As debates persist about their roles, women increasingly create their own spaces as congregational leaders

While various denominations have established policies regarding women’s roles, the number of women serving in religious leadership capacities has surged in recent decades.

According to research conducted by theologian Eileen Campbell-Reed, 20.7% of American clergy were women as of 2016 — up from 2.3% in 1960.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which represents 4 million members, reported in 2022 that 40% of its pastors were women. In the Assemblies of God, 27.6% of its ministers currently are women.

The Rev. Dr. Kamilah Hall Sharp, who is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), exemplifies a growing trend among women embracing roles as congregational leaders. Even as some question whether — and how — they should lead, women like Hall Sharp are pursuing alternative pathways to their religious calling.

Hall Sharp, along with the Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, co-founded The Gathering, a womanist church in Dallas. The two ordained ministers planted the church in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, after determining that they could fill a void by bringing to the forefront Black women’s voices. On its website, The Gathering describes its context this way: “As more preachers, pastors and ministers of the word intentionally do the deeper exegetical work of interrogating the sacred biblical texts to raise up the muted voices of women, the theological landscape for womanism continues to expand.”

“We obviously still see women who are having to fight to be in spaces and to be affirmed in spaces,” said Hall Sharp, who also is the director of the Doctor of Ministry in Public Ministry Program at Chicago Theological Seminary. “But I also see a trend in which women are welcomed and starting to create their own tables. My church is an example of creating your own table — within a denominational setting.”

Hall Sharp, a former practicing attorney, pursued a theological degree because she felt a call to ministry. After earning her master of divinity at Memphis Theological Seminary, she moved to Texas to pursue a doctorate in biblical interpretation with a focus in Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School.

Despite her credentials, she encountered roadblocks. “In Texas, there aren’t a lot of spaces for women,” Hall Sharp said. “I struggled with finding a church home for a while.”

As a result, Hall Sharp and Session started brainstorming about creating a new space where people could experience womanist preaching. “It eventually evolved into a church. Because we’re both ordained in Disciples of Christ, it became a new church of Disciples of Christ.”

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Kamilah Hall Sharp (left) and Irie Lynne Session (middle) serve communion.

The two didn’t initially consider planting a church. “As it is for a lot of women, we started the church out of necessity,” said Hall Sharp, who co-authored the book “The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons and Litanies.”

“We didn’t have support from our denomination to start the church. And even when we did get financial support, it wasn’t a lot,” she said.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has ordained women since the 1880s, recently appointed the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens to a second term as general minister and president in the United States and Canada — the first person of color and second woman to lead the denomination — but women continue to have fewer opportunities than men, Hall Sharp said.

In her experience, she said, women are typically assigned to or hired at churches that aren’t able to pay as much. “As a result, they’re never able to really be a full-time pastor,” Hall Sharp said. “So many women in ministry have to have other jobs, because they typically don’t get the churches with all the resources.”

Hall Sharp’s experience highlights a common theme of continued inequity among women taking on leadership roles, according to Campbell-Reed, a visiting associate professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project.

“Many women are doing great, but there’s still controversy and conflict everywhere they go,” Campbell-Reed said. “We still have inequities in pay and disparities about where women can start and the extent to which they can grow. They’re still more likely to get associate roles or roles in very small churches.”

Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, a professor of Jewish studies and the senior faculty fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary, has observed similar patterns in rabbinic roles. She noted that women are leading two of the major rabbinic seminaries. In 2020, Jewish Theological Seminary appointed Shuly Rubin Schwartz as its new chancellor — the first woman to hold the role since its founding in 1886 — and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld became president of Hebrew College in 2018.

Those types of developments obviously have been helped by women’s movements across the United States, Mikva said. “However, it’s not without bumps. Women have been moving into rabbinic positions, but not every community was immediately ready to hire a woman to be the rabbi,” she said.

While planting The Gathering was challenging, Hall Sharp said, the rewards were worth it. She said one of the major benefits was providing other women a platform to develop. “It’s difficult to create new spaces, because you don’t necessarily get the financial support that you see others getting,” she said. “But it’s been very rewarding, because people have found a place where they can feel whole; they can come as their complete selves.”

