Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry
8 things you can begin doing right now to move from verbal affirmation to concrete support
by Tara Beth Leach
I can't think of a single pulpit that I have stood behind that wasn't because of the invitation of a woman-affirming male pastor. I am grateful for you, dear men who affirm women in ministry. Your affirmation and your encouragement have at times been a courageous counter-cultural move. I am thankful that you have plowed the way for so many of us women who wouldn't otherwise have had any opportunities to exercise our gifts for leading the Body of Christ toward maturity. The church has needed your voice and continues to need your voice!
But at times I have to wonder, dear men who affirm women in ministry, if your affirmation is enough. Don't get me wrong, brother, I know your intentions are sincere. I am sure that if you were asked if you affirm women in ministry, you would proudly wear your "egalitarian"(1) badge. But here's the thing, dear men who affirm women in ministry, sometimes a badge might not be enough.
On August, 6, 2015, Bill Hybels stood before tens of thousands of people and humbly and courageously confessed that although Willow Creek made the decision to affirm women in ministry in the 1980s, he made mistakes along the way.
Somewhere in the middle '90s, I think, I said, I don't have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it; we are done with that. We've crossed over. In the last 10 years, I am embarrassed to say, it's gone the other way. There is a generation of leaders coming up now who are back in the old school of limiting the potential of what women can do; limiting where women can serve; limiting their potential service in the church. I don't get it. But I freely admit that I misjudged where I thought the church was going. Corporations are way in front of us, universities, my gosh the military is in front of us. And churches are lagging behind on this. If I could do it over again, I would have kept the pressure up until every last church that I could influence would allow women to serve, and to use their gifts, and to be full image bearers in the church.
I am so grateful Bill took a moment at the Global Leadership Summit not only to affirm the role of women in ministry, but also to confess some areas in which he missed the mark. Sadly, Bill is not the only one to miss the mark, but all too many pastors are unwilling to make such a confession. Although most egalitarian pastors almost always have the best intentions, countless women are discouraged, frustrated, and even walking away from their call to ministry.
I recently came across this infograph on a denomination that has affirmed women in ministry since its inception. According to this infograph, only 7% of its pastors in the Great Lakes Mega-region are women. The median worship attendance of a church with a female pastor is 33. When I dug a little more, I learned that although 24% of newly ordained clergy are women, only 8.2% are senior pastors, 0% are District leaders, and 19.3% of women are unassigned.(2)
Sadly, this is not a far cry from the landscape for many women in ministry. While pastors who proudly wear the "egalitarian" badge are getting cozy thinking that this should be a non-issue, it's a crying shame that more and more "celebrity pastors" are passionately denouncing the role of women pastors and are gaining a lot of momentum. Women are left without wings to soar, pulpits to preach, and churches to serve.
Brothers, your silence is deafening.
Dear men who affirm women in ministry, it's time to step up your game, to do more than wear your badge and run the ball across the field. While I am glad for your affirmation for women in ministry, might you consider ending the silence and using your voice so we can co-labor in this great calling together? Let's be honest, men are still the ones who primarily hold the seat of privilege in the church. As the group still in power, you have an opportunity to change the landscape by opening strategic doors, inviting women to decision-making tables, and reconfiguring systems of power.
Here are 8 things you can begin doing now to move from verbal affirmation to concrete support.
1. Stop using the wrong argument for why women should be in ministry.
While I, along with many others, applaud Bill Hybels for his confession at the Global Leadership Summit, his argument as to why women should be in ministry is ultimately unhelpful. Hybels said, "Corporations are way in front of us, universities, my gosh the military is in front of us. And churches are lagging behind on this." The church should never be playing catch-up with culture; the church has always been and always will be a radical counter-cultural community that is defined by scripture and the Spirit of the Living God. Think for a moment about what grounds churches and pastors are using to inhibit women from ministry and leadership positions. It's not because they don't like women. It's because they genuinely believe that it is what scripture teaches, so when we don't counter their case with a solid biblical teaching, we will always be seen as the ones who allow culture to lead the way instead of scripture. Women aren't in ministry because it's where the rest of the world is headed; they are in ministry because it is so beautifully illustrated in scripture and because of the empowering presence of the Spirit.(3) I, for one, am in ministry because the Spirit has called me and the Bible tells me so.(4)
2. Invite women to hold positions of leadership on your church board/council.
Look around at who sits at the table of your local church board. Do you have women who sit at table? And by women, I mean more than just one or two. By having little to no women at the table, the status quo will remain the same and churches will continue be a male-only culture.
