12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry

Elizabeth Graham

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I am a part of a Christian tradition that has ordained women as elders since its inception during the American Holiness movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The first church in which I ever served as a pastor was founded by a female circuit rider who planted churches across west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The church’s second pastor was also a woman. That church has had nearly 90 years of fruitful ministry, producing numerous pastors, pastor’s spouses, missionaries and dedicated lay people. It has a long and rich history of serving the community in significant ways. I couldn’t be more proud.

But there’s a shadow side to this story. While numerous women filled the roles of pastor and church planter in those early years, those numbers began to decline significantly over the decades, dropping to only 3% of the total number of ordained elders at the lowest point. Our polity said we supported women in ministry, but our practice did not.

Even now, with the percentage of women in vocational ministry roles on a slow rise in our denomination (33.7% of newly ordained ministers in 2017; about 20% of total ministers), many of our leaders are still smiling and nodding when it comes to supporting women in leadership within the church, but failing to actually put it into practice.

This problem is not isolated to one denomination. It is a common story in many traditions that claim to officially ordain women. There are at least three reasons these denominations are falling short:

  1. Some men and women don’t yet have an imagination for a district or regional group of churches to be led by a woman, a board chaired by a woman, or even a pulpit filled primarily by a woman.
  2. Many of our leaders don’t want to do the humbling and challenging work of creating space at the table for both genders.
  3. Others don’t know where to begin. They are unsure if their actions are helping or hurting their sisters in Christ. And, they don’t know how to begin to take strategic steps to creating space for women in ministry.

I am encouraged, however, as I see so many people want change. There are practical ways to combat this systemic problem that crosses cultural and geographical boundaries. Together, we can advocate for women in ministry and women in leadership. By doing so, we can strengthen the church and fulfill the mission of God for the Church.

These 12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry are not all-inclusive, and while these suggestions are largely meant for those in leadership, they can apply to anyone; lay or clergy,  male or female, young or old. It is my hope that they help us move forward into a vision of shared leadership in the Church!

12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry

1. Call Her Pastor—If she fulfills the requirements or holds an office of ministry, then call her Pastor. Even in the most casual settings, we tend to use the title of “Pastor” to refer to male pastors, but we’re often guilty of using ‘Ms.’ or no title at all for women in similar roles. Failing to call women by their proper titles devalues their calls and demeans their contributions. Publicly calling a woman “Pastor” creates an understanding in the imaginations of everyone – from the oldest man to the youngest girl – that women can be pastors!

2. Publicly Affirm Her —Research shows that women are far less likely than men to claim affirmation for themselves. Women are socially trained to downplay their own value. We can level the playing field by intentionally and publicly affirming the roles that women play. We when do this, we build the social capital of the women around us and bring attention to the contributions that women are already making.

3. Nominate Her—If your board does not have an equal representation of men and women, begin to shift the tide by nominating women. Women cannot be elected if they aren’t on the ballot. Instead of placing two men on the ballot or a man and a woman for a given position, consider offering two women as options. Qualified candidates are out there. And if you struggle to find some, then begin by mentoring them up and coming women in your congregation. This type of action is critical to initiating change in the gender disparity on leadership boards.

4. Appoint Her—When a board or leadership position is vacated mid-term, appoint a woman as a replacement until she can be officially voted for at the end of the term. This gives your congregation a chance to see a woman lead and begin to adjust to the idea.

5. Make Room for Her—If you glance around your board room or over your preaching calendar and notice that women are not well-represented in important places, then it may be time to make room by moving over or stepping aside. Sometimes the greatest sign of a good leader is a willingness to give others the room to lead.

6. Put Her in the Pulpit—Fill the pulpit or the platform with women. If you find yourself in a position to influence who preaches and teaches publicly, then use every opportunity to provide space for women to fill those roles. Don’t reserve those opportunities for when you’re out of town on a holiday weekend and need a warm body to fill in. Instead, begin to offer women the first and best of the schedule—Easter Sunday, Christmas Eve, or a mixed-gender district gathering of pastors and leaders. Create frequent and intentional opportunities. Traditionally, women are granted those opportunities far less frequently than men. Yet, when given the chance to hone their skills and utilize their gifts, women are equally as dynamic and powerful preachers. What’s more, women bring an essential voice and perspective to the community that is otherwise missed altogether.

