I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken at a church or event and had a woman tell me afterwards: “This is the first time I have ever heard a woman preach.” I’m never quite sure how to respond. I usually say something like: “I’m glad you could see that.” Then I leave the conversation with a mixture of sad and happy feelings. I’m happy that they’ve seen for the first time a way that God uses women; I’m very very sad that they’ve never seen it before.
I have been a pastor for nearly 15 years, and I keep thinking that maybe we have turned a corner so that I can stop being an anomaly for so many people. However, while things continue to improve, I know in my heart that the corner is still there. I know that when I speak at many events that I don’t speak only as Leanne, or as the pastor of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church. I speak as a woman. I speak for all women pastors and leaders and teachers, whether I like it or not.
Sometimes it feels like a big weight to bear, to carry the task of “proving” that God calls women to serve in a role like mine. Sometimes I try to downplay in my mind how significant it all is – “I’m just doing what I always do,” I think to myself. But then a woman taps me on the shoulder and says some version of: “Thank-you for showing me a woman can do this,” and I remember. I remember how important it is that what I do is seen and known and heard and processed – especially to young women. Sometimes I need to remember again that it matters that young women see women in ministry.
Let me tell you a story.
This summer my husband and I served together as teachers at a teen camp. One evening, I attended the annual “Girl’s Night” for the women and staff. Over snacks and pedicures, I chatted with a few of the staff and campers. They had many questions for me. “So, you’re the LEAD pastor of your church, right?” (“Yes I am.”) “Do you preach every week?” (“Most weeks, yes.”) “What did you do when you had children?” (“I took maternity leave, like other working women.”)
The responses went like this:
“That is SO cool.”
“I’ve never seen that before.”
“I wish our church had a woman pastor on staff.”
(Then, because I could, I had to add: “Actually, guess how many of our 3 pastors are women?…ALL OF THEM!” They really loved that. One girl poked her friend…”Did you hear that? All of the pastors on their staff are women!! Isn’t that awesome??”).
One young woman in particular had lots of questions for me, because she also felt called to ministry. She was intrigued, and excited, to learn that I was the Senior Pastor at my church, because she’d never met a woman senior pastor before. She explained to me that she was in her last year of Bible College, and was planning to pursue a Master’s degree in ministry and become a youth pastor. I encouraged her in this call, certain of what a gift she would be to the Church.
Now let me tell you the really good part.
On the last day of camp, I happened to overhear a conversation between another adult and this same young woman. She was explaining her plans for her future. “I want to be a youth pastor,” she said, as I expected to hear. But then I got an unexpected surprise, when, after a little pause, she added something she hadn’t said before: “Or maybe a Senior Pastor,” she said.
Maybe a Senior Pastor.
My heart soared!
Now, I don’t know for sure if my presence over that week had anything to do with this. What I do know is that earlier in the week she had shared one option for her ministry, and that after a few days of seeing a female lead pastor teach, she added a new “maybe.” I believe that “maybe” wasn’t only about a certain job. To me, in that maybe, I heard: “Maybe God can use me for any role in the church. Maybe I can trust God for anything. Maybe there’s more than one option for me.”
Let me tell you this: I want more of those “maybes” for young women in the church. And then I want all those maybes to turn into certainties – certainties that God can call our young women to any role, any calling, and that they can say “yes.”
How does it start? It starts when they see women who are doing it. This means that it matters that young women see women in ministry.
Churches and pastors…does it matter that you make an effort to include women in your teaching rotation, to have women on your boards, to let them share in your service?
Conference, retreat, and event organizers…is it important that you look for those women speakers, even when you may have to look a little further? Is it important that there are women up front, fully participating and leading?
Women pastors…does it make a difference when young women see us and hear us serving as we are called (even though it feels a little unfair that we too often have to represent all women when we are simply following our own calls)?
Young women need to see women in ministry.
This weekend my husband and I spoke at another youth event. The event was for a denomination that affirms women in ministry, and so a woman speaker was not a stretch for them at all. Yet, young woman after young woman came up to me:
“You’re the first woman I’ve seen preach.”
“I didn’t know women could do that.”
“Thanks for reminding me God can use me.”
My sisters, I’ll keep speaking and being here until all your “maybes” turn to “yeses.”