10 tangible ways we can work toward equality in the church.

create a better now

my dear friend & ministry partner recently attended a local leaders gathering and messaged me with a text that essentially said this:  “not one woman speaker, presenter, pray-er, anything-at-all-er. see, i am starting to notice it!”  i wrote him back, “yep, it’s real, and it sucks and thanks for noticing.”

also this week i heard about this post by ed stetzer about his fear of being alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife;  it made me feel so sick and sad, to think how these commandments are pervasive in so many of our churches.  the fear, the negative tilt against women, and the relational dysfunction is really disheartening in the place that is supposed to be the most free, loving, and secure–the body of Christ.

even though we’re making strides in terms of equality in the church, we still have a long, long way to go. power won’t go down easy. the deep grooves of patriarchy for generations upon generations won’t dissolve tomorrow.

but we can keep playing our part in turning things in a better direction. we can create a better now and a far better future. we can start balancing the power between men and women  in a way that is more reflective of the kingdom of God than what many of us have previously experienced.

a lot of times i have heard both male and female leaders express, “we want to, but we don’t know how.”

there are many others, but here are some off-the-top-of-my-head tangible and oh-so-possible ways we can work toward equality in the church:

1. start noticing! similar to the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous, we have to break out of denial first. then we can start seeing things through a new lens.  don’t underestimate how inculturated we have been with male leadership and how “used to it” we have become. start counting and noticing the ratios of men to women in leadership, what voices you are hearing, and who is sitting around the table. it’s the first step.

2. begin to make new friends. for the most part, men are used to hanging out with men and women are used to hanging out with women in churches. it’s so important to mix this up and begin to forge friendships across genders so trust can be built and gifts can be discovered.  if you are a man, build new relational bridges at events and gatherings and meet other women leaders.   if you are a woman, do the same thing with men.

3. ask for help. admit that you’re stuck and don’t know how to do better at equality. ask for help from other women and men who you see practicing this. it’s okay to not know because some of this is all new, but it’s much better to ask for help than stay stuck.

4.  invite new leaders to the table.  when forming groups and teams, ask first “who else can we invite to join us to create a more balanced team?” if you don’t know, ask someone who does.  power shifts take a ton of intention., but it’s worth it in the end!

5. then, make room for their voices.  remember, only opening the door to the cage won’t cut it.  we will have to invite these voices to emerge from the cage.  ask for opinions.  “what do you think?”  “we want to hear from you….” go around the room and get everyone’s input instead of just letting the dominant voices control things.

6.  give the microphone away.  if you are in church leadership and influence sunday services, begin thinking about what new voices you can give the microphone to. microphones are powerful and we have got to begin to have more equal representation of voices. 50% of the population has  barely ever been heard in many churches.  it is always up to the person in power to multiply it and make way for underrepresented voices.

7. vote with your feet and money. one of the reasons so many churches get away with inequality is that people accept it as the status quo and don’t challenge it. i am not saying that churches that are deeply dedicated to patriarchy are going to change if you threaten leaving, but if you are sitting in a church committed to complementarian theology that you disagree with, be careful that your silence is perpetuating it.  be clear on your views and don’t support ministries that aren’t working toward a more healthy balance.

8. take the heat for change.  yes, it’s so possible that people will complain or question your theology or feel uncomfortable or even leave your church when you move toward greater equality. justice is costly, but we’ve got to have more brave men and women who stick to their guns and don’t buckle under pressure when they get push back from conservative power.

9. make it natural. at the refuge we have never really talked much about women leading. we have just tried to do it, to practice it, to live it.  it makes me think of the words of brennan manning who says, “if you want to know what a person believes, watch what they do.” if you want to know what a church believes, watch what they do.

