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New Zealand Women and Church Leadership

Sally Wise

It is several years now since most New Zealand protestant denominations decided to ordain women as well as men. Since then we’ve been working towards the goal of equality between men and women in pastoral ministry. Sally Wise investigates how women in positions of leadership in the church are faring and discusses some of the issues they face.

It is several years now since most New Zealand protestant denominations decided to ordain women as well as men. Since then we've been working towards the goal of equality between men and women in pastoral ministry. Sally Wise investigates how women in positions of leadership in the church are faring and discusses some of the issues they face

On the 26th of May 2004 a woman training for pastoral leadership received this anonymous email: If you are planning on becoming a pastor REPENT! The Bible says that man has authority over women (not that I think men are any better than women).

She is one of a long line of women who, in their roles as women in church leadership, continue to wrestle against discrimination. That discrimination is not always as overt or even as intentional as this example. It can come from people who don’t even realise they have a problem with women in leadership.

“Think You Are Our Man?” This question, posed in 1996 as part of an advertisement to attract potential pastors for a North Island church, got more than it had bargained for when readers of the magazine in which it was published responded with great depth of feeling to what was termed a blatantly sexist approach to recruitment.1

In 2004 there is still significant discussion in the Church of New Zealand about the relevance and validity of women’s involvement in church leadership. Changes in church policy and rhetoric over the last few decades (the result of a change of heart for some and a process of reluctant yet rational reasoning for many others) reflect the journey many New Zealand church denominations have undergone as they grow in their understandings, develop their policies, and increasingly become more accepting of women in leadership.

The continuum

The debate around women in leadership is increasingly developing into more of an opinion continuum than an easily articulated ‘for or against’ argument. Today’s voices are more subtle than severe when compared with those of thirty or more years ago. One end of the continuum is expressed in a letter published in a denominational magazine in 2001: “We have been called to obedience. Ours is a patriarchal faith. In the church of God it is a man who is given authority, not a woman.”3

At the other end of the continuum are those who label this approach hypocritical and small-minded, claiming that reluctance to embrace and empower women skilled in leadership is blatant gender discrimination: “For a church which preaches ‘the priesthood of all believers’ it seems hypocritical to reserve almost exclusively the pastoral leadership to the male of the species. As we are now into the new millennium it is surely time our churches moved out of the dark ages in our attitudes towards women in ministry.”4

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum are assertions that whilst gender discrimination may once have been inappropriately practised in our churches, this is no longer an issue of relevance. However, whilst women may appear to be treated equally, holding positions on church committees, boards and rosters, senior leadership positions are still filled predominantly by men.

A quick history lesson

For thousands of years the role of women in society has been a major source of controversy. Plato held that “a state that does not educate and train women is like a man who only trains his right arm”.5 Aristotle, on the other hand, asserted that a woman was merely an unfinished man. Women for many centuries have struggled against various patriarchal powers (often represented by the state or religion) that have not only dictated their roles and status, but have also assumed the right to decide whether or not women should be controlled.

In the western world, particularly since World War II, women have questioned and challenged the roles imposed upon them, resulting in a somewhat dramatic shift in their place in society. In 1993, however, after 100 years of women’s suffrage, New Zealand women made up only 7% of the Institute of Management’s managers, 1.5% of public company directorships, and 0.5% of private sector senior management.6 By 2001, in spite of Equal Employment Opportunity programmes, there was still a marked lack of women in senior management.7 In teaching, traditionally a female occupation, women represented 76% of the teaching workforce but only 34% acted as principals.8

Attitudes not policy are the problem

Under the Human Rights Act 1993 it is unlawful for an employer to deny employment to any person by reason of their sex. Most workplace policy documents and manuals affirm the equality of the sexes. Yet attitudes and hidden agendas, often referred to as ‘the glass ceiling’, continue to make it difficult for women to enter positions of influence.

