Finding the Female Christian Leaders

Several weeks ago Jeremy Taylor posed an interesting question in his piece, “In Search of the Female Christian Leader: A Male Perspective.” In his first paragraph—his first sentence, even—Taylor asked, “Can you name two or more prominent female Christian leaders currently ministering?” Taylor then went on to state that his mind goes blank after Joyce Meyer, and that this “is a problem and has been one for some time now.”

Meanwhile, the society-wide debate over whether or not women can “have it all” rages on.

Yet, the apparent leadership vacuum (not the housekeeping kind) for Millennial-age Christian women is not as dire as Taylor suggests. Young women certainly are not bumbling through the debate unguided, and the first female leaders who come to my mind lead in a variety of capacities—as both women and as Christians. To me, the obvious ‘first’ is well-known author and speaker Beth Moore, but she is closely followed by Christianity Today managing editor Katelyn Beaty, National Community Church pastor Heather Zempel, and anti-trafficking advocate Christine Caine. Then come authors Rachel Held Evans, Katie Davis, Lynne Hybels, and Shauna Niequist. On a more political note, I consider recently appointed White House Faith-Based office director Melissa Rogers and former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice—and even though our political views certainly differ, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

 Oh, and also Joyce Meyer.

These women represent high levels of achievement in a wide range of fields, including both faith-based ministry and politics. None have been selected to pastor the nation’s largest church or fill the nation’s highest office, yet all offer a clear picture of what it means to fulfill God’s calling on their lives as women. It goes without saying that many of these women are mothers as well.

But to offer just these prominent women as examples would overlook the millions of women involved in churches and ministries at the local level; the day-to-day, under-acknowledged work of these women is arguably even more important, paving the way—in small steps—for more prominent female figures and their ministries. If we accept James Davison Hunter’s argument that “the actual vitality of American Christianity’s cultural capital today resides almost exclusively among average people in the pew rather than those in leadership,” then we cannot underestimate the impact of women who lead by the very nature of their quiet service in any ministerial capacity that makes the corporate body of Christ function.

The topic remains hot: A recent Her.meneutics blog post by Rachel Pietka, who discusses the challenges of female leadership within the church, has been shared over 5,500 times on Facebook. The article responds to pastor John Piper’s podcast on “acceptable ways for women to exert public influence.” Pietka says women “find their voices stifled when their influence and participation in so many spheres is limited to activities dubbed indirect and impersonal.” I agree: Men and women alike are more likely to be unhappy when they know they are trapped beneath a glass ceiling—or a stained-glass one, in this case. 

However, Pietka’s reasoning falls prey to the current cultural consensus in the debate over “having it all.” This position wrongly assumes women can only be satisfied—or are most satisfied—when they are successful both in the workplace and at home. The Christian church cannot afford to make the same mistake, asking where the female leaders are when they’ve been in our midst all along. As a result, if the goal of female Christian leadership, as Taylor suggests, “is not necessarily prominence, but simple presence; a presence that touches all corners of society,” then women have arrived. Women arrived as ministry leaders many years ago, when we began to accept that women did not necessarily need to obtain clergy status in order to lead in the church.

Yet, the debate over female leadership is far from over; the conversation will continue until proponents have erased the enduring stigmas for working moms and stay-at-home dads—negative associations often perpetuated by well-meaning complementarian Christians. Moving forward, though, Christians should take a different approach, examining the public justice issues associated with “having it all.” Perhaps Christians shouldn’t even ask whether or not women can have it all; an appropriate, public justice-inspired perspective recognizes that neither sex should expect to have it all. Instead, public justice requires balance both between and within important societal institutions: government, workplace, and family.

Instead of demanding that the government and our employers—the secondary institutions with which we associate—make changes to better accommodate us as we scale the employment hierarchy, women also should do our part and consider how they can best lead their families, the “most basic of human institutions.” For some, this undoubtedly will mean working as a stay-at-home mom; others, however, canserve their families best by entering the workforce—and they are called by God to do so. Similarly, women and men alike should support public policy conversations that advance justice for families, rather than for either sex individually as if in a vacuum (and not the housekeeping kind).

Most importantly, we must recognize that our generation’s strongest female Christian leaders may not be “church” leaders, but are already leading the church by fulfilling their calls to love and work for the Kingdom of God in every field, workplace, and family sphere. For further proof, just get familiar with the women who comprise Christianity Today’s list of “50 Women You Should Know.” The good news is that if you already can name Joyce Meyer, you only have 49 left to go.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.