In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Penny Freeman looks at the stresses of ministry for women leaders, and gives practical ways churches can better support them in the work they do. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)

As a 20-something on staff with Young Life, my supervisor gave me a six-page form to fill out that asked me hard questions about life and ministry. The questions were frighteningly personal and, I feared, would expose me as a ministry fraud.

I waited until the last minute to hand it in, confident I was going to be fired.  My big reveal? I didn’t have devotions every day. I struggled with depressing feelings. And God didn’t always make sense to me in moments that were hard or disappointing.

My wise supervisor sat me down, listened, and assured me my job and future with Young Life was secure, but she wanted to help me develop and grow. There was a sigh of relief when I found out I was safe under her care. Later that year, at a regional retreat for female staff, I found out that I was not alone. The sharing revealed:

  • We all struggled to believe the gospel when hard events were happening in our lives.
  • Ministry was rewarding but tended to create loneliness.
  • Praying felt difficult to practice.
  • We all often lost our tempers.
  • We all struggled with “imposter syndrome” and wondered about leaving ministry for “secular” jobs.
  • Most women had a counselor or “safe relationship”.

This was the important lesson learned for going forward in ministry: Ministry leaders needed a safe space to be honest about their hearts, their struggles, and their fears.

So, who shepherds the shepherdesses?

Women are working hard in many thriving churches and parachurch ministries as leaders, pastors’ wives, and other support staff, and we should care about their hearts and souls.

Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so.  While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves.

As a female leader, I have been equipped for ministry by the multiple mentors and caregivers who have poured into my life over 40 years. Here are some simple ways people have discipled and shepherded me, enabling me to both function more productively and flourish in ministry.

  • Ministry leaders need to practice self-care.

Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves. Moreover, most live on shoe-string budgets and rarely have the income to pay for things that might encourage their care. One concrete way to care for a woman in ministry would be to encourage regular time to herself.

Self-care for caretakers should not be optional. Burnout is a real thing. Invest in your female staff members and volunteers by providing movie passes, personal rest days where she can go away and reflect and rest, and any multiple ways she can step away from ministry to do something fun. Although these things may not seem very “spiritual” in nature, they help women gain and maintain a sense of health, enjoyment, and value for self and others.

  • Ministry leaders need safe listeners.

Text or call your ministry leader routinely and ask her how you can pray for her. Some of my best supporters are folks I can simply text “PRAY” to, knowing they are safe enough that I don’t have to explain all the details; they know the details of my life well enough to pray.

Spend time to earn her trust and let her unburden her heart on her own terms. Safe listening sometimes means no advice, no judgment, and no well-intentioned prying questions for more information. Just listen and validate your friend’s experience (you can validate her experience without agreeing with everything she says). Finally, be a “vault” listener. What she says stays in the vault (never gets repeated). You are a trusted source of confidence.

Being a safe listener is the only way she will come to you with deeply personal struggles, especially ones involving her sexuality. She may have a husband who she discovers is looking at porn; she might be struggling with that herself. Sexual issues and ministry are an explosive combination! Too many struggles stay hidden until they blow up, for reasons of shame and fear of losing one’s job. Being a safe listener invites others to ask for help and communicates that you will stick with her for her good.

  • Ministry leaders need hard conversations.

Our marriages, our kids, and our hearts are targets for the enemy. If ministry leaders fall hard, we potentially take a lot of folks down with us.

If you are a trusted friend, be willing to have hard conversations. Where is she tempted to compromise her biblical values or moral integrity? Is she living within her budget? Is she spending time on Facebook scrolling for old relationships because of marital disappointment? Is she gossiping on the phone about people who have hurt her or looking at websites she shouldn’t? Is she harboring bitterness about events she can’t resolve? Is she dealing with emotional or physical abuse in her relationships?

By all means ask these questions. And don’t be shocked if your ministry friend has far more in her life than you can shoulder; invite her to glean wisdom from others, and from professional counselors in your area. Help her with the cost if she needs it.

  • Ministry leaders need encouragement.

Most women ministry leaders walk around with a secret critic in their heads that renders null-and-void any praise they receive. But when they are affirmed in their character, God’s gifting in them, or how their ministry makes a difference in your eyes, they feel encouraged.

Send her to a conference or seminar where she will be fed spiritually and emotionally. Remind her that her relationship with God is more significant than what she accomplishes. Tell her what you see God doing in her, that she is his daughter and reflects him more every day.

These, then, are some concrete ways to watch over the hearts of those women who bear the mantle of gospel ministry. We need to thoughtfully and proactively support these women as they continue assisting others in growth and sanctification.


Penny Freeman talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: How Can Women in Ministry Guard Against Burnout? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

In this videoPenny Freeman shares her life experience of 40 years in ministry, identifying what drains her life and what gives her life. You can read more of Penny’s thoughts in her blog, “Caring for the Shepherdesses: What Women Leaders Need.” You can also read the Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine here where Penny’s article first appeared.

