I felt called to pastoral and preaching ministry within my first few months as a Christian. I remember being asked to share my testimony at a youth service and being very excited. I already had a lot of experience as a public speaker, so it seemed like a simple request to serve.
I soon learned that the sacred content communicated within the preaching mantle made this completely different to any previous experience I had with public speaking. It also revealed to me that I had a passion and giftedness for this work, because this content immediately mattered more than almost any other ministry I was doing.
However, I was serving within a complementarian church at the time, so I quickly found that I had already hit the glass ceiling of what I could do in the church from the pulpit. I was told that I was a leader, but the spaces I could lead were not suited to my gifts and personality. It was only years later that I finally found myself in a denomination and church that ordained women as equal partners in the gospel, a faith community where I was ultimately encouraged by my pastor to pursue higher theological education and a call to preach.
All along the way, and even now, I faced unique challenges because of my gender and ethnicity that many of my peers in ministry simply do not experience.
During this journey, I have had the opportunity to mentor and coach women who are pursuing credentialing in ministry, all while building competency as pastoral leaders and deepening self-confidence in their own preaching gifts. I have found that so many of us have similar pain points and struggles, and that we all found strength to persevere in knowing that we are not alone.
In that spirit, I want to share some of my learnings from these years. And yes, many of them apply to men in different ways, so brothers, please read too! These words matter whether you read them for yourself, or to support the sisters who are looking to work with you in a spirit of mutuality in leadership and Kingdom unity.
Here are nine lessons for Christian leaders (who also happen to be female):
- To make it long term in this vocation, you need a deep life with God that anchors you. For women in particular, this means you must hold fast in times of attack and questioning regarding your Christian leadership as a pastor and preacher.
I remember when I first started taking concrete steps towards a shift in vocation. Every critical comment and concerned question from my peers at seminary reminded me that I was insecure in my call, uncertain of my next steps, and worried I was making a huge mistake.
While I realize that not every woman comes into seminary with all this baggage (Thank God for this because it means things are changing!), I want to acknowledge that like me, some of you will be tempted to keep revisiting questions God has already answered for you in terms of calling and whether you are allowed to do this work.
If you are not firmly anchored in who you are in Christ, the indifference and outright hostility you encounter will distract you from the truth of who you are. Please take the time you need to not only know intellectually that you are able to do this work, but also to make sure that you have given the Holy Spirit time and space to confirm this vocational call in the deepest places in your soul. Recall the ways God has confirmed this call through others who have discerned with you.
Ultimately, every pastor and ministry leader doing this work needs this kind of connection to the Lord to persevere, whether male or female. Don’t underestimate how important this is to following Jesus into your calling well. Hold on to who you are in Jesus first, and don’t let the work undermine that first love.
- Finding safe, honest community is essential, and it will require real effort.
You will have people that support and encourage you as you pursue your calling to ministry leadership, but this need for support is greater than simply finding egalitarian spaces that allow you to serve God in fullness. You will need to find like-minded women in ministry that will walk with you through many seasons of life and are willing to maintain that connection in spite of distance and jobs.
Initially, you might meet them in seminary spaces or denominational gatherings, but ultimately you are bound to each other in ways that will transcend the resume gaps and never-ending church politics. These are the women that will help you see if you are letting ubiquitous gender dynamics limit you unnecessarily, while giving you honest feedback, encouraging you, discerning with you, learning alongside you, listening to you vent, normalizing your experiences, sharing resources, and the like. Simply put – you need a tribe that just gets it. These are the people who will help you run your race with faithful endurance.
Far too many women I meet struggle to find and maintain these connections because so many things in our lives can fracture these precious relationships: running the household, singleness or marriage, health crises, and being a caretaker for loved ones are all places where women typically carry more of the emotional labor for others in their lives. And let’s not forget the busyness of ministry itself!
It is simply harder for us to get together, but you must prioritize these relationships as you can throughout the seasons, and be gracious to one another when it is hard. Attending common gatherings between Zoom calls can help you have at least one annual, shared touchpoint. If you want to grow in your gifts and vocation, you will need these relationships to counteract the wear and tear of male-dominated spaces.
