The Leadership Challenge

The Bad News

The past hundred years have seen an immense change in the role of women.  Women have gained the right to vote and to work outside the home, which has opened doors to many job opportunities (beyond teacher, secretary, or mother).  Women are now in the process of becoming leaders in many fields.  While women still experience oppression, many barriers are being reexamined and dismantled.

In the United Methodist Church women have held the right to full ordination for over sixty years.  While earning the right to ordination was a monumental shift, the United Methodist Church as a whole, and many local churches as well, still, struggle with women’s leadership in the church.  As ordained pastors, women hold a role of power and authority in the church.  For many people, this represents a total reversal of their understanding of the role of women in the church.  As a result, pastors who are women experience discrimination and specific gender-related challenges.  Because of these challenges, women continue to make less money, but the gender pay gap really points to other issues.  Men are more likely to stay in the ministry for a longer period of time, while women’s retention rates remain low.  As Karoline Lewis found, “It is unfortunately well documented that the retention rates of women in ministry are far lower than their male counterparts in the church.”[1]

Ok, so that is the bad news.  Women have been at this for a long time and still face lots of challenges that their male counterparts do not face, but it is just that challenge that is also our strength.

The Good News

Women are getting creative.  They are finding ways forward that allow them to fully live into God’s creative vision for the kingdom.  They are trying to figure out how to lead in a way that is authentic to whom they are while taking into consideration some of the challenges they will face as women in a position of authority and power.  Every day women are navigating and answering questions like:

How does one lead and be a mother?  How does one handle the demands of a family with those of being a pastor?  How does one navigate the challenging role of being a single female leader?  And what are some of the inherent biases that are associated with being a working mother or an unmarried woman?  What does female leadership look like in the local church?  How is it different from male leadership, or is it different from male leadership?

All these questions pose creative challenges that women clergy leaders are working hard to resolve. And unlike their male counterparts, there are few people to guide them.  They are figuring this out through trial and error, they are figuring out through small groups, and reading.  They are figuring this out by knowing themselves and being true to their sense of self.

As they engage in this work, women are finding healing and freedom.  They are engaging with God in a new creative adventure that allows for healing and wholeness for the church and, through the church, for creation.  Through this process of self-creation, women are discovering new leadership opportunities and showing the world how to lead differently.

This is all really good news.  The world is changing and gradually becoming open to new ways of leading. However, we live in a world that is in progress, meaning that these new roles and new ways of leading are not totally accepted by everyone.  What this means is that in addition to discovering their own way of leading women also embody three leadership challenges/opportunities.

In our current culture, women are adaptive leaders, prophetesses, and examples of vulnerable leadership.  Women can succeed or fail in these roles, but they cannot escape them. 

Edwin Friedman in his book, A Failure of Nerve, notes that leaders should focus, “first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”[2]   Female clergy leaders need to claim their role as adaptive leaders, prophetesses, and become comfortable with their own vulnerability to survive in ministry and lead the congregation to fruitfulness.  Friedman notes that it is important for a leader to be self-differentiated, “someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.”[3]  By identifying and claiming these roles, the female pastor leads from these core places of leadership even as she remains part of a system that may not fully embrace her.


[1] Karoline M. Lewis, She: five keys to unlock the power of women in ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016) xxi.

[2] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: leadership in the age of the quick fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 13.

[3] Ibid, 14.

Gage HuntComment