This post is by graduate assistant at Northern Seminary, Tara Beth Leach, a woman gifted to teach and preach and acknowledged by her peers.
“That’s wonderful that you have experienced such a strong sense of call, Tara Beth; but you must be mistaken, women can’t be Pastors,” said my Youth for Christ leader after I had just poured my heart out to him regarding a profound experience I had just had. He went on, “You could be a women’s pastor or a children’s pastor or a missionary, but not a lead pastor.”
This was the first of dozens of times I have heard something like this. So naturally, when I graduated college and stepped into my first pastoral role, I thought the only challenge I would face as a woman in ministry was more of the same – someone expressing their belief that a women couldn’t be a pastor or teach or preach. Indeed, I’ve endured that conversation more times than I’d want to admit, but to my surprise that hasn’t been the only challenge.
I am not saying that women pastors are the only ones that face challenges; of course, men have their own set of challenges. But when I stepped into my first pastoral role in upstate New York in 2004, I was clueless that I would have to worry about things such as what I would wear on a Sunday morning. You see, clothes for women are much more of a balancing act; is it fitted, but not too fitted, professional, but still modest, etc.? I didn’t consider that I would have to be concerned about my voice being too high pitched for the listening ear, or being accused of leading like a man (what does that even mean, anyway?!). Navigating the waters as a woman in ministry is both exhilarating and challenging, and every context has its own unique encounters.
Another challenge that came out of nowhere was the awkwardness that cross-gender working relationships would bring. In her book, Dare Mighty Things, Halee Gray Scott maps the many challenges that Christian women face in leadership. Scott writes, “In our highly sexualized culture, women are often portrayed as little more than sex objects and men as animals who can’t control themselves.” We hear of infamous stories like Abelard and Heloise and assume that it is impossible for men and women to closely co-labor in ministry. We hear of senior pastors running off with the choir director or church secretary and as a result we place boundaries birthed out of a knee-jerk kind of fear. Women, then, are seen as a threat and pushed to the outside while men continue on with the “good ol’ boys club.”
So is it possible to have healthy cross-gender working relationships in ministry?
Scott sketches two approaches that are commonly seen in the church and then proposes a third way, a better way. The first approach is characterized by high boundaries, and has little to no interaction between men and women and is called the Bubble Wrap Approach. The most perfect example of this approach is Billy Graham. Billy Graham’s goal was to always be above reproach as he was said to never ride in an elevator or counsel a woman without a third party present. Scott notes the many strengths of this approach which include a strong desire for personal purity. However, there are also many weaknesses. Scott writes, “First as more and more women become leaders, this approach becomes unsustainable.” I would also add that for those of us who care about breaking the boundaries for women in ministry, this approach can be hindering as the female is seen as something to be feared. Women who have most been exposed to this approach perceive themselves as “untrustworthy” and even “shameful.”
Haylee Gray Scott goes on to call the second approach the Daredevil Approach. In this tactic, there are little to no boundaries in the cross-gender relationships and lands on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Bubblewrap Approach. Adherents to the Daredevil Approach would give no thought to extravagant gift giving over the holidays, vacations, and fancy dinners within cross-gender relationships. The dangers to this approach are obvious, and the resulting temptations can become too much to bear. Scott compares this approach to swimming in the ocean without knowing the force and direction of the undertow.
Finally, Halee Gray Scott proposes a new way that incorporates the strengths of both the Bubblewrap and Daredevil approaches and excludes the weaknesses: Men and Women as Co-Laborers and Allies. Here, the cross-gender relationship works as co-laborers and allies in the Kingdom of God while playing off of each other’s strengths and seeing one another as a child of God. Scott proposes four foundational ways we can begin to build these types of relationships in our own churches.
- Establish clear corporate thinking about men, women, sexuality, and cross-gender ministry.
- Establish clear, wise boundaries in advance.
- Ensure that you are spiritually healthy and remain connected to the Lord.
- Implement strategic organizational policies that bolster women’s development as leaders.
As Scott rightly points out, we must create an environment and a culture that does not penalize women due to issues related to gender, especially in our churches.
One doesn’t have to read far in the New Testament to see that women played significant roles as teachers, prophets, evangelists, apostles, and ministering widows. They were, of course, serving in cross-gender, co-laboring relationships. Just a few of these examples are Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna who provided for the disciples (Luke 8:1-3), Mary and Martha who opened their home to Jesus and served his needs in a very personal way, and Priscilla and Aquilla who taught Apollos and served the Kingdom as co-laborers with Paul (Acts 18:24-28, Romans 16:3-4, 1 Corinthians 16:9).
What do you think? Can men and women co-labor in a godly partnership?