Hall Sharp envisions a future in which women are embraced in their roles as leaders. “I hope to see more women be OK with who they are, to be able to walk authentically, and to see more spaces where they are affirmed and appreciated and their leadership is respected,” she said.

Congregational leaders seeking solid direction on how to adapt in a post-pandemic environment may need to be flexible — at least for the near future, according to the latest findings of a five-year research study.

Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC), a five-year research project funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., was launched in 2020 to research the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for religious life across the United States.

The fourth in a series of EPIC research reports, which is scheduled to be released in August 2023, reveals that church attendance continues to recover after the height of pandemic lockdowns, said Scott Thumma, the principal researcher for the EPIC study and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which led the study.

However, that assessment depends on how attendance numbers are counted, Thumma said.

“In-person worship attendance is still below pre-pandemic levels, but when you include virtual attendance, that moves the number above 2019 levels,” he said. “For the overall sample, on average, church worship is still 8% less than it was pre-pandemic.”

Before the pandemic, the median church worship attendance was 65 people. Currently, the median is 60 people in person. When taking into account virtual attendance as well, it rises to 75, the study revealed. Still, according to a recent survey from Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans participating virtually in services is in decline.

“Most congregations are not back to what they were pre-pandemic,” Thumma said. “Many have lost some of their core people, as well as some of the marginal people. Also, church leaders are reporting that some of their solid members who always attended in person are now attending virtually.

“It’s a real mixed bag. Every time we do a survey, the landscape looks a little different,” he added. “We haven’t yet reached a point where we can say, ‘OK, now we’re at a consistent, steady point.’”

Congregations experiencing different realities

Early findings from the latest EPIC research also revealed that churches are recovering at different levels. For more than 50% of the 5,300 churches surveyed, worship attendance — both in-person and virtual — has declined considerably, Thumma said.

Yet 34% of churches surveyed reported attendance above 2019 levels. The report also revealed that 16% of church attendees are new to the congregations since 2020. This follows the pre-pandemic norm of an average increase of 5% per year from new attendees.

According to Thumma, churches that have experienced growth in recent years have done so through different paths. The churches that have grown have often emphasized virtual worship.

However, churches that focus on growing through virtual worship will find that engagement will lag behind churches that focus on growing through in-person attendance.

Churchgoers who participate primarily online, especially new attendees, are not as deeply connected and committed to the mission of the congregation. As a result, churches with a larger number of people participating online will typically experience lower average rates of giving, Thumma said.

On the other hand, congregations with healthy numbers of people attending services and programs in person are more likely to experience robust giving and robust volunteering. “They may not be growing as fast as other churches that focus on virtual worship, [but] they will have much more committed people,” Thumma said.

One of the main patterns apparently emerging from the pandemic is the prevalence of hybrid worship. Nearly 75% of the 5,300 congregations surveyed reported that they are offering both online and in-person worship options.

According to the first EPIC research report, published in 2021, congregations that opened more quickly in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns — or did not shut down at all — appeared to be recovering more quickly than congregations that remained solely online for extended periods.

However, that pattern became more difficult to track because numerous churches opened and closed at different times, Thumma said. Overall, the latest phase of the EPIC research study indicates that more change could be on the horizon.

Thumma, who has traveled extensively as part of the research project, said that many congregational leaders find the evolving church experience difficult to navigate.

“Each time we do a survey, the dynamics look very different. Until things settle, it seems that the best we can do is assume that what we’re looking at right now may not be how things end up,” he said. “It’s important to keep trying new and different things and not get wed to any one particular direction.”

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For decades, vacation Bible school has been among the most effective church tools for reinforcing biblical lessons among youth and engaging in community outreach and evangelism. But over the past few years of extraordinary challenges, as some churches have stopped offering VBS altogether, others have begun exploring new ways to deliver the content.

The traditional VBS model for educating youth, typically during the summers, was founded on a concept that dates back at least to 1898. But VBS may be undergoing significant changes that were accelerated by the pandemic, according to a multifaceted five-year study, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 (EPIC).

