How to Lead Women’s Ministry in a Complementarian Church

by Andrea Burke February 15, 2019

“How do you do it?”

The most common question I get from well-meaning friends and peers when they find out I’m

1. The director of Women’s Ministry

2. At my complementarian church

I think they ask because they know me well. They know I’m opinionated. They know I have a decent amount of intelligent thoughts and a pretty severe independent streak. They know I’m not quick to be made small and I’ve lost my temper one time too many times to prove it. They know I’m sharp-tongued and sarcastic which sometimes looks like the opposite of quiet and meek. They know I balk at control, and Lord knows I need his help, but why on earth would I subject myself to such an “archaic system.”

So they ask, with a slight whisper under their breath, their brow furrowed just slightly “How do you do it?”

I cry a lot, I say.

Just kidding. I don’t. In fact, two years into this gig and I still look forward to staff meetings. I still count it a blessing that I get to do what I do alongside the men and women I serve with. Two years of learning the ropes. Two years of trying some stuff out and then seeing it didn’t work. Two years with my ear to the ground with our women. Two years of asking “What do you need?”

But never once have I hit a glass ceiling. I’ve found that the boundary lines fall for me in pleasant places. And before I lose a whole crowd of you who just rolled your eyes, let me say this: I’m not just saying this because my pastor might read it.

We have had some hard conversations, yes. There are gray areas I’d like cleared up, sure. We have scenarios that pop-up and I’ll be one to push back, ask “Why?” And dig more if I feel it helps.

But here is how it works, and how I think it could work for you and your church too.

1. The pastors are my friends. We have great conversations. They include me in on some difficult decisions they’re processing. They ask my opinion. They give me a heads up on issues that the elders are working through and how they might affect the church. We laugh together. We share parts of our lives with each other. They lead but not by brute force, disdain, or petty nuances. They confidently treat me like a sister who is working with them in the work that must be done.

2. They treat me as an intellectual equal. They challenge ideas that don’t make sense. I ask them questions. I ask why decisions are made the way they are. I ask for clarification on issues that affect me. We discuss scripture. Theology. Cultural thought. I don’t feel silly.

3. They lead as servants. I see them time and time again lay down their schedules, take hits, bear the weight of the church and decisions they must make. They are the first to respond to needs. They are just men. There is no air of royalty around them. They know they’re just men.

4. They look to me to understand the needs of women in the church. I’m not a joke. When I defend a woman’s position or need, they don’t roll their eyes. They ask, they seek to understand, they adjust. They challenge any cultural standards I’ve adopted in my theology. Women are not a frightening enigma to them. They are a demographic they want to serve well and faithfully.

5. They involve me in sermon discussion and writing. I can add a voice in the content from a female’s perspective. I openly share my view of the text. And then they actually listen and don’t wave me away.

6. They trust me. I don’t feel them watching over my shoulder, or micro-managing my ministry. They trust me to know the needs of women. If something comes up that needs more review, I don’t feel attacked. There is respectful and honest conversation about the decisions I’ve made.

7. I don’t think men are the enemy.

8. They don’t think women are threatening.

9. No one is vying for power.

10. I actually believe this is the best and most Biblical way to do things. I’m not a spy from the other team, sneaking around and pretending I agree until I see my chance to break through. I’m not a hyper-feminist. I think healthy men are great and important and a necessity to a healthy church. I think God’s design for men and women’s roles is good, beautiful, and it works. I don’t think men are closet monsters. I think they genuinely want to do this right.

And maybe this is the big one: I’m working with healthy leadership. I think we get the idea from social media that every church everywhere is led by the most patriarchal men and women are squashed under the heavy masculine thumb. Or we think that every woman who wants to work in some capacity at her church must at her core be a manipulative, divisive woman seeking to only be in the “room where it happens.” Unhealthy leadership seems to be so widely assumed and expected that most people think church staff is a continual tug-of-war power struggle between the men and women.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a lot of you out there who are just trying to be faithful, trying to figure out how this works, desiring to honor your brothers and sisters and wondering if it’s simply impossible, a mythological team, because all you hear are the horror stories.

Well here’s one average girl saying to other average men and women — it’s not a myth. We can do this. If we’re willing to lay down our pride, listen to one another, and admit that we’re all actually working toward the same goal, we might be surprised to find teammates, fellow pilgrims, peers.

I once heard a pastor say he wouldn’t “outsource” the care of his women to a women’s ministry leader. What is it that southerners say? Oh yeah. Bless his heart.

While I think he meant that he wants to be involved in the care and not detached, I questioned his phrasing. When his wife is home with the kids all day, is he outsourcing parenting to her? When a woman teaches a kids class, is he outsourcing to her? And if it’s a bad thing to do, then why is it ok in some avenues but not others?

My position in ministry is not to remove more than 50% of our congregation off of our pastors’ plate. It’s not to be a place where women are shuttled and the men just close the door behind us because they can’t bear to hear what silly or weird things we have to say.

My job is to know their needs well enough to communicate them to our leadership. It’s to teach the women about what it means to be a healthy woman in the Kingdom. To encourage them in their marriages. To remind them that motherhood is worth it. To listen to their questions about their careers, roommates, family, and future. To see a woman who is caring for her aging parents, to look her in the eyes and remind her that she still matters and is relevant and the church needs her. To encourage the weary widow in her hospital bed. To sit with the weeping, the seeking, the downtrodden. This is Gospel work, not outsourced but further engaged because a woman is working alongside the men, a complement to the work that is never quite finished.

It’s my job to help carry the burden of women and bring it to the elders. So that when a woman sits down with me and tells me she’s being abused, I can communicate that to our elders.

When a sister tells me how she’s struggling to know how to stop looking at pornography, I can remind the pastor that on a Sunday when he’s talking about pornography, it’s not just men he’s talking to. When a sister tells me how she was raped, I can listen with sympathy and empathy. She can tell me the uncomfortable details of her life. Women can talk about their hormones and cycles, their uterine clocks ticking, their desires and dreams, and I will sit and listen but also understand.

And I can quickly call out a woman on her sin. When she’s acting selfishly in a marriage, when she’s not dying to self, when she’s seeking her needs above her husband’s, I can challenge her more swiftly and she might actually hear it. Women can step into emotional spaces that men generally cannot with as much ease.

God created men and women to work in such a way that we both have the same goal and we need one another to get the job done. It’s not that man is called to do it all and woman helps out by wiping the sweat from his brow. It’s not even that women need a different Gospel or ministry than the men. We all need each other. Pastors, that strong, driven woman who wants to serve and might ask hard questions? She’s coming as a suitable helper to the Kingdom work. Brother, that sister who has a heart to teach the women in your church and you’re not sure how to fit her gifts into the body? Give her some room to step into some fields that you might not know how to work in. That doesn’t make you an outsourcing pastor. That means you’re a wise man who equips the people who are called to serve with him. A woman is a necessary element to a healthy church ministry: she can help and work with the men in the work they are both called to accomplish.

So “How do you do it?”

Well, with a big cup of coffee, a dose of good humor, and my engine fueled by the Spirit to work alongside my brothers in the field we’re called to. Let’s get to work.