Advice for women considering full-time or paid ministry
I was recently invited to speak on a panel for women considering going into vocational ministry.
They asked me for my top piece of advice for women, but once I started thinking about it, I couldn’t stop. So here instead is my 1 don’t, and 10 do’s, for women contemplating vocational ministry.
Don’t evaluate your godliness, giftedness, or calling, by yourself.
In my experience, women tend to think they are less godly and gifted than they actually are.
This is a pattern I’ve observed over a number of years in ministry, but one particular conversation highlighted that for me in an especially stark way. I was talking to a lay leader within our church, discussing some challenges she was facing in her ministry. I asked her what she thought she was good at in her role. She struggled for a bit, named one thing, and then paused again, and then continued on: ‘I guess the other things I’m not good at are…’ and went on to list a fairly extensive (and I think, ungenerous) list of her weaknesses in leadership. She’d barely gotten one positive quality out before her brain switched her into critical territory, where she found an abundance of self-critiques, all nicely lined up for her!
This was certainly my own experience considering ministry. I looked at the people around me, and I didn’t feel anywhere near as godly or gifted as them, so I felt ridiculous and even arrogant for even entertaining the idea of going into vocational ministry.
What made a difference for me was talking through those concerns with people I trusted: my leaders and mentors and friends.
Based on the advice of a long-term ministry leader, I also gathered a group of people to pray for me regularly over a few months, and to tell me if they thought I shouldn’t pursue ministry. I cannot recommend doing this more highly.
1.Gather a 360 degree team around you. Ministry is not a solo sport, and because of the particular challenges that women face in ministry, you’ll need a team of people around you supporting you. Here’s what I recommend:
People to learn from and look up to.
A coach. Look for a coach in a particular area you want to grow in (I have a preaching coach and it’s enormously helpful for me). This keeps you developing as a leader, and it communicates that your leadership is worth investing in. Approaching someone for this can be scary but it’s worth it.
A mentor. I hope the benefits are obvious, but if you experience doubt about your ministry or character, a mentor who knows you well is perfectly placed to encourage and spur you on (and challenge and rebuke you lovingly).
A model. Models are the people we don’t necessarily know all that well, but whose life and ministry we admire. You have to pick these carefully – anyone can fake anything – but a well-chosen model can offer you an inspiring picture of what you can be and do for the kingdom of God. For me, my ‘model’ is an older single woman who I see living a joyful and generous life in her singleness. She’s confident, open, and she involves other people to support her. She models to me what strength looks like – it’s a lot more like interdependence than complete independence.
Peers to share with and learn from.
Be on the lookout at Bible college or in other ministry contexts for other ministry people to commit to long-term. Hearing from other people at similar stages in ministry will help you to see that there are some challenges that nearly everyone pursuing vocational ministry will face, and it will also help to highlight that there’s a great variety to how people can experience full-time ministry. Commit to some kind of intentional, regular-ish way of supporting one another. For me, it was wine and cheese nights (and prayer) with my Bible college friends. Even just knowing that I have one of these nights in my calendar helps to sustain me – I know I’ll have a space to share openly and to encourage and be encouraged.
Alongside that, maintain key and close relationships with Christians who are not pursuing full-time ministry. This will help you to see that godliness and faithfulness can be lived out in other vocational contexts, which should keep you from idolising ministry or becoming proud.
People you’re raising up. Helping other people take their next steps in ministry is a good thing in and of itself. But it can also help you – having to help someone else reflect on what they are finding difficult and joyful and having to offer something useful to them in response helps to reveal and refine your ministry approach.
2. Develop your relationship with God. Know God as your friend, brother, father, vindicator, healer, guide, comforter, Lord.
Ministry can be lonely and hard. And there are particular challenges to being a woman in ministry alongside that. To be prepared for those challenges, you’ll need to know how to seek comfort in God (before you seek it in alcohol or shopping or something else). When I feel sad that I have few ministry models to look up to, I thank God for the Holy Spirit, who guides and inspires me. When I feel lonely because I know confidential information that I can’t really share with anyone, I thank Jesus that he is my brother whom I can talk to about it. When someone is rude to or dismissive of me in a ministry context, I ask God to be my vindicator.
