Women Pastors on the Rise? Yes, but…

Halee Gray Scott:

One trend the Barna Group noted is the slow and steady rise of female pastors. One of every 11 Protestant pastors is a woman—triple as many as 25 years ago—yet women often lead smaller congregations than men.

Though most pastors, regardless of gender, are satisfied with their role, female pastors are more likely than male pastors to wish they had been more prepared for the expectation they “must do everything” and must do it “perfectly.”

[If you’ve never seen Ruth Tucker’s Daughters of the Church, it’s time.]

Further, the Barna Group found that female pastors are more likely than male pastors to report that congregants’ comments on their leadership were “critical,” “judging,” and “unhelpful.”

The researchers suggested that these results might be explained by the fact that women, who tend to serve smaller churches, have closer contact with congregants; by the fact they feel more pressure than men to “do everything” or attain “perfection;” or by the “existential pressure women pastors experience.”

Without further investigation, it’s impossible to know how much each of these elements factor into congregants’ criticism, but it’s helpful to consider how Barna’s results fit within the broader body of literature exploring perceptions of women in leadership….

But research suggests that the problem lies not in the performance of female pastors but in our assumptions about what we think they ought to be capable of.

We hold great expectations for female leaders in every sphere in which they serve, and the research released by the Barna Group indicates that female pastors are no exception. While the report details the expectations female leaders face, the findings leave us craving suggestions or guidance on how to counteract them.

Christians have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of how society treats female leaders by adjusting our expectations and interactions with female pastors to be more in accordance with the Scriptures.

In my work as an author, researcher, and consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to become acquainted with the stories and successes of female leaders around the world, such as Emily Chengo, a native Kenyan. Chengo was tutored in the art of leadership by her father and played a key part in negotiating peace treaties between warring tribes in South Sudan as well as securing microfinance loans for African women living in the Ngomongo slums. Providing female leaders with nurturing support as well as constructive feedback can foster an environment in which they, and all around them, thrive.

This begins with an awareness of our expectations and the real-life impact our expectations have on female pastors:

  • What are our expectations for the female leaders or pastors in our churches? How do those expectations differ from what we expect of male leaders or pastors?
  • How do our expectations guide our interactions with female leaders?
  • How might these interactions influence how female pastors view their calling and their support system?

Armed with an awareness of our expectations, we can begin to govern our interactions with compassion and kindness. Female pastors have gravitated to their position against incredible odds because they are driven by a love for God and love for people.

Our success in Christian growth is tied up in their success. As Thomas Merton poignantly noted, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

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