Dave Ferguson

Do women play a vital role in accomplishing the mission of Jesus here on earth? Dave Ferguson believes so. He believes the workforce for the harvest will increase exponentially when women are encouraged to co-labor alongside men.

When we first heard how Dave and his church came to the conclusion that women are welcomed into every aspect of church life, we knew it was a story worth telling. But Dave not only empowers the women in his own church, he also has a personal story to tell.

Dave is an author, a speaker, and one of the co-founders of Exponential—a community of leaders committed to multiplying healthy, reproducing faith communities. They run the annual Exponential conference for church planters. He is a lead pastor and spiritual entrepreneur with Community Christian Church and the NewThing network.


Community Christian Church was a brand new church and, as the church planter, I appointed a group of people who would serve as our Leadership Advisory Team. This team of men and women was responsible to hold me (and my young staff of twenty-year-olds) accountable, as well as establish our first group of elders. 

For two years, we met, prayed, studied, and discussed the role of women in leadership. We found the Bible was very clear about the role and expectation of an elder on a number of issues, but lacked clarity regarding gender. Was the role of elder just for men? Or was service in this oversight role based on the gifting of the individual man or woman?

Two Years of Not Hurrying

Over the next 24 months, I reasoned with some of the greatest theological minds, best leaders, and most God-honoring people I have ever known, about the role of women in church leadership. Since this book is advocating for women leaders, you might think we quickly concluded that women could serve as leaders and elders. However, that was not the case. In fact, during those two years, every person on that exceptional team found themselves swaying back and forth on this controversial issue. Why did we take so long to discern what Scripture has to say? Let me give you a few reasons, and in the process, encourage you to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands”1 but give serious thought and time to this issue.

  •  It takes time to set aside your assumptions and open yourself up to solid theological reasoning. None of our team members had ever been a part of a church that allowed women to serve as elders, so we assumed this was a male only role—until we examined some Scripture that seemed to suggest otherwise. It would have been quick and easy for us to stick with our assumptions, but instead, we took the time to put our understood notions aside and open our hearts to what the Bible actually had to say.
  •  It takes time to make a good decision, especially when the subject is controversial. There were two groups of people in our church—one way or the other, this would be an unpopular decision. Our church primarily consisted of previously un-churched people who didn’t live in the Bible Belt and assumed women could serve in any role. But we also had a small group of leaders from an Independent Christian Church background, the kind of church I grew up in, and they assumed women could not serve as elders. We took our time because we knew this decision would not be easily embraced or immediately welcomed by one of the groups.
  •  It takes time to get the decision right. Rather than put pressure on ourselves to come to a conclusion within a certain time frame, we suspended any deadline and focused on making a good and godly decision. As author Peter Drucker said, “Good decisions are not so much made as they become apparent.” We didn’t force this decision, but a good and right decision became apparent over time.

If you find yourself in a church leadership position and are wrestling with a decision about the role of women in the church, for these reasons and more, I would encourage you to take your time.

And the Decision of the Jury…

After two years, the Leadership Advisory Team came to a decision. The following is an excerpt from an appendix to our constitution and bylaws:

The Leadership Advisory Team (LAT) spent two years formulating the Constitution and bylaws of Community Christian Church. The process included diligent study, prayer, reflection, consultation, and discussion. We believe the Bible teaches (and the leadership history of our church supports) that men and women are full partners in ministry in the kingdom of God. Giftedness by the Holy Spirit is the primary basis of qualification for ministry (Romans 12:1-8; I Corinthians 12 & 14; Ephesians 4:1-16; I Peter 4:10-11). We do not find the whole witness and testimony of Scripture sufficiently consistent with the position of male-only governance.

We believe our position is consistent with the following Scriptures:

"Women in the New Testament church were leaders serving as prophets (Acts 21:9), teachers (Acts 18:26), ministers (Romans 16:1-3), leaders in worship services (I Corinthians 11:4-5) and co-workers with the Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:2-3).

The Holy Spirit empowers both men and women, young and old to speak for God (Acts 2:17-18).

Men and women are equal recipients of God’s gifts (I Peter 3:7).

In Christ all people, male and female, are to be submissive to one another and to serve one another in reciprocal love and obedience to Jesus (Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3-4; Galatians 5:13).

In the Old Testament a woman was appointed by God to be the principal leader of the nation of Israel (Judges 4-5).

We believe these passages suggest that no person be disqualified from any form of service in the body of Christ based solely on gender."

