Two years ago, I sat in a tense meeting concerning the future of my seminary and who would represent the faculty. I sensed the group consensus turning in my direction. I, the untenured junior colleague, mustered the courage to turn down the position. “We are all feminists!” I declared. “I trust you and I need one of you to speak for me, for our female students—for all of us.”

I risked a great deal when I said no. My colleagues were trying to value the one female faculty member among them. They could have interpreted my refusal as a rejection of responsibility. I valued my colleagues all the more for believing me when I said that in this situation, the most empowering action would be to have a well-respected male represent me. We chose someone else, who promised to use his seniority for the good of women in ministry and the school. We negotiated gender dynamics to advocate for the more vulnerable among us.

Congregations are full of gender dynamics. Gender dynamics are social power dynamics. There’s no denying or escaping them. We must rearrange and negotiate.

Congregations are social organizations, where people exchange resources and power as they join together in Christian faith and action. We find these dynamics embedded in biblical metaphor for Christians as connected limbs of the body and fellow citizens. We find these dynamics in Baptist tradition when congregants call each other “Brother” and “Sister,” and when a congregation gathers to ordain a minister. Laying on of hands confers social power as much as it spiritually blesses, as the church says, “we recognize gifts in you, we authorize you to lead us and other Christians, and we trust you to represent God and us in your work.”

Supporting women in ministry requires social empowerment. To call her pastor declares her social power. True empowerment provides the female pastor with the necessary opportunities, resources, and evaluation for her leadership within the congregation.

Empowering women is not always straightforward, however. Social power is complicated. Power can be hidden, obvious, dominant, or sacrificial. Some power forms are unhealthy or abusive. Good social negotiation uses a good and right form of power for each particular issue, decision, or relationship. No two situations are alike, and no two female pastors are alike. Women need a voice in the creation and implementation of social empowerment policies and actions, because they experience the gendered social power that helps or hinders them.

There are four significant arenas for social empowerment of women in ministry: the cultural, the organizational, the ministerial staff, and the personal.

Women in ministry need support from the congregational culture in both big decisions and everyday actions because female ministers are statistically rare birds who encounter surprise, confusion, and disapproval wherever they go. It is important to normalize her status as a professional leader by putting her appropriate title by her name on her office door, in bulletins, and on nametags, and by using that title when speaking about her and to her. Appointing congregational women to leadership positions, like personnel or finance committee chair, grows cultural awareness and respect for female leadership across the church political structure. Regularly inviting women to lead worship, preside over Communion, and preach while the senior pastor and other church leaders are present powerfully signals the respect due to women in the pulpit.

Support and advocacy for women in ministry should occur on the organizational level too. Search committees need to learn how to find female candidates, and re-imagine what qualifies as experience, leadership, and good fit. Embrace the possibility of calling a woman for the next hire too, because employing one female as minister does not balance the scales. When hired, women should be given equal pay and clear guidelines for continuing education allowances, vacation, and sabbatical plans. Policies need to be written for parental leave and work-hour expectations adjusted to fit the reality of ministry. Specific processes need to be developed for the evaluation and promotion of all ministers.

It’s intensive work, but cultural shifts and organizational policies such as these help form a social atmosphere of trust. They also guard against second-generation gender bias that prioritizes masculine leadership and leaves women in the likeability-competence bind.

Ministerial staff relationships are a third critical place to build supportive structures. Across denominations, few women feel they have an empowering working relationship with their male senior pastor or co-pastor. Friendliness toward your female colleague is nice, but it means nothing if she is not allowed input in major decisions, confronted about mistakes with respect, defended in public and private, and deliberately included whenever unofficial business and networking occurs. Please read Rev. Andrea Roske-Metcalfe’s extensive list of what to do and not do.

A woman in ministry also needs personal support that respects her full identity. Whatever your gender, do not talk to her as if she is your child or your sister. Do not call her cute, criticize her attire, or give unwanted physical affection. Address your own unexamined issues and well-intentioned mistakes through your friendship with her. Find ways to advocate for her when you see others act inappropriately. Realize she needs you to do the hard work of dismantling bias too.

Social empowerment respects women’s authority, trusts their decisions, and appreciates the change they bring to the congregation. Women in ministry cannot be the only voices. We need to trust you, and we need you to speak up for us, for other women—for all of us. We need everyone to be feminists.

Dismantling second-generation bias and getting used to the presence of women in ministerial leadership takes some difficult conversations and concrete policy changes. In this series of blogs, Lauren McDuffie and I will try to prepare the way. We’ll talk about why the issue of women in ministry still needs to be discussed. We’ll provide possibilities for supporting women once they are ministers so that they can develop their gifts and style as leaders of your congregation. We’ll also confront some of the barriers from a female perspective, and offer advice about what women can do to help themselves.

We would like to hear from you. If you have any stories or questions for us, please email us.

Laura Levens is assistant professor of Christian Mission at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. Email:

Lauren McDuffie is the associate pastor of Morehead Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky. Email: