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.

Pastors and my garden plants could have a lot in common, to the benefit of the clergy.

This occurred to me recently when a denominational leader lamented that pastors feel they are unable to be vulnerable in denominational spaces. The denomination supervises too many elements of pastors’ professional lives for it to be a safe space for mental and spiritual health conversations.

No single organization can provide pastoral leaders with all of the support they need. Instead, pastors need a network of institutions committed in distinct but collaborative ways to their thriving.

As with clergy, my garden plants need more than a variety of components in their soil to grow; they need a network that shares these resources effectively and collaboratively. Front yard gardening — a high-maintenance and high-reward hobby — has provided me with a window into how plants network.

I didn’t set out to turn my entire front yard into a garden. I started with a 4-by-4-foot raised bed to grow some cherry tomatoes and basil. Seven years later, I have a yard filled with raised beds, grow bags and a perennial pollinator garden.

Vegetables, flowers and weeds comingle to produce food for my household, the birds, the squirrels and the bees. It’s chaotic and joy-creating for me while providing meaningful neighborly connections.

Slowly, over the years, my understanding of soil science has grown. Initially, I mixed bagged garden soil with homemade compost and declared it good enough. The plants grew as long as I remembered to water them and paid attention to pest and mildew problems.

Gradually, through gardening missteps and lackluster harvests, I began to learn about the complex needs of the many plants I attempt to grow. Dramatic plant failures have led me for advice to the local cooperative extension office help line more than once.

Carbon-rich soil feeds sugars and nutrients to plants and acts as a sponge, holding much-needed water for hydration. Mineral-dense soil provides potassium and phosphate. Bean and pea plants can pull nitrogen from the air (magic!), making crop rotation an essential part of successful gardening. And when the soil doesn’t have what the plants need, there is an entire cottage industry of soil amendments to help our green things grow.

But in between the compost and clay and the worms and grubs lives my favorite part of soil: the fungus. That white web uncovered in an overturned pile of mulch is garden gold, the mycelium network that acts as the fiber-optic communications channel for the plants.

Through these tiny strands, plants share resources and information with one another. The network also breaks down matter left by humans and other creatures, improving the soil’s quality and ability to support plant growth.

The importance of the mycelium’s invisible contribution to our daily well-being cannot be overstated. Working in my garden this spring to nurture the conditions for the mycelium to thrive, I have pondered how this network is a meaning-rich metaphor for pastors.

Each faith-based or church-related organization has a mission and strengths that define how it supports clergy, congregations and communities. It creates and provides a vital resource, but no single entity can offer all of the support needed for thriving communities and pastors.

We are more effective in our ministry when we understand our particular organization’s unique contributions to a thriving community — how we connect to other groups to support our people. This requires all of us to shed fears of economic scarcity and adopt a theology of abundance and collective wellness. It requires us to trust that a Creator God who has imagined a tiny fungal network into existence has imbued us with the capacities to share resources and wisdom needed to thrive together.

This eco-theological imagination complements Scripture’s many stories and metaphors that encourage us to think collaboratively about the work of being faithful in the world: the body of Christ, the sending of the 72, the formation of the diaconate in the early church. These biblical references bring meaning to local congregational and communal life, as well as the larger ecosystems surrounding pastors and faith communities. They, like the mycelium network, challenge us to share our resources and creativity with one another.

The economic realities of life in the 21st century require each of us at the personal and organizational level to ask hard questions about who we are, who we are not, and how we connect and share with others who have distinct offerings.

Our wealth is not financial; it is the relational trust we have with one another that we will not abandon one another, that we will show up to celebrate and support, to share and care. That is not to discount the need for fund development and viable economic models. Rather, the mycelium network challenges our culturally pervasive posture that economic thriving is a zero-sum game best won through resource hoarding.

The tiny, interconnecting strands of the mycelium reflect the sacred call to be in community with one another at every level of our life, work and ministry. This crucial network teaches us that we are not alone in growing thriving communities, congregations and ministers but live in a world full of living connections and relationships that make us healthier, stronger and more abundant.

The economic realities of life in the 21st century require each of us at the personal and organizational level to ask hard questions about who we are, who we are not, and how we connect and share with others who have distinct offerings.

