Increasing the numbers of women in ministry - a reflection for Churches of Christ leaders.

This paper has been written for State CEO's of Churches of Christ for an upcoming meeting. Some of the material in it may be of broader interest so I thought I'd put this up on Secret Women's Business!

Ministry leadership in Churches of Christ: Gender issues in a time of challenge and opportunity.

One of the responsibilities of those called to leadership at the State and National church level is taking the “balcony view”. From the “balcony” we may sense the “big picture” of what God is up to in our midst. From the “balcony”, we can anticipate possible dangers and possible opportunities. From the “balcony” we can exercise leadership in order to can maximize future opportunities and minimize future dangers. It would be interesting to privately and corporately reflect on and discuss the following “balcony” questions:

•What opportunities do we see for our movement? What are our greatest opportunities?

•What potential risks do we see for our movement? What are the greatest dangers?

•What might we do to maximize our opportunities?
•What might we do to anticipate and minimize our risks?

The thesis of this paper is that one of the greatest dangers to the health of our movement is a looming shortage of passionate, gifted, well equipped leaders for our “bread and butter” constituency (local congregations). One possible solution is taking proactive initiatives to increase the participation of women in leadership, particularly in relation in local church ministry leadership.

Impending shortage of minister-leaders, and its implications for local churches

Churches across Australia of all “brands” are looking down the barrel of a massive shortage of vocational ministers over the next 10 years.

Although I do not have specific statistics for Churches of Christ, a glance around our own ministers’ gatherings in Vic/Tas would suggest in our movement also, the numbers of ministers approaching retirement age significantly outstrips the numbers of ministers under 40.

Typically a congregation that has a prolonged period without a minister-leader at best plateaus, and more frequently, declines numerically. As the impending shortage of endorsed ministers really starts to “bite”, smaller local churches in particular will have difficulty attracting and retaining suitable ministers. I anticipate churches of all denominations will take a dramatic “hit” in numerical membership numbers as smaller congregations with a leadership vacuum decline (and in many cases, close). According to NCLS data, the average congregation in Australia has 60 – 70 members: small to medium congregations are the “bread and butter” of the Australian church. ( As small churches close, some members will drift to larger churches that are better able to attract ministers, while some will probably drift out of church life altogether.

In Vic/Tas (2009 figures) 5096 members out of 13,064 were from churches of 150 members or less. I suggest that those of us in positions of oversight have a responsibility to work for the needs of our member churches, including ensuring we are taking reasonable steps to address the looming vocational ministry crisis for our small to medium congregations in particular. To grow the church in Australia (not merely to survive, or arrest serious decline) would seem to require a multiplication of high calibre leaders for local churches and other expressions of mission and ministry.

It is tempting perhaps to shrug our shoulders, to give up on smaller congregations altogether, and adopt some kind of “survival of the fittest” mindset around smaller churches. I think this would be a pity. Partly driven by pragmatics (oil prices, cost of mortgages) and partly by values-driven environmental concerns, I think we will see a trend emerging to “go local”… to connect with local schools, shops, sporting clubs and churches within walking or short driving distances. For city dwellers, driving 45 minutes to a mega church 2 – 3 times a week will only appeal to a limited clientele, particularly as cities become more gridlocked and petrol prices escalate. As families in the broader community continue to be spread over long distances due to housing and job pressures, small to medium-sized churches have a niche to function as “family”. In small to medium-sized church communities Christians can act as carers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles etc. to young families, children, youth and isolated older people. They can function as “extended family” in a way that can be more difficult for large/mega churches to achieve. The kinds of relationships that can emerge breed personal loyalty to a local community that large (and more impersonal) congregations often struggle to achieve. Small rural communities are unable to grow large churches at all. In short, my intuition suggests small churches (both conventionally structured, and “looser” missional communities) can have a key role to play in God’s mission to make disciples of all. However, a shortage of suitable leaders for local church ministry puts this all under threat.

Over-fished and under-fished pools

The easiest way to catch fish is to cast a net in a pool where little fishing has occurred before. In some churches at least, there has been little effort to “fish” for vocational ministry leaders among the pool of women. However, I believe that there are women who might make excellent ministers and leaders who have gained organisational, leadership, and pastoral experience through their careers, families and local churches. It may well be it has never crossed their minds their gifts might be used in vocational ministry leadership, but if enough people “tap them on the shoulder” they might begin a process of discernment, training and formation that will see them equipped and recognised as ministers.