To be considered competent women find that their success must exceed that of male counterparts, and even then their skills and abilities may not be considered valid. This phenomenon is based on a widespread assumption that leadership or management is male, and that females in leadership are exceptions to the rule.9 In 2004 many women with remarkable management and leadership ability are still finding the ‘glass ceiling’ impenetrable.

Women in the Church

It is not unusual for women missionaries to be accepted as leaders in less privileged countries, yet held back from any position of responsibility on returning home. It is also the case in some denominations that women having completed their seminary training have been unable to find vocational placements.

Tokenism is a common form of passage into leadership for women in a world that is increasingly recognising their presence. Whilst it is by no means an ideal route, tokenism may provide opportunities for many women to ‘open doors’ and make a way for other women in the future.

The New Zealand Church appears to have changed significantly in its approach to women over the last century. There can be no doubt that congregations have become increasingly accepting of a woman’s capacity for leadership, and are listening more to the voices of women. In spite of these progressions, however, there remain substantial barriers to women entering church leadership.

For one denomination, for example, the 2003 directory of churches lists approximately 180 people as pastor, associate, assistant and co-pastor. Women number 26 of these positions. No women are employed in senior pastoral leadership.

What women in ministry think

In 2003 I randomly selected and interviewed six women pastors about their experience as women employed in pastoral leadership in New Zealand churches.10

The women all affirmed that generally the congregations that had employed them had accepted them in their roles. However, several noted that a church’s willingness to call a woman to leadership is indicative of openness to women beyond that of the church at large. All of them reported less accepting moments, both in their local churches and on a national level.

Each of the women had examples of overt gender discrimination to share, but also made it clear that this was not the norm in her experience. Miriam spoke of a recent incidence where members had left a church after a female elder had been appointed. In her own case, the church that eventually employed her had implemented an education initiative on ‘women in leadership’ with the congregation before agreeing to her appointment. They made additional documentation available for church members who still struggled with questions on the subject to take home and wrestle through. Whilst this was successful to a certain degree, Miriam was frustrated that the people who were most ‘anti’ chose not to attend the educational meetings.

Danielle found that resistance is more likely to emerge within the staff team. “That’s where some men can feel threatened”, she says, explaining that her first and most significant barrier to leadership was her senior pastor who, in spite of her strong sense of call, did not want her to train for leadership but was not able to specify why. He refused to give permission for her to go to theological college.

For most of the women the main source of power against them in their roles as pastors was a subtle legacy of gender prejudice within the Church’s culture. They commented on the inherent nature of the cultural barriers they struggled with: “I think there’s been years and years of prejudice and I think it’s just ingrown.”

EGATIVE ATTITUDES FROM church members towards women in leadership provide the most significant obstacles for women. Most church workplace documentation today grants women equal standing and opportunity. It can therefore appear that women who do not succeed in the system are failing because they lack ability or skill, and in some cases this may be true. For most, though, negative attitudes against women prove to be just as powerful as the policy with which they once contended.

The women pastors I interviewed acknowledged that women as ‘associates’ or those in leadership of what were termed “lesser ministries” were now generally accepted, but that senior leadership is largely inaccessible for women. Some of the women linked this phenomenon to what they called their denomination’s “conservative ideas” around men holding authority over women -- a situation which resulted in women being accepted in leadership only when serving alongside their husbands.

Anne described people’s shocked reactions and her resulting feelings of unease as she went to a national denominational leadership event on her own, without her husband. She conveyed her future intentions to take an associate or work colleague with her, so as not to be “a woman unaccompanied”.

It was recognised that, while most churches do not want women as their senior pastors, openings which do come up for women in sole leadership are usually in areas that “no one wants to touch . . . that no men ever want to go near . . . I wonder if they’re in sole charge ministry for that reason?” Some women pastors communicated a sense of being restricted to ‘safe’ roles. One woman spoke of a church that was interested in calling her for a pastoral leadership position “but they said I wasn’t allowed to preach. So that was an easy decision.”