Once we came to our conclusion, we put together a process to communicate this decision to our leaders and church members. While the process for communication was solid, as anticipated, the decision was not well-received by some. We had several people and families who grew up in male-only-led churches; they were sure we had abandoned Scripture for cultural acceptance and were now headed down the slippery slope toward heresy. These were people I really loved, and I believe they loved me, but ultimately they left our church. It was the hardest time in the life of our church.

This was a decision we came to almost 20 years ago. With the perspective that time brings, I can say with confidence what did and did not motivate this decision:

  • Our decision was not based on being egalitarian. Community Christian is a church founded with the mission of “helping people find their way back to God,” and has no theological investment in equality, in the modern sense of the way the word is used politically. Our decision was not about an equal rights orientation.
  • Our decision was not informed by feminism. While we believe that feminism as a contemporary movement has made both positive and negative contributions, Community Christian has no particular alignment with a feminist perspective on this issue or any other.
  •  Our decision was based on the whole testimony of Scripture. We concluded the Bible clearly shows that women led at all levels in the first century church, including as an apostle (Junia). We also concluded any scriptural injunctions that seemed to forbid female leadership did not hold up to exegetical scrutiny of the whole witness and testimony of Scripture: women prophesied, women taught, women were apostles. While there are not any female elders named in Scripture, we also have no names of male elders. If someone wants to make an argument from silence and say, “Name one female elder in the Bible,” you can’t. But you can’t name a male elder either.
  • Our decision was based on how the Holy Spirit gifts people to lead. This decision was made by taking the less-restrictive view and focusing on how the Spirit gifts people individually. If someone is gifted to serve and lead in any capacity, we found nothing in Scripture to suggest their gender should qualify or disqualify them.

A Changed Mind: Theologically Right, but not Critical for the Mission

It wasn’t long before word began to get out to other churches and church leaders, “Community has women elders!” For some groups that meant we were heretics—we’d become their next whipping post and an example of a church that doesn’t take Scripture seriously. But other churches and church leaders were curious and wanted to hear more about how we arrived at such a position.

I remember getting a call from a prominent church leader, asking me to speak to a group about women, leadership, and our position on this issue in the church. As I considered the request, I also reflected on the two-year journey with our Leadership Advisory Team. I had reached a decision along with a team of respected, thoughtful, godly leaders, and felt certain we were theologically right, but I also believed this issue was not mission critical. I can remember responding to the speaking request with this answer: “No, this is not the hill I want to die on. When people remember me, I want to die on the hill of helping people find their way back to God—not the issue of women in leadership.” And I felt content with that answer for the next 10 years.

A Changed Heart: Theologically Right and Mission Critical

My feelings about the issue of women in leadership began to change when my oldest child, Amy, started looking for colleges. Like many 18-years-olds, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to declare as a major, but student ministry was toward the top of her list of interests. So with ministry as a strong consideration, we began looking for a Christian college that would be a good fit. 

I had two criteria in mind as we began our search: first, I wanted her to find a school with a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture, and second, I wanted her to attend a school that would encourage her as a female leader to fulfill her God-given potential. As we began our search locally, then expanded nationally, we discovered you could have one or the other, but seldom both. You could either attend a school that believed and taught the authority of Scripture, but had few, if any, female women on their practical ministry staff. Or, they had many women on staff and a culture that encouraged female leaders, but were not consistently strong about biblical authority. 

With each college visit, there was a growing realization that finding a school where my daughter could get a solid theological education along with positive encouragement to use all of her gifts was going to be very hard. That’s when it got personal and something began to change in me. The issue of women in leadership went from being something that was theologically right, but not mission critical, to both theologically correct and critical for accomplishing the mission of Jesus!

It was like my eyes were opened—for the first time, I realized that 50 percent of the leaders God had gifted for this mission were not mobilized or utilized. I don’t know how I missed it before. It was like the church was trying to show off by doing everything with one hand tied behind her back! The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed. I began to look at the world through the eyes of my daughter and other women, and saw very limited possibilities for her to use her gifts. It was suddenly personal and emotional.

Strategy for Mobilizing the Other Fifty Percent

After experiencing a change of mind, and then a change of heart, I knew this issue was not detached from the mission of Jesus. This was not an issue I could set aside as less than mission critical. If the dream of the Gospel movement is ever to be realized, we must mobilize every male and female. But how? How can we bring other people and leaders like myself—who already believe women can and should lead, but have been passive—on a journey to see that it is mission critical? We can lead them, one by one, through this process: observation, inspiration, and application. Let me give you an overview, and then explain in more detail.