What are the current statistics on women in local church ministry, Churches of Christ in Australia?

*2011 figures, the 2012 list was being worked on!

Note: 1999 figures were used as a starting point for Vic/Tas as a large swathe of old handbooks have gone walkabout!

What factors help women enter ministry?

Cheryl Catford-McCallum completed a thesis on women in ministry within the CRC denomination. Her research agreed with most other research in women in leadership demonstrating the following three things are critical to the development of women leaders:

1 Female role models and mentors at key periods
2 Theological and personal conviction that it is OK for women to exercise ministry gifts (this is woven in to a sense of call)
3 Actual ministry opportunities, usually offered through a “gatekeeper” who believes in them and gives them the chance to cut their teeth in ministry

In the CRC denomination, the “gatekeeper” is not infrequently a husband in ministry. It is reasonably common to have husband and wife ministry “teams” within Pentecostal denominations in general. It is interesting to note although less predominant in Vic/Tas, 12 out of the 58 women employed in ministry are married to a male minister.

The Vic Tas experiment

In July 2005 I (Janet Woodlock) was employed specifically to promote and develop women in leadership in Churches of Christ Vic/Tas by the department of Mission and Ministry. This has involved the following initiatives as key priorities:

•Asking ministers to identify younger and emerging women leaders and connecting these women with mentor/coaches. We suggested it would be good for ministers to discuss this with their eldership or leadership team.
•Training potential volunteer mentors nominated by church ministers in coaching, and asking them to connect with an emerging leader for a once a month, one hour coaching session over a 12 month period. I loosely monitored and periodically evaluated these coaching relationships.

•Running various leadership training events and support for women in leadership: eg training focused women’s conferences, women’s retreats, coaching workshops, a specific leadership conference, preaching classes for women.
•In partnership with Stirling College (then CCTC) promoting “ministry studies for women”. This was a class designed for a cohort of women designed as a supportive entry point to theological study.

The first “cohort” of ministry studies for women ran in 2007. This was promoted in both Churches of Christ and Baptist networks. In 3 years Stirling shifted from 49 to 73 female theology students, a small but significant increase given the size of our “pond” in the Christian world.

It is interesting to note the increase that has occurred in the numbers of women employed in ministry in Vic/Tas over the period in which figures are available (12% in 1999, 26% in 2012), particularly in contrast to the only other state where I have comparative figures (where there was no change in proportion between 2002 and 2012). Admittedly, each state has distinct factors at play: it would be interesting to investigate the Australia-wide trend at some point.

An interesting phenomenon is that when one town gets a fluoridated water supply, and neighbouring towns do not, the neighbouring towns still experience decreased rates of tooth decay. This is believed to occur because indirect contact with fluoridated water (from washed vegetables etc.) still makes a difference. This analogy supports my feeling that while there has been direct impact from the Vic/Tas experiment as women who have been mentored (or have entered theological study) have been encouraged into ministry, there has also been a positive indirect effect from the influence of these women and the naming of women’s leadership as a priority.

Might these kinds of positive initiatives around women’s leadership be reproduced in other places?

Some ideas for states hoping to increase the participation of women in leadership and vocational ministry:

Name developing women for leadership and ministry as a priority

I feel that if state conferences would like to see an increased participation of women in ministry, it needs to be a stated priority. Naming this alone can make a difference: I for one took a very long time to discern a call to vocational ministry, because the thought that women could be vocational ministers for many years was outside of my experience and imagination. Stating that promoting women’s leadership as a priority can begin a process of awareness-raising in local churches and the broader world of Churches of Christ.

As noted, research on women in ministry reveals that a male “gatekeeper/sponsor” is one of the key factors in allowing women to find their way into vocational ministry. Unfortunately, in some local churches “invisible woman syndrome” is alive and well. Some male ministers / elders have difficulty recognising leaders and potential ministers if they happen to be women. Regular communication from Conference with churches on this issue may help to bring this to the attention of local church leaders. I believe local church ministers should be encouraged to mentor both men and women into ministry, and given guidance as to how to do this appropriately.

(I recall asking a minister whether there were any young women in his church with leadership potential that I could connect with a mentor. He said: “I can think of 5 or 6 young men who would benefit from this program, but no young women”. Given in a typical church has 60% women, his comment made me immediately suspicious that the “style” of leadership exercised by women might not be easily recognised by this minister. I suspect this is repeated over in many churches, and that even in churches where potential leaders are recognised, male ministers may not see the development of women as Christian leaders and potential vocational ministers their job.)

