Christian women in leadership: the stained glass ceiling

As much as I long to never again be asked to speak about being a woman in ministry, and as much as I want the day to come when the gender of clergy is not in any way interesting, we are not there yet.

— Nadia Bolz-Weber

I long for a time when gender inequality is no longer an issue within the Church. When leadership is granted to individuals who possess the ability to guide and mobilize people, rather than to those who possess a particular body part.

And maybe we are getting closer to this reality; maybe it’s closer than we think.

Shaila Visser, the National Director of Alpha Ministries Canada, is someone who embodies this new era of gender equality. In fact, she says her being a woman has been inconsequential in her vocational ministry.

Visser grew up in a small town in Ontario, and attended church faithfully with her family. It wasn’t until she went to university when she found herself letting go of her childhood faith. “University life was all about getting ahead and being successful,” says Visser. “I really thought Jesus was just for older people.” It wasn’t until her last year of university when she re-examined her life and what she really believed. Through this process, Christ transformed her and she decided to follow Him, and has been following Him ever since.

It was also during this year when she was elected to organize a week-long welcome event for over 5,000 students. Visser says after successfully leading a team and co-ordinating the massive, multifaceted event, she thought, “There’s got to be more than this.”

After she graduated, Visser moved to Toronto to pursue marketing. It was there she met and worked with a variety of experienced women in leadership. Many of these women were incredibly successful, talented leaders in the business community, she says. Yet, Visser recalls that there seemed to be something missing from their lives. A sense of meaning and purpose in their leadership appeared to be lacking. Over time, Visser says she began to recognize a call on her life to be a leader in ministry, and she came to the realization that the object of ministry work was not just the materially poor. “Maybe I’m called to reach people in the corporate ladder.”

Eventually, Visser began using Alpha as a tool for reaching business people in downtown Vancouver. “I believe God has a call on my life to help make Jesus known. My identity in Christ has given me the confidence to step into situations out of my comfort zone,” says Visser.

She has been National Director of Alpha Canada since 2010, a job she notes is much bigger than she is used to. But with a supportive board of directors and a team of people around her, she says she has found her way.

Visser credits God for her success as a leader, as she knows He has given her the ability to organize and motivate people, and to do it well. She says she was also exposed to some great leaders—both women and men—who recognized her raw talent, and invested in her leadership development from the start. By imitating Christ, these mentors empowered her to become the kind of leader who does the same.

Visser’s experience is an example of what God can do when His people are supported and encouraged to live into their gifts. But her story is far from the norm. We might be getting closer to this new reality of gender inequality, but the fact remains: we still haven’t arrived.

We might be getting closer to this new reality of gender equality, but the fact remains: we still haven’t arrived.

In a recent study (actually, the first of its kind) conducted by Wheaton College sociologist Amy Reynolds and Gordon College provost Janel Currey, it was found that if you’re in a position of leadership at an American evangelical non-profit, you’re probably a man.

Reynolds and Currey examined over 1,400 evangelical organizations in the United States, and discovered that women held 21 per cent of board positions, 19 per cent of top-paid leadership roles, and 16 per cent of CEO posts in 2010. By comparison, 43 per cent of non-profit boards and 40 per cent of CEOs in the general marketplace are women.

Bev Carrick, the executive director of Christian aid organization CAUSE, has been in leadership for over 30 years. She’s lived in this Christian propensity for gender inequality—this “stained glass ceiling” phenomena in religious organizations that has kept women from leadership positions of authority in the church and ministry organizations.

She describes an experience in which she left her job as a director of a large clinic in Montreal to serve as a leader with her husband in a development organization overseas. Upon her arrival, she was told that she wouldn’t receive a salary unless her husband wanted to split his. If she wanted, the organization said, she could stuff envelopes with the other women, while her husband talked strategy with the senior director. Carrick’s husband championed her value as a leader and as a person, even insisting on stuffing envelopes with her. Carrick says he refused to meet with the senior leader until she was included as an equal.

