“Taryn” is a manager in a Christian nonprofit. She pulls long, passionate, thoughtful hours managing others and making critical decisions toward the organization’s mission to represent Jesus around the world. 

But in light of the world identifying Jesus’ disciples by how they love one another, Taryn sometimes finds this harder as a woman in her organization. 

“I’ve seen firsthand that when a man presents the same idea as a woman, the idea and the presenter’s expertise is trusted with far fewer questions, and the idea takes off. So I’ve actually asked male colleagues to present an idea of mine without any attribution. I wish I didn’t need to channel my ideas through a male mouthpiece for them to be taken seriously.”  

By the numbers

Of churchgoing women, Barna reports 27% do not feel they’re making the most of their potential. Their research also indicates:

  • Twenty percent feel underutilized.
  • Sixteen percent feel opportunities are limited by their gender.
  • Thirty-seven percent feel ministry would be more effective if women were given more opportunities to lead.

Barna notes, “Only half of women (47%) say the male leaders in their church are willing to change the rules and structures to give women more leadership opportunities.”

Wheaton professor Dr. Amy Reynolds concludes, “The church and church-based organizations are missing out on a depth and breadth of perspective that is necessary to be the church. Some of this may not be due to principled opposition to women in leadership, but due to a lack of initiative to support and actively encourage women in leadership.” 

What do we stand to lose?

When ministries and churches increase diversity within leadership, science indicates this opens the door for more creativity, better decision-making, and positive financial outcomes. When we welcome all of God’s body to the table, we’re simply better. Business professional Diane Paddison notes, “Like many other working women, I would like to feel that my professional ability—a great gift that God has given me—is welcomed and acknowledged by my church along with my maternal proclivities.”

Even more, to empower women critically displays God’s heart to current and future generations. Some Christian women perceive that in secular employment, their voices are more welcomed and celebrated, pay is greater and more fair, women can advance, and their God-given value is actively sought, even if it’s not celebrated as such. 

This is our opportunity toward renown for both God’s Word and His intentional, image-bearing creation of women. 

Can the gospel, the church, and the Great Commission afford not to develop women to their fullest God-honoring potential? 

7 ways to develop and empower women

Consider ideas like these.

1. Be clear about where you stand. 

One director of diversity at a Christian missions organization suggests clarity in a Christian organization’s communication and pursuit of gender diversity. 

The director offers, 

If you’re providing equal access to both genders to all positions and levels of leadership, do you have a plan to intentionally pursue that diversity—assuming you see the value of diverse opinions on their leadership and decision-making teams? 

If a value is stated but not observed, staff will begin to question leadership’s actual value of equal access. Decision-making teams will also lack representation from the variety of staff that they are representing and miss out on the various gifts, perspectives, and skills brought by both genders and other diversity.

When we “just let things happen naturally” and not intentionally pursue diversity, there are often unrealized factors that prevent us from becoming more diverse—like unconscious bias, workplace culture, and simply tending to prefer people like us.

If, as a workplace, you determine different roles are available differently because of gender, be extremely clear about this—and be open with your staff about the reasoning and implications, she recommends. 

If this is clear, women will hopefully know what they’re signing up for. If not, this can breed resentment and confusion.

2. Invite her in. 

Studies indicate faith-based organizations statistically struggle with females self-monitoring to the point they stifle their own diverse opinions. Harvard Business Review (HBR) calls this the “’modesty mandate’ that can lead [women, those of Asian descent, and first-generation professionals] to hold back their thoughts or speak in a tentative, deferential way.” 

Counter these biases by asking these populations to not hold back, but speak up, and then directly requesting their opinions: “Tamara, you’ve had a lot of experience on this. What’s your take?” Then, acknowledge what they’ve shared. 

Like other less represented groups in a business, whether faith-based or church setting, women may shrink back if there’s a dominant style of conflict or interruption. Stop the interruption or circle back to acknowledge their opinion. This helps chronic interrupters understand the desired communication style, as well, notes Brittany Adams, Human Resources Deputy Director and Diversity Specialist at Engineering Ministries International. 

In the desire to interrupt these biases, HBR also suggests the best managers, in the interview process, “insist on a diverse pool, precommit to objective criteria, limit referral hiring, and structure interviews around skills-based questions. Day to day, they should ensure that high- and low-value work is assigned evenly and run meetings in a way that guarantees all voices are heard.”

Further, research indicates women tend to move more toward leadership when: 1) participating on teams, 2) mentored toward that end, 3) specifically invited into leadership by other leaders, both female and male, and 4) connecting with women outside of their areas of service as a “release valve” for their unique pressures. 

3. Affirm genuinely.

A woman also faces unique challenges, like internalizing the mindset that a woman should not lead, ask questions, or request additional discussion, as well as devaluation of her role in a Christian workplace. Glanz observed the pain of Christian women leaders from others’ assumptions: perhaps that she was a feminist, liberal in her theology and interpretation of Scripture, and angry at men due to the woman’s past experience.     