10. accept this as our responsibility together, not just men’s responsibility to make room for women.  we have to own this one together; yes, men have the most power and have to make room intentionally for women, but as women we also need to own our power and play our part in making room for other women, too.  i have seen a lot of powerful women make it far in leadership by playing by men’s rules and then not use their power to open doors or make room for other women. it’s freaky and sad and perpetuates the same old same old.

so there’s my friday ramble. what would you add?

here’s to working toward greater balance and a far-more-reflective-image-of-God-in-our-churches. we’ve got a long way to go, but i have great hope that change is possible if we keep translating these stirring into action.

have a great weekend!


ps: i meant to share last week that i had a post up at sheloves for may’s theme–flourish–called we won’t thrive alone.  also, i was part of pastor’s week at dan brennan’s blog centered on cross-gender friendship (all kinds of good stuff).  mine was friendship is spiritual formation.  really, the path to equality is paved with friendship. 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Good points, Kathy. And so glad you are a leader doing it, not just talking.

    My head being in theology and early Christianity a lot, I have a point there: Despite the can of worms it is feared to open up, people need to realize that practices were already changing by the end of the writing of the NT (in my view, ca. 110-120). Apparently what was good enough for (and apparently celebrated by) Paul was not so for the author of I, II Tim. and Titus. Now, I know facing the near-certain fact that Paul did NOT write these books is very scary to many. But there are evangelicals who either believe he didn’t or aren’t sure, as well as many who refuse to give it a thought. I think those who believe the limitations on women in leadership in the Pastorals are probably well after Paul, by more hierarchical leaders, are afraid to push this point because it does lead to a challenge of traditional views of the NT’s formation, canonization and authority. (And maybe that’s because they are in NEED of being challenged.)

    • The good ol’ boys network needed something to counteract all that nonsense in the Gospels about Jesus and women. I, II Tim. and Titus seemed to fill that need, didn’t they? Write the stuff you really want to say, slap a bunch of stuff that sounds just like Paul on both sides and that should handle the problem of who will be in charge both in the home and in the church for next to forever. Right? And all the good ‘ol boys said “Amen!”

      • Hi Again Sam,

        As someone with a masters in theology in biblical interpretation, it is not my understanding the 1st Tim etc is demeaning toward women, but that some misguided interpretations of it have been.

        There is an over riding theme in 1st Tim of addressing false teaching. So what is it that the women in the church in Ephesus are doing? Perhaps they have been listening to male false teachers and being an influence similarly in the church. Perhaps they have been influenced by local worship to the pagan god Diana which would probably involved “exotic” forms of dance. Perhaps they were local businesswomen exercising an over realised eschatology and therefor being disruptive in the church. And disruption could easily be perceived as potentially a riot by Roman authorities and the church could have been shut down.

        I understand that you come to the scripture with a hermeneutic of suspicion wheras mine is a hermeneutic of faith. However if we are to have a low view of scripture, how do we base how we go about things – opinion? Opinion is open to all and everything.

        I would argue strongly that the responsibility for appropriate interpretation and understanding of scripture is every bit as important as women taking responsibility for appropriate conduct.

        What cannot be the issue here is that all the problems are down to men interpreting scripture inappropriately to oppress women, and women having no responsibility for their behaviour. To argue in keeping with such seems to me to be overcompensating against make oppression. Overcompensation is just as wrong as oppression. If this is how we engage, then we are at risk of destroying one another with stupid arguments.

        Only when we are as interested in the need of one another as our own and are edifying to one another do we bring about life in its fullest in Christ for all.

    • thank you for sharing, howard. there’s so much about the bible and interpretation and translation and all kinds of things that feel so scary to explore, but i always love to consider it because it rocks our understanding and shifts our perspective if we are open to it.

  • I read the Ed Stetzer post and started reading the comments, but wanted to barf. Good grief! Those guys are pastors and they can’t trust themselves alone with a woman other than their wife? Then why should we trust them not to rob us blind ifwe left them alone in our house for a few minutes? Why should we trust anything they have to say?

