The Biblical Basis for Women in Church Leadership and Pastoral Ministry:

The State of the Brethren in Christ Church on Women in Ministry: Then and Now

by Janet M. Peifer, DMin

As I write this fourth part of the current series on women in leadership and ministry, there are eleven Brethren in Christ women who have been ordained to the ministry. Several women serve in leadership and pastoral roles with a ministerial license. At least one has completed all the requirements and has submitted a request for ordination. Numerous others are taking Core Courses, going to seminary, and serving faithfully in their churches toward completion of the ministerial licensing requirements. Hundreds of women in Brethren in Christ congregations serve as chairs of boards, in church staff leadership positions, as leaders at one of our overseas mission locations, and as members on boards and committees within and without the denomination. One young girl of 12 years old has indicated to her parents that God is calling her to ministry. Certainly there are many others.

We praise God for moments of awakening in our denomination that have affirmed the preaching and leadership gifts of women for the furtherance of the Gospel in our churches and communities. And we praise God for each woman who has answered the call to lead. Sadly, there are women in our denomination who have been licensed in the past but when no place of assignment was found, they chose to let their ministerial license expire and found leadership in ministries outside the denomination. Other women have lived with a holy restlessness which has gone uncalmed because no one recognized that God was calling them to serve as pastors and leaders.

It seems ironic that our denomination whose editor of the early issues of The Evangelical Visitor (1887-1897) gave voice to writers who clearly favored women in leadership and ministry, would today find considerable difficulty in placing licensed and ordained women in associate and senior pastorates. Why did our espousal of Wesleyan Holiness doctrine fail to lead us through an era of tremendous openness to women evangelists, pastors, and church planters as in our sister holiness denominations (i.e., The Church of the Nazarene, The Wesleyan Church, and The Free Methodist Church)? Or, as Alvin John Schmidt asks, "Why was this unprecedented freedom for women to join the male clergy as proclamators of the Gospel and administrators of the Church so short lived after the days of Jesus and the first century church? Why did the church revert to the sexist practices of the agrarian-patriarchal cultures that preceded Jesus and the apostles?" (Schmidt in Veiled and Silenced, 211). Schmidt prefaces his five reasons by noting "that when behavior does not become institutionalized, as in the case of women's equality in the apostolic church, it eventually dies or it is taken over by previously existing behavior (218).

Brethren in Christ congregations (as those in any other denomination which have women in ministry positions) are only one or two pastorates away from extinction of women in public ministry roles, unless the calling and placing of women in those positions becomes a conscious, intentional, and active part of the congregation's decision-making process. Every church has women who God has equipped and called for leadership. Some of them need to hear from their pastors or other church leaders that it is a call of God, because heretofore no women served in a board, deacon, or pastoral role. Some of our sister holiness denominations who had as high as 30% of their pastors who were clergywomen in past years, today have less than 5% of women pastors and most of them are support staff rather than senior pastors. It is yet another reminder that no group can rest on its laurels because the influence of the newest popular religious wave can obliterate critical thinking and emphasis on one's foundational beliefs and practices.

The State of the Brethren in Christ Church on Women in Ministry and Leadership: Then

The editors of The Evangelical Visitor (Dec. 1989 and Jan. 1990) and Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1990) have published my research of the denomination on women in ministry from 1887-1987 in previous issues. What follows is a brief synopsis of the findings of that research.

In 1987 I was three years into my quest to discover what the Bible said about women in ministry. While taking the Brethren in Christ History course at Messiah College, I chose to study the first 100 years of The Evangelical Visitor to learn if the Brethren in Christ were open to the leadership of women and whether they, like numerous other faith traditions, were influenced by popular religious culture on this matter. I discovered that two months after the first issue was published (October 1, 1887) Henry N. Engle wrote an appeal to the church to return to the use of prophecy (foretelling and unfolding the mysteries of scripture), and to allow all members to participate who had been so endowed, whether men or women. Two years later S. E. Graybill stated that he believed misinterpretation of the Apostle Paul's admonition to the women at the Corinth Church accounted for the large number of late 19th century churches that imposed silence on their women in the public assemblies (Feb. 1, 1899). John Fohl submitted a challenge to the church in the Sept. 15, 1893 issue in which he stated,

For some time the writer has been impressed to write an article in vindication of the sisterhood of the church, thousands of whom, in many churches, with their brilliant talents and zeal for God, are held in bondage by their so-called leaders, and not suffered to pray in the congregation, neither to speak of what Jesus has done for their souls, neither to exhort or preach.

