s box of what a woman preaching should look like.

  • Your Name

    My experience has been that non-churched people who don’t listen to conservative Christian radio are way more welcoming. In fact, we attract more of them because being a woman is an immediate statement to the non-churched that our church is different than the usual fare.

  • eleanor

    Yes (33), that is our experience as well. Despite having rather conservative beliefs ourselves, we do terribly with people who take their cues from conservative Christian radio.
    Like you, our church tends to do best with people who have been burned by church somewhere in their pasts (and this can run the gamut from liberal to conservative churches) and with people who do not have a church background at all.

  • Pamela

    I am also a woman in ministry. Can anyone tell me if there’s a special website or blog for us? Or shall we start one ourselves? Who’s with me on this?
    When we can talk I’ll tell you how Jesus tries to ruin my marriage – a story I take myself out to dinner on.