In the Spirit of Joel

… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. – Acts 1:8

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

As a woman church planter, I stand at the intersection of Acts 1:8 and Galatians 3:28.  As an evangelist, I am actively engaged in developing new systems for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in my Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  As a woman in church leadership, I embrace the freedom of Galatians 3:28, believing with Paul that in Christ all are gifted and called to serve.

Ten years ago, I moved to Evans, Georgia (part of Augusta) with my husband and daughter to start a United Methodist church.  We were a parachute drop, so Mosaic started in our home, then moved to an office complex, then a school auditorium.  We will celebrate ten years of weekly worship in February.  Our average attendance is 225.  Our folks are mostly working class.  The typical person at Mosaic is a single mom with teenagers, or a young family struggling to make ends meet or a single person with addiction issues.  We have worked hard over ten years to develop healthy leaders from among those God has sent, and God has been slowly, quietly, but very faithfully building us up.  Our people have a burning vision for changing the spiritual atmosphere of our community.

We own and occupy a 20,000 square-foot warehouse.  We host a thriving pantry, a community outreach ministry on the third Saturday of every month (a concept inspired by Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida, pastored by Jorge Acevedo).  We have a strong recovery culture and Spirit-filled, evangelistic worship.  We operate a satellite ministry in downtown Augusta that focuses on low- and no-income adults with disabilities.

I love my role as a church planter.  I have loved every minute of doing this and can’t imagine leaving this to return to a traditional pastoral role.  This intersection of Acts and Galatians is indeed a unique and interesting vantage point from which to view the future of the American church.

George Barna reports that between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of women pastors doubled; yet, the rate of growth among women church planters has not kept pace. Most studies put the percentage of women planters at less than ten percent of the total.  That’s probably the most liberal percentage I’ve seen.  Most folks would put the total someplace closer to five percent.

Dave Olsen, who directs church planting for The Evangelical Covenant Church, has studied thousands of female pastors in mainline churches and has followed the handful of female church planters in his own denomination.  His conclusion?  “Neither the church nor the culture is ready for women to plant churches.”2  Most would agree that church planting is still a male-dominated field.  Because of theological leanings, most church-planting networks are “men-only” clubs.

What does that mean for those of us who choose to answer this call to do a new thing?  On one hand, we’re faced with a steep challenge.  How do we best affirm the call of women who are uniquely gifted to start new churches?  On the other hand, our challenge is thrilling!  My ten years as a church planter have been the most rewarding of my life. The fields are white for harvest and every hand is needed.  We want women who hear God’s call to planting to have every resource at their disposal so they can bear much fruit. And we hope they’ll have our example as a hopeful signpost on their journey. I have a great desire to see other women church planters enter the journey with better mentors, training, resources and support than were available ten years ago.  And I want the voices they hear to be voices of encouragement and confidence.

In order to cultivate healthy leaders who can effectively plant, develop and sustain healthy congregations, we must be honest about the barriers that too often stand in the path of women.  I believe there are several natural barriers to growth in churches planted by women:

  1. Leadership as a theological issue.  50% of Christians don’t hold our theological position on women pastors.  There are people I will never meet because I am a woman.
  2. Leadership as a cultural issue.  How do we want women in leadership positions to act?  How do we want mothers in leadership positions to act?    I think the answers to those questions are different for women than they are for men.
  3. Leadership as a resource issue.  Resources to equip women church planters are still very much in the developmental stage. Training opportunities are often geared toward a male audience.  Women may find few mentors and coaches equipped to help negotiate the cultural biases influencing the communities within which we serve (especially in the regional South).  In fact, we may identify few if any role models in our local context.  Faced with these and other more typical lifestyle pressures, women church planters are challenged to succeed in an area of ministry that is difficult for even the best trained among pastors.
  4. Leadership as an institutional issue.  For all the above reasons, I maintain that growth for a female-pastored church plant may be different than growth for a male-pastored church plant.  This isn’t an issue of failure; this is an issue of pace.  And yet, right now it seems that the expectations placed on church planters in many networks and denominations place women on a steeper climb because as I’ve said, we’re drawing from a different pool and pushing against culture.  The benchmarks don’t allow for gender differences.

Is there good news for women who sense a call to plant churches?  Absolutely!  From a ministry perspective, we have an opportunity to offer a voice and example that may be sorely lacking in many communities.  Consider these thoughts:

  1. Non-Christians don’t have the same theological barriers as those raised in church, which means women have a unique opportunity to reach truly unchurched people who will more likely visit and stay in a church planted by a woman.  When we focus ministry and message on our call rather than our gender, folks who most need the gospel will likely find us, by God’s grace, and respond positively.
  2. Not every area of the country has the same cultural constraints.  To be frank, “liberal” may actually end up being the friend of a female church planter.  Our gender may open doors for us among those who deeply care about equality.  It doesn’t mean we ought to shift our theology to accommodate them on every point, but it may mean we get an audience with more progressive thinkers that our conservative male counterparts may not get.
  3. The current emphasis on being “missional” and building community works in our favor.  When men and women both focus on mission and community rather than on pastor-centered ministry, we grow healthier, more productive communities.
  4. A church planted by a woman is good and healthy for the Body of Christ because it, too, reflects the values of scripture.  I am assuming we Wesleyans are all equally committed to Galatians 3:28 and are all equally committed to making a place for everyone at the table.  Female church-planters become a kind of visual aid for what the Kingdom on earth can look like.
  5. We also encourage — simply by our witness — the cultivation of other women into leadership roles.  These may be women, like me, who simply needed an example to follow in order to step in.

Our commitment to seeing the whole people of God empowered to preach the whole gospel is a commitment to deep healing in the Body of Christ.  In the development of healthy leaders — both male and female — we need not fear.  While the challenge is great, God is in control.  Ultimately, God will work through people and his plan will be accomplished through the whole people of God.  When we encourage, cultivate and make room for women in leadership among church-planting networks, we embrace the prophetic spirit of Joel and become partners in fulfilling the Word of God:

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants[c] and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”

— Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17-18

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