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Women leaders: Good News for Men!

I was speechless! One of the men from my church came over especially to thank me. He’d finally grasped who he was becoming in Christ… and he could barely believe that a church led by two women was responsible for affirming him as a man.

This started me thinking. There is so much unhelpful debate surrounding the so called ‘feminisation of the church’, that we often forget that women leaders are also ‘good news’ for men. ‘Feminisation’ has come to describe the numerical rise of female church members in comparison to men. It conveys the concern that further increase in the numbers of lay women and senior leaders will not only alienate men but also result in churches that are too ‘touchy feely’. Whatever we believe about ‘feminisation’, we cannot deny that the current state of affairs within the Church has emerged as a result of the leadership of men. Historically, the Church has focused primarily upon ‘male’ questions, issues and models rather than, what is often an underlying assumption, an agenda shaped by and for women. However, the real problem may not be the visibility of women but rather a fear that somehow Christianity, not to mention Christian leadership, will be devalued if populated by women. Unfortunately, this is a result of the social seesaw that presents women’s occupations and interests as being less desirable for men.

Making decisions or making dinner?
Men, we have been led to believe, should ‘make decisions while women make dinner…’ However, I suspect that if men and women both made decisions and dinner, we’d end up with better decision making and fewer would go hungry. The fear that increasing numbers of women leaders ultimately leads to male disempowerment is not borne out by the facts. The overall proportion of women in church leadership stands at no more than 13 percent. As more women embrace the call to church leadership, the overall quality of leadership actually appears to have improved. Bob Jackson explores the ideal leadership requirements for church growth amongst the UK Anglican churches: ‘women incumbents and younger incumbents are more likely to have growing churches. The ideal candidate profile for a church that wishes to grow would appear to be young, female and willing to stay in post for ten to twelve years!’ He adds, ‘Such findings do not of themselves affect the theological arguments for and against the ordination of women, although there may be a certain force in the ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’ argument’.

A report produced by Christian Research in 2005 agreed that although ‘female ministers are often associated with declining churches’ this is primarily due to the initial state of the churches they inherit. ‘Male and female ministers are equally likely to experience growth or decline in their congregations. The skill of leadership, the building of vision, increasing the size of the congregation are all traits which are not primarily gender related, but God-given gifts and skills developed through training and experience’.

In other words, the leadership qualities required to produce growing churches are the same for both male and female leaders! There is, however, a difficulty for those typically accustomed to equating church leadership with male leadership. Perhaps this is why women leaders often report having to be more determined and having to work twice as hard as their male counterparts in order to be considered half as good. This is powerfully captured by the following observation, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, except that she did it backwards and in high heels! Realistically, until the idea of leadership is both male and female, women in leadership may be forced to continue to do the dance backwards.

Twice as many women than men leave UK churches
Christian research explored further issues of women, leadership and church growth. It transpires that women have been leaving UK churches at twice the rate of men. There are relatively fewer men than women in UK churches, 43% men to 57% women. However, the level of concern raised over the potential loss of men is expressed through the deployment of ‘special measures,’ measures seldom deployed for women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little or no exploration of the root causes of this exodus of women, in relation to men, which alarmingly, is on the increase.

In the 1990s, 57% of losses to UK churches were women and this rose to 65% between 1998 and 2005. The loss cannot simply be accounted for by the irregular attendance of women faced with the pressures of work and raising a family. Instead, questions must be raised about the psychological impact on young women, who are constantly constrained by church cultures that deliberately or unwittingly devalue their gifts of leadership, which are often freely expressed beyond the borders of church life.

New Leadership paradigms
The haemorrhaging of both men and women from the Church has occurred, not simply under male leadership but under a particular kind of male leadership. Perhaps the challenge that many of our churches face today is not a crisis of gender but a crisis of leadership. Traditional models and approaches to leadership are proving to be a ‘turn off’ for both men and women in every sphere of life. Many have rejected traditional male models of leadership that emphasise a need for independence and command and control and have, often ironically, embraced models, more often associated with women. These models promote consultation and collaboration rather than competition, they tend to be less conscious of hierarchy, more focused on the big picture and encourage relationship building, while incorporating the ideas of others before making final decisions. Rosie Ward comments, ‘Leadership is changing. Old dualistic and hierarchical models are disappearing in favour of egalitarian and holistic ones. The trend is towards leadership as team, and the idea that a leader is more like the conductor of an orchestra than the commander of an army.’ Ward notes Sally Morgenthaler’s caution, that while the world has gone relational, the leadership default in many organisations (including church ministry) is still top down, ‘command and control’. Both women and younger people intent on expressing an alternative vision of leadership are the driving force of the new paradigm. Anecdotal evidence suggests that churches led by women and younger leaders not only encourage the greater participation of men but are also likely to be more attentive to the unique concerns of both men and women, thereby successfully appealing to both.

Leadership Male and Female
In Genesis 1:26 we are told that God created male and female in His image, with the express intention of co-stewarding both His purposes and His resources. In Genesis 2, it is only after the creation of woman that God’s image in ‘man’ is said to be complete. Unfortunately, in many churches today people are taught that men should rule alone. By doing so, men and women effectively default back to the pattern of the Fall rather than embracing the pattern of Creation. Consequently, the destiny of male and female is frustrated while the purposes of God remain unfulfilled.

It will undoubtedly take time for men and indeed women to ‘get used’ to the idea of women in leadership and to value the benefits they bring. However, where people are willing to do so, women’s visionary leadership is bearing both significant and godly fruit, which is ‘good news’ by anybody’s standards!

This article first appeared in Woman Alive Magazine May 2009

Kate ColemanOur guest blogger this week is Rev Dr Kate Coleman. Kate is founding director of Next Leadership, the Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Council, former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (2006/7), and a Baptist Minister. She is author of 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership.