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December 19, 2013

Women Leading in a New Era

An interview with leadership consultant Nancy Ortberg


Formerly on staff at Willow Creek, leadership consultant Nancy Ortberg—also a speaker and author—is currently leading on staff at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. She talked with GFL about being in churches that don’t recognize women in leadership, the intersection of passion and humility, and gracefully shifting the reigns of leadership to the next generation.

Have you noticed any unique challenges faced by women leaders in the church today?

That men won’t let them lead. I think a lot of women are gifted for leadership, and I think a lot of men are comfortable with women leading in youth ministries, or the children’s department, or something involved with music, but as far as being equal peers and equal ministers together, I see a lot of obstacles that sometimes men put by marginalizing women over into those areas.

When women are in situations like that, how do you advise them to function within that situation?

That’s a great question. To keep it simple, I really do think there are only two options: one is to stay and be a part of the change, and the other one is to go and find a church where your gifts can be fully utilized. If you choose the first one, you’ve got to recognize that change will definitely be slower than you want and harder than you can imagine, and it may not work.

There is a CD series that my husband did—you can find on the Willow Creek website, in their Seeds bookstore. John did a 4-part series on an exegetical study of all the passages of Scripture that deal with men and women in ministry together.

I think having a theological foundation for what you believe is important. And ask lots of questions. Why do we not have more women on the elder board? Why do we rope women in only twice a year, to teach on Mother’s Day and Labor Day weekend? Just ask questions and be part of the conversation. That will be a slower haul, and a very, very frustrating one, but nothing changes without those things.

Another option is to go to a church that just totally embraces that, and there will be turbulence there too, but it will be a different kind of turbulence.

When our readers survey the landscape of leaders in the church today, are there a few to watch, to learn from? As you scan the horizon, who do you see doing leadership well?

Look for those leaders who are doing a couple of things: who are, first of all, leading at the intersection of passion and humility. That’s a tension that’s really necessary, but it’s difficult to manage well without God. So leaders who are passionate about the force the church can be in the world, and the difference it can make, and have humility to know they don’t have all the answers. They are one of us, not elevated over us.

Look for leaders who are helping churches to understand that, with less and less people going to church, church as usual is not going to reach people for Jesus. And that we are going to have to go out into our communities and get involved in social justice issues, and serving the marginalized, and education, and poverty, and trafficking in a very authentic way, for us to earn the right, and regain the reputation, that those who follow Jesus love those things and are involved in those things. People aren’t breaking down the doors of the church to get into churches anymore. So follow leaders who know that it’s going to take a different kind of church to reach this next generation.

Today in the church, Millennials are taking the reins of leadership from the Baby Boomers. What are your thoughts on that type of generational dynamic, in terms of leadership?

For many generations we were talking about the need to pass the baton. This is nothing new. In organizations and in churches, for generations, the baton has been passed. So what does that mean? It’s not quite a baton passing because you don’t just hand the baton to the runner in front of you and stop running.

It’s more like the picture I got, years ago, when John and I went to see the movie Seabiscuit. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, there’s a scene that’s just remarkable. Red Pollard was the jockey who rode Seabiscuit, and he had been in a terrible accident and broken many bones in his body. He was unable to ride Seabiscuit for the better part of a year. And like any good jockey, he knew that horse inside and out. He knew how to make that horse run and win. So the owner was a little bit hesitant, but had to find another jockey. So they found another jockey who sat at the hospital, at his bedside, and Red coached him. He taught him every nuance of that horse. And at one point he said, “Here’s what happens when he falls behind: He’s got to get eye to eye with another horse who’s got fire in his eye. And after just a couple of seconds of that he will take off and he will win the race.”

So toward the end of the movie, Red Pollard has healed enough to be able to ride Seabiscuit again. He is at the starting gate at the Santa Anita racetrack and the other jockey, who had to race Seabiscuit while Red Pollard was in the hospital, was there on another horse. And the other jockey, as they got into the starting gate, gave him a little tip of the hat. Kind of, “Glad you’re back on the horse.”

The race started, and the cinematography of this next section is just amazing because with sound and sight and camera angles they remind you that every bone in Red Pollard’s body is aching and creaking and not quite knit back together real well. And additionally, Seabiscuit hasn’t been ridden by him in a while, and is falling farther and farther behind. Then the other jockey saw what was happening with Seabiscuit and intentionally held his horse back, long enough for Seabiscuit to catch up with him, giving Seabiscuit that eye to eye with the other horse. Then he turned his face to Red Pollard and said, “See you at the finish line.” Then Seabiscuit pulled ahead and won the race.