7. Listen to Her—When a female leader from within your organization speaks up, validate her opinion, her boldness, and her ideas. Remember that in a room full of men or a structure dominated by men, it often takes significant courage for women to share ideas. Lean in. Listen to the vision and ideas God has given her. Make sure she knows she is safe, supported, heard, and valued.

8. Celebrate Her Accomplishments—Did a woman represent your organization as a part of a lecture series? Is a woman your organization’s highest achiever in her studies? Voice public acclamation of these things! Our cultures assume and expect this type of accomplishment from men. In order to reshape the imaginations of leaders and develop the imaginations of future generations, men in particular need to learn to vocally highlight women’s accomplishments.

9. Stand up for Her— When people use a condescending and demeaning tone toward
women, call them out. It’s perfectly acceptable to say kindly but firmly, “I’m sorry. That type of
conversation doesn’t represent who we are.” Or to female colleagues when necessary, “You
don’t deserve to be spoken to that way. I appreciate you and your leadership. You are valuable.”
For every voice of affirmation a woman hears, remember she has likely heard 10 voices of
criticism.

10. Seek Her Out—Perhaps there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of well-qualified female candidates. Don’t be easily dissuaded. Seek them out. Talk to colleagues. Spread the word. Women are not often waiving their resumes from the pews like white hankies, but they are there. Highly educated, smart, strong, well-spoken, and capable leaders are sitting in the shadows of church leadership longing for the opportunity to utilize the gifts and fulfill the call God has given them. You may have to ask them more than once, but the women who feel a call will answer.

11. Use Your Position for Her Benefit—If you are a male, you sit in a position of power. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been in charge of anything in your life. If you find yourself in a room of mixed genders, your voice will be among the loudest, your position among the most influential. This is the reality of the 21 st century world. Listen first. Speak last. Serve as an advocate for your sisters in Christ by building them up to others and putting them in positions of influence. If you are a female in leadership, use your position to encourage and empower other women. Posture yourself as an advocate, a cheerleader, and a champion for other women.

12. Lean into the Discomfort—As there is a shift toward gender equality in leadership, there might be some moments when things feel different, even uncomfortable. Age-old habits and norms might be challenged. Perhaps it won’t be business as usual. That’s OK. Respectfully articulate the discomfort, lean into the change, and ask for grace in the process. Take time to celebrate the changes you observe and create space for personal and systemic transformation.

The key to faithfully living out the biblical image of gender equality is to seek out opportunities to take practical, purposeful steps in that direction at every turn. It takes intentional effort, as does everything about partnering with God in the work of restored creation.

Elizabeth Graham

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12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry

Elizabeth Graham

I am a part of a Christian tradition that has ordained women as elders since…

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42 Comments

  • Gail – Amos has been repeatedly posting his comments verbatim in sundry places on the internet quite literally for years. He does have a point – it’s no good having the title but not doing the job, and there are many who do the job who don’t have the title.

    I don’t thínk his endless repetition of the same point serves much useful purpose though. It is not up for discussion, and I can think of one blogger, realising this was just a hobbyhorse, who eventually gave him the left boot of fellowship!

    K

    • Thank you! That is very helpful. That left boot really is appropriate sometimes!

    • You are quite right. It’s all over the world.
      The Presbyterian Church in Ireland accepts women as equal in theory and the Church official Code but insanely chose a Principal for our College who does not believe women should be Ministers OR HAVE AUTHORITY over males!
      I am fighting on their behalf and think that is the way forward. Get men on your side to fight together otherwise it is just a different form of “segregationism”.

  • As someone who has come out of a very patriarchal, legalistic church (can you say, “bondage?”) this post made my day! The Bible teaching in that church went very deep and while I learned a lot, They also had me convinced that women couldn’t be pastors because Paul said so. {rolls eyes} Although deep down, I was never 100% convinced.