3. Know your gifts. This includes knowing some fairly niche strengths, not just the usual spiritual gifts list (though, of course, this is important!) I recommend doing the StrengthsFinder test to check out another way of thinking about your gifts. Thinking about ministry from the perspective of gifts alone is not actually that helpful – all of us have to do things that we don’t feel particularly gifted at and that’s okay. But knowing your gifts enables you to be wise in how you steward your time, how you discern how your role is affecting your energy and mood, how you advocate for job description adjustments, and what roles you pursue. If you’re a woman who either despairs at her (apparent) lack of gifts, or who worries about being proud or arrogant in relation to this topic, here is a basic truth to come back to: absolutely every Christian has gifts! You didn’t get skipped on gifts day. And because of that, it’s not arrogant to discern or notice them.
4. Know your place. In other words, work out what your unique contribution is. This is more context-specific than working out your gifts. It’s working out how the person God has made you to be – the mix of gifts, strengths, personality, experience you have, as well as your gender – how that contributes to the context you’re in. For example, I am a quick and strategic thinker. Knowing this helps me to recognise when I need to speak up in a staff meeting where conversation is stalling and people seem uncertain about what to do next. I know! This is important because when women evaluate their ministry potential, they tend to think of themselves as interchangeable – ‘someone else could do that job just as well, if not better than me.’ Knowing your unique make up helps you to see the particular, and unique, contribution that you make in a ministry context. That might be hard to figure out. Again, don’t try and figure it out by yourself. Ask people: how do you see God using me? What do you think I do that other people don’t, or don’t quite as easily/well/naturally? Where can I contribute best? Ask God to reveal these things and remind you when you need the encouragement the most.
5. Know what women can do and why. Women in ministry is a contested issue. I’m not advocating for a particular reading of the relevant Bible passages here, only that you need to work out what you think they say, and be prepared to explain it. Be clear about what you can hold in good conscience. Even if no-one ever asks you to defend the position you hold, being clear within yourself will help you wholeheartedly pursue the things you believe are biblically open to you.
6. Work out how to work with men. My conviction is that God has made us for ministry partnership – for both men and women doing whatever they can, together, for the kingdom of God. However, the reality is that most ministry contexts will be predominantly staffed by men, and will have been shaped (in their culture, practices, etc.) by men. This affects the sorts of conversations that happen over lunch, the way meetings are conducted, what is valorised, what is affirmed, how communication happens. I’ve had to learn a different way of communicating my ideas and opinions within staff meetings, in order to be heard. And I’ve worked hard at communicating (ideally, but not always, with grace and clarity) with the guys on my team how they can serve me in the way they also adjust to me. Don’t feel bad for asking for this.
7. Work out the best context for your gifts and make up. Not every ministry role is for everyone. Women can often – by virtue of being socialised to be accommodating and for fear of being seen as fussy or ‘difficult’ – just try and ‘make do’ in a ministry context. That’s admirable, but not absolutely necessary. It might be that campus ministry is the best fit for you. Or church work. Or a particular function within that. For me, I’m not entirely built to be a 2IC, but in my particular ministry context, I’m able to exercise enough executive leadership that I can feel confident that I’m using my gifts appropriately for the kingdom of God. I might not be able to say that about a different role in a different church. If you’re feeling uncertain about your ministry future, it might help you to expand what ministry contexts you are looking at.
8. Develop an expertise. This isn’t necessarily advice for every woman pursuing ministry, but if you can develop an expertise in some area, it will gain you trust and context-specific authority (which is much harder to gain as a woman) and it makes you more employable in general (a helpful thing considering roles for women are limited). A way to think about this is: what gaps do I see in the ministry space (a better theological understanding of mental health, for example), and what can I offer to that? If I was to be invited to speak on a topic for a conference, and I got to pick, what would it be on? Once people know that you’re well-equipped to speak/train/ministry on a particular topic, word will get out, and more and more people will invite you to do that.
9. Resist the pressure to be perfect or representative. One of the challenges of being a minority in a ministry context is that you can feel that you are representing all of your gender, all of the time. When I preach, I can feel the temptation to carry the weight of proving that women can be great preachers, with every sermon. But you didn’t create these circumstances, and you’re not responsible for changing them alone! Alongside that, whilst it is one of the most powerful and wonderful privileges of being a woman in ministry that you can inspire other women (and men), it’s worth remembering that being inspiring isn’t about being perfect and invulnerable. If you seem perfect, you’ll discourage people who are only too aware of their own imperfections. You’ll raise up and encourage more people by being appropriately honest.
10. Bring women along with you. More women in every ministry area is good for everyone. No matter where you are in your pursuing vocational ministry journey, there’s likely to be another woman you can encourage and spur on. Do that!
Erica is an Associate Minister at St Barnabas' Broadway, Sydney. She is also part of the Domestic Violence Justice Team at Common Grace.