The Burden of the Exceptional Female Pastor

Robbie Cansler

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exceptional female pastor

exceptional female pastor

 

“If we have exceptional female pastors to point to, other churches will consider hiring a female pastor.”

This phrase continues to be repeated by those in leadership when asked how local churches might be encouraged to be more open to having a female pastor. At first observation this phrase seems supportive and maybe even a little bit like common sense. If you see an exceptional pastor, why wouldn’t you want that for yourself and your church?

Only, what happens when a female pastor is not exceptional?

Should a woman’s merits, talent, gifts, or even her chemistry with a specific congregation be used as a plumb line by which all other women in ministry are measured? Are the only women capable of being great pastors those viewed as “exceptional”?

The answer should be a resounding no.

Maybe the biggest problem with this thinking is that it lays an unnecessary burden on an already burdened vocation. Added to reading, writing, preaching, balancing budgets, fixing clogged toilets, counseling church members, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry, is a glaring “oh, and do all of that exceptionally for the sake of women in ministry everywhere!”

It is an impossible standard. No one is good at everything – let alone exceptional.

While one female pastor might be an exceptional preacher, she might not be an exceptional caregiver. Where one pastor might be a great administrator, she might not be a great counselor. We are all gifted differently, and to expect one person to be exceptional in all areas, is not only unfair, it is counter to the illustrations of the Church we see in scripture.

Scripture is clear, we are all gifted differently. We should not be envious of the gifts of others, but use the gifts we have for the kingdom of God. If we expect one woman to be exceptional at all things, we are robbing the church of one of its greatest messages; that it takes all of us, working together, to illustrate the kingdom of God to the world.

Promising a church an exceptional pastor sets them up to not only miss out on a wonderful pastor, but to miss out on using their own gifts and talents for the kingdom.

Not only can one woman not be good at everything, everyone has bad days. You are sick, your kids are sick, your dog is sick. The sound system fizzles out. A congregant says “I need to talk to you, Pastor” when you first walk into the building, and it’s the day leadership is there to check in on you.

Just because one woman has a bad day does not mean every day is bad, or that women are not great at pastoring. It doesn’t even mean she’s bad at pastoring. One woman’s bad day (or year, or decade for that matter), should not define every other woman’s ministry.

Holding exceptionality as the standard by which every female pastor is judged leaves a very small window for women to climb through, leaving many others behind. Not only is this a high standard that many feel incapable of reaching, this is a standard completely subjective to the people who are placing it as a standard.

Exceptionality means different things to different people. The problem with defining exceptional in the context of church is that in recent years it has tended to mean the pastors with the biggest ministries,  the best preaching, or the most charismatic personalities. In a faith tradition where few women are leading, this is an impossible standard. It is difficult to point to the exceptional preaching skills of a woman, if she is not placed in places to be heard in the first place.

This high standard leaves many, if not most, women feeling inadequate or ill equipped, and leaves so many burdened on Sunday morning, as they try on the twentieth outfit in the mirror ensuring perfection, thinking “maybe this isn’t really what I’m called to.” Or trying to balance too many things, and when things fall apart, being used as an example for “why we won’t hire a woman again.”

In my first full time ministry position I was told “we really wanted a man, but now that we know you, you are definitely an exception.” The thought was meant to be a compliment, but it did not feel like one. Why was I an exception? There were plenty of women in ministry as gifted as I am, if not more so, who would have been tremendous in any of the positions I have held throughout the years. Holding me up as the exception did not elevate me; it lowered others. That’s what exceptionality does more often than not. Everyone loses when we use “exceptional” as the plumb line for measurement.

It isn’t that there aren’t exceptional female pastors (I know many), it’s that our definition of exceptional is far above what most human beings can be. Pastors aren’t exceptional because they lead the biggest churches, preach the best sermons, or have charismatic personalities. If that is the measure, we all lose. If that is the standard, women will never be placed in bigger churches. One must jump through many hurdles in order to pastor a big church, and most women are getting lapped seven-fold by the men who get those opportunities before them.

The plumb line for measurement shouldn’t be this rigid view of “exceptional” but rather “look at these called, gifted, and faithful women.”

The stories we share shouldn’t always be ones of exception, the few who were able to jump over hurdles and climb through small windows to somehow make it to the top beyond all odds. We should be sharing stories of female pastors who stand up in the midst of adversity to preach with love in their hearts. We need to seek out and elevate women who have been in ministry for years, who have never preached in front of thousands, but who week after week preach to their faithful few.

The narrative has to change. The stories should sound different than exception, they should sound gracefully and beautifully ordinary.

