But instinctively I knew that there was a breakdown between what I was learning about God and the practices of our church.
So when I asked my parents about female clergy the response I received was dumbfounding. It turned out our tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, had a long history of female clergy and it was an explicit part of our theology.
I AM SURE I ASKED THE QUESTION SEVERAL TIMES BECAUSE THAT DIDN’T MAKE SENSE. NO FEMALE PASTORS HAD EVER SERVED THE CHURCHES I GREW UP IN. I NEVER HEARD OF ONE IN ANY OF THE SURROUNDING CHURCHES. THERE WAS, PERHAPS, A CHILDREN’S PASTOR OR TWO, BUT CERTAINLY NOT A PREACHER! WERE MY PARENTS RIGHT? COULD THIS BE TRUE? WAS THERE SOME SORT OF STRANGE DISCONNECT BETWEEN THE THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE OF OUR CHURCH? WHERE WERE THE WOMEN PREACHERS? WHY DIDN’T THIS BOTHER ANYONE ELSE?
It was exciting to find out that our church, at least theologically, was a bit of renegade when it came to the role of women. But it was also infuriating. If we believed this, and had a history of strong women in leadership, where were all the female clergy?
Fast forward a few years. After 7 years of schooling, and several years of searching for a position, I found myself serving a Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, NC. (I have always been a bit of a black sheep among Nazarenes. They don’t know what to do with me. It explains my current exile in Indiana. Just a joke Hoosier friends!)
In North Carolina I was privileged to serve alongside of a very gifted associate pastor who just happened to a woman. During my time there she ended up serving as my senior pastor for a season. I also served alongside of numerous other female pastors there. Since coming to Indiana I have had the deep privilege of submitting myself to the leadership of wonderful people of God, men and women alike.These experiences have absolutely reshaped my understanding of the church, leadership, and my own calling as a pastor. Submitting my life to serve and be led by women has unlocked so much truth about the kingdom of God for me. Here are some of those lessons.
1) The Church is misshaped and malnourished without women in leadership
When leadership is undertaken by men and women, together, it looks very different. There is a balancing of voices, ideas, and practices that leads to a deeper experience of kingdom life. Submitting to one another as leaders is a longer, slower, harder, process. There result, however, is a far more complete kingdom experience. If we only have men in leadership what are we sacrificing? What gifts are missing? What decisions are being made without the proper input? What voices are being silenced?
Many of my early struggles in ministry were the result of serving in churches dominated by men. The staff environments were deeply unhealthy. The expectations for clergy, the worship services, the preaching, the financial choices that were made, they were all dominated by men.
Living, now, in a church shaped by men and women, of various ages, and backgrounds, has shown me the incredible beauty of balance. If the church doesn’t have a multitude of voices shaping its vision and practice it is most likely misshapen and malnourished. Mutual submission is such a gift to us all.
2) Male clergy desperately need strong women to submit themselves to
Despite my theological support of female clergy I didn’t actually know how I would feel serving underneath of a female senior pastor. The experience (which I am not claiming to be normative, just my own) was life giving. I felt deeply cared for by my friend Pat. She is a tremendously gifted listener, counselor, and speaks the truth with love. She challenged me in ways I had never been challenged before, all the while showing me tremendous grace. She showed me ways of leading that expanded my understanding of being a pastor. I saw her replace a very strong male pastor, lead in an entirely differently style, and be more effective in many respects.
My experience serving under a female pastor was wonderfully formative and such a gift. It changed my own style of leadership in very healthy ways.
As a senior pastor I am so indebted to the amazing women who help lead our congregation. The most effective, empowered, missional, leaders in our church are all women. We have wonderful men in leadership too, but the lay leaders I have that are most tuned into the Spirit, and willing to lead out boldly, are women. Our church has developed a very healthy culture for staff and lay people alike. The balance of voices in leadership and the choices we have made based on that balance is at the heart of this culture. I can’t imagine our shared life without our regular practice of sitting and listening to the voice of God together.
Our church doesn’t currently have a regular female voice who preaches. (That is one of our staffing priorities, however, as we expand.) So we have made it a point, when we have opportunity, to bring in women to preach. I want my church to see me sit in the congregation and submit myself to women who are teaching the Word of God. It is no big deal to me, but I know for others it matters significantly.
3) We need to value all gifting and all calling
The church doesn’t value all gifts and calling the same. We value a particular type of leader more than others. That is part of the reason for the rise of the megachurch. We love extraordinary communicators, organizers, and visionaries. We flock to hear them and consider ourselves deeply privileged to submit to their leadership. We undervalue shepherds, patient listeners, and deep rooted purveyors of hospitality.
In the same way we have to value the gifting of all women, in all its various forms. There are women who are extraordinary communicators, organizers, and visionaries. There are women who are quiet listeners and shepherds. Women are just gifted, in as many different ways, as men are. (I know I am stating the obvious, but it needs to be stated clearly)
But to be honest, we don’t value all callings. We don’t value all leaders. We value some far more than others. We praise those that fit our desires and expectations and ignore those who don’t. Submitting to the leadership of a variety of types of leaders is so healthy. We have so much to teach each other, so many different parts of the body of Christ that we need in our lives.
4) We need checks and balances
The most important female leader in my life is my wife. I submit myself to her on a daily basis. As we lead each other in our marriage, we have learned the beautiful checks and balances we offer each other. I absolutely value my wife’s insights and opinions. This is especially true when it comes to people. If my wife has a visceral reaction to someone, either good or bad, I have learned to just trust it. Even when I can’t explain it or make sense of it, I trust it. This is especially true with pastors. There have been numerous pastors that we have met, served under, or interviewed, that my wife has provided vital insight into. If my wife tells me someone is an issue, even if I can’t understand why, I just listen to her.
The church, at its best, functions this way. Without women in leadership in the church we lose the checks and balances of a good marriage. We need each other to lead well. We need each other to cultivate an environment where the church will thrive. Mutual submission teach us listen to and trust each other.
So many of the pastoral failures are the result of incomplete leadership. One style of leader, one voice, one gender, one vision, one personality, dominates in an unhealthy way. This is the same of many of the marriage failures I have witnessed. We need the checks and balances of serving together.
The church must learn to value people the way God does, setting aside our biases, and aligning our theology and our practice. How can this possibly take place without men and women learning to mutually submit ourselves to each as leaders?
The original blog for this post can be found here: https://holinessreeducation.com/2016/04/15/what-submitting-to-women-has-taught-me/