Three summers ago, a talk at Soul Survivor ended with hundreds of women coming forward, many of them weeping. They were responding to an invitation from director Mike Pilavachi to come forward if they felt they had been denied leadership or felt stuck and disempowered simply for being a woman. To the men watching, Pilavachi said, ‘You may be wondering what’s going on, but remember, you have no idea what these women have been through.’ 

The following morning, the mood at the leaders meeting was sombre. Maggie Ellis, now a Christianity columnist, summed it up. ‘I thought we’d come a lot further than that,’ she said. 

Since then, Soul Survivor has made a point of including teaching seminars on the role of women at all their conferences. Pilavachi’s colleague, Ali Martin, who regularly speaks at Soul Survivor, says, ‘We realised that men and women needed a firm biblical foundation, and not just modelling, before they release women into leadership.’ 

So what about the rest of the UK church scene? Women have been ordained in Baptist churches since the 1920s, the Methodist Church since 1974 and the Church of England for 18 years. Did these decisions herald a new era for leading women? Some would say they did. But many others claim that little has really changed, and that the church has a long journey out of the cultural dark ages before women are given the opportunities they enjoy in the secular workplace. 

There are few issues more prickly than women in leadership. This article is not intended to restart the debate about the interpretation of scripture. Rather, in the context of those churches and denominations who have decreed that women can teach and lead mixed congregations, to look at how successful they have been. 

A mixed picture

The picture of how UK women are faring as preachers and church or para church leaders is very mixed. For some, like Ali Martin, leadership came easily. Taking seminars at Soul Survivor evolved gradually into a more upfront preaching role. ‘I tried not to shove the door or sell myself,’ she says. ‘But I was fortunate. Mike [Pilavachi] was a wonderful mentor – he opened them [the doors] for me.’ 

Fellow Soul Survivor speaker, Ness Wilson, who has led Open Heaven in Loughborough, a Pioneer Network church of 250 people, since she was only 22 and single, says she too grew naturally into leadership. ‘I was part of the original church planting team when the leadership team agreed I should lead it. The only opposition I encountered was at my first local ministers’ fraternal. I was the only woman there and asked to leave, because, “This is a meeting for your minister, my dear.”’ 

Women are now vicars of some of the largest Anglican churches – including Rosalyn Murphy at St Thomas’ in Blackpool which has a congregation of 670, and Dianna Gwilliams at St Barnabas’, Dulwich with 470 attenders. Figures for the Church of England show that in 2006 42% of students at theological colleges were female. More women were ordained than men – though many into unpaid posts. The forecast is that by 2010 18% of all full-time vicars will be women. And evidence shows that churches led by women grow at exactly the same rate as churches led by men. 

Yet despite these developments, many women still say they find it difficult to fulfil their calling – particularly in certain areas of ministry. While Sunday School, home groups, and Alpha courses now provide plenty of apparent leadership opportunities, an unconscious conditioning means that preaching, evangelism and management are often seen as the male domain, and unless a man opens the door of opportunity, it remains firmly shut. Being married to a leader can provide that open door, regardless of theological training or ability. So can writing a book. Former ballerina and J John Associate, Julie Sheldon, says she would never have had an evangelistic ministry had her story not been published. But not every woman marries a leader or writes a book – or welcomes being pigeonholed into speaking to women-only events, as so many are. 

Heather Wraight, former deputy director of Christian Research, explains that while there are increasing opportunities for ordained women, for a woman who isn’t ordained little has changed. ‘There are as few women leaders of missions as 30 years ago, when I was with [mission organisation] WEC International. They may be better represented as trustees at board level, but few are department heads – which means they’re unable to gain the experience to go on to become CEOs.’ 

According to Rev Dr David Wilkinson, Principal of St John’s College Durham, the evangelical Anglican colleges find it harder to place women as training curates in evangelical churches. The situation is even tougher for students in non-conformist colleges. Ian Coffey, director of leadership training at Moorlands College, who was converted by scripture and observing women who show evidence of God’s call, ‘from a strongly held view that women cannot be equipped to be leaders to one that accepts that God can [equip them]’, is saddened that some of his female students feel compelled to switch to a denomination that might recognise their calling. ‘This is never without much pain and often considerable misunderstanding. My concern is that women who hit what has been called the stained-glass ceiling are left with a deep dilemma. They have a call from God with gifts and character to match and yet no place to go within their own part of the family of God.’ 

Further to that, many women understand, even if they don’t accept, ‘complementarianism’, a theology that denies them the pulpit, but cannot come to terms with being denied the ability to get on with their job. A university CU recently refused to have the leader of an overseas project speak about opportunities for students in mission, simply because she was a woman. The mission agency complied. It is an extraordinary anomaly in a country where legislation ensures that there are no places in the secular working environment where a woman cannot go or her organisation cannot use her. 