We should start sharing the stories of women bailing out flooded basements until the early hours of Sunday morning. The stories of women who weep at bedsides of beloved congregants as they pass from this world. The stories of women answering phone calls at 2 in the morning, visiting jail cells and sterile hospital rooms. The stories of women who are in so many ways inadequate and unexceptional, but still reflect the greatness and grace of God to those around them.

Maybe holding up faithful instead of exceptional will relieve some of the burden. If nothing else it illustrates a much better picture of our calling. It shows us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where we were never called to be exceptional, but faithful. It shows churches the type of pastor they need, and the type of church they can be – a faithful one.

At the end of life, when we stand before Jesus, it is not exceptionality that we will be applauded for but faithfulness, as he says “well done, good and faithful servants.” It’s not the pastors with the best sermons or the ones who juggled the most programming who will be the most esteemed in the kingdom of God.  It is those who serve without looking for any esteem at all. Those who are last. Those who are faithful.

So maybe instead of pointing to “exceptional women”, we point to an exceptional God and the incredibly faithful women and men who get to serve God as pastors.

I may never be exceptional, but I hope and pray that I am, and will continue to be, faithful.

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MORE ON THIS TOPIC: In the excellent book Dare Might Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women Halee Gray Scott writes about how this idea of “the exceptional woman” impacts all women in leadership. See a summary of the chapter here: The Myth of the Exceptional Woman.

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28 Comments

  • What are you two talking about….changing from exceptional to mediocre????? Are you referring to the educators downgrading exceptional women to humiliate them and keep them from ministry? or what?

    • Maybe average would be a better choice of words? I think the idea is that when ordinary women – women who aren’t exceptional – are in the ranks we will be closer to having achieved some degree of equity (since many men who aren’t exceptional are in the pastorate). If I’m off base, hopefully one of them will clarify!

  • I am sure certain faithful and humble pastors have been replaced by ‘shiny ponies’ for all the wrong reasons…again, the Bible says all that is required is that a person be faithful. My suspicion is more than that is sin. We cannot and should not seek to be exceptional…because then the focus in on self, not God.

  • Wow. Imagine the Pastoral Reviews and Evaluations if male pastors were expected to be Exceptional or not worthy of hiring! Called, faithful, spiritually gifted. I like your description and those in the comments of why we call pastors and what we expect. A pastor and leader must be responsible to be pro-active and work hard but a church also holds a responsibility to help a pastor be everything God calls them to be. It is a true partnership in the Body of Christ. If I’m mediocre because I do not care about my work ethic and calling, fire me. If I’m not the world’s best communicator or administrator but I work hard, then the church can help me be even better as we work together and care about each other. Exceptional is the exception. Hard-working, caring, spirit-filled pastors that live in relationship with their congregations is normal. Men and Women can both do this. Come on, Men. Quit expecting out of women in ministry what we are not even willing to do or be judged by.

  • I have a lot to sympathy for Steven Hutson’s view, not being a fan of the “senior pastor” model, woman or man. I would love to see more churches where a plurality of leadership, female and male, equip the saints for the work of the ministry. But yes, the burden of being exceptional just because one is female is wrong.

  • Robbie, this is such a powerful post and full of wisdom and grace. I too have been irritated and often hurt by the context of being acceptable because of being ‘exceptional’. As soon as you think below the surface of these remarks you find a world of bias and prejudice against women and the commenter feels, for some reason, that they are raising you up, but no, they are putting your entire sex down.

    There are no exceptional pastors, male or female. We are good at some things, less so at others, and just because areas of our strengths meet the areas of our congregation’s needs, we meet their approval… but truly, we are servants of the most high God, the One who laid down His life for us in an exceptional way, and all we can do is to do o ur best to follow his example.

  • “Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.”

    That is the Biblical requirement… Isn’t that the requirement for ANY servant of God that they be found faithful? …They are only sinners saved by grace…and should be thankful if they are found faithful, period…that is all that is humanly possible…after all if the person is exceptional the credit for this can only go to God who gave them the gifts…

    There is no such thing as an exceptional preacher of either sex..just a faithful one preaching about an EXCEPTIONAL God. Anyone who believes he is so wonderful that a woman has to be exceptional to be accepted by him is insufferably full of pride…and cannot be found faithful until he deals with his sin.