    Eventually, the teaching morphed from “women can’t be pastors” (or leaders at all, except for in women’s ministry) to, “You women here at church are not only subject to your husbands, but also to all the men at church.” Yikes!

    When I first read about Junia/Junias, I was flaming mad, and now I look at anything in the NT that is blatantly sexist with suspicion — not suspicion of God’s Word, but a suspicion that man has tampered with it. Context rules. And knowing history helps a lot!

    • I’m a Certified Lay Speaker in the United Methodist Church. The UMC has women pastors, preachers, and lay speakers. However, I have encountered individuals who challenge my right to preach.
      Although I want to answer that God called me to preach, not Paul, I try to explain that when Peter stood up at Pentecost and proclaimed that “your daughters shall prophesy”, he was speaking in Aramaic that was translated into Greek. And while prophesy in Greek means to foretell the future, Peter was quoting the Old Testament prophet, Joel, who was speaking Hebrew. And in Hebrew the word prophesy means to bring a message from one in authority.
      And that is what I am doing; I’m bringing a message from the highest Authority.

  • Our non-denim fellowship (over1,000 churches) also teaches and accepts women in ministry but the number ordained pastors or elders is very low definitely under 10%. I have ordained two women and four men in our church.
    My question is as a leader do you have any advise on how t approach this topic nationally?

    • I think, like most genuine change, this topic must first be addressed at a grassroots level. I am so glad that your fellowship advocates for women in ministry. That’s a great place to start!

      I’m wondering a few things:
      *What practical steps are you taking to help these two women to live fully into their calling? Are they given equal or even more opportunities to serve up front, modeling this egalitarian approach to ministry for the rest of the congregation? Do they need practical support like child care options or to know someone has their back when they’re feeling a bit discouraged?

      *Who are the women in your fellowship who don’t yet have an imagination that God might be calling them to ministry? How can you help identify and encourage those women? How can you speak into the lives of those women and create space for them to grow and develop as leaders?

      *Where in your sphere of influence can you bring up this topic, even if it feels like you are having to beat this drum over and over again? Do you serve alongside other pastors and leaders? On boards or committees? Have friends in other churches across the country?

      People will need to hear it lots of times. They’ll need to see change in action. They will be tempted toward “moral licensing.” We can’t allow ourselves to give up.

      This is a conversation my husband and I have to initiate often in our spheres of influence. I wish it wasn’t. I wish we could make the necessary change happen with one conversation. But we can share our celebrations when we see the Spirit moving and the Kingdom breaking in, in this area. That’s the fun part!

  • Great article. My denomination, the Religious Society of Friends (Friends or Quakers), has recorded women in ministry since the 1600’s at the inception of our church. However, our church is also facing a decline of women in ministry! I hope to publish a book through Friends United Press in 2019 which features a look at New Testament women in ministry, historic Friends women recorded in ministry, and my current experience of nearly forty years. It is a great year to write about women–the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Right to Vote which Friends women worked hard to achieve. I want to tell our story and encourage the next generation. It is time!

    • Dennis

      Yes – “Female pastors are not biblical.”

      But – Male pastors are NOT Biblical, either.

      But, I cudda missed it…
      Can you help?

      In the Bible? Can you name?
      One of **His Male Disciples** who took the “Title” pastor?
      Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?
      Like so many do today.

      In the Bible? Can you name?
      One of **His Male Disciples** who called themself pastor?
      Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?
      Like so many do today.

      In the Bible? Can you name?
      One of **His Male Disciples** who was “Hired,” as a…
      Paid, Professional, Pastor, in a Pulpit?
      Preaching, to People in Pews?
      Weak after Weak?
      In a church?

      Have you noticed?
      Almost nothing of what Today’s Male pastors get paid to do…

      Is in the Bible. Oy Vey!!! 🙁
      ——-

      And other sheep I have, which are NOT of this fold:
      them also I must bring, and they shall “Hear My Voice; “
      and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
      John 10:16

      One Voice – One Fold – One Shepherd – One Leader

      {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    • Among many females in the NT and OT, Deborah was biblically inscribed in time as a prophetess, and she led men into battle.