- Others will not always recognize your gifts or calling.
This is improving (albeit slowly) as more women enter the ministry field because everyone sees more examples of women in ministry, but don’t assume that if you are truly called, that most church leaders will see it, empower you, or make space for you to flourish.
I have been in many ministry circles, and it took years to find someone to encourage me beyond my doubts and toward my calling. As I look back, I realize I was too passive in resolving my questions about my place in God’s kingdom, hoping someone would give me the assurance I could only find with Jesus.
Discernment of your call will not always come with universal or even broad support in many church spaces. Therefore, it is okay if you take longer to discern than men in ministry.
And men, many women in your ministries will need extra encouragement to pursue this holy work. You are pushing against hundreds of years of teaching, history, and dogmatic church culture that speaks to the contrary.
You will have people that support and encourage you as you pursue your calling to ministry leadership, but this need for support is greater than simply finding egalitarian spaces that allow you to serve God in fullness. (1/3) Click To Tweet You will need to find like-minded women in ministry that will walk with you through many seasons of life and are willing to maintain that connection in spite of distance and jobs. (2/3) Click To Tweet These are the women that will help you see if you are letting ubiquitous gender dynamics limit you unnecessarily, while giving you honest feedback. Simply put – you need a tribe that just gets it. (3/3) Click To Tweet
- Give up perfectionism.
Excellence is not perfectionism. In a time of very public and swift criticism, we are even more convinced that perfectionism is truly the standard. Data in multiple studies over the years show that women are more prone to perfectionism.
No one, male or female, can hold ourselves to a standard like that and be effective. And in Christ, there is no reason to do so. We are going to make mistakes and miss the mark. I know that is hard to do when we are on social platforms and so visible, but if we give into perfectionism, it is crippling. Instead, we are called as Christian leaders to a humility that allows us to name our faults, apologize, and move toward repair – and doing so with full confidence to continue to lead afterwards. (Clear exceptions to this are acts of abuse, misuses of power, etc.)
We will not get it right every time, but we can model for our congregations that our authority doesn’t come from our perfection or giftedness but from Jesus himself, demonstrating a leadership that is completely countercultural. If perfectionism is your struggle, take the time to wrestle with where your identity and authority is rooted. Excellence is not perfectionism. Data shows that women are more prone to perfectionism. No one, male or female, can hold ourselves to a standard like that and be effective. And in Christ, there is no reason to do so. Click To Tweet
- Don’t sacrifice too much to keep up with men.
For the clergywomen who are caretakers, or have/want children: You will not regret taking it slower to be more present to your loved ones or your own children. And, for what it’s worth, our male colleagues should maybe think twice about missing large chunks of their children’s lives for seminary or a pastoral career. Sadly, the standard we often measure ourselves against is the standard set for our male colleagues, and that is an impossible standard for many women. For so long, our profession has been intentionally dominated by men alone, which means that the institutions and systems that we are stepping into have been primarily shaped by the preferences, needs, and abundant resources afforded to men. Far too often, this means they have a wife (or mom!) who will pick up the domestic slack at home wherever they need help.
For some women, our seminary experiences might be delayed or interrupted by pregnancy, childcare, or other caretaking responsibilities. We are distracted from assignments by our children’s endless fevers and feedings, doctor’s visits, field trips, and visits to aging relatives. Some of us will need to take semesters off for these familial reasons. During seminary, I sometimes had to bring my kids with me to school. My girls attended so many Hebrew classes that they can still recite some mnemonic devices we learned!
If you are fortunate to have support, that is wonderful. But if you don’t, or if you are unwilling to hand certain things off to others, then don’t! And yet I urge you: Don’t let that stop your vocational development either. Set your own pace, make your own terms, and give time to your loved ones as you see fit. Single or married, our path will likely look different from the men you work with, and it does not mean you are any less gifted for ministry. We will not get it right every time, but we can model for our congregations that our authority doesn’t come from our perfection or giftedness but from Jesus himself, demonstrating a leadership that is completely countercultural. Click To Tweet
- Don’t solely look for mentors; seek to find advocates who will get you in the room as well.
