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Women in Leadership: Achieving Mission

By September 1, 2015 No Comments

Last year, Grace Chapel, a megachurch in the Boston area, voted by a large margin to allow women to serve as elders, removing the final hurdle for women leaders at this church. As a member of the Women in Leadership National Study research team studying gender parity in evangelical organizations, I had been following the debate at Grace Chapel. What was so revolutionary about Grace Chapel’s decision? I argue that it was the dual message of believing that this decision was both faithful to the Bible and necessary for the church to be able to achieve its mission. Grace Chapel exemplifies a larger shift in discussion about women in leadership. At a recent meeting of the Christian Leadership Alliance, it was clear that the discussion was no longer around theological arguments over the role of women but around strategies to make change happen faster in order to be most effective in achieving institutional mission.

I saw this same urgency when we convened a high-powered advisory board for a national benchmark study on evangelical women in leadership, out of a desire to identify ways to increase the number and impact of women in leadership among evangelical nonprofits. The study is not about empowering women; rather, it is about institutional change. The advisory-board members, including men such as Rich Stearns, of World Vision, and Alec Hill, of Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship, were incredibly forthcoming about the absolute necessity for change to happen now.


The vision that is driving this increased desire to move women into leadership asks us to imagine a world where these things would be true: Women would be asked to speak or share expertise on topics other than gender issues. We would regularly assume a variety of career paths to leadership. We would have full and diverse perspectives on the world from the experiences of both women and men. Men would have rich relationships with their children because they were engaged at home to allow their wives’ talents to be used by the Christian community.

Organizations need to be more explicit about their positions on women in leadership, given that many of the nonprofits are ecumenical.

Professional partnerships that involve women and men would be normal, leading to women being seen as professionals and not sexualized. Young men would be able to have women role models, leading to strong marriage partnerships. Boards would be 50-50 without having to be intentional about it. Our model of leadership would allow for diversity among men’s styles. This is a world where female leadership would be considered a normal occurrence.

The Women in Leadership National Study, supported by The Imago Dei Fund, is looking at women in leadership in the evangelical nonprofit sector. The study, housed at Gordon College, involves Wheaton College, the Center for Social Research at Calvin College and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The desire of all involved in this study is to identify organizational actions that will increase the number and effectiveness of women in leadership among evangelical nonprofits.


The research began with an analysis of women’s representation in leadership across a host of organizations. The study gathered data from the tax forms of over 1,400 organizations that belong to key evangelical and Christian umbrella groups: ECFA, the evangelical relief-and-development network Accord, the Christian Community Development Association and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The second stage of the study focused on gaining more insight into the perspectives of the men and women serving in leadership capacities in evangelical organizations and in higher education. Leaders in more than 100 organizations were surveyed. In the third phase of the study, researchers interviewed leaders at organizations that perform well in a variety of gender-related measures to better understand what organizational, cultural and theological variables are influencing the gender climate and promotion and retention of women in leadership.

As expected, women had lower levels of representation in leadership in Christian organizations than in the same sectors in society in general. Women held 16 percent of chief-executive-officer positions, 21 percent of board positions and 19 percent of top-paid leadership positions. These statistics stand in sharp contrast to the nonprofit world more generally. Women now make up close to half of all nonprofit board members (48 percent), and more than a third of nonprofit CEOs. Evangelical organizations are at best doing half as well.

Our daughters focus on what is “not possible” rather than examining what God might be calling them to do.

Religious tradition itself does not seem to be a predictor for the presence of women in leadership. In each tradition, we found women in leadership roles. However, in organizations where women reach the highest level, those traditions with more of an emphasis on the Holy Spirit emerge: Pentecostal, holiness, Wesleyan and Anabaptist. When compared with colleges and universities generally, we find that Christian colleges and universities often fare significantly worse in measures of gender equity. While women hold 5 percent of the presidencies in Christian colleges, they hold 26 percent of college presidencies more generally. Even in the academic sector, where women struggle the most to hold the top positions – doctoral granting institutions – women make up 22 percent of presidents. To put it in a different perspective, the percentage of board positions held by women (19 percent) among evangelical colleges in 2010 is equivalent to the percentage (20) of other private colleges in 1985.

While the data from the first stage of the study showed the distance that we need to travel to effectively use the gifts of women in leadership, the second stage of the study – a survey of leaders across the nonprofit sectors – showed evidence of a shift, with extremely strong support expressed for both women and men holding leadership positions within society (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Percent Holding Egalitarian Views in Different Spheres

Both men and women overwhelmingly agree that leadership should be shared among genders, especially in society. To put it a different way, only 6 percent of both women and men agreed that men should hold distinctive leadership roles within society. However, men and women differ when it comes to how leadership should be shared in the family and in the church. Significantly more women than men believed that women should share leadership with men in the church and in the family.

In the survey, leaders were asked to evaluate the views of other leaders within their organizations. Such questions measured the perceptions that respondents had regarding peers’ attitudes towards women in leadership. We can compare these perceptions with the individuals’ own statements, allowing us to measure how leaders rank themselves compared to peers when it comes to women’s leadership in both society and the church. The contrasting perceptions of men and women are clear. Women are more likely to be serving in places where they do not believe that their peers supported women in leadership. Twenty percent of the women, compared to 7 percent of the men, said they believed women and men should lead together, while they believed their colleagues thought men should hold distinctive leadership roles.

