I affirm the full participation of women in the ministries of the church. Women, just like men, are called and gifted to serve in the church. This affirmation emerges from the testimony of Scripture and has been lived out by the church in many ways throughout its history. Paul puts it this way in Galatians chapter three: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Since 1976 the Evangelical Covenant Church has been ordaining women, recognizing that gender is not a barrier to a person serving in any capacity in the church. The Covenant states that “the biblical basis for service in the body of Christ is giftedness, a call from God, and godly character—not gender.”
Advocating for women in ministry was a significant struggle in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Great strides were made to affirm the service of women in all aspects of the life of the church. With the rise of the neo-Reformed movement, and the influence of fundamentalist leaning churches, it is vital to be intentional and deliberate about affirming the full participation of women serving in the church again.
Church ministry is tough. Eugene Peterson says: “I’ve loved being a pastor, almost every minute of it. It’s a difficult life because it’s a demanding life. But the rewards are enormous—the rewards of being on the front line of seeing the gospel worked out in people’s lives. I remain convinced that if you are called to it, being a pastor is the best life there is.”
Church ministry is difficult for men; women serving in the church encounter additional hurdles as they struggle for their call and service to be seen as legitimate. While called, and gifted and educated, too many in the church question the authority and competence of female pastors. Sexism and gender hostility result, incorrect interpretations of Scripture, narrow views of the role of women and men in the home and in society result in women not being affirmed in their ministry and overlooked for various positions or appointments. A seasoned and influential pastor once said to me: “My daughter is so gifted for ministry. Too bad see is a woman. She would have made a great pastor.” A female student at an evangelical seminary recently was challenged by a group of male students: “What are you doing here?”
Woman face personal challenges as they seek to serve the church, issues that most men are not forced to face. Women have added expectations and pressures when seeking to balance educational goals and ministry service with other life roles like being a mother and wife. Women in ministry face enormous odds and always have in the back of their minds the question: Is all this worth the cost? (Men should be more concerned about balance, but societal norms excuse them as their health fails and their families suffer.)
We need to affirm the calling and giftedness of women. With our language and choice of words, in the stories and examples that we use as we teach and preach, in our actions and our appointments, we must to lift up the cause. Everything we do in the church is theological. Spoken or unspoken we are always expression our convictions. When my daughter was in fifth grade, we visited my home church in Oakland. It was communion Sunday, and the preacher—male—got up and preached the sermon, then after the sermon, the 12 men in their dark suits came forward to serve the elements, and my daughter—fifth grade—leans over to me and she says, “Dad, where are the women?” Without ever saying a word, my home church taught what they think about women in ministry and my daughter picked it up. We need to continue to champion the cause for women in ministry.
I direct the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary. We are deliberate, though far from having arrived, about advocating for women in ministry. The language students use in papers is important. We strive for a greater number of female students in our program. We are always working to bring more women on as members of our faculty. For all of our faculty, I look for four qualifications beyond academic credentials. Our faculty must demonstrate a love for Jesus Christ, a love for the church, have significant ministerial experience, and they must affirm and advocate for women in the ministry of the church and advocate for women in that role. Our female students and male students must see female professors serving in a teaching ministry. Both female students and male students must hear stories from professors and other students about the ways women make a vital contribution to the life of the church. The conversations and relationships among students as well as with professors, the spoken and unspoken teaching sessions are transformative for male and female students.
As a seminary professor I hear difficult stories of disregard and devalue from women preparing for ministry in the church, and those already in ministry. We continue to create spaces for female students to tell their stories and to vent and to find support. It is critical for men in ministry to stop and listen hearing the pain.
Lynne Hybels recently has written: “When women are given half a chance, they change the world.” I am convinced that women are the greatest untapped resource in local communities and in the church. We get glimpses of women given half a chance in the Old Testament: Miriam, Esther, Deborah, Ruth, Rebekah. We see women given half a chance in the New Testament: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Lydia. And throughout church history, we see women who have been given at least half a chance: Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Teresa of Avila, Evangeline Booth, Henrietta Mears courageous women in the modern missionary movement, not to mention the service of women as pastors, teachers, missionaries, chaplains, therapists through the Evangelical Covenant Church.
This is the critical need in the church in our day, again. We must deliberately and intentionally advocate for the full participation of women in all ministries of the church. It is our responsibility to address the barriers that hinder women from fully serving, and work to knock those barriers down.