Imagine that it’s a Sunday morning and a church is getting ready to announce its transition to an egalitarian model and commit to include women in pastoral leadership. The leadership gathers behind the stage to pray and review their communication strategy before the service begins. The pastor who will be sharing the news from the pulpit paces, with a burning question filling his mind: How will the congregation respond to the announcement?

The months leading up to this day proved to him that on matters of women in ministry, his congregation was not of one mind. Yet he is convinced that embracing an egalitarian approach is the way forward for his church, so he gathers his strength, steps into the auditorium, and delivers the news.

The statement goes well, all things considered. The congregation doesn’t cheer, but no one boos or walks out the door—and that feels like a win. Everything seems to be under control. The service ends without much tension, and the pastor along with the rest of the leaders breathe a sigh of relief.

This, of course, is an imagined scenario. But it’s not vastly different from what happens in reality when previously complementarian churches transition to egalitarian models: Oftentimes the people involved in the process are so exhausted from all the work it took to move the church to an egalitarian ministry philosophy that changing the church’s official statement on women seems to be the victory, the destination at the end of a long road, when it is just the beginning of an arduous journey.

Every church handles this process differently. What’s undeniably true in all situations is that no matter how careful and intentional a church might be in its approach to this transition, the process is lengthier and more challenging than anticipated. It’s usually painful and it’s inevitably messy. As a result, many communication strategies inadvertently prioritize messaging (like proper apologetics and careful articulation of a position) and damage control, significantly limiting the energy and focus required to properly set up women to thrive.

As someone who has been caught in the middle of these transitions, I can say two things are usually true: First, often good-hearted people are driving these efforts, doing their best with the resources available. Second, sometimes those well-intended efforts result in a lot of pain.

While no church can navigate this journey perfectly, it is possible to mitigate the hurt and frustration that often ensue. I offer a few suggestions for church leaders to consider—pitfalls to watch out for—whether they’re beginning the egalitarian journey or reevaluating their church’s posture toward women. With more women becoming preachers in recent years than in previous decades, it is imperative we continue to talk about how to make these transitions well.

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One of the most common pitfalls for newly egalitarian churches is thinking that a statement on women changes everything. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While an official position on women may have changed, generally the systems and values undergirding a church’s culture remain the same. Decades of tradition continue to be at play. Long-held assumptions and expectations placed upon women remain intact, adding layers upon layers of complexity and challenges for women to navigate.

Women who might think they have new leadership opportunities available to them find themselves bumping into invisible barriers and tripping over unspoken rules without knowing they were there in the first place. In contexts like these, the women appointed to new or higher positions of leadership are set up to fail.

How can we mitigate this? A good place to start is to consider how your church’s current context—not your statement on women—supports (or undermines) the inclusion of women in your congregation.

A few guiding questions are helpful here: Can we think of specific traditions, assumptions, or expectations around women that might be at play in our staff culture? Are there any mechanisms in place to identify the value systems or structures that may be dated or in need of attention? Have we considered how our hiring practices and employee manuals might be impacted by a new position on women (for example, what would maternity leave look like for a lead pastor)? What would it look like for our church to fully include women at all levels of leadership and influence?

Another common pitfall for churches is thinking that by appointing one woman to a specific leadership position, all women are now represented and included. This is especially common in the area of preaching. In many instances, once a church has found a female preacher it trusts, not a whole lot of effort is made to include more women in the mix. After all, they can now say that “women preach at this church.” But is that a truly accurate statement?

Time and time again, when I walk into formerly complementarian churches and ask if women preach there, the answer is some version of this: “Oh yes, Kimberly preaches all the time.” What’s embedded in that sentence—and can be easily missed—is the fact that Amber (who happens to be trained in preaching) doesn’t preach there; neither does Sarah, Tara, or Michelle. Kimberly is the one woman who preaches at that church. That a woman preaches at all is something to celebrate, no question about that. But there is a world of difference between a church where Kimberly preaches and a church where women preach.

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What would it look like to have a full-fledged vision for female preachers in our churches? Are there areas besides the pulpit where one woman might be carrying the banner of all womanhood? As churches look at their current female staff, are there any perspectives, ethnic backgrounds, or life experiences that may not be represented?

A third pitfall, and perhaps the most painful one, is failing to understand the emotional toll that these significant church transitions take on women. Knowing that the ultimate goal of these discussions is to determine what us, women, can or cannot do based on our gender is especially difficult for me. Who I am as a woman, as a female preacher and pastor, is profoundly connected to the discussion. For many of us, these conversations are deeply personal and fully embodied experiences.

Moreover, there are times when we are asked to share our personal experiences with the male staff and elders. Hopefully this is a genuine effort to listen and try to understand our experience, but many of these conversations end up being one-sided. We share our personal experiences and pain—and they don’t.

When these dynamics are in place, the playing field is not level. This only exacerbates the pain some of us have been carrying long before these conversations started and reopens the very wounds the church is trying to mend. Once the decision has been made to officially move in an egalitarian direction, most of the leadership’s efforts turn to apologetics, biblical grounding, and the careful articulation of the position paper, and not enough attention is given to the women who get caught up in the middle of it all.

Churches that want to truly move to an egalitarian model should ask themselves: Are we aware of the particular ways that one-sided conversations have affected, and perhaps continue to affect, the women serving at our church? Do we have male and female advocates whose main role is to intercede and pray for women—to support them and look out for them on an ongoing basis? What would it look like to implement guidelines to ensure the conversations between men and women are mutual and fair? Is there opportunity to create clear pathways, safe spaces, and resources for men and women to voice their spiritual and emotional needs and struggles? How often will church leaders revise their stance and approach to women in ministry?

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The chief question of all is this: Is our church truly committed to including women in the life of the church and to creating pathways for them to exercise the full extent of their giftings? The answer to that question will inform the answers to all other questions about women in church leadership.

The journey won’t be perfect and churches will make mistakes, but the way church leadership approaches every conversation, every announcement, and every situation will make all the difference in creating a space where all women and men can thrive and use their giftings together with mutuality and respect. The key word here is intentionality—not perfection. Loving, genuine, and ongoing intentionality will always go a long way.

Gaby Viesca is the director of programs at Missio Alliance and is chair of the evangelical studies unit at the American Academy of Religion. She has worked in full-time pastoral ministry in Israel, Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest.

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