So how does this compare with what is happening in the secular world? It very much depends on the nature of the job. Women now hold 36.9% of the top jobs in the caring professions, but only account for 12.5% of director level positions in British business. And only 19.3% of MPs are female. Nonetheless, with unsurprising exceptions in the judiciary and army, there has been a slow but steady increase in female leadership year on year, since legislation protecting women’s rights was introduced. And women’s influence in the working world is set to increase, as the majority of young people today are brought up believing that there is nothing a woman cannot do. 

Many Christian women already exercise significant leadership in the secular world, for example, Dame Susie Leather, chief executive of the Charity Commission. And some Christian organisations have women leaders, such as Christina Baxter, Principal of St John’s Theological College. The Church Urban Fund has had two female CEOs. But the latter appear to be exceptions rather than the rule, making many Christian women question the future for women called into ministry or management, who are not called to be ordained. 

A game with consequences 

There are far-reaching effects to some of these trends. First, it has been suggested that once consequence is women leaving the church altogether. 

This discrepancy between the greater opportunities for Christian women in the secular world, and the limited expectations many feel in the church may well be a contributing factor to their increasing exodus from the church. Between 1989 and 1998 women accounted for 57% of those lost from evangelical churches. Between 1998 and 2005 the number rose to 65%, predominantly those in the 15-44 age range, and the trend continues. 

Second, even if women remain in the church, some are left feeling hurt and frustrated. Their gifts are not used and their confidence is sapped. 

On the whole, women don’t deliberately put themselves into the lions’ cage of complementarian churches in order to make a point. Being provocative, confrontational or pushy is instinctively not their style. The recent conservative revival has sapped their confidence. ‘Even the most confident-appearing woman can struggle with a sense of low self-esteem,’ says Gretchen Englund, of the Arrow Leadership course. ‘Stemming from her skewed view of God’s acceptance and delight in her, she questions her own worth and doubts who she is.’ 

This ambivalence about pushing themselves forward actually holds women back, says Elaine Lindridge, district evangelism enabler for the Newcastle Methodist District. ‘The church thinks it’s accepting of women in leadership, and it is to a degree. Our difficulty now is pushing the doors of opportunity to work at the higher levels of leadership. This is difficult because most women by natural inclination don’t want to push themselves forward.’ 

A third consequence of the evangelical reluctance to use women as speakers and leaders is a vicious circle, where the majority of women being ordained in the Church of England are liberal in theology, rather than evangelical, (Pulling Out of the Nosedive – Peter Brierley, Christian Research, 2006), confirming many evangelical leaders in their view that women are not suitable leaders. 

Why has this happened? 

So what explanation do we have for these disturbing trends? 

There is no one simple reason why women don’t feel able to live out their calling. It can be historic – a lack of empowerment, encouragement and opportunity in the church; or cultural – the discomfort with a more hierarchical, male leadership structure and pattern of work. It may be a communications and visibility issue – that many networks are hard to penetrate, and current leaders are simply unaware of who is out there. Or it may be personal – when taking time out to care for children or an elderly relative becomes a priority. Here are four more key reasons... 

1. Male leadership models 

Even among denominations and para church organisations that claim to support women in leadership, there appears to be a lack of confidence that they’re up to the job, or perhaps it’s a residual belief that they don’t adhere to the accepted masculine model of authority. 

The church’s cultural model of leadership is very male and upfront says Ness Wilson, which means that women are often unnoticed. ‘Women’s leadership often looks different to a man’s gifting and can be more hidden under a lack of confidence, so senior leaders need to become aware of their ‘people blindness’.’ 

2. Lack of knowledge of women speakers / closed networks 

Amy Orr Ewing, now very much in demand as a speaker explains, ‘At first, no one wants you, then you get known and everyone wants you. They say, “You’re the only woman speaker around.” They simply don’t see the many there are.’ 

3. Lack of visible role models 

A recent Premier Radio poll of the top ten most influential Christians didn’t include a single woman. Baroness Cox and Jackie Pullinger were simply invisible. That has a knock-on effect. For younger women, the lack of visible, female role models is both inhibiting and demoralising.

4. Work and family life 

A recent study of 251 male and female managers, concluded that women contribute to creating their own ‘glass ceiling’. If women believe in themselves, have passion, dogged determination and dedication, and go forward listening to their inner voice without distraction from their retractors, nothing will hold them back. However, women, and particularly Christian women, often have different priorities. Medical director of an NHS mental health trust, Dr Angus Bell, who often speaks on gender issues at New Wine, maintains that while men find their identity in their work, women tend to find it in relationships. Family and friendships may have a primary call on their time and energy – for younger, married women at least. 

Roy Crowne, former director of Youth For Christ, explains, ‘Men go on into management, but women often take a career break to have children and that means paying for maternity leave which is costly for smaller Christian organisations. Then, when they come back, often part-time, they need to regain their confidence all over again. The alternative is a missing generation of women leaders in their forties. So YFC invested in giving women that restart. It’s not easy, but it’s proved worth it.’ 