While not all contributors to The Evangelical Visitor agreed with such thinking, clearly there was an openness to biblical interpretation that permitted women to preach and lead in the final years of the 19th century. Was it such progressive thinking that gave Rhoda E. Lee the courage to write and read papers at the 1894 and 1895 General Conferences on the necessity of the denomination to become engaged in foreign missions. What prompted the male church leaders not only to hear her papers, but to respond immediately to the challenge? Of Lee, Carlton Wittlinger stated that "today there is little denominational awareness that the launching of the Brethren in Christ foreign missions was due, in no small measure, to the influence of a remarkable woman, Rhoda E. Lee. She probed mercilessly into the conscience and lethargy of the church (Notes and Queries, July 1961, 11, 15).

In the early 1900's women were recognized as evangelists, missionaries, and inner city missions leaders. In the June 1916 issue of The Evangelical Visitor, Anna E. Kipe submitted a positive opinion of "the door of opportunity being opened on every hand for women." But as was occurring in numerous other denominations, the Brethren in Christ passed this resolution in their 1919 General Conference: "Resolved, that we do not consider it the right of the woman to stand on equality with the man as a preacher." At least one exception occurred when Anna Kraybill Engle was ordained in 1921 at the Bethany Church in Oklahoma. The ordination was a congregational decision and thus was never entered officially in the records of the denomination. During the silent years between 1920 and 1969, women were without question making significant contributions to the church but church polity banned them from public ministry and preaching, and nothing on the topic appeared in The Evangelical Visitor.

The 1970's brought a revival of interest as evidenced in increased articles published and challenging questions posed. Church leaders such as Carlton O. Wittlinger and E. Morris Sider were writing books which highlighted the ministry of women. The 1978 General Conference asked the denominational Board of Administration to study the church's position on women in pastoral ministry and come to the 1980 General Conference with manual of doctrine and government revisions to reflect the position. Study papers were written from an open position on the value of women in ministry and leadership. A grassroots forum at the 1980 General Conference resulted in a newsletter-type paper which soon became known as Alabaster Jar. The 1982 General Conference passed the Board of Administration recommendation which officially declared that women's ministry was affirmed in the ministry and life of the church. Lynda Kelly became the first woman to be ordained in 1987. In March 1990 a Women in Ministry study conference was held at Camp Hebron in Halifax, PA where women and denominational leaders participated in a landmark event. During the 1990's several women were ordained, two women served as senior pastors and others served in Associate and other support positions. Women were also making positive contributions as chairs of boards, lay leaders in the congregation and leaders in church-related ministries.

The State of the Brethren in Christ Church on Women in Ministry and Leadership: Now

As part of my doctoral project in 1998, I compiled the results of several questionnaires, one of which queried the senior pastors of the Brethren in Christ to discover their personal beliefs about women in leadership and ministry and to inquire of their assessment of the beliefs and practices of their congregation. Approximately 50% of the pastors (112) returned a completed questionnaire. Following is a brief compilation of results.

Brethren in Christ Senior Pastor's Beliefs About Women in Pastoral Ministry 


STATEMENT

Total

Agree

Disagree

Unsure

Women, like men, are called of God  to public pastoral ministry.

111

79

17

15

The Bible prohibits women from pursuing pastoral leadership roles.

112

18

79

15

Women should be involved in ministry, but not in preaching or in giving leadership to men.

109

24

71

14

I do/would feel comfortable serving with a woman on the pastoral staff.

110

80

16

14

Women should be called to fill existing vacant senior pastor positions in the denomination.

106

43

29

34

Women should continue serving only as Assoc. pastors, CE directors, or in other support staff roles.

105

25

57

23

The older adults in my congregation would find it too difficult to accept a woman as their pastor.