OBSERVATION: The first move in realizing a new tomorrow is seeing a different today. We have to spark the imagination of the people and leaders in the church by letting them see women functioning in roles of leadership. When they are able to observe women in leadership roles the imagination is set free; women and men alike will dream dreams and see new visions.

INSPIRATION: The second move is inspiring the hearts and minds of church people and their leadership. When it becomes emotional and personal, lasting change will occur, and the status quo will no longer be acceptable.

APPLICATION: The final move is when churches and their leaders, who were once passive, now see that female leadership is critical to the mission. It is with keen understanding and heart-felt passion that churches and their leadership will begin to intentionally develop and deploy women leaders.

Strategic Step 1: OBSERVATION

The first step on the journey is the ability to see the future—by envisioning women in roles that were once thought only for men, you change the future. We can begin simply: by giving women leaders a place on the platform, by sharing stories, by issuing a rebuke when needed. Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth was women—covered by black cloaks and veils—on the right. A partition separated the two groups. During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. 

“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.” 

I wonder if God doesn’t hear our prayers for revival and movement and say, “You are already gifted and ready for revival and movement—if you would only utilize more than half the talent I gave you.” 

One of my favorite stories regarding women of influence is about Tammy Melchien. Four years ago, Tammy began to sense God calling her to plant a campus of Community Christian Church in the city of Chicago. Up to that point, we had not been successful in planting campuses in the city; all our locations were in the suburbs. We needed just the right leader to launch this important new site.

Tammy is a very bright woman whom God had continually put into positions of influence. She had received encouragement to use her gifts and proven successful in leading ministries, both inside and outside the local church. Like many on our staff, Tammy raised her own salary and proved she could start something from nothing. In every role we gave her, she not only excelled personally, but also did an outstanding job of developing other leaders around her. 

We agreed that Tammy was the right leader to start a new campus in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. My brother, Jon, who would oversee Tammy, also saw this as an opportunity to influence other church leaders to give women executive leadership opportunities. Since then, Tammy has done a great job launching this new site, building relationships with the local school and neighbors, teaching/preaching on weekends, and continuing to develop leaders around her. Our dream is to one day see 200 locations of Community in the city and suburbs of Chicago. I believe God used Tammy to give that dream a real possibility by establishing our first site in the city.

I love telling Tammy’s story of starting a church from scratch because it allows other women with the gift of leadership to see what they too can do! Her story illustrates the first step on this journey—seeing, and helping others see, what women can and should do for the Kingdom. Ask yourself: What female leader can I platform? Do I need to speak the truth when women are so obviously vacant from leadership roles? What stories of influential women can I tell? Observation is where it all begins.

Strategic Step 2: INSPIRATION

If the first step on the journey is with the eyes, the second step is one of heart and mind. My friend Alan Hirsch, co-author of On the Verge and co-contributor to The Black Swan Effect, was recently speaking at a conference when he said, “The church has all too often treated women like the Taliban has treated them—only perhaps more subtly. Clearly we do not condone the crude and explicit violence they inflict on women, but we hardly treat them any better when it comes to their equal dignity, status, and function in Christ.” While he was speaking, you could almost feel people’s minds churning and thinking. We have to shake-up people intellectually and help them see the current practices of many churches for what they really are.

Another friend and partner in church planting, Greg Nettle, also spoke on women in the church. He pointed out some important observations from Scripture:

  • Men and women are both created in the image of God and are therefore of equal value before God. Genesis 1:27-28 tells us, “So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.’” Women and men, both created in God’s image, are of equal value and were given equal authority and responsibility. That was God’s intent from the beginning.
  • Men and women are both uniquely gifted by God and should be given opportunities for the full expression of their giftedness. Ephesians 4:7 reminds us, “God has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ.” Notice that it does not say, “God has given every man a special gift.” If we skip down to verse 11 it says, “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers.” So, we have these gifts that are given to each one of us, both men and women. Who gives the gifts? God gives the gifts. He determines every man’s and every woman’s unique gifting. Our job is simply to use our gifts and help others in the body of Christ fully use theirs as well.
  • Both men and women are given gifts to serve others. First Corinthians 12:7 tells us, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so that we can help each other.” We need every man and woman to discover their spiritual gifts so that the church can function to its full capacity.

