James Bowers and Kimberly Alexander: Leadership and women in Pentecostal ministry

What do Pentecostal women ministers want? Opportunities to lead, two Church of God scholars say.

Women in Pentecostal ministry overwhelmingly believe that they should be able to serve at all levels of church leadership, said James Bowers and Kim Alexander, two Church of God scholars.

“And they don’t just believe it; they feel qualified and capable of doing so,” Alexander said.

Although women in Pentecostal denominations have long been preachers, missionaries and even pastors, they generally have not been allowed to serve in denominational leadership positions. In 2012, Bowers and Alexander surveyed women in Pentecostal ministry and found that they want such leadership opportunities and believe they get little support in their current ministries.

“These women have a very definite, passionate sense of call,” Bowers said. “They said, ‘I know I’m called of God,’ and they struggle through the barriers to be faithful to that call.”

Bowers is vice president for institutional development at William Seymour College and a former professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, and Alexander is associate professor of the history of Christianity at Regent University.

They reported their findings last summer in the book “What Women Want: Pentecostal Women Ministers Speak for Themselves.”

Bowers and Alexander spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about their study and women in Pentecostal ministry. The following is an edited transcript.

 

Q: Give us an overview of the history of Pentecostal women in ministry.

Kim AlexanderAlexander: As a rule, preaching has not been an issue, and neither has women being missionaries or evangelists or even pastors. Overall, about 3 or 4 percent of our congregations have women pastors.

The issue has been whether women should be in leadership at the bishop level.

Bowers: When you move into the area of oversight leadership, that’s where the difficulties lie.

It is rare for a woman to be at the upper level of executive leadership, even in Pentecostal denominations that have started to move in that direction.

Also, the General Council for our denomination, Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), which makes decisions on all matters of polity, faith and practice, is all-male. So women are basically locked out of the decision-making process at that level.

Q: How did your study come about? What were you trying to find out?

Alexander: In 2010, the General Assembly, which is like our general conference, voted down a proposal to give women full leadership status. The votes were generally 60/40, so a significant number of male ministers were willing to give women that kind of leadership.

In 2011, at a meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in Memphis, two Church of God scholars called for a special meeting to discuss what we could do. And at that meeting, Estrelda Alexander, a theologian, asked, “Has anyone asked women what they want?”

The group decided that was important to find out. The discussions have always been at the level of the ordained bishops; it’s essentially been men making decisions about what women should have, and women can’t even express their concern, much less their desire.

The group decided we needed a survey, a study.

Bowers: I had done some empirical research on Church of God ministers for the U.S. Congregational Life research project and the Pulpit & Pew project.

So the group asked if I would explore this with our denominational leadership. I was planning to go on sabbatical at Duke the following summer, and their request morphed into a research project for me during my sabbatical, which I did with Dr. Alexander and Dr. Estrelda Alexander and others.

Alexander: We wanted, first, to hear what women wanted. Do they really want to serve at this level? But we also wanted to know about their experience as women ministers, pastors, church planters, etc. We wanted to know about their call.

Bowers: We got email addresses for 2,400 of the 3,100 women credentialed ministers in the U.S. and invited them to participate. Almost 24 percent filled out the survey, which is a whopping sample.

As soon as it went out, my inbox was inundated with emails from women pouring out their stories -- stories of frustration, pain and struggle in ministry.

A few asked why was I stirring up trouble. But the overwhelming response was one of gratitude. It was like we’d opened the floodgate.

It was like, “Thank you for, finally, someone asking us what we think.” It just blew me away.

Alexander: They were difficult to read. We cried over some of them.

Bowers: And that led us to modify the research design. In addition to about 45 survey questions on various issues, we had 10 or 12 open-ended questions, inviting them to tell their stories.

In the book, we interwove those stories with the empirical data. This is about more than facts and figures. This is about real-life stories of women who have been endeavoring to be faithful to their call.

We also sent a similar survey to 1,000 randomly selected ordained bishops, because we wanted to compare the women’s perspective with that of the men who are making decisions about their lives and ministries.

But we have to take those findings with caution, because we had only about a 16 percent response.

When all the data shook out, however, their views were pretty much in line with what we’ve seen reflected in denominational decisions on these issues.

Q: What are the most important findings?

Alexander: One of the first things that we found is that these are not politically liberal women with an agenda -- which is the rhetoric that is often used to try to persuade people that this would be problematic.

These women are conservative. They’re conservative about family values and all that.

Bowers: One of the questions in this whole discussion is, What is behind the resistance to the full empowerment of women? One of the arguments that’s often made is that if you empower women for leadership, you undermine the family, or that this is a part of a larger secular feminist liberal agenda.

Well, that’s not borne out. They are largely conservative, theologically and politically.

I’m not suggesting they all embrace everything that flies under the banner of traditional family values. But I am saying that they distinguish what it means to be a woman in leadership in the church from what it means to be a woman in the home.

When the men were asked if there are reasons other than some scriptural prohibition for women not holding the role of bishop, they spoke about undermining that God-ordained order for the home and the family. Ironically, the bishops do not see a problem with women holding civic leadership positions.

