Making the Shift: A Roadmap to Full Inclusion of Women in Church Leadership (Part One)

Editor’s Note: This week marked the launch of Rob Dixon’s book Together in Ministry, which is part of the Missio Alliance/InterVarsity Press partnership line and offers a prophetic roadmap for individuals and communities as they seek to develop flourishing ministry partnerships for women and men. We are honored to feature Rob and April Fiet today in our Writing Collectives as they share a number of ideas and examples reflected in Rob’s book. Part One of this article appears below; Part Two can be found here.

On April 17, 2016, the elder board of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship, a prominent church in the Dallas area, took the stage during their Sunday service to announce that the church was shifting its theological position to permit women to serve as elders. To be specific, they announced:

After careful study, reflection, discussion, and prayer, we have unanimously come to the conclusion that God is calling us to be a community of faith committed to conservative theology and a community where women gifted by the Spirit experience no limits or restrictions on their service. We joyfully agree to invite women to share leadership as elders.

This announcement wasn’t made lightly. Instead, it followed a deliberate and extensive process, one that featured (among other components), a full year of contemplation and exploration on the part of the elder team. In the words of one of Bent Tree’s elders, “Some decisions we make come at the end of a very long, rigorous journey that we go through and ultimately take great courage and faith to make, and this was certainly one of those.”

Plenty of churches have attempted to make a similar theological shift, moving from some form of a complementarian theological understanding to an egalitarian one. But one challenge for these churches is that there is no existing roadmap for making such a shift.

We want to propose a roadmap that churches and organizations can use as they consider a theological shift from complementarianism to egalitarianism. Our work is based on focused interviews with leaders from congregations or organizations who have successfully made the pivot, and we have discerned five steps that communities can make as they seek to shift their theological position and practice regarding women in leadership. These steps are as follows:

In part one of this article, we will explain the first two steps in this process; the remainder will be covered on Friday. Our hope is that this roadmap in its entirety will serve as a resource for churches and organizations who aspire to make this shift.

Identify a Catalyst

The change process begins with a catalyst. For Bent Tree, the process of theological reevaluation began with two different catalysts: one that took place below the surface over time, and the other that arose because of the church’s core values. First, Bent Tree’s senior pastor, Pete Briscoe, had been nudging the church in an egalitarian direction for his entire tenure, some 25 years. Briscoe’s leadership and encouragement created adaptive, long-lasting change over the course of many years. Second, the church’s stated value for shared leadership bumped up against the church’s espoused theology that women could not serve as elders. The friction between the church’s stated value and their espoused theology necessitated a change. These two catalysts converged and sparked Bent Tree’s process of theological discernment, which resulted in their dramatic pronouncement in April of 2016.

In change processes, catalysts are crucial. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky wisely note that changing “the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves.” In other words, the change process disrupts the way a congregation sees and understands itself, and this process is often painful or uncomfortable. For that reason, many congregations and organizations resist this kind of process until a force―or catalyst―prompts the process to begin. Just like Newton’s first law of physics holds that an object in motion will continue on that same path until it is acted upon, many congregations will continue on in one direction until something happens to change the course.

In many cases, the catalyst for change is a leader with a strong egalitarian conviction. Other times, the change comes about when a discrepancy is noticed between values and practice. Still other times, the change process begins when a congregation cannot deny the giftedness and calling of someone in their midst. In the case of one congregation, a woman was elected and installed as a deacon, even when the senior pastor was not in favor of women in leadership. Members in the congregation engaged in a change process because the presence of gifted women in their midst clashed with their theology excluding women from church leadership. The catalyst provides the energy for the change process, which is why we need to make sure we care well for catalysts in terms of support and encouragement.

Leadership teams and congregations making the shift toward the full inclusion of women in leadership can care for, nurture, and heed the voice of the catalyst by listening to understand. Listening to understand is an active posture of listening that asks questions for clarification rather than making judgments. Another way to heed and support the voice of the catalyst is by making space for their voice or voices to be heard. A third way to support the catalyst is to provide them with a system of pastoral care. By encouraging these important voices, you can fan the flame of the spark created by the catalyst so it will ignite. Then it is time to gather the leaders. Leadership teams and congregations making the shift toward the full inclusion of women in leadership can care for, nurture, and heed the voice of the catalyst by listening to understand. Click To Tweet

Gather the Leaders

Bent Tree harnessed the energy of their twin catalysts and launched into the second step in their process, gathering their leaders. The church’s all-male elder team spent an entire year studying the relevant texts and periodically gathering to compare notes. Toward the end of that year, each elder prepared a written assessment of what they thought the Bible’s message was regarding women in leadership. When they gathered to share their findings, the group was unanimous; there would be no office of the church off-limits to women. Each elder prepared a written assessment of what they thought the Bible’s message was regarding women in leadership...the group was unanimous; there would be no office of the church off-limits to women. Click To Tweet

In this second step of the roadmap, the process takes a more formal turn. In response to the catalyst’s energy, the leadership of the church intentionally takes up the question of the church’s theological position on women in leadership. For the majority of the churches surveyed, this step happened at the very beginning of the church’s discernment process.

In several cases, it was the church elder board that took on this part of the process. As noted, the elders of Bent Tree spent an entire year in theological reflection. In another case, a pastor set up a church-wide task force to study the Scriptures on this topic. Reflecting on her experience on such a task force, one leader noted the importance of having a carefully-curated roster of participants, a clear vision/purpose for the group, established ground rules for how the group would operate, and effective facilitation.

During their times of discernment and reflection, leadership communities can use a variety of resources in their exploration. Several interviewees referenced books they had read as a leadership community; in some cases teams brought in outside experts to share their interpretations, and everyone interviewed discussed the importance of ample time to explore the Bible on this topic.

One question at this step in the process revolves around whether the larger congregation should be made aware that this leadership group is intentionally studying this topic. The choice to include the congregation could be beneficial, as congregants are able to pray for and support the leadership’s process. At the same time, this inclusive choice might create undue pressure, as impatient or opinionated congregants might bring strain to the process.

In addition, choosing to keep the process contained to just the leadership team could result in more freedom for the team to have an open and unhurried experience. On the other hand, pursuing this process in secret can result in some awkward dynamics once the leadership team makes its decision. Looking back, several leaders lamented how the secretive nature of the process engendered a loss of trust with the congregation when the decision was ultimately announced.

In trying to determine whether to bring the congregation into the process at this stage of the roadmap, leaders might consider the following questions:

  • What is your past history around processes like this? How might that history inform your decision?
  • Do you have an espoused value for openness and transparency? If so, that might be an argument for full disclosure.
  • Who has a stake in this decision? For example, if a leadership team is discerning a direction, will staff members who are not on this leadership team be left in the dark or included in the process?
  • Given the size of the church, would it make sense to go broader quicker?

Whether this second step in the process is public or not, the key feature is establishing a safe space for the church’s leadership community to hear from God. At some point, they will be ready to move to the third step in the roadmap, declaring a decision, which is where we will pick up in part two of this article on Friday.