Where do we go from here? 

• Acknowledge the problem 

Many church leaders believe that more than rhetoric is needed if women are to take their place alongside men in leading the church. First, they say, the church needs to acknowledge an urgent problem. 

‘I think the wider church needs to ask a fundamental question,’ says Ian Coffey, who was on the leadership team of Spring Harvest for ten years. ‘If God doesn’t intend women to share leadership in the Body of Christ why do so many of them exhibit the gifts and qualities laid down in the New Testament and show all the signs of calling that we look for in men?’ 

I am not advocating positive discrimination, which implies a preferential treatment that ignores ability and gifting, rather a commitment to ensure women are given equal consideration for leadership opportunities. ‘When Spring Harvest started, there was a conscious decision, based on theological conviction, that we would give a platform to women who were leaders gifted by God.’ says Coffey. ‘I am pleased that there are an increasing number of women who are given room to exercise their gifts not just at Spring Harvest but at other Christian events.’ 

• Take risks with platform speakers 

Jenny Baker, director of the fast-growing Sophia Network, which seeks to affirm and support women in the Christian workplace, says, ‘Nobody wants to see women taking up positions that they are not equipped for just for the sake of equal numbers. That would be counter-productive. But we need to be aware of the range of reasons women are excluded from leadership and address those that are about discrimination.’ 

Baker regularly challenges events, organisations and publications that have few or no women contributors. She finds that organisers invariably say they want to include more women, but don’t know who to invite. That’s why Sophia Network is looking to use its directory of its 300 plus members as a resource for the church. 

• Brokers and mentors 

Women need ‘brokers’, as Roy Crowne puts it – usually men, who will give women the push they need, apprentice them, and share their platform with them. Being confronted with women who have an obvious gifting for leadership appears to be the most significant way of turning them into an advocate and an enabler. Andrew Watson, Bishop of Aston, says it was Mrs Yu, who leads a church in China that has grown from 20 to 1,400 in around 15 years, that led him ‘to question my formerly limited and restricted understanding of women’s ministry, and then, on returning to the New Testament and writings of men like Professor Howard Marshall, to discover a far more varied and liberating picture than I had initially recognised.’ 

• Creative and accessible models of leadership 

Jo Saxton trained in preaching as a teenager with the Methodist local preaching system. ‘I was very fortunate, but had no idea quite how much until recently. Most women who talk to me share a similar story. They feel a strong call to ministry and leadership, but have no means to test and explore their call. We need creative and accessible models of leadership development within the church. Theological training is only one part of that. We need to give women the opportunity to learn, grow, try, fail and succeed, in the context of ongoing apprenticeship.’ 

Even so, ‘The lack of female role models in senior leadership means some women just have to take a deep breath and pioneer the new ground,’ says Ness Wilson. ‘We can’t do a lot about it, but let’s become the role models for those coming through rather than bemoan the lack of them.’ 

• Flexible models of marriage 

Finally, Wilson believes, we need more flexible models of marriage and parenting if gifted women are ever going to gain the momentum and continued experience in their leadership roles. ‘This requires radical servant, secure leadership from men who are married to female leaders. For example, if a couple has children the husband must consider reducing his work hours, and pick up some of the tasks of running a home if she is to be released into a ministry that might entail evening and weekend work.’ 

And if things don’t change 

Wilson fears that rather than modifying their position on women in leadership, some influential church leaders are becoming more outspoken, which may result in future clashes and hurt for gifted women. 

Some may simply feel threatened by their ability. ‘We have to recognise the diversity of women’s experiences,’ says Baker. ‘We’re not one homogeneous group despite what books like Captivating say. [Captivating is a book by Stasi Eldredge which is a counterpart to her husband’s book on men, Wild at Heart (John Eldredge) which seems to promote a damsel in distress old style view of femininity]. So some women will be able to fulfil their calling to lead, but I fear that many strong, competent, innovative, entrepreneurial women won’t.’ 

And their loss to the church will be immense, says Bishop Andrew Wilson. Whatever their or our theology, the truth is that, in every generation, women lead, pioneer, influence and church plant – and not just because of a lack of men. ‘Might there not be a strong case for putting our placards away for the overriding needs of gospel, and of the lost whom Christ came to save?’ 

Jo Saxton adds, ‘If we say we believe in women in ministry and leadership in church, then we need to be consistent and give them the best opportunity to grow into what God has called them to. But raising up the next generation of leaders never happens without sacrifice. It takes money, energy, time. It shifts our paradigms, and takes us beyond our comfort zones. It may mean we might have to step aside to open the door for another. But then we need to ask ourselves what not raising up a generation of women is costing us, and will cost us.’ 

Resources: – J John’s website provides details of his female associate speakers