109

29

36

44

 

Brethren in Christ Pastor's Experience with Women in Ministry

Have a friend who is a woman in ministry

79

Family member who is a clergywoman

14

Woman on my pastoral staff/or in former church

34

Never served with a woman on pastoral staff

68

Heard a woman preach within last three months

27

Heard a woman preach within last year or two

61

Heard a woman preach years ago

18

Have never heard a woman preach

4

The Current BIC Congregation in Which I Serve as Pastor:

Has heard me preach on women in ministry within the last six months

10

Sermon on women in ministry within last year

17

...yes, but not in recent years

23

...not during my time at this church

50

We have one or more women serving as pastors in our church

18

We do not currently have any women serving as pastors

93

I believe the Church Board in this congregation is or would be:

Opposed to calling a woman as Assoc. Pastor

19

Open to calling a woman as Assoc. Pastor

61

Opposed to calling a woman as Senior Pastor

54

Open to calling a woman as Senior Pastor

17

Divided in their beliefs about a woman serving in any pastoral role

53

Non-credentialed women serve in this congregation in pastoral-like roles.

56

Non-credentialed women do not serve in pastoral-like roles.

49

Changing and Growing Concerning Issues of Women in Ministry  

The # of books/articles I have read on the topic of women in ministry is:

1 or 2
27

3 to 6
53

7 or more 
28

None
1

Most of what I have read or heard on women in pastoral ministry was:

In favor of
14

Opposed
11

Some of both
86

 

I first learned what the BIC position and practice on women in ministry was:

At a BIC General Conference
46

In the Visitor
18

In a Core Course
13

I need more info
24

Compared to 10-15 years ago, my beliefs and opinions about women in ministry can be described as:

More accepting
59

Less accepting
3

Basically un-changed
***47

 

***Further analysis of Unchanged (from above table)
--29 were accepting of it 10-15 years ago and remain accepting
--12 were opposed to it before and continue to be opposed
--6 were ambivalent before and remain the same

Personal Reflections on the Questionnaire Responses

If these results were those of 80% or more of the Brethren in Christ senior pastors, it could be considered a quite positive report for the denomination's clergywomen and their future opportunities. While one cannot escape a curiosity about the beliefs of those who chose not to return the questionnaire, there are more resourceful matters to which one can respond. There was a sufficient number of choices of "unsure" to indicate that continued dialogue and educative efforts are essential. Study guides, a suggested reading list, and supportive articles (such as this current series) in The Visitor could be important tools to assist those who are ambivalent about a woman's call to ministry, about women preaching and leading in particular roles, and what are the biblical principles which should inform our responses.

There are only a few Brethren in Christ congregations which have experienced pastoral care and preaching from a clergywoman, making this a largely unexamined area of ministry. Sharing testimonies of the value of women in leadership and serving on pastoral staffs by those who currently have women on staff might be of benefit. Many congregations would likely discover that their older adults will not only accept the pastoral care of a woman, but might actually have the potential to be prophetic and lead the way for other cohort groups toward a fuller acceptance of women as pastors. Since 1991 when I answered a call to pastor among older adults, I have witnessed the transformation of beliefs among "God's oldest friends" (phrase borrowed from a book by that title by Henry Simmons and Mark Peters) and have been supported by their unparalleled acceptance and encouragement of my ministry.

It clearly matters what a pastor and church board believe about women in pastoral ministry and leadership. When there is an atmosphere of inclusiveness in a congregation, young girls and women, and women in their middle-aged years who sense a call to ministry are encouraged to respond to that call. One can only surmise how many women down through the centuries failed to recognize a call to ministry because it was something that didn't "happen." As a clergywoman in pastoral ministry among hundreds of older Christians, I have taken special notice of women who surely would have been pastors in our congregations had it been permissible and encouraged.

Despite a high percentage of pastors who responded to the survey that personally approve of and would support their clergywomen peers, there appears to be a dearth of teaching and preaching which addresses women in ministry and leadership in their congregations. Considering that 84% of the pastors who participated in the survey did not have a woman on the pastoral staff, and that 61% of the pastors had never worked with a woman on the pastoral staff, a dearth of modeling and experience continues.

I believe that there are enough women and men whom God has called to the pastoral ministry and to lead in our boards, committees, and commissions to adequately meet the demands of our staffing needs in the coming years. We are a small denomination, but that need not preclude us from being catalysts for change in this movement with God to ascertain that every girl and women called to ministry will be nurtured in a supportive congregation.

Part I: Introduction | Part II: From Genesis to the Gospels | Part III: Women in the Early Church and the Apostle Paul on Women