Developing Female Leaders | Book Review

As a Pentecostal minister, I support women’s leadership in the church. I believe the Holy Spirit calls and empowers women to exercise their spiritual gifts, just as He does for men, whether those gifts prepare them for service as a lead pastor, a leading volunteer, or something in between. And I am grateful to be an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, a denomination that affirms women’s leadership in both its theology and governing documents.

Even so, I recognize that women continue to face obstacles on the road to fulfilling their God-given callings. One major obstacle is theological: Too many evangelical churches and denominations value women’s congregational ministries but continue to cap their leadership at the point where women might exercise authority over men. The other major obstacle is practical and common even in churches and denominations like mine that affirm women’s leadership. Here, the problem is that such organizations make inadequate provision for the recruitment, development, and retention of women leaders.

Kadi Cole’s Developing Female Leadersdoes not weigh in on the theological obstacle to women’s leadership. Instead, she focuses on the practical obstacle. Whatever a church’s theology of women’s leadership, she argues, all churches can do better at developing women to serve at the highest level that the church’s theology allows. This is a shrewd move on Cole’s part, given the intractable debates among evangelicals about gender roles in church and society. It allows her to help all churches, whatever their theologies of women’s leadership, improve their practices of developing women leaders.

Here is a synopsis of the eight “best practices” Cole recommends in her book:

  1. Seek to understand. “Take the time to have a conversation with the female leaders you have on your team and in your congregation. Ask them about their stories and how they have impacted their view of themselves as leaders.”
  2. Clearly define what you believe. “Even if you have confidence that your [theological] stance is extremely clear, there have likely been mixed messages in how this has played out for [women] in your church and in [their] leadership. In my experience, most godly women are very aware there is a line somewhere, and because they are concerned about overstepping that line, they will often stay way below what you believe they have an opportunity to do. This gap is one of the places where you have incredible untapped leadership potential.”
  3. Mine the marketplace. Professional women “have been given projects to manage, a staff to lead, and initiatives to implement. They have received formal and informal leadership development and have withstood the rigors of the business world.” Consequently, Cole advises, “Never assume that an established, professional female isn’t interested in working with or for you. Many incredible leaders would love the opportunity to use their marketplace skills in the kingdom.”
  4. Integrate spiritual formation and leadership development. “Integrating spiritual growth and leadership development is a critical component of developing healthy, strong, and capable female leaders within your church. A woman cannot lead from a healthy soul if we do not help integrate her relationship with Christ with the gifts and calling He has given her.”
  5. Be an “other.”“Being and providing quality ‘others’ in the form of male mentors, male sponsors, and female coaches will give your female leaders the supportive connections and authentic relationships they need to learn, grow, and develop into the capable leaders your church needs and the fruitful leaders God has called them to be.”
  6. Create an environment of safety. “Creating a safe work environment free from harassment or predatorial behavior by anyone is imperative to the development of both male and female leaders who are godly, healthy, and trustworthy.”
  7. Upgrade your people practices. “In everything from recruiting practices to retirement benefits, making sure female leaders receive equal and ethical treatment for the work they contribute was an important issue, not just for women, but as a statement about how churches function as employers within our communities.”
  8. Take on your culture. “By reevaluating your stated values and use of language, redefining borders, and integrating strategic symbols, you can help your culture shift to an environment that not only welcomes and supports new female leadership, but creates an opportunity for many more leaders to grow and thrive.”

While this synopsis accurately summarizes the best practices Developing Female Leadersrecommends, it fails to articulate the wisdom, empathy, and granularity of good advice that runs throughout each chapter of the book.

If you are a male church leader, you really need to read this book. It will open your eyes to the obstacles that the more-than-half of your congregation which is female routinely face as they seek to perform their ministries, whether on staff or as volunteers. More importantly, however, it will give you a detailed plan to clear those obstacles and develop women leaders better. My guess is that as your leadership development practices for women improve, the overall quality of your leadership pipeline will improve too, for both men and women. Finally, for women leaders reading this book, it concludes with a bonus chapter titled, “Best Practices for Female Leaders.”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough!

Book Reviewed
Kadi Cole, Developing Female Leaders: Navigate the Minefields and Release the Potential of Women in Your Church(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019).

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5 thoughts on “Developing Female Leaders | Book Review

  1. Interesting. I am Orthodox, not Evangelical or Pentecostal, so the understanding of ministry has a strong liturgical and symbolic function, and is not almost exclusively homiletical and pastoral.

    Obviously, women are able to preach and advise just fine. They’re also able to perform ritual functions at the altar for the celebration of the Eucharist just fine. So what gives?

    If it’s just about _power and access_, then excluding women from church leadership starts to make people and institutions look pretty sexist.