3. Educate the local church on the biblical and theological grounds for women in ministry.
When the average person in the "pews" comes across difficult passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-12, they are typically confused by their meaning and context. Without proper education and solid biblical teaching, many in your congregation will remain confused.
4. If you have the ability to hire pastors, work hard to seek resumes from female candidates.
It's easier to continue hiring people who are like us. The reason women are continuously unassigned to churches isn't because they aren't gifted enough; rather, it's because they are being bypassed for equally gifted men.
5. Stop wondering why people are still talking about the importance of women in ministry.(5)
We are not yet in a season where the conversation should be put to rest. Not talking about it doesn't make it all of the sudden a non-issue; rather, it perpetuates the male-only culture.
6. Empower women to use their gifts on the platform during weekend worship.(6)
Week after week, sitting in the seats are women who just as gifted as the men leading on stage. When men continue to dominate the worship experience, not only are you perpetuating the status quo, but a message will continuously be sent to women that they aren't welcome.
7. Have a sharp eye for women in your congregation who might have gifts like teaching and preaching, or even a potential call to vocational ministry.
Are you identifying women in your congregation who might have gifts like teaching and preaching and encouraging them? I often wonder how many women go through their entire lives without even knowing that they have a gift to teach and preach.
8. Seek opportunities to mentor women as emerging church leaders.
Think for a moment of all the wonderful mentors you have had in your life. More than likely, your heart is grateful for the nuggets of wisdom you've received along the way. With the majority of pastors being men, not all women have the luxury to be mentored by other women pastors. Mentoring women as emerging church leaders will entail moving away from the Billy Graham rule. Women miss out on being mentored by male pastors when the Billy Graham rule is fiercely practiced. Women, then, continue to remain on the fringe. Also, read here.
Dear men who affirm women in ministry, you are precious. But we women who are called can't do this without you and your affirmation, your support and your voice. Before us is a new frontier, an opportunity to change the status quo so that our daughters won't even know a world where countless women are unassigned. I pray that our daughters will know a world where men and women stand behind the pulpit as co-laborers, together using their gifts to edify the body of Christ and together participate in the mission of God in this world. I pray for you, dear brothers. I pray that you would see the opportunity that is before you, and move into a space that helps propel our generation into a whole new world.
(Sisters, I recognize that this list is in no way exhaustive. What would you add or take away? I'd love your thoughts in the comment section.)
Tara Beth Leach lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and young sons. A Nazarene pastor, she has served in churches in Upstate New York and Naperville, IL, and she now serves as Director of Women's Ministry at Christ Church of Oak Brook, a non-denominational church outside of Chicago. Be sure to check out her blog. This letter was originally published by our friends at Missio Alliance and appears here by their kind permission.
1. Global Research Center for the Church of the Nazarene–USA/Canada Region.
2. I put the word "egalitarian" in quotations because there is a lot of good discussion as to whether or not this is the best term to use. Some prefer "mutualist" or "co-laborers" or "blessed alliance." Scot McKnight brings the discussion forward here.
3. For those who like to learn more on this subject, I suggest a great blog post written by Michael Wiltshire on the Junia Project Blog. I would also like to recommend the following books: Scot McKnight, Junia Is not Alone; John G. Stackhouse and Jr, Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender; William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis; Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.
4. Eugene Cho has written a beautiful and extensive post about biblical grounds for supporting women in ministry.
5. Check out Gail Wallace's thought provoking post on 10 ways male privilege shows up in the church.
6. Christ Church of Oak Brook is a beautiful example of this as it has three women who are on the preaching rotation and have women represented on every level of leadership.