  • In a world where too often women don’t experience the above, I’d just like to say that I have personally experienced 6 or 7 of the above. Leadership in my church has been intentional about having female voices in leadership in a variety of ways, and I have been affirmed and encouraged into leadership roles privately and publicly. Recently, the pastor asked me to own the designation of “elder” as I taught on a Sunday morning, something that would not have chosen to identify myself as on my own. The intentionality of a pastor deliberately empowering me as a female leader is powerful…sometimes my own unconscious acceptance of the cultural female expectations also holds me back.

    • Praise God for the men and women who have come alongside, edified, and encouraged you!! As I type this, I am praying that you and I and all of our sisters in Christ will be able to live fully into that which God has called us! May we not be hindered by our own limited imaginations!

  • Thank you for some very helpful and positive words on advocacy. This list will definitely become a great reminder as I consider my responsibilities and conversations. I am especially fond of “Listen first. Speak last.” Thank you for these good words!

    • You are welcome, and thank you! I am so glad this is helpful. I suspect that since you are fond of “Listen first. Speak last.” you’re probably doing many of these things. Grateful to serve alongside brothers who are paying attention!

  • This might be the best practical article I’ve ever read on supporting women in ministry. My husband and I pastor together and he supports me personally but he has found it difficult to know how to make room for me in the eyes of others, especially amidst the mindset of the older more conservative culture we minister to in our community. I have printed this article for him and have copies ready to give to those that may need the same encouragement. Thank you so much!

    • This is about the best compliment ever! I am so glad it is helpful. My husband and I also co-pastor together and have done a lot of thinking about how we can move the ball forward in positive and practical ways. Sometimes people really WANT to support women in ministry, but they just don’t know how to get started! Praying you begin to see some wonderful steps toward embracing women and men as co-laborers for the Kingdom!

  • Good article on advocating for women in ministry. And some additional ways:
    (1) Start reversing the ubiquitous male dominance of language by saying and writing, half the time, “women and men.”
    (2) Watch who objects by body language or tone, as well as overt words and behavior, to “women and men” (instead of the culturally standard “men and women,” with females always in second position), and you’ll see where the informal barriers reside.
    (3) Use gender-neutral language for God and describe what theologians teach in non-fundamentalist universities about mothering and female qualities of God, the female Hebrew of the Holy Spirit’s name as Ruach Ha Kodesh, and why Reformation translators did not capitalize the word “Wisdom” (a feminine infinite divine attribute) when they translated the gospel sayings of Jesus about Wisdom knowing Her children.
    (4) Preach “in memory of her,” from the gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus honored a woman performing the priestly function of anointing our Savior on the head, and decreed that we should preach this too as a memorial, in memory of her, wherever the gospel is preached.

    This is just a partial list. I grow so weary on behalf of every woman I know (and every marginalized person of color) of the systemic sin in the churches worldwide of relegating women to second-class citizenship and “evil Eve/downfall of man” false teachings for the glorification of men in charge.

    Look at the cruelly pathetic warring divisively political state of the world and the churches! Surely that bad example disproves the capacity of men (mainly white or other light-skinned men in the developed economic nations) to have “headship” over women or lead well, sanely and lovingly.

    The same systemic sin that justified slavery (and still justifies a ubiquitous racism in too many of the deep American rural south’s white evangelical churches) is rampant today in church discrimination against girls and women. There may be sweet words and glossy brochures, but look behind the curtain and see what’s really happening.

    It would be only fair that wherever women in ministry are undermined by the other adults around them, those women come out of those systemic-sinning churches of veiled misogyny and find new ways of following Jesus that do not relegate women to virtual slave status in thrall to men who have elevated themselves as though idols above the words and practices of Jesus Christ reported in the Bible.

    Jesus calls us all without exception to embrace and use the Holy Spirit’s gifts, and tell the truth.

    Candy-coating the “soft” misogyny in churches has only given bigoted churchmen more sugary words of hypocrisy in their space of sinning systemically against girls and women.

