Church healthChurch StrategyLeadership

Why women can’t lead in your church

By June 1, 2018 11 Comments

As I have watched the scandal unfold at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over the past few weeks I have been struck by the underlying tone of men’s treatment of women, especially women leaders, in the church world. It is a world where often men lead and women follow, a patriarchy that feeds how women are often treated in churches, Bible colleges and seminaries across the country. Under this system the church is deprived of desperately needed leaders, and women are scarred for life. To understand how this feels read this excellent post by Beth Moore describing how she has been treated by men in the church. Treating women leaders like second class citizens in the church has to end. 

I know what I’m talking about. For 36 years of ministry I have often sat around tables with men paying service to the value of women leaders while dismissing their opinions and undermining their leadership. I’ve also seen up close the damage this ubiquitous attitude does to the two most important women in my life; my wife and my daughter. Although my wife is an incredible leader and thinker, I’ve seen her struggle to overcome chauvinism in the church world again and again. (I am thankful she works for an organization, The ReThink Group, that considers gender irrelevant to leadership.) I have seen my daughter, who has amazing musical and technical gifts, struggle to break into the informal boys’ clubs at churches where she’s served. I also know what I’m talking about because I too have been guilty of not championing women leaders. 

The women in our families and the mission of our churches are too important to continue to go along with the status quo. It is time to make significant strides to engage all of the gifts in our congregations, regardless of gender. To change a system as ingrained as patriarchy, however, will take courage and it will take work. To avoid the change that is needed we often hide behind  time-worn excuses.

We hide behind theology

Some hide behind the theology of complementarianism, which says that women and men have different but complementary roles in life. The challenge is at times this stance can limit what leadership roles are available to women in the church. My goal isn’t to argue theology, but to challenge the idea that God limits leadership based on gender.  I understand believing the Apostle Paul reserves certain roles for men, but I don’t see how you can read the list of women leaders in Romans 16 and not see that Paul believed women were qualified for most other roles in the church.

Others hide in their egalitarianism, the belief that men and women are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. While in these circles a woman theoretically can preach, hold the office of elder and be called a pastor, she is often still excluded from the table where decisions are made. I have found that chauvinism isn’t bound by theology.

We hide behind the possibility of temptation

This argument says we have to build walls around the women we work with to avoid the temptation of sexual sin. The walls we build include never being alone in a room with a woman, never mentoring a woman and never discussing anything personal with a woman. Unfortunately these walls have proved ineffective based on the number of men who followed this protocol and were still caught in an affair with a co-worker. What these walls are very effective at is limiting the leadership of women. Limiting access to other leaders is death to collaboration, growth and advancement.

Here’s what I wonder about walls; if they are effective at combatting temptation, why don’t we build similar walls to prevent other sins? Shouldn’t I limit my access to men who tempt me to anger? Shouldn’t I refuse to meet alone with men who spark envy? Surely I should never share anything personal with a man who may cause me to boast.

James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed BY HIS OWN DESIRE.” (James 1:14 ESV) If meeting in a room alone with a woman causes me to drop trou I’m pretty sure walls aren’t my answer. The answer to dealing with sexual temptation is a deep spiritual walk and honest accountability. Walls are just avoiding the real issue.

We hide behind tradition

Some of us cower behind the flimsy excuse, “People in my church just aren’t ready for women leading.” I remember when people weren’t ready for drums in the church, pastors who didn’t wear suits and lyrics projected on screens rather than printed in hymnbooks. Its funny how willing we were to challenge those preconceived notions, but we aren’t ready to stand up for our sisters who are gifted and called to lead.

Changing the prevailing patriarchy in your church will be difficult and it will take courage. If you are up for the task here are five suggestions that I believe can make a significant difference:

Creating a culture where women can lead

Seek input from women leaders on your staff and in your church

A group of men sitting around a table will not change the culture of your church when it comes to women in leadership. The first step is to seek to understand what it is like to be woman leader in your culture, and the only way to learn is to ask. I understand this is a scary proposition because you might not like what you hear, but “we are not as those who shrink back”. Here are three questions you should ask:

  1. Does our church encourage and develop women leaders?
  2. What is the most challenging part of being a woman and leading on our team?
  3. What do we need to change to improve our culture for women leaders?

Include women at the highest leadership level of your church

Who could you add to your leadership team, your deacon board or your group of elders? I am not suggesting you change your theology if it does not allow for women elders. You can add women to the group without designating them as voting elders. I’m pretty sure Paul never limited who could attend or participate in elder meetings.

I’ve been told that including women on leadership teams “changes the dynamic in the room”. The inference is the discussion is more authentic and fruitful when only men are present. Imagine saying the same thing about Latinos, African Americans or Cub fans. If the reason you are excluding women is because of dynamics, then the dynamics need to change. 

Coach women who may be new to leading with men

A few years ago I noticed a woman who’d recently been asked to serve on the Directional Leadership Team  was always very quiet in meetings despite her obvious leadership skills and strategic thinking. After one meeting in which she had silently taken notes without speaking a word I  asked what was going on. She said it was often difficult to get a word in with the men constantly interrupting and talking over one another. “Besides”, she said, “I’m not sure my opinion is really necessary.” I shared with her two observations. First, in rooms full of men if you wait to be asked you will likely never be asked. For good or bad, you have to speak up. And second, if your opinion wasn’t necessary you wouldn’t be at the table. The church needs your input.

My wife co-authored an excellent book to help women learn how to lead in a church with a predominantly male culture. I love the title: Just Lead: A no whining, no complaining, no nonsense practical guide for women leading in the church. Its a great resource to help women learn the nuances of leading with men.