So restate to a woman that you’d want her on your team. Tell her openly what she brings that’s valuable to the team. And when offering constructive feedback, consider language that calls her forward: “If you did this better, I imagine you’d be even stronger.” 

And then continue to humbly solicit and employ her feedback on your own performance: “Is there a way you see I could grow or better support you?”

4. Check your narrative.

Biola University professor and researcher Leanne Dzubinski notes some organizations may practice “sanctified sexism”: They justify treating a woman differently, perhaps in the name of chivalry or protection. Yet they make decisions for her, like deciding she wouldn’t want a role because she has children to care for.

Adams suggests, “When desiring to ask about personal goals or priorities, consider whether you would ask a male colleague the same questions. If not, ask yourself whether the question is necessary or perhaps whether you would like to start asking male colleagues the same questions—if the goal is really to help them holistically think through their career path.” 

If you’d like to ask about a woman’s home life, ask her for permission first—and make sure you’ve established the relational passport to do so. 

Rather than pigeonhole or form assumptions, use gender norms to build your understanding and feed your questions and curiosity, ask, “Is that what it’s like for you?” 

5. Assume the cost for boundaries deemed necessary.

When a male or organization feels the need to establish boundaries, the organization or person of higher authority absorbs the cost, rather than the woman being held back for lack of opportunities to serve, be involved in conversations, advance, etc. 

Say, for example, a man or organization wants to utilize the “Billy Graham rule,” where a man will not go out to lunch, share an elevator, or travel on a business trip alone. In this case, the organization or leader’s budget should consider allocating extra funds to allow a third person to go on the lunch or business trip—rather than subtracting an opportunity for the woman or person of lower power. Or perhaps they fund installing a window in the office where the man and woman might meet alone.

BiasInterrupters.org suggests holding meetings during business hours (not on the golf course on the weekend), and attempting to not make assumptions about a woman’s competency or commitment if she’s pregnant (or could become that way). 

6. Openly discuss power dynamics in a room. 

If the majority of men in a room possess titles higher than the women, acknowledge how this could affect opinions being shared. 

Researcher Margarita Mayo observes elsewhere in HBR, “In a previous study my colleagues and I found that women tend to rate their abilities accurately, while men tend to be overconfident about theirs. Thus, one argument goes, women are less confident than men, which hurts their chances of promotion.” So be willing to call a woman into a position in order to develop her or challenge her, rather than only utilizing skills she already displays or self-identifies.

7. Exercise care when she needs to grow in an area of gender norms.

Some men feel hesitant at all to lead or manage a woman, wary of missteps … or land mines. 

What about when you suspect she needs to grow—but it’s in an area of gender stereotypes, like being melodramatic or lacking assertiveness?

First, ask God to grant discernment, revealing any log in your own eye. Then, proceed cautiously. Still, don’t shrink back if you’d give the same advice to a man in a similar situation. 

This is a great time to evaluate personal assumptions about gender norms, preferences, and core beliefs. The female director explains, “[If I were a man,] It may be helpful for me to admit that I prefer women who are warm and quiet, but does that mean every woman I work with needs to conform to this norm? Can I differentiate between ‘kind and respectful’ versus ‘deferential and timid’?” 

Mayo’s research for HBR indicates competency for men often requires the perception of confidence. But women must also be perceived as confident and warm. Vice versa, competence breeds the perception of confidence in men. Yet women needed to be competent and warm (even more than men) to be perceived as confident—and consequently, as less influential in the organization. 

Mayo concludes, “To get credit for having confidence and competence, and to have the influence in their organizations that they would like to have, women must go out of their way to be seen as warm.”

To preach a clearer gospel

We must ask: Is this how the church should be? 

Strengthening the powerless threads itself endlessly through Scripture, commanding us against favoritism and stifling the voiceless, while lifting unjust yokes (James 2:1, Proverbs 31:8, Isaiah 58). These values mirror the gospel itself to a watching world—how Jesus grants all people dignity, justice, agency, and equality (Galatians 3:28). 

As Christ followers, we should be among the first—as Jesus was—to cheer on and empower women. Yet that’s not seen or felt by many women in ministry. 

For the benefit of the church and the world, we can expand women’s reach without compromising the Word of God and His flawless authority structure—displaying the Trinity’s own roles and submission in churches and homes. Jesus, too, both submitted to the Father and was sent into the world.  And Paul reminds, “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23),  an honor women statistically do not sense in key ways. 

How can we maximize the gifts, minds, and hearts of this underrepresented half of His Body, “giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25)?

We empower women for reasons bigger than the world’s reasons

Because in developing and empowering women, we as Christ-followers welcome others as He welcomed us (Romans 15:7). We covenant to ensure the church represents God’s image in its entirety. More than representing democratic ideals, we represent a Savior who sought interactions with the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Martha, Simone. Who lifted women from the place the world had assigned them, and into positions of beautiful dignity for His kingdom.

Copyright © 2023 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Art of Parenting®, Art of Marriage®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.