The Experiences of Women in Church and Denominational Leadership
By Susan Harris Howell, Ariel Thompson | Priscilla Papers
Women have served in leadership positions in some Christian denominations for decades or even longer. Other denominations have more recently welcomed women into positions such as pastor, elder, or deacon. The egalitarian community encourages men and women to serve based on gifts rather than gender and celebrates when they embrace Paul’s pronouncement that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female . . .” (Gal 3:28 NIV).
However, what are the experiences of women in Christian leadership? Do they have salaries comparable to men? Do they encounter stereotypes based on gender? Do they have the respect of their congregations? This research provides a glimpse into the experiences of these women to inform those who are, or will become, church leaders, and to increase the awareness of congregations and denominational offices as they seek to include women in fulfilling the mission of the church.
Participants were 109 women who have held positions of leadership within a church or a denominational organization, and who volunteered in response to a social media recruitment request. Those interested were directed to a link which gave them access to the survey. While participants represented a variety of denominations, Nazarene (42%) and Baptist (19%) together made up the majority of this sample. (See Table 1 for a complete list of denominational affiliations.) The age of participants spanned across adulthood, with a slight majority (52%) being over fifty years of age.
Table 1. Denominations Represented by Participating Women
The majority of participating women (83%) were involved in ministries through the local church—28% identifying themselves as pastors; 28% as associate pastors; 13% as volunteer leaders in ministries such as youth, senior citizen, missions, or Sunday school; and 7% holding positions of deacon or elder. Those leading outside of local congregations (14%) identified as leading through denominational boards or committees (6%), higher education (3%), and chaplaincy (3%).
Fifty percent of participants reported serving in churches with less than 100 members, with another 36% serving in churches with memberships of 100–500.
While annual salaries ranged from under $30,000 to over $70,000, they were skewed toward the low end, with most (57%) earning less than $30,000 per year.
Participants were mostly well educated, with 30% holding only an undergraduate degree and an additional 60% holding at least one graduate degree. Of those who wished to continue their education, the vast majority (90%) found their churches at least somewhat supportive. Less encouraging is that only about half (53%) believed they received support comparable to their male counterparts.
Of those who wished to advance in their ministry, from one position to another, 48% reported advancing with support from their church or denomination, 14% reported advancing but without much or any support, and 18% responded that they had been prevented from advancing.
The majority (64%) believed their ideas were taken into consideration for important decisions as least as often as the ideas of others. An additional 28% believed their ideas were considered, although not as often as others. Nevertheless, 79% of these women reported not being taken as seriously as a leader because of their gender, at least some of the time.
While 65% reported that their churches displayed at least some stereotypic gender roles, 87% were reported to display non-stereotypic gender roles in at least some areas.
The large number of churches in this sample that were given credit for displaying non-stereotypic gender roles is not surprising, given that these churches have already hired, elected, or appointed women to leadership positions. In fact, many women simply responded with statements such as “I’m the pastor.” Other comments included: “Our kitchen is mainly staffed by men.” “As far as church government, we are fully egalitarian. We preach egalitarian marriage. We very much value our working women, and our stay at home dads.” “We believe in the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ Men can cook. Women can teach. All are free to serve as they are able.”
Yet traditional roles were not extinct for most. One participant reported, “I’ve been told I would make a great senior pastor if I were only a man.” Another was told by a supervisor that she “needed to just accept what was because there were very few opportunities for women.” Another commented, “We have no males in the nursery—ever. Most of the time it is a male who prays.” One woman spoke of the inconsistency between the title she held and the respect she received: “Many people comment or joke about my being an ‘elder’ at a young age. At least one person referred to me as a young girl. I am a woman. A young woman. But definitely not a young girl.”
A mixture of stereotypic and non-stereotypic gender roles seems to coincide for many churches. Likewise, the high percentage (92%) who believed their opinions on important decisions were taken into consideration was not drastically different from the percentage (79%) who did not believe they were taken as seriously due to gender. “I feel like an invisible person working a visible position,” said one participant. Another reported, “it was clear that although women could and did preach, men always ‘knew best’ and had ultimate leadership and decision making authority.” One participant stated that she had received “No mentoring, no encouragement, [although the church showed a] willingness to accept my skills and time but [the] pastor takes all credit and gives no affirmation.” One woman spoke of strategies she employs in order to have her ideas taken into consideration: “I’ve heard people credit my husband with proposals that I suggested. Or men simply say ‘I can’t remember who suggested this. . . .’ If it seems wise to have them associate the idea with me, I correct their assumptions. Sometimes it is strategic to let them think my proposal is someone else’s idea.”
Yet many did report being taken as seriously as men in similar positions. One woman said, “I don’t see a difference between the way my male co-pastor partner is treated as compared to myself.” Another stated, “My ideas are always respected and taken into consideration.” “I feel heard, and respected, and [am] a strong contributor to our overall direction,” said another.
Likewise, of the women who wished to continue their education, almost all of them reported receiving support from their churches to do so. Encouragement in the form of verbal support, financial assistance, and time away were described in several comments. “Churches provided money for tuition and frequently allowed time away for [writing a] dissertation,” stated one woman. Another said the “congregation paid for my tuition to obtain a master’s degree.” “The church where I currently minister is extremely supportive of my desire to pursue my doctorate,” reported another.
