Why Women Don’t Plant Churches (and How to Change It)

This is the third in a series of articles entitled, “Band of Brothers: A Case Study of Church Planting in Boston.”

Previous Articles:

“Godless Land or Revival City? It Depends on Your Theology of Gender”

“Band of Brothers”: The Very Young, Very Male Face of Boston’s Church Planting Movement 

Also, see here for an introduction to the series and here for more on Missio Alliance’s commitment to women in ministry.

It is usually assumed that the only meaningful barrier preventing women from planting churches is theological resistance in some quarters of Evangelicalism. So most effort on behalf of empowering our sisters is devoted to challenging those theological constructs.

But even networks like ours that strongly affirm women exercising gifts and responding to God’s call in all levels of spiritual leadership have struggled to raise up women planters. If we are going to address this problem, we need to go deeper!

It begins when, after generations of excluding women from leadership, young girls see few models of women exercising powerful public spiritual leadership that inspire them to consider such a calling on their own lives.

For that same reason, while sharp young women are aggressively recruited to careers in business, law, finance and science, those same sharp girls are rarely getting challenged by parents or pastors to consider a career in senior pastoral leadership. Sharp, young women are not being encouraged to consider pastoral ministry. Click To Tweet

Of the few highly-qualified women who pursue seminary despite those realities, many will end up at Evangelical seminaries where they are supported by administrators and faculty, but will be surrounded by a vocal, and sometimes aggressive, cadre of fellow students who repeatedly insist that they don’t belong in ministry. That hostile environment prompts some of these gifted women to look for other arenas where their service will be appreciated.

None of those impediments is surprising to anyone reading this article, but recently I have realized that we have created another, more subtle, obstacle that specifically inhibits women from planting new churches.

We have planted 6 congregations, and every one of them has a woman on the pastoral team from day one, but we’ve never had a woman be the lead planter. For a long time I assumed it was just a matter of math: for the reasons outlined above there were relatively fewer women in ministry, so until we address those problems it makes sense that most qualified planters will be men.

But we have been blessed with several female pastors in our network who are very clearly qualified, and whom I lobbied hard to consider planting, yet not one has accepted my persistent invitations. They are happy to serve on pastoral staff, but not as the pioneer of a new congregation in a new place.

Though none have named it directly, through conversation with them I have realized that our modality of church planting is inherently, unintentionally, biased against women. Our modality of church planting is inherently, unintentionally, biased against women. Click To Tweet

While pastoral ministry generally includes elements that are both masculine and feminine, the culture around church planning is decidedly masculine.

Most planting involves sending out a heroic Lone Ranger to beat back the devil and take new territory for the Kingdom. There is value in all these metaphors, but can you see how traditionally masculine they are? It is curious, and convicting, that despite the obvious parallels, we rarely use metaphors from birth, nursing, or raising a baby congregation.

All the emphasis on the individual heroic leader appeals to traditional masculine aspirations more than to traditional feminine ones. Though every individual is unique, female culture in the West has emphasized community over the individuality more often championed by men. Of course both community and individual effort are required for a healthy church plant, but we have unwittingly discouraged women from responding to God’s call to plant by disproportionately focusing on the latter over the former.

Considering these challenges, our network of churches is responding with a few deliberate steps that might turn the tide.

The most obvious is that we’re reconsidering our language and models around planting. We are putting more emphasis on the planting team rather than the individual planter, which we hope may allow more women to envision themselves taking a leadership role within that community of leaders. In addition, we plant churches with far more support than some networks, so that it is done in relationship from beginning to end, rather than sending someone off with a check and a prayer into unfamiliar territory to sink or swim on their own.

In addition, we are trying to address some of the underlying hindrances to women in ministry that we have tolerated for too long. This Spring we recruited eleven sharp high school and college girls from our church who have demonstrated leadership gifts into a paid summer internship specifically designed to cultivate those gifts, and open them to God’s call in the future. Whether they end up serving as pastors, church planters, elders, or in some other way, our assumption is that they will be leaders in their churches for a lifetime!

All summer long they will receive ministry training and serve alongside our pastoral staff while getting special interaction with women already serving in spiritual leadership. Our dream is that some of them will discern a call to seminary, and while there, our network will supply sufficient support to overcome the inevitable opposition they will encounter.

In five years I pray that young girls are seeing more dynamic women exercising pastoral leadership.

In ten years I pray that one of the high school girls now in our leadership development program will plant a church for us.

In fifteen years I pray that we will have to explain why an article like this was ever necessary.

May God make it so.

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