    This entire issue has never been an issue for us. My wife and I were never taught that women were less than by our families or churches. We personally think such an idea is ridiculous and we refuse to support anyone or any group that thinks otherwise. Don’t give them your presence, your money or your time and eventually they will be very few. Walk away.

    • Stedzer wrote,

      “I know too many pastors who have lost great credibility because of an accusation … I do not know the stability,morality and disposition of people that I meet… Guarding yourself takes work, can be awkward and is often inconvenient”.

      In response Kathy talked of “the fear, the negative tilt against women, and the relational dysfunction”.

      I expressed facing fear (which is courage) in expressing what I have and that “I have needed to keep my heart guarded and establish and maintain strong boundaries”.

      Having shared the false accusation of the leader in the last church I was in (something that happens when I was alone with her) and been in other occasions of false accusations of impropriety (thankfully with witnesses to quash such false accusation) I am with Stedzer on this in the sentiment he talks of both the need to guard oneself and the difficulty in doing so as he mentioned.

      While I appreciate what you say Kathy about this giving a “negative tilt” toward women and there being fear, I cannot accept that guarding oneself as a man is dyfunctional. I am not saying I agree with all the commandments Stedzer makes but the fear and the need for guarding is real. If you perceive this as any form of sexism then may I ask you to reconsider and have concern for your brothers in Christ protection.

      Sam – can I say I find your approach with all due respect deeply offensive. To me what that shows is an unawareness of needs and a blatant disregard for them. Sadly and tragically it is not unheard of for a man to be falsely accused and their career and life ruined by a woman with power falsely claiming victim status and an unscrupulous use of that power. Perhps you can think of Demi Moore in “Disclosure”.

      I find it deeply upsetting when bothers and sisters in Christ do not show equal care in this regard and act as though it is the man in a situation that is the one with misconduct.

      The need for protection and guarding against false accusation is of equivalent need to the need for women to be treated equally. The less concern is show for this then the more people such as myself need to spend time and energy in guarding ourselves, and the less we have free to address concerns for and be in the service of women.

      • No offense intended. Men being falsely accused by women was not what I was getting out of the Stetzer post and responses. If you’ve been in that situation, obviously all of this discussion strikes you much differently than it does me. In the past I have been on several church boards when this issue was discussed and the emphasis was always something along the lines of church leadership who might be tempted to stray when they thought they had spotted vulnerable women.

        • I hear that you didn’t intend to cause any offense. I have no lingering hard feelings towards you Sam. However, for me this conversation has affirmed for me the need for guarding one’s heart, having strong boundaries against false accusation and pushing back.

          I hear what you say about your experience on church boards with those in church leadership straying with vulnerable women. This of course is important to address. However I do think that Stetzer’s emphasis was on pastors who have been innocently caught up in a false accusation and highlighting the need for and difficulty encountered in being guarded against this as indicated by him not knowing about the “stability, morality and disposition” of people he comes into contact with.

          I hope you will consider what he has written in that light and the offense your comment caused me (albeit unintentionally) and may cause others.

          Thank you for responding, and explaining why you had taken what you had form Stetzer’s comments. I hope you have found out brief communication helpful.

  • Kathy,

    So much of a touchy subject that is takes courage and sensitivity to carefully negotiate this minefield in the interests of equality and justice. In writing I feel fear. I have learned that courage sometimes is about facing fear and risking how others will receive what is said.

    I have learned also that in this issue for me, it is something in order to stay healthy, I have needed to keep my heart guarded and establish and maintain strong boundaries. And here is a couple of reasons why. The influential speaker and self – proclaimed storyteller/researcher Brene Brown talk of when there is difficulty that there is a inclination to apportion blame because “that is what we women do”. In one example she has given with a telephone call with her husband Steve it has resulted in Steve putting the phone down on her. I’ve seen you before Kathy write that “Jesus is a liberal and a feminist”. To my mind that is bordering on building a wall in spite of what you have mentioned about it being sad to you about walls and being in desperate need of bridge builders.