As recently as 2019, 36% of churches offered VBS and/or church day camps during the summer, according to EPIC findings. By 2020, that number had dropped to 17% of congregations. Although the number of churches offering VBS climbed back to 36% in 2021, that level of participation did not appear to be sustainable. Only 31% of the 615 church respondents said they planned to offer VBS in 2022, the last year for which the EPIC study had available numbers.

These trends with VBS seem to be directly tied to declining rates of volunteerism in churches. As of March 2022, about 20% of church members overall were volunteering — down from 40% in early 2020, the EPIC report revealed.

And 57% of churches in the 2022 survey reported volunteer challenges in their education programs during the previous two years. Since volunteers are primarily responsible for children’s education in nearly 60% of churches, those programs, including VBS, have been significantly affected.

“Traditional models of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School may no longer be feasible in many congregations either because of the lack of volunteers or the lack of participants,” the study’s April 2022 report on religious education said.

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Exploring new ways of hosting VBS

Many church leaders currently are grappling with how to continue offering VBS programs that can accommodate limitations like declining volunteerism, according to Melita Thomas, team leader of training and events at Lifeway Christian Resources. Each year, Lifeway supports VBS training for more than 60,000 participants across the country.

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“People are getting creative about how VBS looks. They’re breathing fresh life into it by doing it in nontraditional ways and in nontraditional settings,” Thomas said. “The pandemic helped, because it broke the mold of VBS for a certain number of hours of the day during a specific number of days in a week at the church. And the idea that you need to have crafts, music and recreational activities went out the door with COVID.”

However, the process of switching to new formats isn’t always easy.

Thomas said many church leaders have expressed reluctance about moving away from the more traditional model of VBS, in which churches host daylong activities as part of a summer camp experience.

“VBS doesn’t have to be what it used to be,” Thomas said. “Leaders must be realistic about what they can offer. VBS can consist of what you’re able to do now. That means you may not be able to do it in the same way as before, but it’s still worth doing.”

Church educational programs like VBS, no matter the format, can provide critical support for youth — especially during challenging times like those caused by the pandemic, Thomas said.

“We’re seeing epidemic levels of anxiety, disconnectedness and loneliness among a generation that’s more connected to technology than ever before,” she said. “VBS becomes a very practical solution to that. Children can unplug from their devices and plug in with caring adults who build relationships with them and show them Christ in all they do.”

Equipping your VBS team for success

Church education leaders preparing to move forward in these new times with a successful VBS model must look at three essential areas — adjusting capacity, instilling a sense of mission and equipping the VBS team through training, Thomas said.

Leaders can start by determining the bare minimum of what they can offer. For instance, if a church has three to six key volunteers, they can assess the team’s overall strengths. It might be that one person can supervise crafts but no one has volunteered to lead music. If that’s the case, the program can be built to focus on crafts and lessons but eliminate music as a component, Thomas said.

“Church leaders need to acknowledge their restrictions, limitations and budgets, and take into account what works best for the children they serve,” she said, noting that they can use VBS resources to craft their own programs.

For example, church leaders have experimented with short VBS sessions in the evenings, after more volunteers are available to support the program, Thomas said.

Second, it is important to instill a sense of mission for everyone participating in VBS, whether it is passing out snacks or overseeing activities. “It shouldn’t be this thing that we feel obligated to do because we’ve always done it,” she said. “It’s important that people grasp the ‘why’ behind VBS. And it needs to be communicated in a way that it becomes a revolutionary force in the church.

“So even if you’re the snack lady, you should have a sense that your purpose is to reflect the light of Christ, watch for gospel opportunities and build relationships with the children,” she said. “They need to see that what they’re doing is much bigger than the task they were assigned.”

With that sense of purpose, volunteers are more inclined to participate, Thomas said.

Last, training and support provided on the front end — before VBS starts — increases the likelihood of VBS teams being successful and being willing to return for future programs.

Thomas also encourages church leaders to be mentally prepared to make shifts with different types of educational church programs.

“It may be hard to let go of what you did in the past,” she said. “There’s always a bit of grief adapting to the reality of what you’ve lost. But if you can turn your attention to what you can do and what it can be, embrace the success in that.”

