Women in Church Leadership Linda McKinnish Bridges



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participation. In ecclesiastical tradition, the clergy have always ruled the laity, at least in formal, structural ways. The priests held the sacred scriptures and later the pastors mandated their interpretations. The clergy maintained lines of separation from laity through divisions in theological education, language, ecclesiastical garb, even in physical distance between pulpit and pew. The times now are changing. Post-modern people are less inclined to place absolute confidence in the establishment. Leaders are not as effective if removed from the people. The reality is that it is truly the laity who move the Church, not the professionally-trained clergy. The same drive that demands a casually dressed, personally involved, people-oriented CEO also drives the Church to seek leaders who can identify with the average person and involve everyone in the life of faith. Women can do it!

The future Church, likewise, benefits from a leader who is not afraid to share power and information. The behind-closed-door sessions that create an elite based on currency of information cannot be tolerated either in the corporate world in the future Church. Women tend to disperse information, not hoard it for the sake of power. The Church of tomorrow will be energized by a majority of well-informed people, not by a minority of power brokers. Women can do it!

The Church need leaders who know how to enhance the self-worth of others. Clergy folks need to be truly interested in people. A minister who sees the calling as work to accomplish while sequestered in a fine study with God and books will neglect the fullness of ministry. On the other hand, the minister who loves being with people and who can inspire people with their words and rituals are more likely to experience happiness in the ministry. Women can do that!

The Church needs leaders who can energize people. The Church exists for the people, not just to provide a career ladder for professional ministers. The future Church will not be a launch pad for building a clergy career but will be a place where a community of faith comes alive in egalitarian ways. Community rather than career building will be the future focus of church leaders. And women can do it!

What must we as women do? One, we need to find personal healing for the wounds of the past. The places of pain that we as women have experienced from the Church and the injustices of the past can be transformed into places of power as we prepare to lead alongside men in the future Church. In the fall of 1997 I took a spiritual pilgrimage to Glendalough, Ireland, the site of a sixth-century monastic settlement of St. Kevin. In that far away place, where pilgrims had been traveling for centuries, I understood the need for healing. I approached the women's church of the settlement, located at the corner of the boundaries of the community where the sheep continued to graze around the small Celtic cross stones marking the graves of the unbaptized babies. The sun was going down around the Wicklow mountains of Ireland as I circled the women's church maybe as many as thirty times. While walking and praying, I began to remember each place of gender injustice experienced in my own twenty-five years of ministry within the Southern Baptist Convention. I walked, I cried, I wailed. Finally I entered the church, aware that it held for me sanctuary and the beginning of healing. As I faced the altar, as many women of many, many years had done, I prayed that those places of pain would be transformed into places of power, for God's sake and mine. Writing this article is a part of that healing process. Where the next place of healing will be, I do not know. But I do know that many of us have become immobilized, bitter, and traumatized by the domination system of organized religion. And to serve the future Church well, we need to find healing.

Second, we need to continue learning.41 Research shows that women have a natural tendency for good leadership for our culture in the next century. Rightly so, for we have been negotiating the needs of our families throughout the years. Susie wants pizza; John wants tacos; baby Jane just wants a cracker, but all at the same time. And we have had to find a way to affirm all, provide for all, and at the same time make wise decisions for our time and our budget. Women are natural leaders. But often we are unsure of our abilities. In the class, "Women and the Church," that I offer at the seminary, a young woman was having great difficulty with a written assignment in the course. She had been asked to write a paper on a significant woman in her journey of faith. The student called me on the phone, distraught, for the assignment deadline was close at hand. "Professor Bridges, " she said, "I cannot think of one significant woman in my life. I can name so many men. I am not sure that women have really ever made significant contributions." I listened carefully, and then replied. "Perhaps what you are feeling is that you truly do not think that you can make any significant contributions to the life of faith." Her long pause and the sound of tears gave her response. She was painfully learning that women can serve the Church. She was also learning that even she might have something to offer.