“Women were given leadership in missions for years, but when they came home they could only speak about their projects,” she says. “Whereas overseas they were spearheading everything.”

It’s as if women are only good enough to serve in situations when men accompany them, or with people groups men would prefer to leave to someone else, Carrick adds.

Pastor Shawn Birss says this bias towards men, in his own experience, has been unintentional: “Women are equally qualified [for leadership positions], but as a male, I knew the men better in my church, so they came to mind first.”

It’s as if women are only good enough to serve in situations when men accompany them, or with people groups men would prefer to leave to someone else.

Additionally, Birss says there is a culture of “looking appropriate” in many churches and Christian workplaces. It is unacceptable for men and women to have healthy, non-sexual, collegial friendships and work relationships; having women as leaders then becomes a “threat” to the appearance of male integrity. Birss says there is a need for systemic change within the church around a narrow and damaging gender binary. We continue to tell the same limiting stories: men and women have different traits and gifts according to their sex (i.e. men are leaders and women are not).

But as theologian Jonathan Wilson says, the gifts of the spirit are not defined by sex or gender. “People often assume we have stepped aside from Scripture to allow women into leadership,” says Wilson. “But rather, we have done this on the basis of Scripture.” The Bible doesn’t have too much to say about leadership, he says. It speaks mainly of becoming wise (Proverbs 16:10-20, Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

And when we’re talking about equality in Scripture, we must mention Galatians 3:28, which happens to be one of Carrick’s favourite passages: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Not to mention the fact that Jesus often championed the cause of women, the oppressed, the poor, and the weak.

But somehow women have been left to champion their own cause. “I’ve so often seen women have to defend themselves,” says Birss. “I want to tell women, ‘You don’t have to defend who you are! Being a women is not something you should need to defend, you were created in the image of God, and that is enough.”

Eventually, something’s got to give. At some point, women will be tired of defending themselves and their God-given abilities. “Increasing pressure of women in the second tier [of leadership positions] will eventually create the upward pressure needed to crack the ceiling,” says Wilson. “And women will begin to break through.”

Indeed, women are already breaking through; leaders like Carrick and Visser are creating more opportunities for other women to break through too. Maybe the pendulum, which so often swings from one extreme to another, can find some blessed balance. Maybe we can come to this new reality—to an era where people, regardless of gender, can find their true identity in Christ and live into the gifts He has given them.

Maybe stories like Visser’s can replace the current paradigm.

“I’ve felt embraced, encouraged, and accepted,” says Visser. “I’m very grateful for the women who have gone before me. And at the end of the day, I’m all about making Jesus known.”

Take a good look up; you’ll see there’s a sliver of a crack in the stained glass ceiling.


Here’s some advice for leaders, regardless of your gender.

1. Utilize others.

Know who is good at what you want to be better at. Who has experiences you want to learn from?

2. Be Self-Motivated.

Take responsibility to develop your own leadership.

3. Have a realistic view of your skills, but don’t limit yourself.

You have to step outside your comfort zone to grow.

4. Develop a personal board of directors.

You won’t have all the answers, but do what you can do to find them out. Rally a team of people around you to help you grow. Mentorship is key. Find people who have skills and develop a relationship with them, so you can learn from them.

5. If you feel called to leadership, never give up.

There will always be obstacles. Don’t be easily discouraged, and humbly continue following your call.

6. Be respectful and patient with people regardless of gender.

Persevere in changing gender relations through dialogue. The more the better.

7. Women and men alike need to develop spiritual disciplines to sustain them.

These can be both interior and exterior, like praying, spiritual direction, running, or art.

8. Take your identity from Christ.

Not from your leadership position.

9. Cultivate supportive relationships.

Find people who will create energy for you, and listen to them. Don’t listen to those who rob you of your energy.

Originally published in Issue 21 of Converge Magazine.


Photo (Flickr CC) by Sam Javanrouh.