Women in leadership positions

K'reisa Cox

Confronting barriers in church, ministry


The opening sentence of SPU’s Statement of Faith is as follows: “At Seattle Pacific University, we seek to ground everything we do on the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Such a claim is both personal, a commitment by each member of our community, and institutional, a corporate aspiration that has guided this institution from its founding.

As we celebrate women in this week’s issue of The Falcon, I would like to use this as an opportunity to examine what women in spiritual leadership looks like in our country, and especially here on campus.

I fell in love with SPU’s mission statement as a sophomore in high school. “Engage the culture, change the world” became a popular mantra in my house, as I discussed my visions for the future with my parents and peers.

A big aspect of living out this statement comes from our work in ministry. Facilitating the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ is the core of our purpose as Christians throughout the course of our time here on earth.

However, the availability of opportunities to live out this purpose as fully as possible has been a subject of debate as long as the church has been in existence.

The body of Christ has been tragically stifled over the centuries by artificial constraints on who can enjoy the full benefits of participation in the Christian community.

The increasing frequency of conversations reflecting on the absence of equality within global society has forced the body of Christ to consider what kinds of barriers we have institutionalized into our own community.

This question especially applies to women’s role in the church.

Women in leadership have undergone significant changes over the history of the church, fluctuating across time and cultures at a sinusoidal pace.

The 19th and 20th century saw very limited spiritual leadership opportunities for women in America, and only recently has this begun to change.

Currently, according to Hartford Institute for Religious Research, about 10 percent of churches in the US have a woman in senior or solo leadership positions.

While this statistic may not sound like much, it becomes more impactful when considered in concordance with the closing wage-gap between male and female pastors.

The 2014-2015 Church Law and Tax Compensation Handbook reported a 40 percent difference between the salaries of male and female senior pastors, but the 2016-2017 Handbook reported a 27 percent difference, a big change in just two years.

The signs of continued establishment of women in leadership is encouraging, as empowering all people in community and ministry has been and continues to be a crucial component of the 21st century church, but this need also applies to all Christian institutions.

So how do we feel about SPU’s ability to empower women to become leaders for Christ?

I asked two female theology students, one first-year and one senior, to get a better sense for how SPU prepares students who are called to leading the church and culture alike into further community with Christ.

Livvy Nolin, a first-year from California, came to SPU because of the theology program here.

She said that overall her experience within the theology department has been positive and empowering, detailing that “in my ministry classes, professors and I are on the same page as me about wanting to minister to others coming from an educated perspective.”

While she has not yet encountered many specific conversations about the difficulties women may experience in ministry, she said that professors don’t seem to think that women have a smaller role within God’s body.

Additionally, she made a point that professors are very good at creating safe, productive spaces for difficult and controversial conversation by ensuring a respectful, listening environment.

However, though SPU takes time to start good conversations, it would seem that they could take them farther in regards to preparing women for the specific challenges they will face in the ministry world.

Destinee Nelons, a senior theology student, commented on the need for SPU to dive deeper into real conversations with female students.

In regards to addressing the specific challenges for women in ministry, the educational experience in ministry conveys “more of a sense of equality rather than equity” at SPU.

According to Nelons, “there should be more conversations around what is different for women in ministry, we need something like In-Context for ministry and Christianity [on campus].”

She elaborated to include that SPU needs to do more for spiritual mentorship for women, so that students can find people with real experience who can address specific barriers women might face as they embark on their ministry careers.

Overall, my experience in exploring how women in spiritual leadership is addressed at our university is that it is an accurate reflection of where our society as a whole in moving forward: conversations are beginning, but they have yet to be fully put into practical application.

SPU seems to be good at starting the right conversations, and acknowledging the right topics concerning this issue, however, we have yet to explore how to practically apply these discussion.

Giving women a real picture of the challenges they will face in ministry and resources to help support them in the growth of their career is a key next step in furthering the establishment of women in leadership in the body of Christ.

Though the scope included in this article isn’t holistic, it still provides an accurate window into the experience of female spiritual leaders at SPU; we are making progress, but there is still plenty of room to improve.