Women will need to continue studying and reflecting. Intentional reading in leadership studies and analyses of power relations will be important. An understanding of the evil dimension of exploitation and power, yes, even in the Church, will need to be explored. A new understanding of the functions of Church will be requisite. To serve a community of faith with the freedom of woman's style of leading will mandate that you become an astute observer of social change. Women will be leading in that "not-yet" moment, when resistance to women's ways of leading will still be in force while new paradigms for Church and women will be emerging. Hang on, because there are better days ahead if we are prepared.

Third, women will need to develop a spiritual attentiveness to the matters of family and church community. What we learn from the failures of the brothers is that the family must not be neglected in order to save the world. As women, we are placed in a fragile role, belonging to both private and public spheres. The challenge is there, however, for a more realistic approach to ministry to emerge from women's leadership in the Church. We must attend to the needs of the "domestic church" first. The nurture of the home must not be neglected. The dichotomy between Church and home needs to be blurred, and women can do that for the future Church and future family.

Barbara Mossbery writes that "leadership entails getting people to support an idea, a purpose, or a mission so that a system as a whole can move forward (or remain balanced)."42 Women need the Church, and the Church needs women. Our role now is to lead on in a new reformation of church structure, religious imagination and expression, so that the community of faith can continue to find meaning in the next millennium. We can do that!



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1Carolyn Osiek, "The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives," Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, ed. Adela Yarbro Collins (Chico, CA.: Scholars Press), 97.

2Read the troubling yet inspiring journey of Sue Monk Kidd, a Baptist daughter, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine (San Francisco, CA.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). Read a woman's account from a Presbyterian perspective in Joanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, Reformed and Feminist: A Challenge to the Church (Louisville, KY.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991).

3Hear the pain of a Catholic sister as she describes the religious hierarchy in theCatholic tradition, as evidenced in the treatment of women present at Vatican II in Carmel McEnroy's, Guests in Their Own House: The Women of Vatican II (New York: Crossroad, 1966). McEnroy, who taught theology at St. Meinrad School of Theology, was fired from teaching in 1995 on charges of "public dissent" from magisterial teaching with regard to women's ordination. Consequently, St. Meinrad was censured by the American Association of University Professors in 1996. Read of her account of this tragedy in the postscript to her book, 273-279. Other stories of women who have responded to the religious system by remaining within the structure are available and many have yet to be told.

4Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the Krister Stendahl Professor of Scripture and Interpretation at Harvard University Divinity School, made the comment as part of the opening remarks in the lecture, "Discipleship of Equals: Realizing a Vision," presented at the Women in Church and Ministry Conference, March 4, 1996, sponsored by the Center of Continuing Education at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.

5E. Glenn Hinson, "The Church: Liberator or Oppressor of Women?" Review and Expositor 72 (1975): 19-29. I am thankful for my colleague, Professor Glenn Hinson, who read various stages of this article and made helpful comments. Hinson contends that there are positive remains of the roles of women in early Christianity in the diaconate, perhaps connected with widows. During the late second century, the slave woman Blandina was listed as a minstra, or diakonos, in 177 C.E. Perhaps this is one reason, according to Hinson, for regarding 1 Timothy 3:11 as a reference to women deacons.

6Lydia, a colleague of Paul's and a successful business woman, was responsible for the work of the Philippian church, as well as the conversion of her whole household. See Acts 16:11-15, 40. To identify this moment in time when the Church was young and open to the leadership of women, I have coined the term, "the Lydia phase." Although the time was brief, the role of women church leaders was significant. Others who led the church during this time were Phoebe, perhaps as pastor of the church in Cenchrea; Priscilla, leader in Corinth and theological teacher of Apollo; Junia; and others listed in Romans 16. The presence of these names given in the New Testament also suggests the possibility that there were even more women leaders whose records are no longer available to us. The moment is over, however, when the early church moves toward the end of the century. As bishops, pastors, and evangelists are given job descriptions in the Pastoral Epistles, the roles for women leaders are denied. The leadership of the early church becomes a thoroughly masculine one, with even stronger support in the writings of later church leaders, such as Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, and others. By 100 C.E., the "Lydia phase" is over, with a few exceptions as Hinson indicates in the above note.

