What happens when women lead? What really happens — relationally, psychologically, personally, spiritually? What barriers do women leaders face, and what strategies will equip them to lead past those barriers so they can lead effectively? What does healthy female leadership look like, and how does that contrast with what healthy male leadership looks like? These are the kinds of questions that gave birth to When Women Lead: Embrace Your Authority, Move Beyond Barriers, and Find Joy in Leading Others (Zondervan, 2022). I wrote such a book because it was the resource I went looking for (and couldn’t find) when I was trying to figure out in the early years of my ministry just what female ministry leadership ought to look like.
And I wrote it because now that I’ve been in ministry for twenty-five years, I understand too well that female leadership is experienced differently than male leadership. By understanding those differences, acknowledging the challenges, and exploring strategies for overcoming them, I discovered that we can actually help women embrace their authority, move beyond barriers, and find joy in leading others.
But do we really need another conversation about women’s leadership? Haven’t we already figured this one out? That’s a fair question. To answer it, consider how women are faring globally. For instance, in Afghanistan, only 29% of women read, and that figure is not likely to improve. In recent months, the Taliban doubled down on its ban of women from public and private universities as security forces were sent into universities to block women from attending. That ban on education has since devolved even further into a ban of girls attending any school, secondary or elementary (APNews).
Afghanistan is not alone in its neglect of education for females. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women. The literacy rate for women in Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh is at 60% or less, and globally 60% of females have no access at all to public schools (World Bank). According to UK’s Amnesty International, women living under Taliban rule are often banned from going to school or studying. In Afghanistan, they may also be banned from working and in some places are banned from even leaving the house without a male chaperone. They are often banned from seeking the care of a male health professional, making healthcare virtually inaccessible since most women have limited opportunities to work and limited access to education.
Not only is education a challenge for women around the globe but violence is an ever-present reality. At least a thousand honor killings among women occur in India annually, with another thousand on average occurring in Pakistan (Honour Based Violence Awareness Network). Honor killings happen for all kinds of reasons—perhaps because a woman refuses to marry a man she’s been ordered to marry, or because she has dressed immodestly. The killing of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s Morality Police in late 2022 was a real-world example of violence against women who appear in public without a head covering (Wilson Center). Iran is the first country to be ejected from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, after its recent crack-down on women’s rights in that country.
Violence against women comes in many forms. Women around the world aged 15–44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria. And American women are not immune. One in five women on American college campuses has experienced sexual assault. One in three has experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. And those are the women who make it into adulthood. A global study estimates the number of aborted females annually to be at 160 million, resulting in severe gender disparities in some countries (Wellspring International). In China, for instance, men outnumber women by as much as thirty-three million. In India, an estimated ten women die every day from unsafe abortions, and most of them are aborting a female fetus. That’s two women lost to this world for every botched procedure. It is stunningly misleading to characterize abortion rights as a “women’s health” issue. It is anything but.
Globally, women and girls fare worse than men economically, but this also hits close to home. A New York Times headline reads, “When Wives Earn More Than Husbands, Neither Partner Likes to Admit It.” This finding also originated in the latest US Census Bureau report, where it was noted that when women make more than their husbands, they fudge their numbers down — or report less than their actual earnings — and men fudge their numbers up so it doesn’t look like the wife earns more. The people who evaluate census numbers call it “manning up and womaning down.”
All over the world, it seems, human beings have a natural inclination toward “manning up and womaning down.” What we learn from all these facts, ideas, and statistics is that we must learn to view women’s leadership through a global lens. We discover, looking through this lens, that how we view women is not a “conservative vs. progressive” issue, nor is it an American Christianity issue. In fact, it is not a specifically Christian thing at all. All around the world, we can see how the effects of sin disproportionately affect women in ways that undermine their worth, value, and giftedness.
And this is why we can never get too far from conversations about female leadership. It is because, across the globe, humans systematically value male gender more than female gender, even from the womb. As human beings, we are prone toward hierarchies and when left unchecked those tendencies create severe injustices toward women. And yet, when women are encouraged and supported, a whole culture is elevated. Bill Gates once spoke to a roomful of Saudi Arabian businessmen and political leaders about how they might improve their country’s global ranking in the field of technology. What, they asked, would Gates recommend to improve their ranking? Gates responded, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top ten” (Dave Ferguson, “Mission Critical,” in The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the Church, by Felicity Dale et al. [Kingdom Heart, 2014], 36).
