8 Best Practices for Developing Female Leaders

Published by Leadership Network | Jun 14, 2019 | 6 min read

As a follow-up to Kadi Cole’s book Developing Female Leaders, we partnered with Kadi to develop an online masterclass for church leaders who recognize the need to be more intentional and strategic about developing the female leaders in their own churches.

The course is built around eight best practices any church can implement to grow their ability to develop the female leaders on their teams.

This post provides a brief summary of the eight practices.

Best Practice 1 – Seek to Understand

To understand how to develop our female leaders, the first step is to unravel the unconscious gender biases we may carry. How do we do this? By shifting our mindset. We must become CURIOUS about women. When we’re open to learning, and truly understanding, women leaders, we’ll begin to appreciate their unique stories and skills. As our hearts become open to new perspectives, our biases will begin to crumble.

Best Practice 2 – Clearly Define What You Believe

When you can explain to your staff and volunteer leaders what you believe and why, you do several things. Firstly, you capture the leadership capacity of women by clarifying your theological stance on female leadership in your church. Secondly, you help male leaders support and develop women.

When your leaders clearly understand your stances and, therefore, how to maximize the potential of your women, your church will see progress, and there will be real transformation in your teams.

Best Practice 3 – Mine the Marketplace

Did you know that professional women are one of the largest groups leaving the church? Barna Research Group reports that 27% of professional women leave their church because they feel isolated and marginalized.

This research indicates that over one-fourth of your professional female leaders are leaving!

Why is this? Simply put, professional women are not finding their place in church. Many of these high-capacity women do what is known as “camouflaging” on Sundays: they wear a façade, become a stereotype – whichever one they can best fit into.

They discuss their kids and their house, but don’t feel they have a place to discuss real leadership issues. They wonder, Who will talk to me about firing an incompetent worker? How can I navigate executive leadership? It’s imperative that we make a space to meet the needs of these women.

Best Practice 4 – Integrate Spiritual Formation and Leadership Development

In more than 30 years of coaching and consulting with various churches, I’ve seen one of two things happen when spiritual formation and leadership development are separated:

#1: Because leadership development is merely “added on” to a church’s spiritual formation process, the two topics remain disconnected. A team member learns Scripture and Godly conduct “over here,” and “over there” learns how to cast a vision, lead a team, and connect people. This might seem like a viable method; however, as believers in a ministry setting, we can’t divorce these two highly interrelated topics.

#2: Women, and women’s ministry, are under-resourced and under-led. They tend to be over-advertised, but the amount of leadership development coming from pastoral leadership tends to be lesser than what’s being provided to their male counterparts.

When we keep female leadership development separated from the rest of the church, and especially when we leave women under-resourced, we reinforce gender bias and alienate the high capacity female leaders in our congregation.

Best Practice 5 – Be an “Other”

In his book, The Power of the Other, Dr. Henry Cloud explains that, when we are challenged to grow and perform at higher levels, simply learning information isn’t enough. We actually need to BECOME better. And this becoming, based on neuroscience, can only happen in the context of truly connected relationships.

Consider how you came to be where you are. I’m sure you learned from situations and lessons that grew you. If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that there are people God used to help you process those learning opportunities.

People encouraged you in ways you couldn’t encourage yourself. These healthy, supportive, and positive relationships literally REWIRE our brains to develop new ways of thinking and, therefore, achieve higher levels of performance.

Relationships change the way we view the world. More importantly, they change the way we view ourselves IN the world.

Depending on your expertise and your role, it’s likely you can be an “other” to the women on your team. In male-dominated environments, there’s a natural affinity to mentor and develop young leaders. This can take the form of outings, lunches, and one-on-one meetings.

Consider setting aside a part of your budget to invest in the women on your teams in this same way. Sometimes we need to push against the cultural drift, and choose to set aside time, money, and energy for the sake of our female leaders.

 Best Practice 6 – Create an Environment of Safety

It’s estimated that over one-third of all women have been sexually abused or harassed… at WORK. In my research, I found that more than 15% of female leaders who took our survey experienced inappropriate treatment or advances by their own male leaders: their PASTOR. That’s 200 women. We are in an epidemic.

The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have done a great job raising awareness of what’s happening behind closed doors, as well as the need for us to step up and lead our organizations differently.

But it hasn’t yet provided us with healthy, clear next steps to make those changes a reality. As with any shift in culture, we are in the messy middle. Extreme suggestions are being thrown around. Most of us feel paralyzed because we don’t know which way to go.

How do we protect the integrity of our personal lives and leadership, and at the same time include men and women in leadership circles? We want to walk in faith, in the strength God gives us to overcome; yet we know we’re all vulnerable to sexual temptation. In ministry, the stakes are even higher – our entire organization can be taken out by one bad situation or decision.

Changing your habits and practices to include both men and women takes intentionality. It’s not enough to be aware of the need; we must take a close look at how we’re creating a culture of both safety and inclusion.

Best Practice 7 – Upgrade Your People Practices

Did you know that, before 1963, it was legal to pay a woman less than a man for equal work? At the time, women were paid only 41% of what men earned doing the same jobs. Think about that! If the average annual income is $60k for a man, a woman doing the same job is earning less than $25,000 a year!

I’d like to report that pay discrepancy is no longer an issue – especially in churches. Unfortunately, I can’t. Churches are actually worse offenders than our marketplace counterparts. In order to upgrade your people practices, double-check your human resource policies and make sure you’re being equitable to all of your employees.

Best Practice 8 – Take on Your Culture

You’ve probably heard it said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. That is so true. We may have all kinds of goals and ideas; but unless the people we lead and the culture we create is pliable enough to embrace these new ideas – and motivated enough to work through the pain of change – we won’t see our vision come to fruition.

There are four main influences in shifting culture that you’ll need to consider as you begin to be more intentional about developing female leaders.

1. Our Language and Vocabulary

HOW we say things is often as important as WHAT we say. Take a closer look at the words or phrases you use to talk about, or address, women. There are obvious negative ones, such as describing a woman as “bossy” rather than “a strong leader”. But oftentimes, there are subtle distinctions that are reinforcing the wrong culture.

2. Boundaries Around Celebrated Behavior

If you highlight leaders who are doing a good job inviting women into leadership roles and developing them, you’re going to get more of the same from your team.

3. Visual Symbols

Allowing women to serve in visible ways can do a lot to reinforce your beliefs about their contributions to your ministry. This is probably the most common practice of churches who have made progress on developing female leaders.

4. Pacing Change

Not everyone is going to be excited to embrace cultural change. Whenever you’re leading change of any kind, it’s vital that you think through who the important stakeholders and influencers are. Give these people an opportunity to hear what’s on your heart, and ask questions. Be patient, but be intentional.

By incorporating these Eight Best Practices, you’ll begin to see real, lasting, heart-level change in your organization. This isn’t a shift that can happen overnight; however, there is hope. The conversation is shifting. Leaders are taking notice. Will you join us in obediently following God’s Word, and inviting female leaders into leadership spaces?


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