7Sally Roesch Wagner, "Elizabeth Cady Stanton Thunders from the Pulpit." A "Sermon" Taken Entirely from the Writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and delivered by Sally Roesch Wagner with the Great Plains Chautaugua, Summer, 1988 (Yankton, SD: Sky Carrier Press, 1988), 23-25. See also Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Three Essays on Woman, the Bible, and the Church and The Woman's Bible (Chicago: H. L. Green Publisher, 1895). I contributed a short synopsis of "The Women's Rights Convention" and "The Women's Christian Temperance Union" in Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States, ed. George Shriver and Bill Leonard (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1997). 507-8; 505-7.

8Individuals can supply their own illustrations of early stages of organizational structure where women have been full participants and then excluded from participation at a more bureaucratic level. Another stellar example in Southern Baptist life is the history of the First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas. The church began in the home of a faithful, praying woman who in the present life of the church's structure could not serve as a leader, not even preach in the pulpit. Another prominent Southern Baptist leader, Dr. Charles Stanley, publicly acknowledges the influence of a woman evangelist on his own conversion. However, women are absent from the formal roles of leadership in First Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.

9Frank and Evelyn Stagg's Woman in the World of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) was one of the earliest contributions to the discussion of women around Jesus. The book remains an excellent resource for personal reading, small group discussions, or college or seminary bibliographies. See also Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, The Women Around Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 1980) and Joseph A. Grassi, The Hidden Heroes of the Gospels: Female Counterparts of Jesus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1989).

10I am indebted to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's ground-breaking work, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins (New York: Crossroad, 1983), where I first began to see the important leadership roles of women in the Pauline mission.

11Ibid., 161.

12Ibid., 286.

13Ibid., 315.

14As I write this article I am on sabbatical leave from the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, where I have been researching the role of women in early Celtic Christian tradition. Travels to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales complemented by fascinating volumes of reading have increased my understanding of the important place that early Christian movements gave to women. I am most indebted to the following authors and their works: Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland (San Francisco: Harper, 1989); Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995); Marcus Losack and Michael Rodgers, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: The Columba Press, 1996).

15Sheela-na gigs are stone carvings of naked female images posed in a manner that exposes the vulva, and were placed on many churches before and during the medieval period in Ireland. References indicate that they were highly regarded, revered images that were held in high esteem within the religious iconography of the earlier church. Later the church banned the images and were placed on castles to serve as good luck charms. See Jack Roberts and Joanne McMahon, The Sheela-na Gigs of Britain and Ireland: An Illustrated Map/Guide ( Dublin, Ireland: Bandia Pub. Co., 1997).

16Anthony Duncan, The Elements of Celtic Christianity (Britain: Element Press, 1992), 12.

17Robert Van de Weyer, Celtic Fire: The Passionate Religious Vision of Ancient Britain and Ireland (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 2.

18Anthony Duncan, The Elements of Celtic Christianity (Great Britain: Element, 1992), 12-13.

19Ellis, 1.

20 See Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman, 1979), 42.

21Bill J. Leonard, ed., Dictionary of Baptists in America ( Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 182. Sachiko Sakamoto, M.Div. student at the Baptist Theological Semnary at Richmond, shared her research regarding the Baptist preacher woman, Martha Stearns Marshall, in an unpublished paper prepared for her class in Church History, "The Leadership Model of Martha Stearns Marshall," (May 1996).

22W. L. Lumpkin, "Baptist Foundations in the South", in Colonial Baptists and Southern Revivals ( New York: Arno Press, 1980), 23.

