5 Ways to Support Emerging Women Leaders in the Church

Alicia McClintic

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Young women circle of hands

emerging women leaders circle of hands

In church leadership, men occupy a position of default; women occupy a position of difference.

When we open a Word doc on our computers, the default settings are often different depending on the program we use. The default settings in Word on a PC may be different than those on a Mac or in Google Docs. Maybe, like me, you’ve tweaked those default settings so you always can use the font you like, the order you prefer, the structure that’s intuitive for you.

When it comes to leadership in the church (and in general), the default settings for our cultural user interface have been calibrated by and for men. We call this the patriarchy, and it is sometimes overt and sometimes subtle, but always present. Even when there are wonderful, supportive men advocating for women and making space for us, there are still marked experiences of difference that women have to figure out on their own.

So, how then do we practically and tangibly help male mentors (those wonderful, supportive men who believe in us and want to make space for us and are doing their best for us) think through what it is like for women to be in these spaces and navigate these positions of leadership?

To the male mentors in my life, with all my gratitude and love, I offer some humble suggestions from women called to lead.

1) Recognize you have blind spots.

There will be things you don’t see, times you let us down unintentionally, stuff you don’t know how to think through because you’ve never had any reason to do so. It happens, and it’s OK. We’re not bitter; we just want to be better. Seek out ways to become aware of your blind spots.

Ask the women you have mentored and served with what their experience is like working in the Church (and even what it’s been like working with you and your team in particular). When they point out a blind spot, listen to them. Resist the urge to brush off their experience with “Well, it wasn’t meant it that way,” and just believe what they say. Be brave enough to receive their feedback (even if it’s painful), and work to change behaviors/attitudes that contribute to stifling patriarchal structures.

2) Cultivate empathy and practice putting yourself in her position.

Thinking about what it was like for you to first navigate these leadership spaces is a good place to start. It’s also important to think through what those experiences are like for emerging women leaders today.

Ask your wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, female friends and colleagues in order to better understand the female experience (in church, at work, in the world). Seek first to understand and ask how to best support the women you work alongside. Find ways to use the power and position you have to make space for them. Simply asking “What do you need?” and “How can I help?” is always a good place to start.

3) Adjust your language and practices (as individuals and as organizations) to be gender inclusive.

When you preach and teach, use illustrations and examples that invite women to find themselves in the story you’re telling. Better yet, have a woman preach regularly and learn how to find yourself in the story she tells.

Take a look at the landscape of your staff. Who occupies significant positions of authority, who makes the key decisions for the direction of the church, who is on the platform on Sunday? What’s the balance between men and women?

And are women only doing children’s ministry or admin work while men compose the board and preach? Or are both genders consistently evenly represented and equally heard in all areas of church life and in all levels of the leadership hierarchy? Do the young women you want to support have other women to look to in your organization?

4) Be aware of the patriarchal structures in your setting.

Be aware of what keeps women from getting the spiritual formation and leadership experience they need, and proactively find ways to make sure women are not excluded from the “inner circle.” Even when male leaders don’t mean to be intentionally exclusive, often by default they keep women out of conversations important to organizational growth and development.

Rather than in offices and conference rooms, many of an organization’s ideas are pitched, their projects are launched, and their events are conceived around kitchen tables, over cups of coffee, and scrawled on lunch napkins. These pivotal conversations often happen among friends as they share their lives together, and when the idea/project/event becomes something like a concrete leadership opportunity, it’s offered to those who are around the table.

The problem is that women don’t often get seats at those tables for several reasons. One, for instance, is the “Billy Graham Rule,” which suggests that male pastors / church leaders (in order to keep their conduct “above reproach”) should not spend time alone with women who aren’t their wives. Even men in church leadership who don’t strictly subscribe to this rule tend to have mostly male friends and colleagues, which means that many of the innovative “Wouldn’t it be great if we did __?” conversations are happening in “old boys’ clubs” without women present to contribute or participate. If we are serious about supporting women in church leadership, they need to be not only at the conference table, but at all the other tables.

5) Find ways to advocate for emerging women leaders.

Think about the potential young women leaders in your student ministries who aren’t getting the same amount or the same kind of pastoral attention and discipleship that the young male leaders are getting, perhaps because a male pastor doesn’t meet with young women on their own but hangs out with the young men all the time. Is there a young woman hungry to study the Bible, showing up at all your events, coming whenever the church is open? Invite her to share a meal with you (and your spouse/family, if you feel more comfortable), share a table together, and ask her how she’s hearing God’s call and how you can support her.

