Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Half the Church - Teaching Children about Women and Men in Leadership

Charlotte, one of the young women of my congregation.
As a child it would have never crossed my mind that women couldn’t serve in leadership in a church. We had women pastors, women elders, women deacons, women seminary faculty in the pews. As many people would attest, for centuries the church has been held up and held together by faithful women, even before women were serving in ordained leadership.

Today I serve a congregation and a denomination that is firm in its belief that the spirit of God calls men and women to leadership in the church, and we take pains to ensure that we have a balance of male and female leadership – both ordained and non-ordained – in all that we do.

Don’t get me wrong: I experience the perils of serving in pastoral leadership as a woman as much as the next “lady” pastor – comments about my clothing, hair, parenting techniques, etc. But even in the most frustrating moments I find a certain comfort in recognizing that what I am confronting is merely plain old sexism, not the expression of a deeply-held theological or biblical belief that women should be banned from leadership in the Christian community.

I am so comfortable in my tradition that it struck me as both utterly ridiculous and laughable when the Vatican recently cracked down on a radical group of nuns who were spending too much time focusing on helping the poor and not enough teaching the Catholic interpretation of controversial political issues. An American Archbishop has recently been appointed to help bring these women back in line with the church. One of the radical ideas that they have been advocating is the full ordination of women.

Most people raise both their boys and girls today to resist gender stereotypes when it comes to career choice – except when it comes to many Christian denominations. It is hard to imagine telling a girl that she can be anything she wants to be as long as it is not a minister in her church.

I have had more than one mother in my congregation (parents of both boys and girls) tell me that they made a choice to raise their children in a church that included women fully in leadership, and especially wanted them to be raised in a community with a female pastor.

Exposure to women in leadership in the church really is one of the best ways to raise children to trust and seek out both male and female leadership in the life of faith, but there are even more proactive things we can do to help our children be the ones who will shape an even more egalitarian church for the future.

This is where my friend Charlotte (above) comes in.

Charlotte is one of the many young women in my congregation. Just as it was for me, it would probably never cross her mind that women couldn’t be pastors. She has seen a woman preach from the pulpit, celebrate the sacraments, even visit her family in the hospital. Charlotte knows that I have an office in our church (right next to my male colleague’s). Why wouldn’t a girl be a pastor? Girls can do anything.

As she gets older Charlotte will come to understand that this has not always been the case, because Charlotte carries with her an honorable heritage in the Presbyterian Church. Her great, great aunt was the Reverend Rachel Henderlite, a scholar and educator who in 1965 became the first woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of the United States (what we sometimes refer to as the Southern Presbyterian Church). Even though we have told Charlotte many times of this special part of her family history, it will probably be several years before she can really understand the importance of it.

But Charlotte’s education in these matters should not be unique; it should be the model for all of our children if we want them to understand the importance of both women and men serving in leadership in the church. Here are some things to keep in mind:

• It is important to expose children to women in leadership. Obviously not all churches have female pastors, let alone male AND female pastors, but that doesn’t mean that there  isn’t one in your community. If there is another church in your community of your same denomination with a female pastor, consider taking your child to worship there every so often. If that is not an option, participating in ecumenical community worship services can also be a way to show children that women can serve in leadership in the church.

• It is important as children get older to explain to them that not all Christians believe that women should be allowed to be in leadership. While I don’t typically like to use negative examples, I think that this is an important enough issue that it can be one of the examples we use for our children to explain why we have chosen a particular tradition and congregation for our family. Children should know that we don’t just choose a church because people are friendly, but because it is a group of people who, while they may have a variety of opinions on a variety of things, also holds certain beliefs in common – like the full inclusion of women.

• It is also important as children get older to talk to them about passages in scripture that can make this a difficult issue for a lot of Christians. Some day they will read what the Apostle Paul wrote about women, and they are either going to be turned off by the Bible or the church, OR they are going to worry that they have believed the wrong thing about women in the church. This necessitates the hard discussions we have to have with children about how we discern a meaning and a Word that transcends culture and time from a Bible that is steeped in ancient cultural norms and beliefs.

We should be sure to teach both boys and girls the stories of strong and faithful women in both the Old and New Testaments and help them to understand that throughout that ancient history God has called women to lead the community of faith.

It would be the joy of my life to see all of the young women in my congregation grow up to be strong pastors, but I am realistic enough to know that this will probably not happen.

More importantly, I would hope that all of the young women AND men in my congregation grow up to support women in ministry, to serve themselves as leaders in their congregations and to teach their own children to value God’s call to all people.

But just to be on the safe side, I may start working on what I will say at Charlotte’s ordination now.


  1. I need to say two things:
    1. I have recently discovered your blog via a friend's Facebook post, and I am thoroughly enjoying being a follower. You offer such wise and insightful counsel and you express your ideas so well, and I am thankful for your willingness to write this blog.
    2. I work part time as the Director of Communications for the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR), a small, moderate Baptist seminary that was birthed after the Southern Baptist Convention decided officially not to endorse the idea of women's ordination. I just posted a link to this article on our Facebook page because of its relevance to our community, and then I realized I should have asked for your permission. Please let me know if you're not okay with my sharing it. I just thought it was too good not to share.

    1. Jen,

      I am so glad that you have found these things helpful. I am happy to have you link to this post and share it with your folks. Not a problem at all!