HE WOMEN REPORTED that national leadership of their denominations, in general, is verbally very affirming of women in leadership, but that the professed affirmations pale in the light of prevailing attitudes, tokenism and stereotypes, which continue to do significant damage to the Church’s stance toward women. They had, they said, experienced token gestures and ‘lip service’ from leadership that left them feeling patronised and belittled. According to one participant, gift bags were given to all women present at a recent denominational AGM. The women also received a talk from an American pastor’s wife about how to bake cinnamon scones.

Language used by national leadership to address leaders can also at times be problematic, indicating attitudes to women as added extras. “Comments like: ‘We’re all big boys’ from the man at the front.”

Lucy referred to a Mothers’ Day article in her denominational magazine. Included in the article (which was written by national leadership) was the phrase, “Behind every good man is a good woman.” Neither this nor its reverse is true, says Lucy, yet it implies that women exist solely to support men: “It’s subtle, but it’s that old fashioned ‘repressed little woman’ stuff.”

Work on a local and national level for the transformation of attitudes towards women was, the women pastors believed, the primary key for the advancement of the wider Church of New Zealand.


Women in leadership are frequently overwhelmed by expectations of how a female leader ‘should’ act. Miriam described these expectations as “mindsets and assumptions held by both men in leadership and by the congregation”. Literature also reveals patterns of expectations that serve to hold the attitudes of church members static. Women themselves appear prone to accepting expectations (communicated both subtly and overtly) of how they should and should not behave, without questioning the truth or context of such expectations.

“I think it is easy to be put in a box as to what your role in leadership is.”

“I’m quite regularly left feeling, ‘You don’t really know who I am and I don’t think you’d be comfortable if you did know’.”

“I struggle with all these perceptions, stereotypes.”

WOMAN WHO chooses to step outside the role expectations can experience feelings of guilt and a sense that she has failed to be:

*Masculine enough -- women are expected to adopt a traditionally masculine approach to leadership -- to lead from the front with a strong, rational and authoritative style. A woman’s leadership success is often measured according to masculine measures, and her communication approach, direction, and goal orientation are analysed according to a patriarchal framework for leadership. If she doesn’t lead according to these characteristics, she is judged as a poor leader. She has failed.

*Feminine enough -- women are expected to fulfil a stereotypically feminine role of nurture, comfort, soft, supportive leadership. Women who do not practise these characteristics in their leadership are likely to be considered a threat to their congregations. In their endeavours to live a godly life, some women may be vulnerable to conforming to church rhetoric where silence, submission and conformity are considered feminine virtues. Included in this approach is a powerful and often unspoken expectation that women need to fall into line and support the men, who are doing the ‘real work’.

*Sufficiently pastoral -- in the church women are more easily accepted in the leadership of children’s, women’s and youth ministries, within the confines of ‘pastoral care’, or under the authority of a male. “Women seem to be OK as long as they stay in the pastoral box and don’t step out of that”, says Danielle. “That’s a stereotypical role -- nurturing, caring . . . but if you are a woman exercising authority it’s a completely different matter.”

*A proper wife -- Miriam and her husband are both pastors. She was expected to play a support role to her husband as he led, when in many ways, as they both discovered and acknowledged, she was more gifted in leadership than he was. Miriam’s congregation mostly came to recognise her leadership role, although “some people never did because their assumption is that the man is the head”. These people communicated clearly to Miriam their disapproval of her initiative and action.

*Her true self -- one of the main problems with such strong expectations around how women should lead is that little room is left for allowing a woman to lead according to her own natural leadership style -- to be herself.

Leadership and gender-blindness

The concept of ‘gender-blindness’ may be helpful to our understanding of how attitude and expectation coincide to provide significant difficulties for women in church leadership. It refers to a position where discrimination against women is so ingrained in an organisation’s or individual’s perspective that they can no longer see ‘the wood for the trees’.

