I want to tell you about a church leader I know. He heads up a ministry at his local church that provides spiritual formation for more than half its adult population—imagine him leading a Korean American ministry in a majority Korean American church, or a Deaf ministry in a majority Deaf church.
He plans and executes a full calendar of events and tailored discipleship opportunities, leading teams of volunteers to keep the ministry running. Those he serves love and value him as a leader. They feel seen and understood by him, and he has their trust.
While full-time staff at the church oversee smaller, specialized ministries with ample budgets, this leader has remained in a volunteer role for years with a shoestring budget.
His church covers seminary tuition for the staff ministry leaders, but he serves with no formal training, practical or theological.
The group he serves and belongs to notices the minimal support from the church, and so does he.
Except he’s not a he—but a she.
What I have described is the typical relationship of the women’s ministry leader to her local church. Even as women continue to outnumber men in evangelical congregations, the leaders who serve this majority demographic do so with high influence in the pews and low investment from the pastor.
A survey of women’s ministry leaders released in October from Lifeway Research revealed that 83 percent of them were unpaid, and 86 percent lacked formal theological training of any kind. For churches with more than 500 in attendance, only 29 percent of women’s ministry leaders were in paid, full-time positions and another 24 percent were paid part-time. Almost half (46%) received no pay.
The findings track with my own experience and with what I hear from the women’s ministry leaders I meet in churches all over the country.
The Lifeway survey does not compare women’s ministry leaders’ pay to that of other staff members with similar responsibilities, but anecdotally I can tell you of women in these roles learning that their male counterparts were being paid as much as twice their compensation. And while male leaders may receive funds for theological training as part of their professional development, female leaders rarely see the same opportunities.
As one seasoned but unpaid leader of a women’s ministry at a large church told me recently, “Although I had never been asked to consider [seminary], male leadership seemed very happy I was [taking classes] and agreed to pay for my books when I asked.”
Not by choice, these women often find themselves serving in a leadership vacuum, with no real reporting structure and with church staff who are either disinterested in or uninvolved with the vision and execution of the ministry. They often serve without recognition, without compensation, and without resources. They do so with joy and with little to no expectation of these earthly benefits.
But churches value what they commit their wallets to. Lack of investment communicates that ministry to women is “nice, but not necessary.” I believe such ministry to be essential and indispensable.
Here’s why: The work of women’s ministry is the work of Titus 2, of older women shaping younger women in the faith. The worker is worth her wages. Women’s ministry leaders are often the first to be trusted with confessions of victimization, the first line of defense for theologically sound Bible study, the first to ensure meals are taken to the bereaved. They are functional mothers in the family of God.
As with our natural mothers, church mothers tend to serve willingly beyond what is asked, with no thought of equity or compensation. We intuitively honor church fathers, the men who lead us. But the fifth commandment compels us to honor both fathers and mothers. We can and should dignify the labors of church mothers as well.
Whatever a church’s size, these women are worthy of the honor and compensation that fall within its means. Let it not be said that our churches perpetuated a culture of maternal neglect. Let the family of God honor the work of its mothers by investing in them for the vital work of serving over half of those who pass through church doors.
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