Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Discerning a pastor's beliefs on women in pastoral leadership

                I subscribe to a Facebook page called “God’s Word to Women.” Recently, another subscriber asked whether there were any egalitarian churches in Austin, Texas.  One responder suggested locating an  Evangelical Covenant Church, since the denomination has declared itself “egalitarian” with regard to women in pastoral leadership. This is the denomination with which I was affiliated from the time I entered its seminary in 2002 until I initiated the resignation of my ordination in 2010. Given my experience with the ECC, I commented that although the denomination does publicize its egalitarian view, not all of the member churches hold that position, and not all of the pastors who the denomination has ordained in even the past two years have been egalitarian.  Thus, I recommended that readers should observe and talk with the local ECC pastor regarding his personal position on the issue.

                A few days later, another reader recommended Foursquare churches as egalitarian. My first call to pastoral ministry came through a Foursquare church, and it is the denomination that I hope to return to in my next pastoral assignment. Foursquare does, indeed, hold an egalitarian view, but, again, not all of the churches (pastors and/or members) do. To its credit, the denomination’s General Supervisor (the pastor of all of the pastors, so to speak) is a woman, Rev. Tammy Dunahoo; to my knowledge, Foursquare is the only evangelical or Pentecostal denomination to  have placed a woman in that sort of position, and Rev. Dunahoo’s placement is certainly an indication that the denomination walks its talk on women in ministry! Even so, it was necessary to repeat my suggestion that the initial questioner determine whether a specific Foursquare church is or is not “egalitarian.”

                But how does one determine if a specific male lead or senior pastor is or is not egalitarian? It would be a wonderful thing if all we had to do was ask him and accept his answer at face value. Unfortunately, when a pastor’s denomination officially takes the egalitarian position with regard to women in ministry, the individual pastor may or may not feel free (or, in some cases, obliged) to answer truthfully. Therefore, having had experience with pastors who purported in some settings to be egalitarian but either gave evidence of being complementarian, or stated they weren’t sure of their egalitarianism, in other settings, I offer the following suggestions to men and women who want to determine the personal views of a pastor on the egalitarian question. (It may be necessary to ask even a female pastor who is not the lead or senior pastor of the church these questions to determine her views on the extent of God’s egalitarianism, but I will use the masculine pronouns in what follows, since a female lead or senior pastor will certainly be egalitarian.)

1.     Raise the issue with the pastor in a “private” setting, i.e., not in a class at the church, a church meeting, or even, perhaps, in front of a group of other church members. Why in private?  You’re more likely to get the pastor’s personal views (which will shape his pastoral behaviour)  in private. For example, in the Covenant denomination, pastors desiring licensure or ordination must agree not to preach from the pulpit or teach in a church classroom or meeting against a woman’s ability or call to assume pastoral leadership of a church or denominational position. However, they are free to hold a different position and to express that position “in private,” which includes anywhere that is not a pulpit or the church’s classrooms, such as the pastor’s office or home, over lunch or dinner tables, and so forth.

2.       Word your questions carefully.  I suggest that you begin your investigation with these words: “Do you, personally, believe that God calls some women to be the ‘senior’ or ‘lead’ pastor of a local church?” There are two reasons I recommend that you use this question, worded this way:
First, some men and women believe that God calls women to pastoral ministry, but not to pastoral ministry as the Senior or the Lead Pastor, which are reserved for male pastors. The wording of my question doesn’t provide an opportunity for a semi-egalitarian pastor to say he does support “women in ministry” and leave out the restriction he places around the senior leadership positions.

The second reason to ask the question using the words I’ve suggested is that this particular question demands a simple “Yes” or “No” question. If the pastor says, “No,” it’s clear. Thank him for his candor and move on. However, if the pastor does not say, ”No,” but does not say, “Yes,” either, then it is most likely the case that he does not believe that God calls women to senior-pastoral position, no matter what else he says. Put another way, any response that is not a simple “Yes” (without a “but”!) or a simple “No” is an attempt to avoid saying “Yes” without saying “No.” In such a case, you may want to help the pastor be clear by pointing out that he hasn’t said yes or no, and asking him to choose one of the two responses.

3.       Ask follow-up questions. If the pastor says that yes, he does hold the fully egalitarian view, I suggest you follow up with a question like, “Have you preached or taught about your egalitarian understanding of the Bible in this church?” If he says he has not, it can be fruitful to ask him why not; if he says that he has, it can be fruitful to ask, “How was your message received?” These questions will give you a sense of whether the pastor is willing to use Scripture and his positional influence “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [so] that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17) prior to or when issues of women’s ministry arise in the life of the congregation. It will also open the door to the next set of questions, if you would like to go further.

4.       Ask about the existing lay leadership. You might also want to inquire about the views of the members of the local church’s governing body (the Elders or Council or Board), as well as whether a candidate for such a position is questioned or screened in any way prior to her/his selection, election, or appointment. In my view, it can be difficult to be an egalitarian woman in a church that is led by complementarian lay leaders, even when the lead pastor is egalitarian.

5.       Finally, take your time, and watch and listen carefully.  Assuming that the pastor has told you that he is fully egalitarian, you will begin to consider committing yourself to the congregation he leads. Take a few months to explore how the pastor and the congregation live out their egalitarian beliefs. Specifically, keep an eye and an ear out about what the pastor and lay leaders say about their wives, mothers, sisters, and “women” as they go about their business in the church.  Doing so will alert you to any hidden “disconnect” between professed and actual beliefs. For example, my husband and I began to attend a church whose pastor had said that he was an egalitarian during the denomination’s “vetting” period. We began to suspect that our publicly “egalitarian” pastor might not actually hold that position personally when he recounted from the pulpit that, a year or two before, he had told his physician wife that he thought she should give up her professional career to support him in ministry. Shortly thereafter, the same pastor shared with me (in private) that he really wasn’t sure that the Bible supported women in pastoral leadership in the church. A denominational staff person later told me that the pastor had, at best, purposely misled the committee that had made the decision to fund the pastor’s new ministry, because, as a member of that committee, the staffer had heard the pastor say he was fully egalitarian and, the staffer said, the pastor “never would have been funded if he had said to us what he said to you.”

So, those are my suggestions about how to find out if a local pastor and/or congregation is, in fact, egalitarian. Do you have any others?