The Local Church and it's Problem Developing Female Leaders

As I peeled back page after page from Kadi Cole’s book Developing Female Leaders, I gained a deep awareness to an issue I felt I understood well.

For the most part, the Local Church has an egregious history of developing high-level female leaders and pastors. Sure, poor theology continues to act as a stumbling block and giant barrier to engagement for some churches, however in circles where female leaders are actually welcome to lead (it’s sad I even have to type that) a glass ceiling of development and unwritten gender biases still exist.

In my early 20s, I remember being completely blindsided by how the Local Church approached female leaders. Being a late-riser to faith, it was baffling to me that a high-level CEO of an organization who might be the best leader in the building was often relegated to a low-level volunteer position in a church.

It made — no, still makes — no sense to me. In the beginning, I approached this topic in total defiance. I figured a few open conversations would shift the perspective many had in-grained in them from birth. Yeah, that didn’t work.

What Cole outlines in her book is a fascinating picture and solution to how the church can do a better job at developing female leaders. I won’t steal her thoughts. Go buy and read her book! However, I want to talk about three specific takeaways from her book.

These are tangible changes we can make immediately to start down a healthy path of developing female leaders in the Local Church.

1. We need to have proper expectations of each “pastors wife.”

I’ll admit this right off the bat. I loathe the term “pastor’s wife” as its generally and loosely applied. I mean — like — I actually loathe it. Theoretically, if a husband owned his own business and his wife stayed at home and occasionally was in the office working would people call her the “owner’s wife?”

Despite my deep passion for the term, it does signify an actual role. As Cole mentioned in Developing Female Leaders, one significant issue in the Church is the misidentification of the pastor’s wife.

This is two fold: In one situation, the wife is called to pastor. She’s equipped to lead. She’s prepared to lead. She has an equal — or even greater — capacity to lead like her husband, but she’s never able to reach that level of leadership because of traditions. She essentially operates as a +1 to her husband’s leadership. Even though she’s called to lead the church, she’s placed as the Women’s Ministry leader or church secretary.

Different than the first scenario, the husbands wife has absolutely no desire to lead in any pastoral capacity. In fact, she prefers to work outside the Local Church, but, because of an expectation that she needs to be engaged in ministry like her husband, she takes on a role at the church she was never called — nor wanted — to do.

Not only does this directly impact the husband and wife team, but Cole mentions that a misalignment of expectations hurts female leaders on the leadership team. She cites a specific example where a “pastor’s wife” who was forced into leading in the church led all the female on the staff.

She didn’t have the capacity or desire to lead, so there times together were often filled with activities and surface level talk while the male leaders were being intentionally developed to handle pastoral matters by the male pastor.

2. Gender specific leadership outings need to go.

High-level female leaders do not want to talk about their feelings and put together a scrap book while the high-level male leaders are vision casting, brainstorming, and talking about way to initiate change.

High-level female leaders want to sit at the table with the high-level male leaders. Seems like a novel idea, doesn’t it!

In the church world, we really miss the mark here. Cole cites an example of a friend who was an elite executive in a fortune 500 company. She was hired to be the Executive Pastor at a large church. She was the only female leader on the church staff. The church went to its denomination’s conference and after the first session the speaker gave direction.

“Pastors — you guys — will stay here to talk about the future of our denomination.”

“The pastor’s wives and the other ladies will head over to the Student Building for tea and scrapbooking.”

The Executive Pastor looked at her pastor with a hesitant glance, as her pastor said, “Yeah, you’re not going to that. Let’s talk about the future of our denomination.”

I understand the place for gender specific outings in gender-conference settings. For example, if there’s a pastor’s wives retreat — it’s safe to assume a leader like the Executive Pastor in the prior example — wouldn’t attend because it doesn’t pertain to her. There will still be other females who need an event like that.

In leadership settings where both genders are represented the best way to eliminate this problem is to eliminate gender-specific outings. It doesn’t mean removing outings — it’s re-purposing them. For example, instead of a vision-casting and dreaming session with pastors and scrapbooking and tea for females and pastors wives — we shift our direction and communication:

Session 1: There will be a vision-casting think tank for leaders on the future of our denomination and churches.

Session 2: There will be a meet and greet for leaders to get to know each other and encourage one another in the Student Auditorium. (serve finger foods, coffee and tea, and ditch the scrapbooking)

It’s simple and subtle but also gigantic in the sight of those leaders involved.

3. Male leaders can’t sit on the sidelines.

The biggest champions to developing female leaders are male leaders. The biggest hinderance to developing female leaders are … you guessed it … male leaders. In Chapter 5 titled “Be an Other,” Cole lists three types of next-level relationships that surveyed female leaders said are essential in development. Two of the three involved male partnership.

A male mentor, as Cole explains, is someone who gives. A male mentor offers advice and helps female leaders navigate unwritten rules and barriers they’ll face in leadership. A male mentor is creating the space and time to develop a female leader.

“Unfortunately, the bottom line is this: men mentor men. Therefore, they choose men to push forward on the path of leadership. Since they are the ones leading, men continue to put men in traditional leadership roles. Women mentor women, thus pushing them forward in motherhood, or women’s ministry, or other areas of service that women traditionally perform. With this model, the status quo will never change.” (PG. 81)

A male sponsor is next level. Sponsorship is about action. This is the male leader who isn’t just giving advice and guiding the female leader, but this individual is championing a female leaders influence in the organization. This goes from a seat at the table to take it all in versus a voice at the table leading. This goes from saying women can preach and lead versus championing her to get on the stage and preach and lead in all avenues.

Whatever you want to call it — the fact remains that male leaders need to do something.

As a male leader, I felt championed when other leaders I valued spoke life into me. It inspired me to keep moving and develop. It was the charge I needed. So, why would female leaders need anything different? They need high-level leaders speaking to their potential, skills and capacity.

Let’s stop pretending or ignoring that this problem doesn’t exist within the Local Church. That’ll be a good start.