In the Church’s case, the position and characteristics of ‘leadership’ have been perceived through stereotypically masculine lenses for so long that it has lost sight of what the term ‘leadership’ actually means. Leadership has been redefined in masculine terms and the Church is no longer able to see beyond its own narrow interpretation. “At the heart of leadership lies an assumed masculinity.”11

Women pastors in New Zealand have largely confirmed this gender-blind phenomenon to be a very real part of their everyday experience in church leadership. Miriam points out that sermons are preached ninety percent of the time by men to a largely female audience. “And we have this kind of culture where we accept it as the norm but we don’t question it. We’re comfortable with it.” If this trend were to be reversed, she says, serious objections would be raised. As it is, the ingrained culture is that women should listen to men.

Miriam believes that many of the congregational members in opposition to women in leadership are themselves women, uncomfortable with what they see as a woman acting in a man’s role: “The men with issues have mostly left.”

Most people would identify a woman with nurturing, compassionate, and relational traits says Anne, who experiences some difficulty in her leadership role as her natural personality, nature and style contrast with this stereotype, to the disgruntlement of church members with differing expectations of her.

Miriam refers to a friend’s expression of surprise at her preaching ability: “Sometimes when you are preaching”, said her friend, “I forget you are a woman.”

“That”, says Miriam, “was a most revealing statement from a woman. I don’t know whether she expects me to be more kind of ‘sweet and flowery’ and less strong -- I don’t know!”

Miriam is aware of her ‘lack of fit’ with what she calls “the quiet little wife image”, and believes that a distorted understanding of the biblical role for wives is largely responsible for pressure on women leaders today. “Some people have this picture (which they believe is biblical) of the quiet submissive wife who’s supposed to be supportive and kind of fill up all the gaps and serve the husband. When they see women in leadership in the church alongside men it doesn’t fit with that picture.”

Several of the women pastors I spoke to found that it was the subtle expressions of gender bias which were most damaging. Each of them referred to pastors and wives’ conferences. Most noted that even when such conferences have labels such as ‘Pastors and Spouses’, or even ‘Pastoral Leadership’ the underlying expectation is that ‘leadership’ means senior pastors and their wives. As a female pastor, Anne says she will continue to attend such meetings in order to make a point, even if that involves “sticking out like a sore thumb”.

Where does gender-blindness come from?

The origins of gender-blindness in the church probably go far deeper than existing structures, which explains the deep-seated attitudes against women in leadership that prevail decade after decade. Danielle admitted that she too initially “had a problem” with women in ministry, though she could not work out why. She had not been overtly taught to discriminate, and wryly wondered whether her initial suspicion of women leaders had been ingrained through cultural osmosis. Miriam suggested that gender expectations and stereotypes still dominate thinking in wider society, in spite of the drastic changes of the last four decades. She considers that secular society has its roots in a Christian heritage based on a misinterpretation of Scripture.

Renowned British theologian Elaine Storkey offers an alternative explanation. Alongside strong congregational feelings that leaders ought to be male is a strong sense that God ought to be male. Storkey suggests that this understanding of God has a lot to do with the church congregational need for male leadership only. She quotes from the Dictionary of Social Change: “The image of God as a man is very deeply entrenched, even in people who have rejected the idea of God; the God we no longer believe in is still envisaged as male. It’s hardly surprising and very convenient for a world ruled by men to see its creator as a man. Where power is equated with masculinity, the most powerful figure must be masculine.”12

A gender-blind perspective regards female leadership as a deviation from the norm. Recognising the gender-blind nature of our perceptions is the starting point for gaining new understandings. The Church may need to begin by evaluating its expectations and preconceived ideas about what women should be good at, and broadening its concept of women and men working together.

All of the pastors interviewed look forward to a time when women would be given the positions they were skilled and gifted for, regardless of their gender.