Women and Leadership: New Ways of Thinking


Ann Michel discusses how decades of ordination of women has led to progress with regard to the understanding of women’s leadership, but challenges remain.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of women being granted full clergy rights in the United Methodist Church and of women as ministers of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In the Episcopal Church, it has been thirty years since the General Convention voted to approve women’s ordination to the priesthood. These milestones have occasioned celebration, reflection, and reassessment of women’s leadership in the church.

A 2002 Pulpit and Pew Report, Women’s Path into Ministry, summarizes several major studies on clergywomen. Edward C. Lehman, Jr., a sociologist and the report’s author, concluded “the ordination of women is one of the most significant recent developments in American religion, fostering change in churchgoers’ attitudes toward women in leadership and expanding concepts of ministry beyond the local congregation.” But by many measures, equality is still an illusive goal — not only for clergywomen, but for women in denominations still denying them ordination, for lay women in a variety of church roles — indeed for women in all walks of life across the globe.

Despite a rapidly expanding volume of research and commentary on gender and leadership, the subject is still complex and controversial, still conscribed by stereotypes and categorical logic. The issue cries out for new ways of thinking. It is helpful to view changing gender roles through the lens of newer, more inclusive understandings of leadership.

Beyond Stereotypes

The historic male monopoly of official leadership channels left an unfortunate legacy. Effectiveness, decisiveness, competence, and even leadership itself came to be seen as “masculine” traits. Some women have coped by mimicking male-defined behaviors — at the risk of being condemned as “unfeminine.” Others have sought to redefine leadership in terms of strengths traditionally thought of as “feminine” — such as understanding, compassion, and warmth. Both strategies, however, reinforce traditional notions of gender identity. They substitute one set of stereotypes for another. Sexism will persist until we learn to view each woman and each man as a unique individual — a uniquely gifted child of God — not a representative of her or his gender.

Rethinking Leadership

Has leadership itself changed as women have moved into pastoral leadership and other positions traditionally held by men? Hierarchical, “command and control” leadership seems to be giving way to more open, collaborative, interactive styles of leadership. Women are so commonly presumed to be skilled at this type of leadership that it is sometimes labeled “feminine,” and women are credited for making leadership more enlightened.

More cautious thinking, however, may be warranted. It is not surprising that women are thought of as more flexible, collaborative, and interactive. When leadership is tantamount to privilege and power, those dispossessed of authority become adroit at compromise and accommodation. Such is the case in any system elevating one group at the expense of another — such as sexism, racism, or clericalism. Labeling a kinder, gentler form of leadership as “feminine,” while denigrating male leadership as macho and hierarchical, creates yet another set of gender stereotypes.

Yet leadership is changing — not necessarily becoming more “feminine,” but rather more inclusive and more horizontal. Moreover, as Lehman concludes, the increase of women’s leadership in the church has elicited positive changes toward building a more inclusive church.

Changing gender roles are part of a much larger, centuries-long, societal movement toward democracy, freedom, independence, civil rights, human rights, and globalization. This movement — albeit incomplete — has altered attitudes toward leadership. Barbara Kellerman, executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has observed that equality is the dominant ideology of leadership at the beginning of this century — even if not always the dominant practice.

Challenges Remain

Unfortunately, the “glass ceiling” on women’s advancement appears to be still firmly in place — in the church as well as the secular world. While more women are in prominent denominational positions,Women’s Paths into Ministry found that clergywomen serve as assistants longer; rarely are offered “high steeple” churches; and generally receive lower salaries and benefits. And disparities do not necessarily dissipate as women achieve longevity of service.

Equal opportunity for advancement and equal pay for equal work are moral and legal imperatives. Yet serving a larger congregation or earning a large salary does not necessarily indicate superior leadership or more valuable ministry. Kellerman has written that “to the degree that women persist in equating leadership with position, they diminish their role … and belittle their accomplishments.” But recognizing that women’s accomplishments often exceed their rank is little solace when status and position remain our culture’s primary measures of success. What if the church moved our culture toward defining power, success, and status in ways more consistent with the coming reign of God?

In BACKTALK! Women Leaders Changing the Church Susan Willhauck reminds us that the women’s movement is not over. Nor is it to the benefit of women only. With the empowerment of women, restrictive institutional structures and oppressive patterns of thinking are giving way to new, more open ways of being and doing church so that all who are called by God can participate fully in ministry.

Related Resources


About Author

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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