    Without the women doing all the vitally necessary but servile work men usually avoid doing, churches would fold. So walk away and don’t chase the rejection, women, when you’re not affirmed as fully equal sisters in Christ. Jesus wants no less for you than your completeness as a human being beloved of God, second to no mere human male.

    • Great additions to the list! Thank you! You are so passionate, and I love that. The church desperately needs prophetic voices who will speak these hard words in love and help provide tangible avenues for moving toward restoration and wholeness!

    • Thank you, Elizabeth and Scott. As a student of biblical Hebrew, I am convinced that if the Church acknowledged the Holy Spirit as female, which She is in Hebrew and Aramaic, it would be a blow to misogyny. I had a male Hebrew professor who believes that, in silencing the voices of women in the Church, we have silenced the voice of the Holy Spirit.

      • Thank you for sharing your expertise! What insight! The idea that we have silenced the voice of the Holy Spirit is a profound truth that should grieve us all indeed.

  • “12 Ways to Advocate for Women in Ministry”

    1. Call Her Pastor—
    ——-

    Think about this…

    One problem with “Titles,” is…
    “Titles,” often become “Idols.”

    Idols of the heart – Ezek 14:1-11

    And God now answers you…
    According to the multitude of your idols.

    Does anyone really want to take a “Title?”
    That NOT one of **His Disciples** took, in the Bible?

    In the Bible?
    Did any of **His Disciples,** ever call a women Disciple pastor?
    Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?

    In the Bible?
    Did any of **His women Disciples,** ever call themselves pastor?
    Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?

    In the Bible?
    Did any of **His women Disciples,** ever take the “Title,” pastor?
    Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?
    ——-

    John 10:16
    And other sheep I have, which are NOT of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “Hear My Voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.

    One Voice – One Fold – One Shepherd – One Leader

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    • I think you are missing the point completely. As long as churches use titles to designate appointed staff and lay leaders, women should be addressed and treated in the same manner as men. Even the early church used titles like apostle, bishop, elder. And Paul used the term diakonos for leaders, both men and women (Phoebe).

      • I had a similar reaction to that first point, but I get your point, too, Gail. I’m a professor, and in my first academic position, the office staff called all the male professors “Dr. LastName” and all the woman professors “FirstName”—even when talking to students about us! I was young and looked even younger, but they did this with women professors old enough to be my mom, too.

        That said, I’m also uncomfortable with titles in church settings. I feel that there’s far too much setting clergy up on pedestals already and that it harms the church. When I see/hear a pastor referring to him/herself as “Pastor So-and-So,” it tells me something not very good about them. But I do get your point that if you’re going to use the titles, the practice should be absolutely be gender-neutral.

        • Hi Dana

          I appreciate your insights. And courage.
          Titled Clergy, are often NOT very happy….
          When you challenge, question, their position and Title…

          I’m-a-thinkn Titles are dangerous. You write…
          “I’m also uncomfortable with “titles” in church settings. I feel that there’s far too much setting clergy up on pedestals already and that it harms the church.”

          When you begin to pay attention you’ll see…

          “Titles” become “Idols”
          “Pastors” become “Masters”
          “Leaders” become “Deceivers”
          ——-

          “Titles” become “Idols”
          “Idols” of the heart – Ezek14:1-11 KJV

          “Pastors” become “Masters”
          A big No, No. Mat 23:10 KJV, Mat 6:24 KJV

          “Leaders” become “Deceivers”
          Isa 3:12 KJV, Isa 9:16 KJV, Mat 15:14 KJV

          Isa 3:12 KJV
          …O my people, **they which lead thee**
          cause thee to err,
          and destroy the way of thy paths.

          Isa 9:16 KJV
          For **the leaders of this people**
          cause them to err;
          and they that are led of them are destroyed.
          ——-

          And “Titled” pastors just “Ignore” this verse…

          Job 32:21 KJV
          Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person,
          neither let me give **Flattering Titles** unto man.
          For I know NOT to give **Flattering Titles;**
          in so doing my maker would soon take me away.