Mentors are crucial and necessary, but at some point in your vocational maturity as a pastoral leaders you will also need advocates – people who will vouch for your name in the rooms when speakers are chosen, and in the circles where hiring recommendations are made. Make sure you make time to network with decision-makers, taking note of those who use their influence to help others, especially women, take their next step.
When you are ready to take the next step in your vocation, don’t be afraid to let those advocates know that you are ready for the next thing, and to ask them to share your name for certain opportunities. Too many women wait passively, hoping that others will notice us and invite us to the table themselves, when what we actually need is to proactively ask our advocates to open doors on our behalf. You might be surprised how many of them will be happy to help. And brothers, we need you again in this area. Who can you advocate for in the next conversation you have with a colleague about filling a vacancy in the pulpit, or giving a keynote address at a conference you love. How can you be an advocate for the gifted and called woman around you?
- You are a trailblazer too, even if you are not the first woman _______ (“Fill in the blank:” pastor on staff, lead pastor, teaching pastor, ordained woman, etc.).
Once again, your path will not look like your male counterparts. Whether it appears this way on the surface or not, you are a trailblazer, even when there are women who went before you.
This is not a point of pride necessarily, but more of a caution that this will be harder for you. Being the second, third or fourth women walking the path of pastoral leadership before you still means there are limited examples ahead of you, so you have to figure out how to navigate the road ahead with your own voice and leadership. With less examples to learn from, this might take you longer than the men you work alongside. Certainly, it will require some experimenting until you become comfortable with your own style of Christian leadership and pastoral ministry.
Whether you like it or not, you are most likely a trailblazer already, or will be one in an area of ministry at some point (Ex: First woman on staff at a particular church, no women preachers with a similar voice, the first of your race/ethnicity in your context, etc.). Give yourself and your teams grace as they adjust and as you find your own footing in new roles. At some point in your vocational maturity as a pastoral leaders you will also need advocates – people who will vouch for your name in the rooms when speakers are chosen, and in the circles where hiring recommendations are made. Click To Tweet
- Share, even when no one is asking you to. It is a form of advocacy.
People will often take your presence for granted. I am not suggesting you constantly emphasize your deepest struggles, but don’t swing to the other extreme either.
Instead, find authentic ways to let the men you work with know what is like for you when clear examples of your unique challenges arise. When you need it, be willing to share what support looks like for you because it usually won’t be obvious to them. They are used to assuming their experience is universal among their pastoral colleagues.
It is exhausting to be a trailblazer, so recognize that certain spaces will require more margin for this labor. This is tiring but holy work.
Brothers who are be pastors and church elders: Please listen to our stories and perspective with real openness. Bearing witness to our challenges shows respect for us as your co-laborers in Christ, and your awareness may help you open more space for other women in the future.
- Make it easier on the women coming up behind you.
Let’s not buy into the scarcity mindset. Let’s show the world a different way. Let’s live like women who believe that their Savior has made enough room for everyone’s gifts. The whole church benefits from more women doing this pastoral work. Therefore, we set aside a self-centered ambition, and instead focus on our gaze upon Jesus, seeking to make it possible for there to be both women and men collaborating in mutuality to make Christ known to all the world.
The whole church benefits from more women doing this pastoral work. Let's seek to make it possible for there to be both women and men collaborating in mutuality to make Christ known to all the world. Click To Tweet
My dear sisters in ministry, you will not regret pushing past all these obstacles even if it takes years, and even if you feel that you are beginning this journey too late in life.
Yes, it is both holy and good for you to pursue the pastoral work you feel drawn to.
And yes, the Kingdom of God also needs your voice.
Sherin Mathew Swift is the Connections and Equipping Pastor at New Life Fellowship, a multiethnic church in Queens, NYC. With a unique perspective as a former atheist and abuse survivor, she has a particular concern for those who have their faith disrupted by trauma and suffering as well as for those who have stagnated in their faith journey. She shares that passion through preaching, teaching, and writing. A lifelong New Yorker, she completed her M.Div at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, and was ordained by the Evangelical Covenant Church in 2021. You can find her on Instagram @sherinswift.