Women in Church Leadership and Overcoming Stereotypes

By Patty Prasada-Rao 3-16-2015 | Series:
Female clergy holding a Bible, glenda / Shutterstock.com
Female clergy holding a Bible, glenda / Shutterstock.com

One afternoon I was invited to share my experiences as a woman in Christian leadership — the challenges, joys, issues, struggles and blessings. It felt like those of us sharing were instant, intimate, connected soul sisters. Without knowing each other, and as different as our stories were, the common threads ran deep. We were all women in high levels of leadership in Christian organizations. So why does it still hurt so much? We’ve made so much progress, haven’t we?

After some questions, we reviewed what we would each share from our different perspectives. This would be a heartfelt, sincere, and vulnerable time of sharing. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what happened. The opening question was, “When did you first experience a challenge or issue with your leadership as a woman?” As the first woman began her story, the vulnerable places of her past and present began to flow through tears streaming down her face. And my own eyes welled up and brimmed over. This struck home to the core of my own experience. This is hard. It hurts.

Here are just a few of the barriers we shared about that afternoon. There’s the way that women are looked at differently with respect to their leadership styles. What is seen as strength in a man’s style may be critiqued as aggressive in a woman. When a man’s ego affects his decision-making, rarely is it confronted or dealt with, whereas a woman is called out for letting her emotions get in the way. This feeds the fear for many women leaders that it’s not OK to display any vulnerability. As much as we don’t want to admit it, there is also still a bit of a “good ole boy” way of operating even in Christian organizations that are advocates of reconciliation. To call it out can get one the blame of having a “chip on one’s shoulder” and playing the gender card for personal gain.

Then there are the issues that impact women in different ways surrounding family and personal life. Men can have a family (with a supportive spouse to help) and maintain the rigors called forth for their organizational leadership, while women in the same position constantly have to choose between competing priorities and values. Women are often still the ones called upon for issues at home. And if you are one of those single women at the table, you are called to maneuver the complex relational nuances of working closely with married men, knowing how to maintain your feminine identity, while not being perceived as a threat either to their marital bliss or their protected positions.

Different theological views on women in leadership within the church spill over into other faith-based organizational behaviors and norms, especially when board members or other stakeholders hold a more conservative view than perhaps their more egalitarian staff members. At the same time that there is encouragement for women to take on leadership positions in many Christian organizations, there has been a lack of tangible affirmation and support once they get there. It’s like we’re always on, being asked to prove ourselves, so that the fears of the naysayers don’t come true.

So how do we deal with this? What can help us overcome? The answers may be as varied as the women who sit in these leadership spaces. I don’t pretend to speak for all women in leadership. Some share my perspective and others don’t. That’s OK. We don’t all have the same story.

Probably one of the most important things for me is knowing who I am: a beloved and favored child of the King, made in the image of the perfect One who calls and equips me to reflect that same royalty and honor. This truth needs to be affirmed individually and collectively. We need to read it, journal it, be told it, and see it in action to believe it is true for us.

We also need safe places to process, to share what our experiences are, and to learn from each other. We desperately long for brothers who are trusted and real and appreciate finding those who will believe in us, sometimes even when we don’t believe in ourselves.

If you are a woman in leadership, we need you to help open this conversation up to move toward healing and wholeness, together. If you are a man in leadership or being led by a woman, please listen to what we are trying to say, sometimes directly, and sometimes by what we don’t say, and show us that you care about us tackling this thing together.

What is it that we want, that we long for? We want to know that we matter, that our leadership matters, that we are valued and that you think we are better working together. We want to do this with you. We need each other — we need you. And by the grace of God we will lead better together than alone. For it is when we can experience both male and female leaders that we can more wholly experience the fullness of God.

“ … so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another … ” —Rom 12:5 (ESV)

Patty Prasada-Rao has worked for 20 years in community development, primarily with the ministries of New Song in Sandtown (west Baltimore). She most recently served as COO for the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) and serves on numerous community development boards both domestically and internationally. Patty was born to Indian parents in the U.S. with an extended family network, which instilled in her a strong value for community and what it means to belong together.

Image: Female clergy holding a Bible,  / Shutterstock.com

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