Women in Ministry: Where We Are and Where (I Hope) We’re Going

As a college student, I remember thinking it was strange when I was required to take a course on what I believed to be an issue of the past: women in ministry.  The speaker was incredibly knowledgeable. She gave some amazing examples of how God used women to lead in the Bible. And though I was impressed, I truly had not experienced much opposition as a female pursuing ministry…yet. The home I grew up in was one that didn’t discourage me from pursuing leadership because I was a girl. My parents said they knew I would be a leader from the time I was little, so when I felt a call to ministry at age 14, I was encouraged and supported. During my college years, I was aligned with an incredible movement of churches that were choosing leadership based on gifts and competency without discounting someone based upon gender. So perhaps naïvely, I believed that the world was moving to a better place when it came to women in ministry. But here we are, years later, and I wish I would have taken better notes in that class.

After college, I interviewed for my first worship pastor position, and I will admit that my status as a 21-year-old single female earned me a few strange looks. However, when I entered that position I found a place where I could be both mentored and raised up in ministry. There was an amazing couple that led at the church, and I was able to watch them lead side by side in ministry. I saw them submit to each other. I saw mutual love and respect. I saw her strong leadership being recognized by him in meetings, but I also got to see her serve him in their home. And back and forth it went. Each serving in their gifts. I was propelled forward in my leadership there.  I preached my first sermon there. And I gained a true confidence in my calling and in my ability to lead.

But it still wasn’t easy. Working with people never is. As a young lady, I had to learn what it meant to run an evening band rehearsal full of musicians who were successful businessmen and bosses during the work day. I led both men and women on and off the stage. I had to grow my influence and grow it quickly, unhindered by my gender and my age.  

It was during this formational season that I attended my first conference at Willow Creek Community Church. I was inspired as I listened to a woman named Nancy Beach speak to thousands of people. She was a professional. A writer. An innovator. She was so creative yet so strategic. Nancy had helped to found an amazing ministry and she was also a wife and mother. My 22-year-old self looked at her that day and decided that I wanted to lead people the way that she did. I wanted to grow and serve the church as faithfully as she had.

Over the next several years, I came to learn how rare it was to see a female in a role like this. I had so much respect for churches like Willow Creek and their founding pastor, Bill Hybels, for allowing women to serve the church unhindered by religious formality or tradition. For years I attended their annual Global Leadership Summit, and last fall when they announced Hybel’s successors would be co-ed pastors Heather Larson and Steve Carter I was elated. It seemed like another giant step forward in honoring the giftings in both genders.

But sometimes issues we believe to be in the past rear their ugly heads where we least expect them to.

When Hybels was recently accused of inappropriate behavior toward women in his congregation, I was completely devastated. Crushed, really. I walked around for days with a pit in my stomach. I grieved for all the families involved. I grieved for their church. I grieved for the church at large. And I grieved for women. What would this mean for women in ministry? Who would fight for us now?

My mind swirled with so many questions, and I started to notice other leaders wrestling with these questions as well. Beth Moore’s recent commentary on this issue entitled “A Letter to My Brothers” is a great example.  Male leaders such as Thabiti Anyabwile are posting open letters of apology to women in ministry for years of disrespect and disregard. And, unfortunately, this may not be the last season where myself and other female leaders feel fear or discouragement about walking out our God-given callings.

I long for a day when each woman called to serve the church is shepherded the way I was when I entered ministry. I long for couples to do ministry together the way that Chris and I have been honored to do. I’m a mom to four boys and I want them to be able to serve without being held back, but I also want them to be able to support their future wives in serving in their callings as well.

I close this today with a heart that is still heavy for what is happening in our churches. But I also carry an incredible hope that the church will one day function with the full range of gifts it has had available to it from the beginning. Then maybe, just maybe, this will truly become a struggle of the past.

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Maribeth Dodd

Co-Founder of Brave Worship