    In my expereince in my last church talking this way resulted in being on the receiving end of blame for miscounduct with the claim of the leader involved being made by her that she was being prophetic and the God deals with the men first because “it is the men that have the power”.

    So this is what concerns me firstly with the pursuance of equality and justice. If one experiences a trigger and does not take ownership for emotions connected with it then it seems to me that what easily can happen is rather than equality being pursued, it is retribution. I find this to be a common experience for me with women in the church. More recently one making a claim that all theology students (I have been one recently) are above themselves and another just las Sunday saying “I’m not being down on you but ….” when she was being down on me. These also “suck” but I didn’t see anyone noticing about this.

    So firstly while I understand your focus is on the needs for women Kathy, can I mention that there are two sides to the coin and it’s not always women that are on the rough end of what happens. I know you have been receptive to this in the past.

    Can I also suggest that we think about what constitutes equality “in Christ” rather than form a worldly perspective. After all, did he not consider that the widow that gave two coins gave more than anyone else? And the woman that washed his feet with her tears and dried with her her had given him more welcoming than that which was afforded by his host?

    I am glad to use my position (which in a lot of ways is one of privilege with being white, middle class, heterosexual, western, and with a theological education) for the serving and enabling of others in this way. At the same time, I am aware of where there are attempts to overcompensate and have learned the tough lessons of the need for strong boundaries and push back which is every bit as something that “will not go down easily” in my experience as other endeavour for equality in the interest of being “reflective of the kingdom of God”.

    • I’m not sure if I’m getting your main points rightly, Adam, after having read your comment twice. But this may speak to some of your concern. I do think too much can be made of “who has the power”, in that it tends to imply power OVER or at least relative control over others. And I do think men have relatively more resistance to being “under” someone’s control, and more-so if that someone(s) is a woman or women. The more church communities live out servant leadership, the less this is an issue, and I think the trend will be toward more parity of gender in leadership… and the “ideal”, to me as a longtime feminist, is not necessarily a 50/50 split.

      With ideals of servant-leadership and mutual submission in mind, a good way to perhaps reword the issue is “toward a broad-based and balanced involvement of both genders”, in ways that spreads “power” (or decision-making) as well as service-giving around further than is generally the case. This will generally need to involve more women in a variety of roles, including pastoral, in the majority of churches, even including progressive ones where the situation is already more balanced.

      • Thanks for your reply Howard.

        As a “longtime feminst” I hope you will appreciate the addressing of equality and justice in whatever from that takes. I hope you will have taken on board what I have mentioned about it not always being women that are on the rougth end of injustice and inequality, that there are two sides to the coin and appreciate the courage I have shown in facing fear in making my above comments.

        Rather than being gender focused on this my suggestion would be to keep in mind foremost, a verse favoured by feminist theologians – Gal 3:28 “There is neither … male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Then secondly I would suggest keeping in mind what Jesus approach was to equality. As mentioned, his concern was that the women mentioned were more giving, more serving if you like. This was not an issue of gender but of what those involved did with what they had available. Then to bear in mind what whatever worldly power anyone has, it is because God has allowed it and it can easily be taken away at any time by God. So in that sense I find myself in not a dissimilar position to where you are coming from with over “who has the power”.

        It seems to mee that in the instances I have spoken of with power and Jesus, it was the women who had the most power, enabled by Jesus to be so. And that this power is available, is real power to all in the Spirit of power. love and sound mind. When it is engaged with it is a beautiful, amazing and freeing power for all. It often happens in surprising ways in my experience. It can may a servant more powerful than a king.

        So – I think being concerned with roles is a distraction from that. If everyone is connected with such love, then it sees to me that things will just work out naturally. What you talk of with leaders serving and mutual submission the “spreads “power”… as well as service giving” will be an outcome form that, it seems to me. Concern over who is “the leader” and who has “the power” seems to me to run secondary to that and sometimes in contradiction to it.