Only 53% of the respondents, however, stated that this was the same level of support given to their male counterparts. “[The church] allowed me to get a DMin while serving full time. . . . [I] was able to take time off for classes BUT [they] did not support me in the same way they did the male senior pastor who was given some financial assistance and time to write his dissertation.” One woman reported, “There was time and money for a male co-pastor to be in college classes, but I was not given the same opportunity/leeway in scheduling. I was not encouraged to go on and pursue a higher degree when I had gotten my bachelors. Most of the men in my same degree (Theology) were.” One woman replied, “Oh my gracious, no . . . every proverbial door of opportunity was encouraged and opened to the men in leadership. No door was encouraged or opened for me. I had to fight, if you will, for even what seemed like scraps.”
Of the women who believed they received the same level of support as their male counterparts, one assistant pastor replied, “I have not been limited in my educational pursuits. . . . Currently in my denomination there seems to be a level playing field.” In fact, in some churches even the lack of support is gender-blind, as one woman stated, “No one is encouraged to pursue post graduate study; gender has nothing to do with it.”
Mixed messages were also described, as reflected in the following: “They encourage education. They were also concerned that it would take away from my time for ministry.” “‘Good for you!’ ‘Go for it!’ But no financial assistance.”
For many churches, these mixed messages may stem more from a scarcity of funds than from gender bias. However, the desire to be fully inclusive of women while finding it difficult to break habits of traditional ideology is real for many denominations and congregations.
It is encouraging to note that of those wishing to advance in ministry, 62% were able to do so, with or without the support of their churches or denominations. One specifically reported, “It was my male boss who encouraged me to seek ordination and a title change in my work.” Another said, “Our denomination has been very supportive of women in leadership.” However, one participant who was serving her church in an administrative capacity reported, “I am an ordained minister with 20+ years of ministry experience. Our church is failing miserably in small group and discipleship—my area of expertise. I have talked with Senior Pastor . . . and I was offered to teach a Sunday morning class for which there was no advertisement or support. I have offered to serve on teams that discuss employee issues, teamwork, and again have been told thanks but no thanks.” Thus, for some, advancement did not happen.
The fact that most churches represented had less than 100 members might indicate a greater likelihood of women obtaining leadership positions within smaller congregations. For denominations in which the congregation selects its own pastor, this might indicate a greater willingness on the part of the membership to consider the individual and her qualifications, regardless of gender. This is what social psychologists refer to as making target-based attributions, or making decisions based on the characteristics of the individual, rather than those that are category-based, which are made based on the category to which a person belongs, in this case, gender. Target-based attributions are more prevalent when we have come to know an individual more completely, as would more often be the case for those voting on a church leader in smaller congregations.
For churches in which pastors are appointed by denominational leadership, something else might be happening. Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam use the term “glass cliff” to describe the finding that companies who had appointed a female board member had also experienced poor performance in the five months preceding the appointment, thereby placing these women in positions they describe as “risky or precarious.”1 Whether intentional or not, such a practice could provide false evidence that women do not lead well. While research has not yet verified this practice within the church, it is a possibility worth considering. One participant illustrated this concept perfectly: “I have been given opportunities but only at small, struggling churches that are barely surviving. Even though my education and experiences are comparable to male colleagues with better opportunities.” Another said, “I graduated at the top of my class with every academic award the school gives yet I haven’t been offered an opportunity at a church over 50 people.”
The discovery that the vast majority of these women were well educated, yet reported annual salaries under $30,000, might reflect the fact that many of them were serving in smaller congregations. However, this finding also attests to the church being no exception to the gender wage gap. “Male Staff members without experience/degrees who have been here equal or less time have received salary increases (when I was told there were going to be no increases) in the midst of fiscal budget years.”
It is noteworthy that, for those who knew how their salary compared to those of male leaders, responses were equally divided between those who received lower pay than men (29%) and those who received the same salary as men (31%). None, however, reported having a higher salary than their male counterparts.
Yet, throughout the comments these women presented, regardless of the acceptance or rejection they experienced from their churches, the salary or educational support they were offered, or the level of respect they felt, all of them expressed a commitment to God’s work and doing their part in that work.
Conclusion and Limitations
Although this study sheds light on the experiences of a segment of church leadership which has been relatively unexplored, several limitations should be noted. Even though social media is a growing method of recruiting research participants and expands the pool of volunteers, it does not guarantee a representative sample of the population. To increase the odds, we asked others to “share” our recruitment request, hoping for a “snowball effect” to extend the sample well beyond our own social spheres. We also recruited through the 8,000-member Biblical Christian Egalitarians Facebook group and through a Baptist organization for women in ministry. While we reached out to other denominations through their websites, we were unsuccessful in gaining their involvement. The result was that a disproportionate number (61%) of participants identified as Baptist or Nazarene, with relatively few from other denominations. Even so, since Baptist churches tend toward being restrictive of women in leadership and the Nazarene church is less restrictive, having them each well represented in this study did create a balance of sorts. Future research could expand into other denominations to provide a broader representation of women in church and denominational leadership.
Future research should also explore the possibility of a “glass cliff” within the church, since this has been documented for businesses that have assigned women to positions usually held by men.
Finally, we appreciate the willingness of these women to share their experiences with us and hope that their openness will bear fruit in the church.
1. Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam, “The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions,” British Journal of Management 16, no. 2 (June 2005): 81–90.