In general, people rarely come forward to talk about their sexuality, sexual struggles, or sexual identity issues. Therefore, it can be difficult to address people pastorally, even when pastors are willing and want to help people deal with their sexual brokenness. On the other hand, pastors are sometimes increasingly reluctant to address these issues themselves. One member of a church filled with millennials told me that his church never addresses issues like sexuality at all. That’s pretty ironic, given that this generation is the most porn-exposed, gay-affirming, and pro-gay marriage group of any generation—even in very conservative churches. In the absence of guidance from church leaders, the culture has done its own job of discipleship in this area quite well!

“Every day, it’s almost like I’m only one step away from starting to believe that, just maybe, we are the ones who have been wrong [about homosexuality].”

Indeed, pastors have told me they fear that the culture, sexually speaking, is starting to impact their leadership and elders as well. Case in point? Sam, an elder at a larger congregation with a mostly younger crowd, confessed to me recently, “Every day, it’s almost like I’m only one step away from starting to believe that, just maybe, we are the ones who have been wrong [about homosexuality].”

Phil, a pastor in a large metropolitan-area church, told me that some people stopped attending his church when they found out that the church held a biblically faithful stance on homosexuality. “Visitors are often offended when they learn what we believe about this issue, even though we talk about it with grace and mercy.” It’s true. Today it’s quite normal for someone to inquire of an individual, once they find out they are a Christian, “Well, what do you think about homosexuality? Is it a sin?” It’s seen as the new barometer of trustworthiness in the eyes of the inquirer. In an analogous way, church visitors, even those who may attend an introductory or membership class, also want to know up front now, “What does your church think about homosexuality?” One pastor described trying to navigate these waters today as a minefield—no matter what he says or how kindly he will say it, someone is going to be upset. In fact, the upset party may very well leave the church, perhaps taking some others with them.

Maybe that’s why one pastor of another large city church told me not long ago, “We’ll never have anyone from Harvest USA come and speak to our congregation. I don’t want to offend anyone, especially those who may be gay in the church.” Well, okay, but my question to that pastor would be, “How do you plan to educate your people biblically about sex and sexuality? Or are you just going to let them figure it out for themselves, continuing to allow the hundreds of other voices out there be their instructors?” I also wonder how struggling members of such a congregation might ever be encouraged towards honesty, faith, and repentance when it comes to their sexual temptations, struggles, and sin—to even want to get help.

My guess is that fear of man and a desire to not upset the apple cart are often ruling forces here. We err when we dismiss or fail to teach on something as big and important to God as sex. If we talk about these things biblically (as in really teaching what God says), we may fear that our message won’t go over well with those who are exploring the faith.

But church leadership doesn’t have to walk on eggshells, fear, be confused, or choose silence. Yes, teaching and speaking the whole counsel of God, offering mercy and grace all the while, can be a challenge. Yes, we’ll need to be more strategic in learning how to engage the culture that is already deeply influencing our own people. But if there’s any time that we must proclaim the truth and grace of God about these issues, it’s today!

Harvest USA wants to help pastoral staff, other church leadership, elder boards, etc., to better consider how to communicate all this with their congregations. No longer can we just wait on the sidelines. As leadership, we must intentionally think about how we can guide and help our people better understand God’s intention in these areas.

Please let us know if you’d like Harvest USA staff to help your church leadership and key volunteers think through these things. Your church staff and other leadership will be much better prepared to help the congregation if you do. Send me an email for more information on how your church leadership can begin to tackle these issues—and, therefore, be enabled to lead your people well in concerns close that are close to the heart of God.

Read the article below in Leadership Magazine.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/summer/uncleantouch.html?paging=off

It’s a story by a pastor who struggles, along with his leadership team, with allowing a lesbian couple and family into his church. His reflections on what it means to reach out to those who do not follow Christ, but show evidence of perhaps wanting to do so, is excellent. Read his four convictions; they should be guidelines for every church, every follower of Christ, who is serious about introducing people to Jesus Christ.

I love his first conviction: God is here. In other words, if someone like this couple shows up in church, we should think first that God is up to something in the matter, regardless of where the situation ends up eventually. In other words, don’t let your initial thought be, “Why is this (type of) person here?” Believe that God is still drawing people to himself, and those (types of) people will challenge you to act like Jesus did to “sinners and tax collectors.”

At Harvest USA, we have developed some guidelines for youth groups to approach a same-sex attracted youth either coming out or wanting to come to youth group at church. If the church is the place where God is, then accepting the mess of people’s lives is par for our gospel work. So let them in, in whatever stage of “uncleanness” they are, and see what God is up to. It may be very confusing at first, and for some time, but we need to allow God to bring clarity along the way. This doesn’t mean we abandon biblical standards and doctrine, but if we allow our minds to first go to all the potential difficulties that might (will?) ensue if this couple, for example, wants to join the church, then we will hold back from loving them at the beginning of their entry. We will allow our fear to control our welcome.

Isn’t that how he wooed us into his arms? Weren’t we all messes at one time? Don’t we still have some mess still sticking to us?

Updated 5.4.2017

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