During my first year of campus ministry, a senior minister told me that the average tenure for women is three years. I have observed this to be true. Many young women have a passion to serve in ministry, and do so wholeheartedly and effectively, but few last more than five years.
I’m currently in my 15th year. I was made for kingdom work, and I love pouring into college students, investing in a ministry that God is using to strengthen and transform young lives. But that wasn’t always my plan.
By the time I was 20, I knew I wanted to go into campus ministry—I just didn’t expect to stay very long. My plan was to finish seminary at 23, work full-time for 5 years, and then have children and be a stay-at-home mom. While I love dreaming and making plans, I’ve found it’s a lot more fun to live my life surrendered to Jesus, letting his Spirit and wisdom guide me. Getting married and starting a family happened later than I expected, and along the way I realized that I didn’t have to choose between being a mom and a minister. God made me to be both.
To help other women stay in ministry for the long haul—even with a family—I often offer these six tips:
1. Establish a Sustainable Workload.
As a young minister, I was single. I didn’t have a family to take care of, and I could do ministry all day and every evening if I wanted to. This is true of many people first getting into ministry. In their eagerness, new ministers often establish patterns that simply aren’t sustainable for the long haul. In the name of ministry, they give and give.
The fact is that this kingdom work is important. If you’re working 60 hours a week, however, you’re likely creating an unsustainable ministry. As you regularly take on more hours, you’re adding more to your job description than can be handled in your actual hours. Additionally, you’re increasing your and your coworkers’ expectations of your job performance to an unsustainable level.
Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever give a little extra. As a young minister, I did have extra time to give, and I gladly spent extra time sharing life with the students. It was life-giving for me, and I was always clear that it was something extra—not expected work. If you set up these sustainable boundaries from the beginning, you’ll continue to have flexibility if your life circumstances change. Work in such a way that your ministry output can be sustained through changing seasons of life.
2. Develop a Support Network.
Regardless of your role, you shouldn’t rely on your ministry to provide your closest relationships. As ministers, it’s our job to pour into others. While God frequently uses people in our ministry to love on us and pour into us, this cannot be our expectation. Instead, it’s essential that we develop and sustain a few friendships outside the people we lead. As ministry roles change, we need friends we can continue to turn to for prayer, accountability, and support. You need to have people who love you for you—people who aren’t friends with you only while you’re in this role.
3. Ask for Appropriate Compensation.
Compensation can be a tricky topic for people in ministry. Because we love what we do, and we’re thankful to be part of significant kingdom work, it can be hard to ask for fair wages. But frankly, it’s harder to sustain the busyness of juggling life as a minister without appropriate compensation.
Some ministries base their pay scale on perceived need. For example, a minister with four kids needs more money than a single person. Or if a female minister has a working husband, she doesn’t need to be paid as much as others who are the sole breadwinner for their families. This is considered discrimination in the secular workforce, but somehow it’s quite prevalent in the church. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church led the way in fair treatment of workers by paying appropriate compensation based not on sex but on education, years of experience, and the job done?
A friend of mine made the hard choice to leave ministry after five years. Approaching the birth of her first child, she realized she would be better off financially either staying at home (so she wouldn’t have to pay for childcare) or switching careers to become a teacher to make $10,000 more a year. Churches need to learn that if they want to have the stability and depth that comes from having women on staff for more than a few years, they need to show us that we’re valued as much as our male coworkers. Compensation is a huge factor in that.
I encourage you to have a heart-to-heart with the people who make these decisions in your ministry to request fair pay. It will greatly factor into your longevity. And if you’re a person of influence, I implore you to fight for your team. Establish compensation packages based on the work done, not life circumstances or sex.
4. Fight for Your Team.
I believe Satan’s greatest tactic to destroy the effectiveness of our ministry is to destroy our team. A recent study published by Lifeway found that 23 percent of pastors left their last church because of conflict in the church. The hard truth is that you can’t escape conflict by leaving one ministry for another. Conflict is part of working with people.
In any job, including ministry, some of the greatest joys and frustrations come from working closely with others. Everybody has flaws. Everybody has weaknesses. In our pride, it’s easy to zero in on the faults of others, but we must discipline ourselves to take those thoughts captive and “in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). We must choose to dwell on others’ strengths and give one another the benefit of the doubt. Rather than throw in the towel, we must learn to communicate with one another and work through conflict. This takes humility, difficult conversations, and a whole lot of love.
My boss leads our team like a family, not like a group of subordinates. We know each other, love each other, and work through conflict together. This kind of team dynamic doesn’t develop naturally. We must intentionally work to be a healthy, united team, fighting for each other, not against each other.
5. Get Your Spouse’s Support.
It’s essential that your spouse understands your passion and the purposes God has placed on your heart for ministry. As a young single minister, it was incredibly important to me that my future spouse would understand what God had called me to, support me in that calling, and be on board with the mission and vision of my ministry.
In marriage, there is mutual submission and mutual support—both out of obedience to God’s Word, and your love for one another. We want our spouses to be satisfied in their work and contributing to the kingdom by exercising their spiritual gifts. Because I want this so deeply for my husband, I found myself willing to surrender my ministry for the sake of my husband’s fulfillment. To be honest, this desire surprised me!
I hold my desires with an open hand, trusting that God’s plans will work out. Every time my husband has been looking for a new job, though, wrestling with whether we should move, he has concluded, “Why would we move for me, hoping for something better, when Danah already has a job of great significance that she loves?” I am so humbled by and grateful for his support.
Being in ministry is tough, and being a woman in ministry even more so. We need our spouses—the people we’re closest to in life—to be on board with what God is asking us to do.
6. Stop Prioritizing Your Roles.
I’ve had so many people tell me that I need to keep Jesus first, then my husband, then my kids, and then my ministry. This sounds nice, but it oversimplifies the complexities of life. There will be days when you and your spouse are experiencing conflict, and it has to be put on the back burner because you need to go to a meeting. There are seasons when infants and toddlers are dependent on you, and you have to say no to something at work. There will be days that you really can’t squeeze in 15 minutes of reading the Word, and you’ll simply have to pick it back up the next day.
In order to work full-time, we do make sacrifices—and that’s okay. We need to give ourselves grace, acknowledging that we can't do it all. Of course, through it all, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus, allowing him to sustain us. Rather than try to prioritize our various roles in life, we need to focus on the big picture: God’s purposes for our lives involve all of our roles. Here’s the truth: I need time to shop for groceries. I need time for my family. I need time for myself. Each of these are important, and we can worship and honor God as we carry each of them out.
While there are various reasons for shorter tenures, the right kind of support can help women stay in ministry for the long haul.
Danah Himes is an associate campus minister at Christian Campus House in Charleston, Illinois.