23Robert M. Semple, History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia (Richmond: Robert M. Semple, 1810), 375; W. L. Lumpkin, "The Role of Women in 18th Century Virginia Baptist Life," Baptist History and Heritage, 8 (July 1993): 163; George Washington Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists, vol.1 ( Raleigh, NC.: Edwards and Broughton, 1955), 289.

24I am indebted to the present pastor of Abbots Creek Missionary Baptist Church in High Point, North Carolina, the Reverend Roy Cantrell, for several conversations and copy pages from the church's historical collection.

25 McBeth, 43. In order to embrace the good old time religion of the Sandy Creek tradition, where evangelism and uninhibited styles of worship are featured, one must also be open to women as full participants in the life of the church. Celebrations such as those that are held annually on the campus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which attempt to honor the Sandy Creek tradition, are not honoring the authentic Separate Baptist movement unless women are allowed to preach and assume roles of leadership during that week of seminary festivities.

26Catharine B. Allen, A Century to Celebrate: History of Woman's Missionary Union (Birmingham, AL: WMU, 1987).

27Ibid., 31.

28Catharine B. Allen, The New Lottie Moon Story (Nashville: Broadman, 1980).

29 Read Loren Mead, Five Challenges for the Once and Future Church (Bethseda, MD.: The Alban Institute, 1996).

30Judith Rosener, "Ways Women Lead: The Paradox of Gender," Lecture presented at the Images of Leadership Conference: Third Annual Conference for Women in Leadership, Sponsored by the University of Richmond Women's Resource Center, May 18, 1994.

31Stephen M. Brown, "Male versus Female Leaders: A Comparison of Empirical Studies," Sex Roles 5 (1979): 607.

32Judy B. Rosener, "Ways Women Lead," Harvard Business Review (November/December 1990): 119.

33Ibid., 120.

34Sally Helgesen, The Female Advantage: Women's Ways of Leadership (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 238-9.

35Jean Baker Miller, Toward A New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 83-97. Read also Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice" Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), 24-63.

36Sharon McDade, "Gender and Leadership Theory," Paper presented at the Institute for Emerging Leaders in Higher Education, November 8-11, 1997, University of Maryland University College Conference Center.

37See Estela Bensimon and Anna Neumann, Redesigning Collegiate Leadership (Baltimore MD.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). These authors provide a new set of paradigms for the successful management and functioning of institutions of higher education in the twenty-first century. Some of their assumptions are as follows: (1) Leadership is a collective rather than individual action; (2) A new metaphor of culture emerges that enables us to view communities of learning as relational and interpretive webs of meaning; (3) Leaders think in complex ways about leadership teams, valuing the utilitarian that helps develop a sense of rationality and control, encouraging the expressive, which develops community building and bonding, and helping shape the cognitive, which enables the group to act as a corrective and creative system. Leadership teams become the integral hub of organizational life. The leader, therefore, must possess the following traits: The ability to understand the subjective experiences of others, to share and connect, to be critical, to reflect and learn through reflection.

38Quoted by Connie Glaser and Barbara Steinberg Smalley. Swim With the Dolphins (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 303.

39Paula D. Nesbitt, Feminization of the Clergy in America: Occupational and Organizational Perspectives (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1977).

40I discovered a new work while completing the last stages of this manuscript. Read the research of Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia M.Y. Chang, "Women, Men and Styles of Clergy Leadership," Christian Century 115 (6 May 1998): 478-80, 482-6. Their work, which offers a hopeful future for women's leadership styles in the church is fully presented in their newly published work, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

41Read Carole E. Beck, Leading Women; How Women Can Avoid Leadership Traps and Negotiate the Gender Maze (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

42Barbara Mossberg, "A Prescription for Global Leadership," Educational Record (Fall 1993): 49-54.

*Linda McKinnish Bridges is Professor of Old Testament and Greek at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Richmond, Virginia, and is issue editor of this issue of the Review and Expositor.








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