My encounter with Tim Keller, who died May 19 at 72, began nearly 40 years ago when he was my teacher at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I think my first semester was also Tim’s first — he had just begun to teach practical theology part time.

I had decided to attend Westminster largely because a professor named Harvie Conn was building a program there around ministry in cities. And it turned out that Tim’s encounter with Conn would be pivotal in his decision as well to go to New York City.

Tim was my professor for pastoral ministry and preaching, and he befriended me, wanting to know more about my plans for ministry, which I planned to pursue in Baltimore. In one course, he assigned me the lowest grade I received during my time in seminary. I told him that at graduation — with a smile — but in true Tim fashion, he countered by telling me something encouraging about my studies that also gave me a smile.

After I spent a decade in ministry in my hometown of Baltimore, Tim encouraged me to move to New York City and was deeply formative in what became my current project, City Seminary of New York. As the seminary grew, Tim, with his unique way of seeing what matters most, continued to think with us about our particular calling to the future of faith in the city.

As I’ve reflected on my own memories of Tim and of his journey to God over the three years since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I’ve returned to a seminar on ministry I took with him in 1987. It was a program capstone class of sorts I took with fellow student Jeff White. After Tim founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Jeff would join him as the first pastoral staff person. These were days that began lifelong friendships — and days when a short seminar in seminary required only 600 pages of reading and two papers!

Looking over my class notes today, I can see how what Tim was teaching would guide his ministry approach to Redeemer. This was two years before he moved to New York City to begin Redeemer with his wife, Kathy, and their sons. I can also see how God was in this part of Tim’s story, giving him time and space to prepare for ministry.

In this seminar, Tim talked about how to build up a church’s life, the role of small groups, the importance of identifying a philosophy of ministry, the need to focus on a church’s unique purpose in its context, the dynamics of the Holy Spirit in grace, renewal and change, and, of course, the place of preaching.

But it was a particular point I remembered him making about pastoral ministry, about the questions we need to ask and answer, that I wanted to search out in my notes.

I think a key factor in Tim and Redeemer’s story was his faithful commitment to pastoral ministry. He pursued the fullest potential of the gifts God had given him and seeking to build bridges of grace, conversation and friendship for people to encounter Christ.

Tim had a great zeal for proclaiming the gospel, a gift for inviting people to see Christ in fresh ways.

I can’t recall the details, but some years ago I heard Tim recount how many hours each week he put into preparing his sermons for Redeemer, of which he often delivered four per Sunday; it was days, not hours. And it was not just the effort he put in before and during preaching but a continuous process of wrestling with the biblical text, his theological convictions and context as he saw it, and the small reworkings he made as he went about sharing the fruit of that labor each Sunday.

And then there were the one-to-one meetings over coffee Tim began early on with people in New York, listening to their stories and questions about the gospel, praying with them, caring for them as he engaged his new pastoral context. It was a practice he continued over the years.

When I found my old notes, I read the series of “invitational questions for ministry involvement” with which he closed the seminar.

Is there a particular need? Are there people to work with you? What are you willing to invest? And do you have the physical and emotional resources?

These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself before starting out in a new ministry, he explained.

It was not long after Tim retired from Redeemer that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But as he shared this news with those around him and wrote about it in places like The Atlantic, he did so in a way that revealed how his faith, prayer life and trust in Christ were deepening. How he was dwelling more deeply in the presence of God’s love as he faced death.

We each have strengths and weaknesses across the course of our lives. Tim’s witness these past years took place in a season marked not by physical strength and vitality but by his brokenness and tears.

It seems that this was Tim’s concluding seminar on ministry. And it came not in the form of a traditional lecture, book or sermon but in a new series of invitational questions.

How do I do ministry not just with my strengths but with trust in God to lead through my weaknesses and vulnerabilities? How do we recognize we are built for something more, something else, for God? How do I live daily life with a hope that does not deny suffering and injustice but challenges it by looking and living toward God’s new creation and the life to come?

Until the end, Tim kept living the pastoral calling and questions God had given him. And he learned what the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr has observed: that when we fall down, we may be falling upward.

Thanks be to God for Tim Keller, who lived the gospel with beauty, joy and grace, pointing in hope to the crucified and risen Christ.

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.”