  • When I was a young woman, my doctor referred to a friend of mine who was also his patient as “one of” his favorites. And although he was certainly entitled to have favorite patients, his off-handed comment left me with the keen understanding that I did not make that list. For a little while, I allowed myself to wonder what it might be about my friend that made her a favorite, and me not. It was a bit unnerving, truthfully-but I finally left off wondering. But I share that story because that incident served to wake me up to how much superlatives – even well-meaning comparisons – can hurt. Merely adding an “er” or an “est” to the end of an adjective about someone is all it takes to make a person feel really lousy when those letters are not added to our own adjectives. And using superlatives in any instance in public can cause doubt to take hold of even the stoudest heart. When someone is referred to as an “exception” – it clearly points out that there is a long, long list of ordinary souls who simply do not make that list. And who of us has not been on the receiving end of people using comparison words – even when used unintentionally? Off the top of my head, I can only recall Jesus using that kind of phrasing in terms of John the Baptist – who, let’s face it, deserved to be referred to as the “greatest among those born of women.” But we must remember how He followed that comparison – that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven would be greater than him. As an ordained elder – who happens also to be a woman – my goal is to get bett”er” each day at just being least and being a servant to the least – not because I want to make someone’s list of superlatives – but because I have come to believe that is my true call. But my curiosity is in who exactly informs the church’s view of what they are looking for in a minister. If they get a servant will they be disappointed because the person is not the best servant? If their pastor does not fit their view of the best at anything – does that mean room is left for them to criticize and find fault? I am now way too often just an unsure minister whose ability to meet anyone’s estimation of “exceptional” varies every day – not because of my own ability, but for the very reason that I let my “abilities” too often get in the way of letting the world see the One Who is truly exceptional. God help us all to grab hold of your insight. Thank you so much, Robbie, for recognizing the inherent danger in measuring each other by our own standards. May your wisdom spread and take hold in every place where it is needed. God bless you for your obedience.

  • I appreciate these insights, Robbie. I am a female and part of my church’s pastoral leadership team. My hope is that as I am faithful with God’s call on my life, I can also lead others in our church through my modeling and empowering. There have been both men and women who mentored and empowered me to be at the place I am.

    • Larissa, thanks for your words. Your faithfulness will speak volumes to those around you, of that I am sure.

  • As a former pastor, and now college educator, I have seen the type of female religion student change from exceptional to mediocre. I’ve called that progress, even though hard to do so!

    • I understand what you mean. It’s an interesting balance, and a weird dance we don’t really do with male pastors, but an important one as weird as it feels at times.

  • Thanks for the suggested correctives, Robbie. The woman who now pastors the church I grew up in (and my dad still attends) is what I think of when it comes to being a pastor. She teaches well from the pulpit, she works well with the leadership, she is good at relating to her congregants, and with 20 years plus in that church she has proven herself faithful.

    I will also say that she is exceptional, and that is for one aspect: she is the best at pastoral care of anyone I’ve ever met. Hospital visits, phone counseling, bringing communion to the homebound, and so forth, she is truly exceptional. When it comes to that aspect of being a pastor, she fits the word exceptional.

    • Thanks for reading and your comment! I love hearing about your pastor, she sounds great! I’m sure she is a great blessing to her congregation.

  • My first reaction to that “quote” at the top was: “Would you say the same about looking for a male pastor?” Why do women have to meet a different standard than other pastors? Shouldn’t fit, faithfulness, character, etc. be the important criteria regardless of gender?

    • Hi there! As a site moderator I apologize for your comment not being approved in a timely fashion. For some reason it went straight to the spam file 🙁

  • In seminary in the ’80s, we used to say that we would know that women in ministry had been truly accepted when mediocre women were being ordained.

  • I don’t think any pastor anywhere should be burdened with all of the duties described in here: Reading, writing, preaching, budgets, toilets, counseling, visiting, clothing, and feeding? The best thing any preacher can do, is to train the rest of us how to do these things. A fruitful laity, is the truest measure of a church ministry. If you do end so burdened, then it means you’ve failed in your duty to equip the saints.

    If the pastor should die suddenly tomorrow, THAT will reveal the effectiveness of said pastor’s ministry.

    • Thanks for reading and your comment. I get what you are saying, and agree to a point, but it’s also important to know there are seasons to ministry. I’m a church planter, I mow the lawn, make breakfast, preach, and fold bulletins. It doesn’t mean my ministry is ineffective, it’s the season we are in as a church. It’s important to keep that in mind. It takes time to disciple people, new churches, tiny churches, and healing churches have pastors who do a little bit of everything as they teach and disciple their congregation by example of what it looks like to serve.

      • Then I suppose it would have been a good idea to bring along a few missionaries with complementary gifts and skills.

        • In an ideal world, or maybe an ideal denomination, maybe that could have happened. I’m confident I am being 100% faithful to the call of God on my life. The way we planted our church was 100% the way we needed to in our context. It’s important not to diminish what people do, because it isn’t ideal, or what we think they should do. The kingdom of God is very diverse, which is great! We pastor differently, and our churches are different, praise the LORD! We are able to reach a more vast amount of people because of the different ways we serve and work.

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