I won’t profess to be an expert on US mega churches but I’ve been really encouraged to hear this weekend of the appointment of Heather Larson as Executive Pastor at Willow Creek church. Willow Creek is a ‘mega church’ with an average attendance of 25,000 each week across 8 locations and is one of America’s largest churches.
There’s been a large amount of press and comment around her appointment because a female lead pastor is still newsworthy, especially in an evangelical church. And of course not all the coverage has been positive, and disappointingly even amongst women I’ve seen the odd snarky comment.
But, as I said, I for one am really encouraged because female senior leadership role models, are difficult to come by for those of us who happen to be female and in ministry. Not that I have any desire to lead a mega church but I have trained to one day lead a church of my own, and I think it is really helpful to have people doing what you do, to inspire you and whose ways of working you can learn from. Pretty much anything I’ve ever read about church leadership (not entirely but most) has been written by men. In my own diocese when I was ordained I asked an advisor who else was doing what I was doing? i.e: stipendiary, full time and with younger children. The answer? just one and we are both Curates (currently there are 3 of us so that’s a 33% improvement!).
This afternoon I did a very loose online survey of large UK churches, of any denomination, and I can’t find a single one with a female Senior Pastor, for example: Hillsong London has 2 locations (and 2 more with streamed services) and their website shows 4 male leads.
Now of course there are exceptions and I should clarify – there are some women in Lead Pastor roles – though I wonder if it isn’t in name only – where she is married to the Senior Pastor. That’s another reason why Larson’s appointment is such good news, she has been appointed on her own merits, not because she’s married to the Lead Pastor (and on that don’t hear me criticising women who lead in this way, many of them are hugely talented, anointed and skilled, but for years the only way a woman could lead in an evangelical church was if she was married to the Pastor).
I’ve said before how I find labels difficult but for the purpose of this post, you should know I am an evangelical and one thing I find difficult about other evangelicals, especially those of a conservative persuasion, is their absolute determination to stick to their own theological beliefs whilst at the same time doing all they can to get around them, eg: having your wife as Co-Pastor: it’s ok, she’s my wife and she’s not ‘leading’ the church really, and I have ultimate authority (cue submission discussion) and lo and behold you get round all the ‘women can’t lead’ questions. Cynnical? me? Hmm…
So here’s some examples, KICC; Ruach Brixton; Bradford Life Church; Thomas Crookes; St Andrews, Chorleywood; Kingsgate and the list goes on, all led (according to their websites) by co-leaders who are married couples. Then you’ve got those churches that have women on leadership but not in senior roles – for example it’s disappointing to see that Soul Survivor, Watford despite having women on staff, has 3 key leaders who are all male. Then there’s HTB, an interesting example, as the tide is clearly changing there but on their website shows 3 married couples as leaders, and 18 other clergy of whom 4 are female Curates. Looking promising you might think, until you then look at their related churches – 36 of them, and only one is lead by a woman (St Paul’s, Hounslow). You might think I am being unfair but considering the CofE stats that show there are more women training for ordination now than men, and numbers of female clergy are at an all time high, it seems disappointing in a church that leads the way in so many other areas that it can’t/won’t/doesn’t in this one.
Going back to Larson, it is clear this is not just a contemporary decision, nor is it tokenism, Larson has worked for WC for 20 years, is hugely experienced and has held many roles within the church, including launching their global ministries in Africa, and she herself notes her appointment seems to be more of a story outside of Willow Creek than within it. It’s no surprise to them because Larson has effectively been trained for this role. Her qualities and skills were recognised by WC and as she notes she has been mentored and coached by other leaders.
“Throughout my life—and through today—I have been blessed with strong mentors,” she says, “and their coaching developed me as a leader. As I look back on the leadership opportunities I’ve been given along the way, I’ve never been someone to walk in and push for a role. Each time, I gained influence over time, and just tried to be faithful to what God was asking me to do in each situation. I’ve been more focused on the mission or the cause, not on my specific role”.
There are so many things we can do to see more women in Lead Pastor/ senior leadership roles in our churches but it strikes me that this is a huge and easy step – recognising potential and training people up, mentoring them and increasing their skills. Not exactly rocket science is it…?
At a recent event I was at, it was suggested by another woman that if you want to get on in the CofE you need to wear a black shirt to be taken seriously. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen, personally I think God is bigger than my clerical attire, but it strikes me that if we as women have to consider things like this over our CVs and experiences, there is still a long way to go for women in leadership roles in the church.
So… Heather Larson is a new inspiration for me but I’d love to hear from you, especially from women in the church, who are your female role models in ministry leadership? Who gives you encouragement, who can you look up to? Because I think there are not enough female role models in ministry and I’d love to shout about them a bit more!
For more info see the announcement from Willow Creek here.