And I’m telling you, I can still remember how I felt when I saw that. I think it’s very bad horse-riding strategy, very bad for the owners of the horse, I’m sure they were not pleased. But it’s a vision for me of what it means for each generation to intentionally pull themselves back a little bit and to let the younger generation come up alongside them to spend time together, for them to be able to see the fire in your eyes and then for you to be able to wish them well as they move ahead of you toward the finish line. And I think there ought to be this really intentional working alongside of, reciprocal mentoring—not just older to younger—where we’re just strengthening the church day by day, month by month, year by year, generation by generation.

What are you working on these days?

I’m working a couple days a week at our church doing leadership development, which is a real collaborative effort with all of the leaders on our staff, in a 150-year-old Presbyterian Church, trying to carve out “what does church need to look like.” So I try to really do a collaborative effort to get us to align on what we think it means to lead in that context.

I’m also doing some outside consulting with both corporate clients and nonprofit clients, churches and education systems.

And then I have a little writing project on the side I’m trying to get done. I’m not sure my editor believes I’ll ever finish it, but slowly but surely I am working on it.

Margot Starbuck is a frequent contributor and editorial advisor to Gifted for Leadership, an author, a speaker, and a volunteer among friends with disabilities. Her most recent book is Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously among Sinners and Saints. More at

Related Tags: challenge, gender roles, millennials


Excellent article. As a women who has spent 35+ years in a church where women are marginalized, I will attest that it has been a very frustrating experience. However, this has been our Body and we have been blessed by this community, so we stayed.

"And I think there ought to be this really intentional working alongside of, reciprocal mentoring—not just older to younger—where we’re just strengthening the church day by day, month by month, year by year, generation by generation."

This is fine in theory, but it hasn't been my experience to see this happening. My husband, with 30+ years of experience as an elder, is passing on the baton. However, to use your analogy of the runner, the younger men just want to grab the baton and run. They do not want to run alongside to sense the pace, to learn the course before taking the baton. In the enthusiasm of youth, there is little appreciation of the older generation. Respect for the wisdom and years of experience is not there. Instead, there is the feeling of "can't we get rid of the older guys so we can do our own thing." It is so sad. My husband can't wait until he is finished.

My (Japanese) husband and I (caucasian American) are co-senior pastors of our Japanese language church in Tokyo. Amazingly enough, here in a very patriarchal, hierarchical society, our church has for decades honoured the giftedness of our membership and encouraged people to minister freely from the gifts God has blessed them with, for the benefit of the entire body (1 Peter 4:10), without concern for gender. Many women have been ordained as pastors over the years, and continue to serve in churches they have planted.

I am so grateful to God for the opportunity afforded me to work together with my husband for the glory of God's kingdom, using our gifts together for the benefit of the church and for the glory of God in the community at large. We complement each other and encourage each other. Together, we do more than we could ever do separately. It saddens me to think that our teamwork would probably not be permitted in most churches in the US, but I am so grateful that God has opened the floodgates for us to serve him here in Tokyo.

I would be honoured to encourage any woman to use her gifts for God's glory and the furtherance of His kingdom.

Kathy Oyama

I loved the illustration of slowing down to let someone catch the fire in your eyes. I also agree with the comment on how the younger generation lacks respect for the wisdom of those who are more experienced. As the Founder and President of Inspire Women, a women's ministry that empowers thousands of women find their spark to serve at their potential I find that in order to get the respect of the next generation I need to slow down not just for them to catch the fire in my eyes but to see the unique fire in their eyes. They need to sense the excitement of building on what I have built but to also feel my excitement in their unique gifts and how they will take the ministry beyond what I have done. I find that when I am feeling like they don't appreciate me I need to ask "But do I appreciate them?" It is when we work together that each will do more than either can do alone. At Inspire Women I have brought in women in their twenties as an intentional strategy to invest in the future.

I'm so thankful for Nancy's leadership and words of wisdom. I'm looking forward to searching out her husband's teachings on those troubled passages of women in leadership in the church.

I very much appreciate the Seabiscuit analogy. Brilliant and helpful. As on "older" leader who is always coaching younger women, I will call upon this concept. Thanks.

I've done the 30 years and wife of head elder too. I thought for sure that the next generation would have no part of the pink ghetto but they are totally unquestioning. This in a seeker-friendly, fair trade coffee bar and no potlucks church. I was and still am truly mystified. I kept quiet for years but when I finally began speaking up I was stunned by the lack of response from any leadership. When I began to get physically ill on Sundays I knew I had to leave. It still makes me very very sad. I have yet to find any evangelical church in my area of New England that welcomes shared leadership between men and women. Moving on - I think your visual of passing the baton is great and I will keep that in mind as I work with younger believers. Take care.

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