        • Dana

          When you begin to pay attention you’ll see…

          “Titles” – “Separate”
          “Titles” – “Elevate”
          “Titles” – Will be used to “Control” and “ Manipulate.”
          ——-

          “Titles” will be used to “Separate” the brethren.

          I am – You’re NOT.
          ——-

          “Titles” will be used to “Elevate” one brethren over another.

          I’m the shepherd – You are only sheep.
          ——-

          “Titles” will be used to “Control” and “Manipulate” the brethren.

          Because I’m “The Pastor,” “The Shepherd,” “The Leader,” That’s why.
          Don’t touch the head of God’s anointed.
          Your God ordained authority.
          ——-

          Jer 50:6
          “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
          **THEIR shepherds**
          have caused them to *go astray,*

          1 Pet 2:25
          For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
          BUT are now returned to
          the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

          {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

          • Hi, Amos. Wanted to let you know that per our comments policy about lengthy posts and posts needing to stay on the topic of the original post, we won’t be publishing any more comments on the debate about titles in the church. Enough has been said in this space. We’d like to keep the discussion to the ways that people can support women who are in the role of pastor. Thank you!

          • Amos, your comments will not be shared unless they directly relate to the point of a post. We get that you don’t believe in titles. That is not the point of this post. Thanks for respecting our comments policy.

      • Hi Gail

        Thanks for the reply.

        Sorry I did NOT make myself clear.
        The questions asked were about… 1. Call Her Pastor…
        And **His FeMale Disciples** In the Bible.

        In the Bible?
        DID any of **His FeMale Disciples** take the “Title” pastor?
        Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?

        And most know the answer… NO.

        That’s why most folks do NOT like to answer the question.
        ——-

        And… It works the same for **His Male Disciples.**

        In the Bible?
        DID any of **His Male Disciples** take the “Title” pastor?
        Or shepherd? Or leader? Or reverend?

        And again, most know the answer… NO.

        That’s why most folks do NOT like to answer the question.
        ——-

        You write…
        “…women should be addressed and treated
        in the same manner as men.”

        Are you saying it’s okay for women to do what men do?
        Even when these men have been leading people astray?

        Even when, what these men have been doing…
        Taking the “Title/Postion,” pastor/leader…
        That does NOT exist in the Bible…
        For one of **His Disciples?**
        Male or FeMale?
        ——-

        Jer 50:6
        “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
        **THEIR shepherds**
        have caused them to *go astray,*

        1 Pet 2:25
        For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
        BUT are now returned to
        the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

        {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

        • If I am understanding you correctly, there shouldn’t be titles for church teachers, most prominently “Pope?”

      • Gail

        You write…
        “Paul used the term “diakonos” for **leaders,** both men and women.”

        FYI…When I check, diakonos means “Servant,” minister, NOT leader.

        Here is what Paul wrote about Phebe…

        Rom 16:1 KJV
        I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a “servant” (diakonos)
        of the church which is at Cenchrea:
        ——-

        Seems, in the Bible, the only “ONE,”
        Who refers to Himself as…

        The “ONE” Leader
        The “ONE” Teacher
        The “ONE” Shepherd
        IS…

        {{{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}}

        • Hello,

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I wonder what you do about Ephesians 4.11-13, which uses titles & the use of them…
          “The gifts God gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

          A agree that pastors should be servants & not leaders. I believe that Jesus never called us to “lead” but to “serve”. The term “servant leader” shows that we are overly concerned with who gets to have authority. We really should be concerned about serving people rather than leading them.
          But I think Ephesians 4 & Romans show us that there were official offices & titles of servanthood that were used in the NT church. I do not think that those titles or offices are bad for the church today, as long as we recognize what we are called to (service) & what we are not (authority).

  • This needs to be regularly published and used as an accountability list four boards of churches and denominations.

    • I genuinely hope it will be a helpful tool for the boards and leadership teams in my context. I wrote it with people I love, the gifted women I serve alongside, and men I truly respect in mind. Praying that the church will do the hard work of better reflecting the Kingdom in this way!

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