Thomas said that these changes with VBS may be temporary. “It doesn’t mean that what we had pre-pandemic will never return again,” she said. “We just have to take a couple of steps back and rebuild based on what’s available to us.”

In 2005, more than 15 years before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an international public health emergency, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, already had started exploring how technology could support its growing ministry.

Church leaders invested in innovation during the megachurch’s initial experiences with online ministry, said Jay Kranda, who took on the role of full-time online community pastor in 2012. That online strategy helped fuel the growth of Saddleback Church and can provide a blueprint for many congregations that seek to incorporate technology into their long-term plans for growth.

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When Saddleback Church first started streaming worship, it only allowed church members with a password to attend the live services. Eventually the password requirement was eliminated. By the time Kranda became a volunteer online pastor in 2010, the church was hosting 10 live services every week at noon and 7 p.m. By 2012, the church was hosting 83 services, streaming recordings every two hours, seven days a week.

As the online community grew, Saddleback encouraged people worldwide to connect with in-person communities by hosting groups to watch streaming services in their homes. Krandra describes these groups, called “extensions,” as core elements of Saddleback Church. They provide opportunities for developing house churches which, in turn, may become church campuses.

In 2014, Saddleback added on-demand services as an option. Now the church is streaming a service every second each week with people engaged in online small groups, in-person small groups and extensions.

During the church’s early stages of live streaming services, leaders noticed communal elements coming into play, Kranda said.

“That’s when we started to think, ‘Hey, this isn’t just a content strategy. This is a social strategy,” he said.

Kranda encourages church leaders to consider digital outreach as an opportunity to engage members and visitors beyond church services — whether they are attending them in person or online.

“Digital allows you to engage people … beyond that hour or two hours a week that they gather at your church,” he said. “Digital allows you to decentralize your Great Commission.”

The ultimate goal for church services should go beyond an exceptional sermon or teaching, Kranda said.

“The objective is not to get people in a room to help you to do things,” he said. “The objective is to produce an outcome in their lives. Can digital do that better? Or can it be a companion experience that can amplify what you’re doing in the room?”

For example, Saddleback Church leaders were focused at one time on encouraging parents to attend an in-person event on Saturdays, he said. The initiative failed to draw the numbers church leaders expected.

As a result, they developed a website with resources that members with children could use in small groups instead of expecting them to add yet another event to their busy schedules. The online resource proved to be highly successful, Kranda said.

From that, Saddleback’s leaders further invested in strategies to support the growth of those engaging in their online services.

Kranda said that, like other Saddleback ministries, the online community church is focused on supporting the church’s mission — digitally.

“We have a purpose-driven strategy and we have waded into trying to figure out how to do that in an online or decentralized way,” he said. “My filter is my pastor and our elders … and what they’re saying we’re doing. It’s about focusing on how to do that within our [digital] context.”

Throughout Saddleback’s online community church experience, Kranda said that he regularly identifies opportunities to drive next steps for the people attending online services.

For example, if a person is located near one of the church’s 17 campuses, Kranda said he would encourage them to connect with the congregation at that physical location. If not, he said, he would encourage them to take a discipleship class offered monthly on the Zoom platform and to participate in an online group.

Other next steps may include engaging in a meetup in the person’s area, starting with a small in-person group, then partnering with other small groups, and ultimately starting a church extension, Kranda said.

“We think God is working in digital spaces, but we definitely want people to move towards face-to-face engagement,” he said. “We want everyone who is part of our online community to eventually become part of a physical group.”

Currently Saddleback Church has 800 groups and 40 extensions, Kranda said.

Kranda said that both small and large churches can leverage volunteers to get the process started.

“I’m a big believer in God using ordinary people to lead and make an impact,” he said.

He advised congregational leaders to cast a vision for what they want to see happen digitally, and then provide a way for volunteers to step up and help.

“The digital space can be confusing. It’s constantly changing,” he said. “It can be a moving target. I think pastors often worry about having it all figured out. You don’t need to be the expert. Give space for people in your community to serve while you coach them on the vision.”