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Support for Women Church Planters

How the Exponential Conference made me feel part of a tribe

Loneliness is one of the greatest challenges church planters face.

Seven Key Issues Church Planters Face, a report prepared by Exponential, begins with these words: “Church planting is hard. Church planting is discouraging. Church planting is lonely. It is not for the faint of heart.”

For a woman church planter, those things are multiplied by ten. I should know: I planted a non-denominational church over 11 years ago in Upstate New York that continues to thrive and grow today.

The journey has been harder than I ever imagined, and one of the most difficult parts has been the loneliness I’ve experienced. Though I’ve searched, I’ve found few other women church planters. Worse, I’ve found minimal support for women in this role.

For my husband and me, there was no sending church or financial support in the beginning. My husband often worked 16 hours of overtime at work each week so we’d have enough money to keep the church’s doors open. There was also very little emotional or spiritual support in those early years except for that which came from above. There simply was nowhere for a woman church planter to turn for help or encouragement of any kind.

Recently, though, I have seen a great light on the horizon for women leading church plants. Just a few months ago, I experienced an event so monumental that I consider it to be a historic event in the life of the church. At this year’s Exponential Conference, the largest gathering of church planters in the world, female church planters were made to feel welcomed and wanted. Exponential made it clear that women were truly accepted as a peers.

I thank God that I was there to witness it. For the first time in almost 12 years of church planting, I felt like I belonged to a tribe! At similar gatherings in the past, I’ve felt treated like an outcast, an unwanted participant.

In fact, four years prior, at Exponential 2011, I actually left feeling more alone and discouraged than when I’d arrived. Christianity Today editor Kevin Miller described this dynamic after he attended Exponential 2010:

I just came back from the Exponential Conference, the nation's largest conference for church planters. I loved it. Nearly 2,700 church planters, apostles, cultural missionaries, entrepreneurs, and crazy people—the kind who take "It's never been done that way before" as a dare. But where are the women? Are there no women engaged in church planting? Their absence was conspicuous.

Kevin’s description mirrored my experience in 2011. Looking back, I remember actually being excited when I saw a sign that read “pastor’s spouses” rather than the usual “pastor’s wives.” It may sound funny, but I took a picture of my husband standing underneath. As far as I was concerned, it was a small—but important—step for women, and I wanted to celebrate it.

Unfortunately, it was the only support I saw for women church planters that year. There were no female speakers in the general sessions, and in the workshops I attended, pastors continually addressed their audience as “men” or “guys.” I felt excluded.

Let’s face it, there are many diverse and opposing theological views among Christians and denominations—including views on women in leadership. But my hope is that though we disagree, as Christ-followers, we can still acknowledge and respect each other.

That mutual respect and acknowledgement was definitely felt at this year’s Exponential Conference, and it encouraged me enormously. A pivotal moment for me was when Danielle Strickland, female church planter and pastor, was given a warm welcome as she stood to speak as one of the plenary speakers.

To be honest, I actually felt a little nervous for her when she was introduced, knowing that a mixed theological audience was present in the huge crowd that morning. But I was instantly reassured by the enthusiastic response to her presence as she walked on stage. I absolutely loved hearing the crowd laugh at her jokes and warmly receive her incredible teaching. It was so refreshing to finally experience this totally different atmosphere for women.

As I looked around at the still mostly male audience, I kept wondering, Do they know they’re part of a tremendously historic event?

Church planting has been a hard and lonely journey, but it has also been the most satisfying, rewarding experience I could ever have hoped for. I am incredibly grateful to courageous, godly men like Dave Ferguson and all the people who made this year’s Exponential Conference East welcoming to women church planters. Thanks be to God, having experienced the Exponential Conference this year, I really feel that loneliness has been washed away from my ministry.

Linda A. Wurzbacher is Lead Pastor of Blessed Hope Community Church in Rochester, New York.

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