We also measured how leaders’ views of women in church leadership compared with the views of their churches. Respondents were asked to identify whether a complementarian view of gender (men should hold distinct leadership roles in the church) or egalitarian view of gender (men and women should share leadership roles in the church) was more dominant in their church communities. A majority of men and women attend churches that hold views similar to their own, with both men and women being more likely to attend egalitarian churches than complementarian churches. Very few men and women are in churches that are more egalitarian than they are. A quarter of respondents (23 percent of men and 28 percent of women) were egalitarians in churches that restricted the leadership gifts of women. Put differently, more than a third of all egalitarians did not attend churches where women could fill all leadership roles. Given the confusion of Christian leaders regarding where their peers stand on women in leadership, leaders attending churches with more restrictive stances on women might contribute to confusion among other peers.

What if we expected God to call ALL of our young people to Big Callings and Big Dreams in order to fulfill the purposes of his Kingdom?

Some initial findings are arising out of the interviews with the leadership of institutions that are doing comparatively well when it comes to women in leadership. One finding is that when a balance of men and women in leadership exists, the focus of attention moves to the individual talents and skills that each individual brings to the leadership team. Gender disappears, and competence, diversity of viewpoints and missional effectiveness replace it. Another finding is that the clear, regular articulation of a position by the top leadership that welcomes women in leadership and offers reasons why it is important help provide the context in which women will move into leadership. And it has to be modeled and articulated consistently.

Several key conclusions emerge from this study. First, religion matters when discussing women in leadership in nonprofit organizations and colleges and universities. That is, women are underrepresented in evangelical institutions, even more so than in the broader nonprofit and educational sectors. In fact, evangelical institutions perform about half as well on certain measures of gender parity and even worse when it comes to the highest positions of authority. Second, we find that there are high levels of variation among nonprofits and among colleges. The media often ignore this variability. So even as a quarter of the nonprofits had no women serving on their boards, in 16 percent of organizations, women held at least 40 percent of the board seats. When it comes to the role of theology in Christian colleges, we find that some denominations and traditions have a history of affirming women in leadership, and those are the places where women have a chance of occupying the presidential role. Third, women and men alike overwhelmingly support women holding leadership positions. While not all evangelical organizations are interested in higher levels of gender parity in leadership, many are. This suggests that the theological barriers in the evangelical world to women serving might be overstated. At the same time, leaders are divided about what restrictions should be placed on women’s leadership abilities. Men in particular seem to be divided about evenly when it comes to women leading in the church or the family, while women largely support the ability of women to lead across arenas. Fourth, it is unclear where organizations actually stand when it comes to gender parity. Even as almost all the leaders surveyed affirmed women in leadership within society, many respondents perceived that their peers did not affirm women leading. Organizations need to be more explicit about their positions on women in leadership, given that many of the nonprofits are ecumenical. This issue is particularly important for women, many of whom feel unsupported by peers when it comes to their leadership roles. The first two phases of this study reveal that while evangelical organizations are not doing well at promoting women in leadership, some are, and many are open to having increased female leadership.


What keeps us from experiencing the Kingdom vision I described previously, this imagined world where we use the full potential of women in leadership? First, work structures fail to imagine it. Work is structured to make it difficult for women to care for children and lead. Caring for children falls disproportionately on them. Policies (or lack of them) related to having and caring are not supportive of this vision, so we lose women from the pipeline. Benefits and pay are not equitable. Dual careers are not accommodated. Second, networking patterns are self-perpetuating. We tend to hire who we know. We tend to hire those we are comfortable with and most like ourselves. This works against being intentional about expanding our networks and recruiting. Third, our imaginations do not lead us there. We are limited in terms of whom we can imagine leading our organizations. We rarely use examples of powerful women when we present models of change agents, influential figures, and leaders. Our daughters focus on what is “not possible” rather than examining what God might be calling them to do.

What if we expected God to call ALL of our young people to Big Callings and Big Dreams in order to fulfill the purposes of his kingdom? What if our daughters and sons put no self-limits on what God is calling them to do? What if our daughters respond to a Big Calling from God without it being portrayed as selfish or even sinful and our sons can respond to a caring calling without it being portrayed as selfish and unmanly? How do we get there?

Our study would suggest the following route: First, be explicit in your mission and vision about the need for women and men to work together. For example, the IVCF statement of core values says, “We develop women and men to serve as leaders at every level of Inter Varsity and ultimately for the Kingdom of God, honoring God’s gifts and calling in them.” Second, an organization must regularly assess salaries and benefits to ensure ongoing equity between women and men. In addition, institutions must be intentional about recruiting AND retaining women. This means continually identifying and encouraging women to remain in the pipeline throughout their intense child-caring years and encourage men to be active caregivers as well through providing flexible work schedules, child-care provisions or sick-child support networks, maternity and paternity leave policies that are clear and supportive – an investment in the long-term contribution of women and men in advancing the Kingdom. Furthermore, organizations must have a board that has a minimum of three women as a first step – the magic number that begins to move beyond token representation – reaching for an ongoing goal of more than 30 percent to begin to change the culture. Leaders must see this as a necessity for achieving mission. In the end, it is not just about bringing more women into an organization but about changing the organization in order to embrace the gifts that women bring – gifts that are essential to missional effectiveness.

The founder of Gordon College, A.J. Gordon, included women in the life of the college from its beginning. The focus was not on worrying about whom God might call, but on what God was calling Gordon’s students to be and do. In fact, while I may be the first female provost at Gordon, one of the earliest deans of the faculty was Isabel Warwick Wood. Recognized and sought after for her talents by the board of trustees, she brought her own considerable gifts as a scholar and administrator to the institution, planting seeds for the liberal arts college Gordon would eventually become. It was only the larger conservative cultural movements that began to shape the church of the 1930s to 1950s and focus attention away from mission and on to theological disputes about the who. We are reclaiming our history at Gordon College, a history that at its founding focused on God’s mission and the need to use all the gifts of everyone God has called. This study is helping us in this journey.

For more about this study, its advisory board, and more extensive research reports, see

Janel Curry is provost at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts.

Photo: UNAMID/Flickr, under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.