Evangelical Women and Pastoral Ministry

For (too) many evangelicals, this title contains a contradiction, if not an outright scandal: Evangelical women are not supposed to engage in pastoral ministry—or, at least, not outside the spheres of “women’s ministry” and “children’s ministry” . . . and counseling, and music, and Christian education…

Clearly, then, the pastoral ministry to which we are referring just now is the “ministry of Word and Sacrament,” as it is sometimes put: preaching and leading worship, and providing shepherding to the congregation as a whole. And the question I’d like to ask you is this: Does it seem to you to be difficult and rare for women to find work in such roles, as 2013 gives way to 2014? Are the relatively few pastoral studies programs offered by evangelical schools that do train women (whether a small program such as ours at Regent or a big program such as Fuller’s), plus the other programs that train evangelical women in a pluralistic context (such as Princeton Seminary), in fact graduating most of these women into frustration?

Women with such skills have always served valuably in the church, but they have often had to improvise, compromise, and otherwise (!) find or make places in structures that tend to exclude or subordinate them. For any particular woman, God may well have a sociological miracle in mind, placing her in a situation that normally would not be open to a woman (such as a church desperately in need of a senior pastor and hiring one of the women on staff to fill that role). But most women need to face the normal social facts and plan their lives accordingly.

Parachurch and missionary ministries, of course, have long been places where women could minister in ways identical to pastoring in (evangelical) churches that forbid such ministry (as an early article of mine points out, referring to the former as the “parachurch parenthesis” and the latter as the “missionary exception”). Working at one of these organizations, moreover, then gives a women the regular income + the social status (“What do you do?” “I’m ___ at ___”) that provides a foundation for local church ministry without having to be a (full-time, fully salaried) pastor.

In poorer parts of the world, someone interested in pastoral work has to be a “tentmaker” or “bivocational,” whether female or male.  I fear that that’s what a lot of women who, if they were men, would be hired as full-time pastors, still need to be…if they are to remain within the evangelical ambit, rather than seeking a church in a pluralistic or liberal denomination. And, further along this line, I wonder if church-planting initiatives among evangelical churches tend to be restricted to male leaders (or husband-and-wife teams), so that even the “missionary-minded” woman has to go overseas to be supported in work for which she is gifted and would prefer to do here at home.

But is that the best advice someone like me can give to the many outstanding women among the students and alumnae of Regent College interested in pastoral work?

What is your perspective? Do any of you know of actual “placement data” from evangelical schools or denominations that are open to women in these traditional roles of pastoral leadership? Are there good articles or books on this subject?

Are we training too many women for too few jobs?

4 Responses to “Evangelical Women and Pastoral Ministry”

  1. john bowen

    Hi, John.

    You article puzzled me until I realised you are using the word “evangelical” in the way many (most?) North Americans do–as the equivalent of what the Brits call “nonconformists.”

    The advantage of the British usage is that it frees the word “evangelical” from being associated with any particular denomination(s), and enables it to represent a particular understanding of Christian faith (Bebbington et al). In that sense, one can be an evangelical Anglican or a non-evangelical Baptist. Sorry: I realise this is old hat to you, but maybe not to all your readers.

    All this to say: evangelical women who have pastoral gifts but can’t find jobs should clearly become evangelical Anglicans. Heck, we can even make them bishops.

    A blessed Christmas to all!

    • John

      I enjoyed your breezy response here, John! I am, however, confused by it.
      I did refer, actually, to women serving in “pluralistic” denominations. So I did have an eye on evangelicals beyond the “nonconformist” (British term) or “uniformly evangelical” (Stackhousian term) denominations.
      You recommend joining the “evangelical Anglicans,” but if you mean the uniformly Anglican/Episcopalian denominations, are there any that do ordain women? The largest evangelical Anglican church in this region doesn’t support women in pastoral ministry, nor do many (most? all?) of the evangelical Anglican congregations in North America who have split from their respective denominations over what they see to be the liberal theology at the root of the acceptance of same-sex marriage and the normalization of homosexuality. So are there any such denominations for women to join?
      If you mean instead joining the evangelical Anglicans still in the mainstream Anglican denominations, then that’s what I meant by “pluralistic” denominations (to put that situation mildly…).

  2. john bowen

    Ah. I did wonder about the term “pluralistic” (which I have never heard used in this kind of context before–perhaps another Stackhousism?). I would prefer “theologically mixed,” as being more precise.

    I wouldn’t call the Anglican Church (which one? is of course a question) “liberal” per se, though liberals of one kind or another are, needless to say, presently in the majority in the leadership of the Anglican Church of Canada. (Even having said that, it is worth pointing out that the Diocese of New Westminster, where you live, is more consistently liberal than most other dioceses in Canada, and not–I would say–representative.)

    When I say “evangelical Anglicans,” I do indeed mean within the mainstream Anglican Church of Canada. My experience in, say, Toronto (the biggest diocese in North America, as they will tell you), is that the leadership is very receptive to evangelical influence, and ordains Wycliffe graduates on a regular basis (as does the Diocese of Niagara, also supposedly very liberal), half of them women. Two area bishops in Toronto are Wycliffe grads–Patrick Yu and Linda Nicholls.

    Among evangelical Anglicans in the mainstream Anglican church in Toronto, both St Paul’s Bloor Street and Little Trinity have ordained women on staff. Of course, there may be those who would doubt their evangelical credentials for that very reason!

    Among denominations you would call “uniformly evangelical” (although I would argue that all are “pluralistic” to some extent–non-evangelical Baptists etc.), you are right that there are few opportunities. But there does seem to be gradual change in some quarters. I can think of women pastors who are Mennonite, CRC and Baptist (CBOQ). It’s not always easy for them, I realise, but it’s a beginning. Anglicans have been there.

    Sometime, you might consider a blog on the related subject of ordination. When I was at seminary in the early 70’s, and the debate about women’s ordination was heating up (among Anglicans anyway), the Principal of my seminary–Alec Motyer at Trinity, Bristol–commented, “The problem is not when we can start ordaining women, but when we can stop ordaining men.” I’ve never forgotten it–as you see. How far do our problems stem from a possibly defective theology of ordination? Another day, another blog . . .

  3. Andrew Dyck

    John, I share your concern. In my role as professor of ministry studies (for MBBS Canada and CMU in Winnipeg), I am becoming acquainted with women who are called and gifted for pastoral ministries, but have difficulty finding opportunities to serve as congregational pastors.


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