Discuss this issue with councils/boards/etc.

As is true for ANY issue, proactive responses require “buy in” from the gatekeepers of the movement. Our leadership teams need to understand the church is genuinely on the brink of a vocational ministry crisis, and we have a small window of opportunity to respond to this. Developing leadership initiatives only after significant numbers of churches are unable to find minister/leaders will be like trying to close the gate after the horse has bolted. Ministerial formation takes time, and developing Christian leaders to the point where some will discern a call to vocational ministry and begin ministry training takes time. The time to act is now. High calibre leaders have the capacity to grow local churches through missional initiatives: we need to “cast the net wide” to find them, and “fish” in pools that have currently been overlooked! Gatekeepers of our movement will need to “buy in” to this issue to release finance, time, personnel, imagination and promotional space. We may anticipate some resistance from the theological right (women’s leadership is against the bible), may get some resistance from the theological left (specific leadership initiatives for women keep them out of the mainstream), and possibly emotional reactions from both men and women with unresolved feelings about women and leadership arising from their family of origin. Such challenges should be pushed through. In my opinion there remain some real (though usually “soft”) barriers to women’s full participation in ministry leadership, and positively focused “soft” affirmative action is the most pragmatic way to address this. I do feel we have achieved some significant “culture shifting” in Vic/Tas by putting women’s leadership on the agenda.

Promote theological study specifically for women

Ministry studies for women provide an entry point into a mainstream degree and a ministry discernment process. It communicates the message “women are welcome”. I was struck by a conversation late last year with a woman who takes nearly 2 hours to drive to Stirling College, bypassing closer colleges, because she found a “ministry studies for women” brochure. She felt that the “welcome mat” to ministry had finally been rolled out for her. A “studies for women” initiative would need to be worked out in sympathy with the general ministry training strategy: studies for women should be leveraged as an entry point to mainstream ministerial formation processes. Although Stirling has done an exceptional job in nurturing women in theological study and ministry formation, at this point they have not catered for country women well. If ACOM were to embrace a women’s leadership initiative I would be very interested to explore how this might work for rural and remote church women as another pathway for ministry training. (Distance education is on the agenda for Stirling, but has not yet been implemented).

Provide theological resources to help elders (and in some cases, ministers) to think through the issue of women in ministry, including in “oversight” roles.

There are a small number of churches in Vic / Tas that have a “complementarian” perspective on women: anecdotally, this is more common in some other states. I believe churches that have adopted this stance should be gently encouraged to revisit their position, and be provided with theological resources (written with non-theologically trained but thoughtful leaders as a target audience). I have developed one such resource here:

Promote women’s networking and support groups

A helpful factor in developing women leaders is connecting them with female mentors/role models. Helping women to name and deal with the distinctive issues they can experience in ministry/church life (eg children and family complexities, sexism, managing the politics of male dominated boards etc.) can help avoid women being “shipwrecked” in ministry by forces they have not anticipated or developed skills to deal with.

Explore / Name/ promote alternative models of church leadership among congregations.

One of the strengths of Churches of Christ has been our historical commitment to all members as ministers. The decrease in numbers of candidates for endorsed vocational ministry will increase pressure to look at alternative models to the “full-time, male, employed, pastor’s wife thrown in for free” concept of “minister”. Bi-vocational minister / leaders, or a ministry a team of part time specialists (in areas such as youth, admin, preaching, pastoral care, worship etc.) may provide healthier and more viable models of “vocational ministry” than the solo / do-everything “minister”. As well as being one way to address a shortage of endorsed ministers, such approaches should facilitate greater participation in ministry roles by women with young children who may struggle to manage a traditional “full time” ministry role.

Proactively encourage women’s leadership through mentoring/coaching emerging leaders

I could tell many stories of how being identified as an emerging leader and experience coaching has helped to “track” women into various pathways of mission and ministry. (Perhaps such initiatives could also be extended to men! However, the under-representation of women in ministry would suggest a particular benefit from fast-tracking this particular “pool”). It has also assisted women I can think of to step into areas of leadership like church eldership. All of this shifts culture over time. Ultimately I hope this will lead to women’s leadership and ministry being normalised in all (or at least most) local congregations.