    I know that there are Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Pentecostals who would exclude women from leadership on an inerrantist view of the biblical text and would then cite 1 Cor 11 or 1 Tim 2. If we’re honest, however, citing these verses not only doesn’t answer the question “why can’t we ordain women as pastors/priests?”, it actively obfuscates the asking of questions and the seeking-out of reasons by sort of suspending this-or-that church’s teaching _in-the-air_, so to speak: the answer ends up being “God has arranged his church this-way-and-that-way by his inscrutable will” or something. That is to say, if one responds to the quest for reasons by offering answers that merely dangle from the irrational and uninterrogatable assertion of a letter from an apostle (one of the assertions [1 Cor 11] which, if we’re honest, we can’t even really make sense out of, even if we know Greek well and the socio-religious context of late 2nd temple Judaism well), then that one seems to be saying that the position is, really, in the end, irrational. Questions can’t be asked. Inquiries hit a brick wall.

    I know there are theologies of the will of God that make this all just “fine” (which is to say, internally consistent — even if unpalatable), but it’s frustrating to most of us when reason hits a limit condition that is artificially imposed from without, rather than natural to the native limits of reason — and taking this approach even has the bad effect of making God look irrational (and sexist, and arbitrary — but didn’t Luther defend just this kind of God, who is –I quote from memory, so forgive any errors– “beyond the justice of Justinian’s _Institutes_ and the goodness of Aristotle’s _[Nichomachean] Ethics_”?).

    The trouble with trying to fight this kind of position, however, is that fighting it seems to dispense with the category of “revelation” entirely. (There is no _a priori_ reason why dispensing with the idea of “revelation” is either bad or false, but it does seem to limit everything real and all notions of the good within the scope of reason — which is, again, fine, but we need to know what position we’re taking.) Christianity is not founded upon the discoveries of natural reason, but upon the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the recognition of his divine-humanity as it pours itself out through space and time by the Spirit, and in the concrete Eucharistic fellowships that live not by the sagacious accumulation of self-validating aphorisms which Jesus is thought by some to have passed down, but by the radically-unsupportable-by-natural-reason-alone positions that Jesus actually advocated for –like loving one’s enemies and “going the extra mile” and total pacifism and whatnot– positions that are apocalyptic and eschatological and, therefore, not merely founded upon reason.

    The resurrection of Jesus as an act of God and a sign of God’s fidelity to a world whose horizon is otherwise death is not arrived at through reason, though I would say that historical inquiries should be given full scope to interrogate what they can about what is, on its own account, at least, a historical singularity. Nor is the recognition of the divine-humanity of Jesus of Nazareth in the various images of his personality that are available through the Gospels or the lives of holy men and women or in hymnody or in iconography something that does not kind of happen spontaneously, and commend itself with an immediacy that intervenes and suspends the asking of questions and the seeking of reasons — at least, at the outset (the asking questions is posterior to the apprehension). Likewise, the eschatological life of the Church is not grounded in pragmatically verifiable positions, but lives in the light of what appears in Jesus’ rising — that is, it is a prolepsis of the final victory of the God of life over death and chaos. Many of the precepts of the church and the teachings of Jesus only make sense inside of this kind of story, this horizon of meaning.

    I am saying that, if the seeking of answers hits a limit, we may question the limit (and we should feel free to! –and we should encourage others to ask such questions), but if we deny that Christianity has a centrally eschatological and apocalyptic character, and that Christian churches are called to live in the light of that madness, we’re really doing a Christian form of Confucianism or something. Which is fine — but we should be honest about what we’re doing.

    That said, I would say that, if prohibiting women from pastoral office is about power and access, it is, so far as I can see, unjust. If it is about something else –the symbolism of the sexes for something else that gets lost without the sexes filling specific ritual and liturgical roles– then that’s another story, and has nothing to do with power, but with aesthetics. I don’t have the interest or the time to get into that, though, and I’ve already taken over ten minutes to write out a comment that’s going to be obscenely long, so I’ll stop there and hope that this is coherent!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to write this, though I should point out that while your commments are germane to discussions of women’s ordination, that’s not what this book is about. It’s about helping women develop their leadership to the full potential of whatever a particular church’s theology allows. If your church doesn’t ordain women because Christ’s masculinity must be reflected in the priest’s, you can still get a lot out of the book. It will help you understand how your church can develop women leaders in areas of ministry other than priesthood.

      1. Thank you, George — I did understand that. TBH, I was sort of processing out loud, taking one of your comments as permission to explore a connection; I think best by committing myself to reflecting in an orderly way in public, and hadn’t made this connection before.

        It does strike me as strange, however, that the one institution that seems to have irrevocably decided upon not ordaining women –the Catholic Church– is, at least in the Roman Rite, and at least in the United States, largely run, on a parish level, by women. The priest often feels like a vestigial organ for the running of the Mass, floating around the periphery until he’s needed to offer the gifts. Women typically lead the singing, do the finances, serve at the altar (there are few boys there nowadays); I have seen women preach less than half the time (the priests need to do _something_), but they are usually the vestry, also. It’s a curious contrast.

      2. It seems like it’s usually the opposite in Evangelicalism — ostensibly more flexibility with regard to interpretation of scripture, and yet more rigidity with regard to the roles of the sexes in ministry and authority. No?

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