Coach men who struggle leading with women

Don’t expect men to intuitively figure out how to effectively work with women leaders. Men who haven’t spent time in the marketplace may have little or no experience in an environment where women lead. Here are a few tips to get them started:

Listen: Women often have a more nuanced communication style than many men. They are more likely to include context, emotion and relationship into the discussion. Dismissing this more complex texture is a mistake. Ingrained in the narrative is the perspective men, left to their own devices, will miss.

Don’t interrupt: Men often interrupt one another, especially when the conversation becomes emotionally charged. While this is always rude, it makes it especially difficult for many women leaders to engage in the discussion.

Ask clarifying questions: It is always helpful to ask questions for understanding, but it is especially helpful when men and women are leading together. We perceive the world differently and reach conclusions in different ways. Rather than dismissing an opinion you don’t understand, ask for context.

Trust: Women who are new to the leadership table at your church have to know that you trust them to lead. Do not treat them like junior partners or children who need to be protected. Trust women to lead as intelligent adults and reinforce that trust through your words and actions.

Root out misogynists (people who dislike, despise, or are strongly prejudiced against women)

There are likely men, and possibly women, on your team who do not think women should lead. They may hide behind a screen of selective scriptures or the guise of paternalistic care, but in the end they have a chauvinistic view of men over women. They should be challenged to grow in their view or find another church in which to serve.

That may sound extreme, but  would you keep a racist in leadership? Would you tolerate a leader who treated African Americans on your staff differently than everyone else, undermining their leadership? If its not ok to discriminate against a race then its not ok to discriminate against a gender.

Do you have the courage to change?

Here is the bottom line for me; our mission of bringing the Good News of the Gospel to a lost and dying world is too important to hamstring half of the leaders in our church by treating women as less than. Fully engaging women in leadership is hard work and controversial. Not everyone in our churches will agree that women can lead in the context of church, and we will face pushback. Do we have the courage to face the opposition and do the hard work of leveling the playing field for women leaders? For the sake of the Kingdom I certainly hope so.


  • Sara Williams says:

    Excellent thoughts for excellent women. That’s why you’re special—brave.
    It is curious to me how some women in leadership can often be chauvinistic against other women because they are threatened. I understand. She had to fight for her position, and for the freedom to actually DO something, even in women’s ministry. As hard as she fought for recognition, she doesn’t want anybody taking it from her. Who would? It is not a secure position.

  • Ali Anderson says:

    Excellent thoughts. To truly bring change women need to be given the opportunity to preach based on passion, skill, knowledge, and fluidity. To be given a chance to lead regular sermons as opposed to a female driven event gives women the support to be seen as leaders of a church by the congregation.
    I enjoy reading blog pieces like this and I look forward to seeing women encouraged to drive to become church leaders.

    • Cynthia Restivo says:

      This is a great point. It’s easy to give the reigns to a women… within the context of speaking on Mothers’ Day, Women Events, etc. It can be the illusion that women are supported, yet really kept in their place within the bigger picture.

  • Suzanne says:

    Very interesting. I have been in a leadership roll on different committees with little or no issues with male members. I don’t really know how I feel about other leadership rolls in the church which have always been predominantly male. You know the old saying “we have never done it that way before!” I can say that I will be searching the scriptures. Thank you for your blog, I just never thought there was any other way.

  • Gary Sweeten says:

    I think the biggest barrier is an ecclesiologythat puts an invisible hierarchy in place that limits all ministries to “officially” approved people that are almost always male. If we strongly affirmed the exhortations for every believer to “Seek the gifts of theSpirit” then males and females would normally rise up through the various ministries and use their gifts at every level.

  • Cynthia Restivo says:

    Thank you Geoff for bringing your voice to this conversation. I appreciate the direct dialogue and invitation for the Church to stretch and grow in this area.

    While we navigate this dynamic in the Church, I observe many women who do not believe they CAN BE or SHOULD BE leaders and therefore don’t know how to develop other women as leaders. It’s a big gap that impacts the generations.

    Thanks again.

  • Terri Kraus says:

    Thank you for this article! We need all hands on deck for the Gospel!


    We are not the Theology of Paul, we are called to be like Christ. When you say that the churches should call of women’s imput but “not change the theology”, you are not truly embracing women as leaders. I had high hopes when I started your article. Sadly, not so much now.

    • Geoff Surratt says:

      I am sorry you were disappointed in the article. My goal wasn’t to argue theology but to point out regardless of your theology you should still engage women in leadership.

  • Kellie says:

    We serve a great God. Suffering, opposition, constraint – all part of our legacy – a divine purpose in creating humble, confident, wise leaders who glorify Him and walk in life giving practices. When we walk in the kingdom our leadership (women and men) is not limited by our environment.
    Gen. 15:20, Gal. 3:28, Col. 3;11, Phil. 1:27 -30

  • Rev. Lyn Cogswell says:

    I deeply appreciate the overall tone and content of this article! As an ordained minister for 15 years, and over50 female, in a holiness denomination that has recognized women in pastoral leadership since its inception, what we say we believe and how we actually operate functionally are still woefully far apart. I’ve been researching how emotional intelligence (or the lack of maturity/skills in this area) inform the issue of gender inequality in church leadership. I’m beginning to believe it may play a pivotal role in moving us forward collectively away from gender-based ministry assignments. I respectfully disagree with the author’s assertion that women leaders need to just step up and be more assertive in meetings with men. The inference is that women need to behave more like men in the way we participate. I can tell you from personal experience, and that of my female colleagues, that when we attempt to act in these more assertive ways, we are frequently labeled as “aggressive” and other less flattering terms. It often feels as if we can’t win, no matter what approach we use. Having said this, I applaud the spirit and demeanor with which you write on this subject. Just the fact that you address the discrepancy openly is noteworthy, and I commend you for writing it with obvious passion and commitment to being part of making things better for the body of Christ. Thank you!

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