He’s right. Across the globe, humans systematically value male gender more than female gender, even from the womb; yet, study after study shows that in every arena—economics, quality of life, technology, media, military, and yes, in religion—the advancement of a culture depends on how it values its women. When women are supported—educationally, economically, vocationally—countries experience less war, more cultural stability, more economic growth, and even less climate change.
What can we learn about women’s leadership that can help women—and by extension, the world around them—to flourish? Women’s leadership is different, and our prejudices around those differences run deeper than psychology or sociology. Our prejudices are rooted in our fallen systems and because of that, every generation living under the curse of the Fall (Gen 3) will need to be reminded of God’s design and our fallen response to that design.
We discover in the first chapters of Genesis that men and women were created for partnership. Yet, with the fall of humanity, we turned that partnership into a hierarchy. As a result, many women face significant barriers in their quest toward living out their God-given vocation. Theology is an obvious barrier since about half the Christian world does not accept the place of women in ministry leadership (Pew Research Center). But the challenges don’t end there. Perception (both external and internal) plays a tremendous role in gender disparity. We tend, all of us, to develop leadership stereotypes that become the norm for measuring likability. Meanwhile, self-image and outside perception feed on one another. Women who struggle with a negative self-image will struggle to lead with authority. The impact of these predicaments is often underestimated and possibly ignored in Wesleyan circles, where it is often assumed that the question of whether women can lead has been answered and is therefore no longer a conversation worth having.
Financial resources for ministry are also a challenge for women whose leadership is less likely to be embraced. Training opportunities are often geared toward a male audience, likely driven by sheer economics. Women find few mentors and coaches equipped to help negotiate the cultural biases influencing the communities within which they serve, especially in the regional south. The rate of growth for a female-pastored church may be slower than that for a male-pastored church, and if benchmarks are too aggressive and expectations are based on a male-dominated field, women will feel frustrated before they have a chance to develop the ministry they have been given.
Female ministry leaders may also discover that having a more nurturing style of a woman may create a tendency toward giving more time and attention to congregational care. That seems like a good thing, but studies show that pastoral care can actually stifle the growth potential of a congregation as leaders lack sufficient time, resources, or perspective to create church growth.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that the seasons of life for women are markedly different than for men. From child-bearing years to midlife, women experience distinctive seasons that may present vocational challenges. What tools and training can be placed into the hands of women called into ministry leadership so that those who hear that call have every resource at their disposal? What solutions will best help women discover and own their unique leadership style? What will shift the conversation from what is wrong with women in ministry leadership to what will release the massive leadership potential present in our gender?
I believe it begins with an intentional focus on identity, authority, and practical equipping. The sooner in one’s leadership journey we get to the work of exploring our own identity in Christ—knowing who we are, how we’re made, what our gifts are—the more confident we become as a leader. And as we take authority from that settled place, not feeling the constant nagging to prove ourselves, the more likely we are to attract the acceptance and respect of those with whom we simply want to share in the mission of God.
Every time a woman steps into the vision of Joel, she steps into that abundant stream that flows through our fathers in the faith, through Jesus himself, through this generation, and on into the next as it heads toward the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. Larry Crabb brings this concept down to the soul level, asking, “What would it be like if we had a vision for each other, if we could see the lost glory in ourselves, our family and our friends? … That power is the life of Christ, carried into another soul across the bridge of our vision for them, a life that touches the life in another with nourishing power. Vision for others both bridges the distance between two souls and triggers the release of the power within us” (Connecting [Word, 1997], 65).
This is what the church of Jesus Christ needs most in this age. The church of Jesus Christ hungers for men and women who are solidly equipped and unafraid to live out what God has sown. By giving both men and women in leadership relevant information and tools, we can reframe the leadership experience as it relates to women and release untold potential. We can also create positive, life-giving opportunities for women called to lead, and raise up a generation of excellent role models who inspire still other potential leaders. As Christians, how we embrace and live into that truth will determine how the church on the whole will participate in the spread of the gospel, and how women find their place in that story. We will always need new approaches to this conversation if we are committed to the welcome and advance of the kingdom of God.