The Unspoken Challenges Female Church Planters Face

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“I think there’s a lot of pressure to be really good as a female pastor—not just an OK pastor,” said Sam DeJong McCarron, who works as a ministry vocational consultant for the CRC’s Pastor Church Resources. “You have to be the best of the best because you’re a woman and a female pastor in a denomination that holds two views on it.”

Sam and her husband, Nate, are ordained ministers of the Word in the CRC. They were recruited to plant a church in Denver, Colorado, in 2009—but they could not find a CRC church right away that would ordain both of them.

But Sam would tell you that when it comes to females in church leadership, the question of theology is only part of the problem.

“My theological framework is all onboard,” said Kevin Schutte, mission shaped congregations leader for Resonate Global Mission. “Then you hit this big stumbling block or barrier: there’s still a whole lot of ministry stuff that happens over coffee with other men. By far, the majority of our church planters currently and historically have all been male. There’s a good ol’ boy network.”

Building a church from the ground up is challenging. Church planters are responsible for every aspect of a new ministry, from finances and administrative tasks to preaching, pastoring, and developing leaders. But not all of church planting includes barriers. Amy Schenkel, a former church planter and Resonate’s United States National Director and Great Lakes Regional Mission Leader, notes church planting also offers opportunities that women are particularly equipped for.

“The schedule is more flexible because there are no set expectations and programs and committee meetings,” she said. “Women often have relational gifts, and these gifts are of great value in church planting. [A female church planter] can use the gifts she’s been given to develop a church that fits her leadership style instead of trying to fill shoes that have been worn by men for many years.”

Still, no pastor—regardless of his or her gender—can plant a church alone; they need a network of support. But in a “good ol’ boy network,” where do women fit in?

“Female leaders don’t get invited into the sidebar conversation as readily,” Sam said. “It’s just not available to them. That dynamic is definitely missing. And mentoring … when I talk with young female leaders, they want a female mentor. That’s great. I’m all about that. But you also need male mentors. In a predominantly male field, you have to be willing to be mentored by a male.”

But mentorships between males and females are rare. It’s a two-way street: both men and women in ministry have steered clear from these relationships. Sam and Kevin note that, oftentimes, it’s because people are concerned about optics and misconceptions—what does it look like if Sam and Kevin spend two hours meeting for coffee?

“It takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort and a lot of thought,” said Sam. “You have to be willing to have those conversations.”

But in a denomination that holds two perspectives on women in office, those conversations are critical for inviting women into mentorships and other ministry conversations.

Here’s why: Mirtha Villafane planted a church in Venezuela and then moved to the United States, where she was recruited by the CRC in 2002 to work as the Hispanic Ministry Developer in Southern California. She was ordained in the CRC as a Minister of the Word in 2008 and asked to revitalize a church in Anaheim.

“It was impossible because the church was dying,” Mirtha said.  “What I did was to re-birth the church, that is, to re-plant a dead church of 49 years and give it life.”

On top of the challenges that come from building a church from ground zero, she was also facing a “machismo mindset” from women who were from Latin America in her community—many were unaccustomed to female leaders in the church.

One day, a few women visited the church and one told Mirtha she could not be a pastor because she was a woman. Mirtha did not even blink. She continued with the worship service. When she was planting a church in Venezuela, she had a strong male mentor whose discipleship and encouragement resonated with her even after she moved onto another ministry.

“In Venezuela … my former pastor was always with me,” said Mirtha. “He said: If someone says something because you are a woman, tell them that I am your cover and I believe in you. I felt secure.”

Today, the congregation Mirtha restored is thriving with two daughter churches.

Like Mirtha, more and more women are answering God’s specific call on their lives to plant churches. Yet there are extra hurdles when females are running the race.

“You will work harder, longer hours and more diligently than male counterparts to get the same recognition and respect,” said Beth Fellinger, pastor of Destination CRC, a Resonate church plant in Ontario.

Beth has been in pastoral ministry for 38 years. Destination is her third church plant—a congregation that is now nearly eight years old and still growing. Yet despite her experience, she still faces skepticism because of her gender.

“There will always be those who believe you don’t belong in leadership in church and will be kind enough to tell you,” she said. “There will be some who will try to sabotage your ministry to prove their point … [but] there will also be those who cheer in your corner and are great supports.”

As a ministry of the CRC, Resonate strives to be in the corner of female church planters like Beth and Mirtha. We don’t always know exactly what that looks like, but we’re committed to initiating those conversations.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Kevin. “I don’t know what I’m missing because I’m a male church planter … I know that I’m missing something. [But] I believe the mission of God will continue to grow in North America and be more effective if we continue to embrace the gifts of women.”

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I had never thought about the church-planting mentor bit.  Thank you for opening up my eyes to some of the obstacles female church planters in the CRC face.  I appreciate the willingness to speak about the uphill battle and hope to be more of an advocate wherever possible.