In Search of the Female Christian Leader: A Male's Perspective

Can you name two or more prominent female Christian leaders currently ministering? I couldn’t, my mind went blank after Joyce Meyer. This is a problem and has been one for some time now. March was women’s history month which presented both males and females with an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the female, the state of womanhood, and its future. I would posit that we males have not arrived at a full appreciation of the struggles many females face with regard to the workforce and family and synergy of the two.

It has been said that problems are the price of progress. The lack of prominent female Christian leaders is not just a gender problem; it is a progress problem for the church and the U.S. A Barna Group survey underscores the dearth of female Christian leadership in the U.S. by asking who the “single most influential Christian leader in the U.S. today” is. Here are the top five responses:

1) Not sure, none, or no one – 41%
2) Billy Graham – 19%
3) Pope Benedict XVI – 9%
4) Barack Obama – 8%
5) Joel Osteen – 5%

The inherent concern of this list is that Billy Graham is 94 years old, there is a new Pope, and there will be a new president elected in 2016. The paucity of notable Christian leaders should come as no surprise when a more recent Barna Group survey found that over two-thirds (64%) of Americans say pro athletes have more influence in American society than “professional faith leaders (19%).

As attitudinal patterns towards spiritual leadership remain in flux, the number of senior female pastors in America has doubled from 5% (1999) to 10% (2009) of all U.S. churches. The Barna Group suggests these female senior pastors are, on average, more experienced and educated than their male counterparts. Measuring pastoral leadership happens to be a fairly attainable metric, but most scholarly studies acknowledge the unique challenge of measuring the breadth and depth of female church leadership since their engagement is so extensive.

To gain perspective on this engagement, I asked Stefanie Chappell, a chaplain at Georgetown University, why there is a notable lack of female Christian leaders in the U.S. today. She sees two reasons: external limitations and competing priorities. For the former, Chappell explains that a mixture of long held beliefs in the church have often prevented females in many congregations from a full expression of leadership. For the latter, Chappell says that many females who take the “off-ramp” from their profession to prioritize family have difficulty finding the “on-ramp” back into their respective industries. She went on to share that her “ignorance” protected her from not knowing she wasn’t supposed to be a church leader when she began discerning her call to ministry. Rather, she says that she has attempted to steward God’s call and lead with the gender-neutral fruits of grace and humility.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has certainly added to this discussion by writing a book titled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, in which she affirms Stefanie’s dual concern of external limitation and competing priorities. For some, Sheryl is the wealthy, accomplished feminist leader that the movement has been missing for decades. For others, her ivory tower background is a perfect contradiction to what it means to be part of a movement that cares for those on the fringes of society.

Jeff Saferite, a church planter, envisions a church body that does not coalesce around traditional structures of leadership, but one that is fixated on compassion for those on these fringes. Jeff says a female’s compassion is her ordination and that the proximity of the female with the community should be celebrated and utilized. The historicity and connection of Christian females to oppression may better equip females for ministering to present forms of oppression in ways that may not be understood to the Christian male.

As church scholar Rodney Stark suggests in The Rise of Christianity, the early church created a sub-culture separate from the Greco-Roman world that elevated the status of Christian females. Preceding the new roles of leadership within Christianity were the magnets to the new faith: Christianity’s opposition to infanticide and abortion. While it was these issues that pricked the curiosity of early Christian females, it was the newfound power and influence that sustained unequal ratios of conversion through the first five centuries of the Christian church.

Whether females are at their strongest on the fringes or fulcrum of society, to explore past female spiritual leadership is to explore the future of the Christian church. The church has a unique opportunity to implement a strategy that allows it not only to survive, but to be at the vanguard of female leadership. The question is how does the church do this? How will the church transition to a posture of inclusionary female leadership that is representative of the larger body of Christians?

In one sense the argument could be made that females will eventually overtake males given their level of spiritual practice and participation. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life claims females are the stronger spiritual gender based on the following numbers:

● Have absolutely certain belief in God or a universal spirit: Women, 77%; Men, 65%.
● Pray at least daily: Women, 66%; Men, 49%.
● Say religion is very important in their lives: Women, 63%; Men 49%.
● Attend worship services at least weekly: Women, 44%; men 34%.

Logically, a deficit of spiritual leadership, plus a growing market of female leadership availability, multiplied by expanding female Christians should equal a rise in the number and notoriety of female leaders, but it hasn’t. As a society we must not only ask ourselves why this is, but also how to change it.

If natural progression is not going to deliver the full range of needed reform at the top of spiritual power structures, then males must begin to ask themselves difficult questions. Feminist, Gloria Steinem says there can be no answer to the question of how can I combine career and family until men are asking the same question. In the workplace, Christian males must consider what, if any, prejudices exist with regard to female leadership. At home, Christian males must cogitate about females being the “bread winner.” At church, Christian males must contemplate the personal, social, and theological implications of female leadership. Just as Voltaire said, a person should be judged not by their answers, but by their questions.

Females are making significant strides in a number of industries and as a Christian male student of leadership, I welcome the advance of females in the church and the office with a curiosity that informs my sociology and theology. There are 21 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies – the highest number to date. The 113th U.S. Congress includes 101 elected females in the House and Senate. Abroad we can see influential females leading nations such as Australia, Germany, Brazil, and South Korea.

Similar advances must be made within the American Christian church as we recognize female leadership is about more than femininity and overcoming. Undoubtedly the likes of Clara Barton, Sandra Day O’Connor, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Helen Keller, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony, and many others have left an indelible impression on the collective conscience of America. However, is it not time that female leadership be recognized not just for restorative justice (care of the victim) but procedural justice (fairness of the process)?

I would suggest that the goal of female Christian leadership is not necessarily prominence, but simple presence; a presence that touches all corners of society. I certainly do not speak for all females, but I know I represent my two year old daughter and wife, who is in law school, in affirming Sheryl Sandberg’s idea that a world where half of our countries and half of our companies are run by women would be a better one. If the effectiveness of spiritual male leadership has peaked in our society, I believe an infusion of female spiritual leaders can help reshape toxic public debates and introduce new life to the fractured state of many American families.

It has been exactly 100 years since females marched on Washington demanding the right to vote. May it not take another 100 years to fully realize the potential and existent presence that female Christian leaders offer the Christian church.

-Jeremy Taylor is pursuing a PhD in organizational leadership and currently serves as a senior consultant to the federal government. He is the founder of a community forum known as Coffee & Currents that provides a welcoming environment for discussing society’s vexing questions. You can follow him on twitter @jerdavtay.