STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 11/10/2015

Women In Leadership: It’s About Achieving Mission

Last year, Grace Chapel, a mega-church in the Boston area, voted by a large margin to allow women to serve as elders, removing the final hurdle for women leaders at this church. What was so revolutionary about Grace Chapel’s decision? I argue that it was the dual message of believing that this decision was both faithful to the Bible and necessary for the church to be able to achieve its mission. I saw this same urgency amongst the advisory board for a national benchmark study on evangelical women in leadership. The advisory board members, including men such as Rich Stearns of World Vision and Alec Hill of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, were incredibly forthcoming about the absolute necessity for change to happen now.

The Women in Leadership National Study, supported by The Imago Dei Fund, is a benchmark study that is looking at women in leadership within the evangelical nonprofit sector. The study, housed at Gordon College, involves partnerships with Wheaton College and many other organizations. The study is not about empowering women, but rather about best practices that bring about institutional change.

The research began with an analysis of women’s representation in leadership across a host of organizations. The study gathered data from the tax forms of over 1,400. The second stage of the study focused on gaining more insight into the perspectives of the men and women serving in leadership capacities within evangelical organizations and in higher education. In the third phase of this study, researchers interviewed leaders at those organizations that perform well in terms of women in leadership, to better understand what factors were influencing their ability to promote and retain women in leadership.


As expected, women had lower levels of representation in leadership than those sectors in society in general. Women held 16 percent of CEO positions, 21 percent of board positions, and 19 percent of top-paid leadership positions. These statistics stand in sharp contrast to the nonprofit world more generally. Women now make up close to half of all nonprofit board members (48 percent), and over a third of all nonprofit CEOs. Evangelical organizations are at best doing half as well. Within the evangelical nonprofits, the organizations where women reach the highest level were from traditions that emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit. The study found that Christian colleges and universities often fare significantly worse in measures of gender equity. While women hold 5 percent of the presidencies in Christian colleges, they hold 26 percent of college presidencies more generally.

In spite of the overall lower rates of women in leadership, the second stage of the study—a survey of leaders across the nonprofit sectors—showed evidence of a shift with expressed support for both women and men holding leadership positions within society.

However, men and women differ when it comes to how leadership should be shared in the family and in the church. This difference may be why 20 percent of the women surveyed, compared to 7 percent of the men, said that they believed women and men should lead together, while they believed their colleagues thought men should hold distinctive leadership roles. Added uncertainty about the views of colleagues may come from the fact that more than a third of all egalitarians did not attend churches where women could fill all leadership roles. Given the confusion of Christian leaders regarding where their peers stand on women in leadership, leaders attending churches with more restrictive stances on women may contribute to confusion among other peers.

Some initial findings are arising out of the interviews with the leadership of institutions that are doing comparatively well when it comes to women in leadership. One finding is that when a balance of men and women in leadership exists, the focus of attention moves to the individual talents and skills that each individual brings to the leadership team. Gender disappears and competence, diversity of viewpoints, and missional effectiveness replace it. 

Another finding is that the clear, regular articulation of a position by the top leadership that welcomes women into their ranks and offers reasons why it is important help provide the context in which women will move into leadership. And it has to be modeled and articulated consistently.

What keeps us from experiencing a Kingdom vision of a world where we utilize the full potential of women in leadership? First, work structures fail to imagine it. Work structures make it difficult for women to care for children and lead. Those organizations that are doing well have made it possible for women to lead. Second, networking patterns are self-perpetuating. We tend to hire who we know. Organizations that have women in leadership have a culture of looking for the very best for each position. Leaders are looking for different views around the table. Third, our imaginations do not lead us there. We are limited in terms of who we can imagine leading our organizations. Where we find women in leadership, we find organizations that are focused on achieving mission and allowing the Holy Spirit to speak into individual and corporate lives in terms of calling. Expanding our imagination seems to come when organizations have at least three women on the board, and when leaders support and affirm the calling of individual women. Leaders must see this as a necessity for achieving mission. In the end, it is not just about bringing more women into an organization, but about changing the organization in order to embrace the gifts that women bring—gifts that are essential to missional effectiveness.

What if we expected God to call all of our young people to Big Callings and Big Dreams in order to fulfill the purposes of his Kingdom? What if our daughters and sons put no self-limits on what God is calling them to do?

The founder of Gordon College, A. J. Gordon, included women in the life of the College from its beginning. The focus was not on worrying about “who” God might call, but on “what” God was calling its students to be and do. In fact, while I may be the first female provost at Gordon, one of the earliest deans of the faculty was Isabel Warwick Wood. Recognized and sought after for her talents by the Board of Trustees, she brought her own considerable gifts as a scholar and administrator to the institution, planting seeds for the liberal arts college Gordon would eventually become. It was only the larger conservative cultural movements at large that began to shape the church of the 1930s to 1950s and focus attention away from mission and onto theological disputes about the “who.” We are reclaiming our history at Gordon College, a history that at its founding focused on God’s mission and the need to use all the gifts of everyone God has called. This study is helping us in this journey.

For more about this study, its advisory board, and more extensive research reports, see



Janel Curry is the provost of Gordon College. As the chief academic officer of the College, she oversees numerous academic programs, provides guidance about curriculum and pedagogy, and helps connect faculty with opportunities for scholarship and grants. Dr. Curry, a geographer, is
a two-time Fulbright Scholar. 




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