Doesn’t this make you rethink gifts, service, and how God equips the church? A recent Harvard Business Review article titled, “Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?”4 highlights what the church is missing by not having more women leaders. The article was based on extensive research, in which individuals were asked to rate a leader’s overall effectiveness and judge their strength in 16 areas of competency (shown by 30 years of research to be important factors in leadership effectiveness). Leaders were rated by their peers, bosses, direct reports, and other associates on criteria such as: taking the initiative, developing others, inspiring and motivating, and pursuing their own development. The results? At every level, women rated better as overall leaders than their male counterparts—and the higher the level, the wider the gap.

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Don’t those results make you ask some questions? Don’t you wonder how God could make so many women outstanding leaders in the marketplace, but not want them to lead in the church or ministry? Does it disturb you a little that the results suggest women are actually better at leading than men? We need to constantly inspire people to rethink their position on this issue. Are they comfortable with the status quo? Should women in the church be relegated to working only with children and other women?

Strategic Step 3: APPLICATION

After seeing it with our eyes, then being moved in our hearts and minds, the last step on this journey is with our hands. When we convince churches that releasing all of God’s people is critical to the mission, they will put their hands to the plow and develop and deploy every person we have for the mission—both men and women!

In On The Verge, we present the biblical case that the way to accomplish the mission of Jesus is through a missional movement. We contend that the church—in its original form, the state in which God intended it—is a movement. The church was never meant to be merely a place to come on Sundays, or a place to outsource individual spiritual needs. The church was designed to be a movement that accomplishes the Acts 1:8 vision of Jesus—reaching and restoring “Jerusalem…Judea…Samaria…and the ends of the earth.” 

So what does a movement look like? I believe this simple diagram is a great expression of the church of Jesus as a missional movement: 

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  • Missional People: First, initiating a movement requires every person to be on mission. This means everyone who claims to be a Christ-follower is “doing the good work that God prepared in advance for him or her to do.”5 We need churches that mobilize every gifted man and every gifted woman for the cause of the mission. 
  • Multiplying Churches: Second, it requires the multiplication of churches. By God’s design, the church can have lots of varied and creative expressions, but for there to be movement, those expressions must multiply. 
  • Missional Movement: When you put missional people together with multiplying churches, it works much like the two pedals of a bike. You push the first pedal of missional people, and then you push the second pedal of multiplying churches—as you do, you begin to move forward. With each push on the pedal, you gain more and more momentum. Eventually, you experience movement.

If we refuse to deploy 50 percent of those missional people to their fullest potential, it becomes exponentially more difficult to create movement. At some level, it just becomes plain stupid! We need every man on mission. And, we need every woman on mission. 

I recently had an experience that reignited in me a desire to “die on the hill” of advocating for women in leadership. I had just finished teaching a workshop on church planting when I met Jayla, a woman I guessed to be in her late ’20s. I had already noticed her listening intently to every part of the presentation and I could tell by her follow-up questions that she was well-read and passionate about the topic. As we talked, I learned how she became a Christ-follower, how God consistently put her in places of influence and about her passionate desire to trade her life for the mission of Jesus. I was impressed. As we were walking out of the building, I asked her, “Have you ever thought about planting a church?” 

She literally stopped walking. Her eyes opened wide. She shook her head slowly back and forth and told me, “No one has ever asked me that before.” Jayla explained this was not a possibility in the churches she had been part of—women didn’t lead, and women didn’t plant churches. 

My conversation with Jayla has been burned into my conscience as a reminder of something that is very wrong! Within the circles I travel, a sharp, young, 20-something male showing obvious leadership potential would have been asked dozens of times if he had ever considered planting a church. But not her! I walked away from that experience saying to myself, “This has to change! For Jayla it has to change. For the sake of the mission, this has to change.”

It truly is mission critical.

Discussion Questions

1. Do you personally believe the role of women is mission critical? Why?

2. Where does your faith community sit on the spectrum Dave discusses in this chapter—are women considered irrelevant or mission critical? Why does your faith community believe the way it does?

3. What difference do you think the full participation of women will make to Jesus’s mission to reach the world with the good news?

4. If the role of women was viewed as mission critical, what difference could this make in your life? In your church?

Chapter 2 Notes

  1. 2 Timothy 5:22 (NIV).
  2. Romans 16:7.
  3. According to theologian Philip B. Payne, the Bible gives John (2 John 1 and 3 John 1) and Peter (2 Peter5:1) special titles containing the word “elder,” but they refer to their special status as apostolic eyewitnesses. They do not identify them as having a local church office.
  4. “Are Women Better Leaders than Men?,” Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review, March 15, 2012, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/03/a-study-in-leadership-women-do/.
  5. Ephesians 2:10 (author’s own paraphrase).