It’s clear that a kind of family-values agenda influences those who are resistant to the full empowerment of women.

Alexander: Also, to get to the central question, they overwhelmingly believe they should be able to serve at all levels of leadership. And they don’t just believe it; they feel qualified and capable of doing so.

Most of these women are bivocational, so their logic is, “I’m already doing this. I’m in leadership in other places. I’m certainly capable of leadership in my denomination.”

Bowers: Also, their compensation was shocking.

As Kim said, they are largely bivocational, and most of them who pastor planted their churches, as opposed to being appointed by a bishop.

About 80 percent make less than $20,000 a year. Most of their churches are small, 75 or so. Some pastor larger congregations, but their compensation is disproportionately lower [than that of men]. Most have no retirement. They get no housing allowance. They are sustaining their own ministries economically.

Alexander: They also have little opportunity for advancement. In our denomination, ideally, you go to your first church, you have a successful pastorate and prove yourself, and then you will be appointed to a larger congregation.

Granted, that doesn’t happen for all men, but it overwhelmingly does not happen for women. In fact, the numbers are staggering how many have never been promoted beyond that first church.

We found that there is little or no affirmation of women in their call and in their vocation.

Bowers: Which you must have if you’re going to advance and have a successful pastoral life. That’s one of the observations [U.S. Congregational Life Survey research director] Cynthia Woolever made in our book -- that these women have limited opportunities to flourish in ministry.

They pretty much have to plant their own church and do it on their own. There aren’t church-planting conferences for women, and typically women are not in view when those are held. It will be all men who talk about planting churches.

These women have a very definite, passionate sense of call.

Alexander: They have to.

Bowers: That’s right. They said, “I know I’m called of God,” and they struggle through the barriers to be faithful to that call.

Q: What are the biggest challenges and issues for Pentecostal women in ministry?

Alexander: I fear that women are languishing. The system is so geared toward male ministers, they have to work very hard to find mentors, friendships and networks to work in.

I’m third-generation Church of God. I don’t like to say things that make my denomination look bad, but there are opportunities for advancement and for flourishing where women are excluded -- ministers’ retreats where they could find fellowship, where they could find networking and all those kinds of things.

The good thing is that these are very strong women. They are finding resources with women ministers in other denominations or networks, but they have to work very hard to do that.

And the other great fear I have is whether there will be any women ministers in the future.

The numbers show that fewer and fewer younger women are opting to become ministers in the denomination. What they say to us is, “Why would I? There are no opportunities.”

So the ones who stay in the Church of God go into chaplaincy or education, but not necessarily theological education. They become teachers. They become counselors or chaplains.

They know that to get appointed to pastor a church is very difficult.

Bowers: What’s troublesome is that while male ministers are being affirmed, supported and resourced, very little has been done to have conversations with women about their ministries and what they’re experiencing.

It’s one thing to say we have these policies and until those are changed we can’t do very much to give women full access. But the more serious issue is the things you’re not doing that you could do to provide support and encouragement and sit down with women and listen to them.

Which is what we wanted this book to do -- to finally give voice to their experience, their perspective, what they believe, what they think. Because their voice has not been heard.

Q: Are there lessons for other denominations?

Alexander: I think so. It can be as simple as inclusive language. When denominational officials use all-male language to refer to ministers, or say something like, “All the ministers and their wives …” it sends a message.

We’ve had women denominational leaders from non-Pentecostal denominations who have read the book and said it resonates with them. Even if they have been in leadership positions, they know that’s the case with some women ministers they work with.

Bowers: Another thing that would resonate across denominational lines is the things that women say make it difficult for them to embrace their ministry fully.

They talked about the attitudes of male ministers. They talked about the neglect or lack of affirmation from judicatory or denominational leadership. And they talked about the many congregations that are not receptive to women in ministry, that don’t want a woman pastor.

These women said, “We’re called. We have the gifts. We have the education. We feel competent to lead. But those three obstacles are difficult to navigate -- peers not welcoming us, congregations not welcoming us and denominational leaders not being concerned.”

This is an important issue for the larger church. Women need to be recognized as strategic missional partners in the work of the church. Until that happens, we are impoverished, because we are not embracing the full gifts that God gives the church through women.

Q: How is your book being received, both among Pentecostal leadership and among people in the pews?

Bowers: It’s mixed. Women have received it enthusiastically and are thankful for it. And from the standpoint of leadership, male leadership, there’s been very little response.

Alexander: You’re kind.

Bowers: Yeah.

Alexander: There has been none. We’ve heard nothing from denominational leaders, especially at the top level. And that is not because they don’t know about it, and it’s not because they don’t know us. They do know us, and they know about the research, but there’s been no word so far.

Bowers: You wonder, is there a willingness even to have a conversation? For various reasons, there’s still not a willingness to embrace this reality that women ministers face. Frankly, it calls for repentance.

Alexander: I’m a church historian. I’m not a credentialed minister. These are not my rights we’re talking about. But when women have expressed this kind of pain and then there is virtually silence, that’s very troubling.