        For example, I love to dance. In one kind of dance I do. nodern jive, it is unchoreographed and the men lead and the women follow. In another kind Ceilidh or traditional Scottish dancing it is choreographeed and there is no leading and following. Noone ever complains about there being male leaders and female followers in the former ad well all have a great time.

        To my mind it really is puzzling therefore with the amount of time, energy and downright hardship that is invested in this issue in churches. If someone doesn’t like the complimentarian approach, there are plenty churches that are egalitarian. If someone believes in male headship then there are plenty churches that are complimentarian. Why can’t we live and let live?

        It seems to me that often the problems arise with those and their partisan voices seek to point fingers at “the other”, get angry and are interested in retribution that make life difficult for everyone else with the disproportionately loud voices, don’t care about who they wound in the crossfire and make life difficult or impossible for those who otherwise would be bridge builders.

        Thanks again for your response Howard and you willingness to show concern. I hope you have found what I have written to be helpful. As you may be able to tell, I am passionate about this subject. Please forgive me and pleas forgive me Kathy if the length of this comment has been excessive.

      • thanks, howard, i am with you 100%, i do not advocate for power to then transition to only women. that would be silly. equality means men and women alongside each other as equals, friends, brothers & sisters, mutually submitting to one another in equal relationship. that is now how most church power structures are but it is in my opinion the best reflection of the kingdom of God.

    • honestly, adam, i think on this subject we just need to agree to disagree. no matter what i say when it comes to equality, the same thing comes up for you and i can never “cover all the bases” in a way that you feel comfortable with. i appreciate your viewpoints but do want to be careful that when people share here, they don’t feel nervous about then getting a long response back from you that can cause defensiveness and fear of sharing again. it can tend toward that way and i want to be careful of it. i never want to shut anyone down but i just ask us all to use caution in this online environment. thank you.

      • Thanks Kathy,

        I agree, we do disagree on approaches towards equality. I don’t see things the
        way you do in this being about me needing to feel comfortable, and you needing
        to “cover all the bases” to that end. This is not about me. I doubt
        if many people feel comfortable with addressing this topic, particularly online
        with the challenges and difficulties that communication has through this

        I hear what you say about what you want with people not feeling nervous about
        getting a long response from me. Thank you for pointing that out and I will
        adjust my comments accordingly. As expressed, I felt fear on commenting. This
        has been a cumulative effect of comments on equality here over the months and
        years, building up to my actions here with push back. Can I ask that this be
        taken into consideration as well? So my fear and where I have felt shut down
        over the months and years is of not being able to express such equally, to play
        a part in enabling all concerns to be addressed, keeping everyone safe from
        fear. I can see that my approach is not to your liking. I guess I can’t “cover
        all the bases” for you to feel comfortable either.

        For example with your criticism of Stetzer, I see things differently in that I
        see a concern raised by him for keeping safe from false accusations. Having
        similar conversations with fellow Christians over the last week as resulted in

        “as a Parish
        Minister, I was sometimes uncomfortable visiting certain lone women…. false
        accusations can easily be made, and, sadly, often believed. I was lucky, but
        other male colleagues haven’t been)”

        “ If I had to visit a young woman who is home alone,
        regardless of the reason, I would avoid going alone if I can. I would bring an
        elder with me.”

        So what I see with Stetzer is an approach to address this concern of false
        accusation. What I see with you is an approach to address equality for women. I would like to be able to express such here
        without being afraid of causing others fear or feeling shut down.

        I realise I have given a reasonable or “long” sized response on this occasion. Forgive me
        for that, but such is necessary to address your concern and as for equal

        Thank you for saying that you appreciate my viewpoints, this
        encourages me to continue to comment.

  • Kathy, I love that you start with “notice” — yes. Just yes. Worn out today — a bit over the very themes you mention. This a cup of cool water to and for me. Thanks.


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