Pay attention to the women who tirelessly volunteer and invite them to step into greater leadership (because chances are they don’t know how to ask for those leadership opportunities themselves). Is there a woman in your church who is always doing something for one of your ministries? Ask her if she would consider serving on the board for a term. When hiring a new pastor/staff, ensure that women are represented on the hiring search committee and in the candidate pool.

We are conditioned to think “male” when we think of leadership. But let’s make it our practice to think about how to include women who have competency but may lack confidence, and invite them into the leadership positions they’ve excluded themselves from or have been excluded from by a system that favors men. Be proactive about looking for and helping emerging women leaders who are swimming upstream. Let them know– in your words and deeds– that you are on their team.

Alicia McClintic

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11 Comments

  • Excellent! I wish we didn’t need to talk about these things, that it would be natural for men and women to function as equals. But since this is the world we live in, approaching the issue with grace and humility is so important. Thank you for using your wisdom to do just that.

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I always hope that we can have these conversations with grace and humility– and I hope that it’s clear that the goal is not to complain but to move forward together,

  • This article is spot-on! Thank you for it. I have been so privileged to be mentored all my life—ever since the 7th grade–and interestingly, it was all by men! Then, because of my wonderfully positive experiences, as an adult, the natural consequence of those experiences was to seek deep friendship–and only friendship–with males, only to hit the brick wall of “the Billy Graham Rule”. It is horrible, and our continued paranoia with cross-gender friendships being so prevalent, it makes me so sad; we are missing potentially one of the most powerful witnessing acts of being the presence of Christ in culture: healthy friendships without fear or romantic definitions. (Paul advises Timothy to treat the younger women as sisters and the older women as mothers–seems pretty prescriptive as to how to “frame” relationships in one’s mind in order to exhibit the promised fruit of the Spirit, self-control). I am a senior citizen adult now and I am thrilled to see that in this younger generation there are so many older women who can and do mentor younger women in spiritual maturity and cultural engagement beyond homemaking; in my time, I could not find women who even got that concept (I have since come to realize that in the 70s, those women were usually found on the foreign mission field; but that’s another topic for another day). So, to Patricia’s point, if we only have women mentoring women, and men only mentoring men, we will only advance the patriarchal subtly that was very well described in this article. We need to “get over our fear”, but at the same time, be wise and intentional. Let’s lead with integrity, vulnerability, and accountability from our friends. These points from Alicia can really serve the Lord and the Body well!

    • Thanks so much for chiming in and sharing your experience– it’s wisdom the Church deeply needs!

  • This article hits the nail on the head. Alicia’s notion of the default setting is so true! I admit that I have struggled with point #4, a woman who wanted to be mentored by my husband, although we all served/led in the same ministry. She was not interested in getting input from me nearly as much, even though I trained her to take my leadership position. Another couple in the church had the same issue with her, so that helped me think that maybe I’m not totally crazy. I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this, because this whole thing blindsided me. I’ve never had issues with anything like this before. How can mentoring relationships be healthy for everyone involved? Thanks 🙂

    • I’ve written a lot on mentoring on my blog, Patricia, (www.bevmurrill.com) and one of the key issues vital in mentoring is the chemistry between mentor and mentee (not talking about sexuality here). I’ve mentored scores of people and for the most part it’s worked well, but there have been times when the person just isn’t interested in what I have to say/impart. The chemistry isn’t there. I’ve learned/chosen not to be offended by this, because it’s not about me, and sometimes it’s not about them either. It’s about the ‘fit’. If there’s no fit, there’s no fit.

      If we set aside the obvious opinions that may be drawn here which is that she was interested in your husband (which does happen, but let’s assume that was not the case) then it could be that there were components of his demeanour, gifting, or direction that she felt fitted into her context better. A friend of mine (whom I had mentored into leadership) was a really good mentor, but when she and her husband were passing their church over to a younger couple, she found the husband was willing to be mentored by her, but the wife wanted to be mentored by her own mother, who was also a leader… not sure that worked too well, but suffice to say that people have the right to choose who will mentor them, for whatever reasons they may have. Then, of course, the mentor has a right to respond or not…

      Bottom line, it’s often a chemistry taking place between mentor and mentee and if it doesn’t work, don’t let it get you down, it’s probably more to do with them than it is with you. And female/male mentoring can work if that’s how it pans out. I’ve mentored many men, as well as women… never had an affair with any of them!

      Of course, all of that is a moot point if she was, indeed, attracted to your husband.

      • Thanks, Bev. Yes, you’re right, I think it was a fit/gifting issue. I appreciate your wisdom!

  • Changing that default setting takes intention, but is worth the effort. Great list of five pints to help make it happrn.

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