Model gender inclusivity in events and in personnel

Research has revealed the critical nature of female role models in ministry for younger women to develop as Christian leaders. Applying the “gender grid” when considering Conference speakers, board members, staff, composition of leadership teams, etc. cannot be viewed as an optional extra. If we wish to take the idea of “every member a minister” seriously, effort needs to be expended to break through the gender barrier at all levels of church life, beginning with leadership from State Conferences. The fact that actual opportunities to exercise ministry is key for anyone growing into a ministry path means we may need to cast our nets wider than we may have done in the past.

Consider employing a coordinator to give a “face” to leadership development initiatives for women

For a number of years Churches of Christ Vic/Tas has been able to access some external funding to support a women’s leadership initiative. Funds directed to increasing the participation of women can sometimes be accessed from both government grants and selected private trusts. Some conference organisations may have the capacity to invest in a part-time women’s leadership facilitator by rearranging current resources. I feel there are some advantages in having a person take responsibility for developing women’s networks, training, mentoring etc, who can also act as contact person for women who have questions about entry to ministry, training, etc. I do receive feedback that women feel strongly affirmed as a woman in leadership by my barrage of emails, periodic personal communication, and resources and events that cater for the specific needs of women leaders.

Some asides for consideration:

The equal opportunity act requires that organisations “with 100 or more people… establish a workplace program to remove the barriers to women entering and advancing in their organisation”. In my reading of the act, proactive initiatives around women “entering and advancing” would therefore be legal requirements for Queensland, NSW and SA/NT State Conferences: the structure and size of Vic/Tas and WA conferences means they are currently exempt on from such programs from a legal standpoint (See and related links) Church organisations are currently being reviewed for compliance with the act.

One of the concerning trends for the health of the church in the Western world is that women are now leaving the church at a significantly faster rate than men.,000_Women_Abandoning_Church_Every_Year_As_Buffy_The_Vampire_Slayer_Turns_Them_On_To_Witchcraft.aspx?ArticleID=2440&PageID=12&RefPageID=104,000_Women_Abandoning_Church_Every_Year_As_Buffy_The_Vampire_Slayer_Turns_Them_On_To_Witchcraft.aspx?ArticleID=2440&PageID=12&RefPageID=104

Although the reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, I feel it is incongruous that women who are highly capable professionals in the workplace are relegated to narrow roles in some church contexts. Gender equality is simply assumed in most work, educational and social contexts in Australia.

According to the Australian Communities Report by Olive Tree Media (McCrindle Research, October 2011) the perceived role of women is a “belief blocker” to Christianity completely (for 20% of the population), significantly (for 14% of the population) or slightly (for 26% of the population). If perceived gender inequality in Christianity is a barrier to evangelism among 60% of the Australian population, this factor alone should be of grave concern to evangelical churches.


Across the Australian church there is a looming shortage of leaders not only for traditional local church ministry, but also for the many other opportunities that exist for creative and pioneering mission and ministry. As leadership is a key issue in enabling gospel ministry and church development, state conferences should see leadership development as a high priority. The fact that women do not currently participate in ministry in equal numbers with men suggests there remain some subtle (and not so subtle) barriers to women entering ministry. Initiatives to invest in women’s leadership are one possible strategy to address the impending shortage of vocational ministers in our churches. Each state has distinctive issues that will require distinctive strategies, but a well thought-through and well-resourced women’s leadership initiative is likely to be a fruitful and productive strategy with a good “return on investment”, given the current under-representation of women in leadership.

Questions for ongoing discussion:

Imagine what churches in your state might look like in 10 years’ time –

•If you’ve developed, resourced and implemented an active and well-resourced strategy to recruit women into leadership and ministry?

•If you’ve tinkered around the edges?

•If you’ve done nothing?

Matthew 9: 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”


Kerrie said…
Hey Janet,
I just printed out a copy of your excellent article for the Archives (Australian Churches of Christ Historical Society)... and I'm hoping that in 5-10 years time I'll be printing out another report showing vast increase in women's paid ministry participation.
Kerrie Handasyde
(Honourary Historian for Vic/Tas Churches of Christ)
Janet Woodlock said…
Thanks Kerrie... really appreciate this! I think an increase in the participation of women in ministry is inevitable in the long term, but we are looking at a need in the short term which may not be met without state conferences being really proactive about this. I am optimistic it's not only possible, but that not too difficult! :-) I certainly hope to see the same.

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