The Lonely Island: How to Lead Your Female Staff

My question is: If you have females on your staff, how are you developing them?  And by “developing” I mean more than giving opportunities.

To be honest, I didn’t choose youth ministry. It chose me. To put it more accurately, God chose it for me. Being a youth pastor didn’t even enter my consciousness as a consideration, much less a real possibility.

I sum up my calling like this: God opened doors and I walked through them. When I was 18, I was asked to be a small group leader for my church’s junior high ministry. I asked myself, “What the heck is a small group leader, anyway?” After a year of that, the ministry director asked me to intern for her. “Ok? What the heck does an intern do?” A year later she asked me to take over her position as one of the girls’ directors. “Hmmmm….I’m noticing a pattern.” And then, I was asked to interview for the junior high pastor position at one of our off-site campuses. Now, 13 years since my start, I’m still doing what He so purposely called me to do; being a middle school pastor.

I love it (most of the time).  If I’m perfectly honest I wrestled with the question, “Are girls allowed to do this?”. Volunteering and interning is one thing, but being the head of my own ministry? There’s got to be a verse against that somewhere! And I’m sure there are churches that would never consider hiring a female for my position, but I guess that’s why God called me here and not there.    

I know right now that you are either panicking that this post is going to be a bit on the theology of women in vocational ministry or you’re getting worked up because you can think of verses that disqualify me to do what I do. Sorry to disappoint, but this post will be neither of those things. The theology of women in ministry is fascinating, but it would take up this entire post, and then some.    

I came to realize early on that I’m a bit of a ministry novelty, for no other reason than my gender. In my early ministry days, parents would approach my husband (who was one of my volunteers) to introduce themselves and their student, thinking he must be the youth pastor. He would kindly direct them to me and we’d laugh about his role as a “pastor’s wife” later. But as I transitioned into this new role, the weight of leadership weighed heavily on my 21-year-old shoulders. “I don’t know what the heck I’m doing! Will parents accept me? I won’t be able to connect or lead male students or volunteers. What am I called? ‘Director’? ‘Pastor’? All my volunteers are way older than me; that can’t be good. Am I even qualified to be doing this?”. I’d been doing ministry for 3 years, under someone else’s leadership, and now I was in charge. I needed help, like now! I needed a ministry mentor, someone who had been around the ministry block, who could help ease my fears, speak wisdom into my life, help develop and strengthen my gifts and walk alongside me.

I told our pastor that I felt overwhelmed and needed leadership help, and he told me that I needed to find a ministry mentor. I knocked on the doors of other people in student ministries at my church that I respected and considered experienced, but there was “no room for me in their schedules”.  It’s not that I was outright rejected, it was that they never really engaged with me in the first place. They were male and I was female; that can complicate things, especially in the church world. Over time I couldn’t help but feel like the odd girl out. I felt that they put me on a mountain and then just kind of left me there. Being a ministry lead can be lonely, but being a female in that position can be painfully lonely. I’d watch the guys go out to breakfast before work to discuss ministry and build relationships, or one of our lead pastors would frequently invite one of the student ministry pastors on speaking gigs with him to learn and observe. At camps, the male youth pastors avoided me like the plague during the youth pastor’s-only catered lunch. After our student ministry meetings, I’d eat lunch alone as all the guys discussed whether to get pizza or burritos. The next week they were talking about the new ideas and directions that I’d missed out on. Feeling like a social outcast was tough at times, and I still needed a ministry mentor. I needed someone who was invested in me and my success, developing me as a leader and encouraging me on this lonely peak.  

I totally understand the necessity for good, healthy boundaries. Our church has some great policies in place to make sure that men and women are all living a life above reproach, protecting marriages, families, and personal integrity, and I’m 100% on board with that. It’s no one’s fault and I’m not arguing or complaining, but here’s a fact: it’s tough to find a ministry mentor and it’s really tough to find one who is female.

One of the first rules in ministry is, “Don’t do it alone”, “Find a mentor”. My question was, “Where do I find this person?” There seemed to be no good match for me. In my desperation for personal leadership development and mentorship in my ministry, I turned to books, blogs, podcasts, and youth ministry magazines. If no one would meet with me, I’d meet with information and devour it. I knew that I wanted to be better at my job and do it for a long time, and at the end of the day it was my responsibility to get myself what I needed. Each week I would set aside one afternoon for my “personal development” and meet with a digital mentor, have lunch with an author in a book or a magazine, or have coffee with a podcast host. Unbeknownst to them, these “mentors” gave me the encouragement I needed to keep on living obediently in the calling that God put on my life, and along the way I realized that I wasn’t a ministry unicorn! There were plenty of women doing what I was doing and absolutely rocking it! This fact alone gave me what I needed to put a little spring in my step!  

So my question is: If you have females on your staff, how are you developing them?  And by “developing” I mean more than giving opportunities.

This is a great first step, but it’s incomplete. After 13 years in the game, I’ve become to so many what I desperately needed and wanted all these years. I meet with so many women in ministry who aren’t looking for their ministry-lead to be their new BFF, but they do crave more than just opportunities; they desire intentional leadership development. Simply put, they want to be really good at what they do, have longevity in ministry, and realize their leadership and ministry potential. They need leaders who understand healthy boundaries and simultaneously understand healthy leadership. There can be a tendency to put her on “girl island” and simply rely on her to do the “things you can’t” (ie: lead a girls’ Bible study or girls’ retreat) because you’re a male. Now, don’t get me wrong, girls’ ministry is extremely important and you need to have to a strong female leader to do it. My point is that if she’s good enough to be on your team, she’s good enough to receive the same intentional leadership development that you provide to your male leaders. I’ve heard men in ministry say, “I just don’t meet with women one-on–one”. I totally get where they are coming from.  We’ve all heard the tragic stories of churches and families falling apart due to moral failure, so we get really cautious. At the same time, it’s a bit of a cop out. There are plenty of appropriate ways to have a conversation with someone of the opposite gender even if you are a pastor (even a married one!). Conversations don’t have to get too personal. They can easily stay professionally focused. They can be in wide-open public areas. Youth pastors are expected to know how to do basically everything. We can certainly figure out how to lead a mixed-gender staff well.  

A hard fact is that in most churches, female staff members are seen as reaching their ministry ceiling before male leaders do. We don’t really want to say this out loud, but because we know this, we tend to pour the majority of our leadership resources into our male leaders. You could argue the practicality behind this, but in its wake, this practice leaves our female student ministry staff feeling used, because when a new position opens up, her name isn’t thrown in the hat.

There are so many roles for females with the call of ministry on their lives. My church will hire a female for anything other than senior pastor or elder; that leaves many possibilities.  I had a high school pastor tell me that he thinks a lot of women don’t have the leadership capacity or the desire to be able to be a youth pastor. What I told him was this: “Even if that were true, let it never be said that her failure to launch was due to our lack of intentional leadership development.” If she doesn’t have it in her, that’s fine. Ministry isn’t for everyone. You can’t pull out something in someone that isn’t there. You can’t put a God-given calling on someone else’s life. What can you do? You can live up to your own God-given calling as a youth pastor and ministry leader. A good leader produces more leaders. A good leader puts time, effort, and energy into raising up new leaders, encouraging and developing their gifts, helping them realize their potential, and opening new doors for them.

If God has called her into ministry, into YOUR ministry, He didn’t do it by accident and He didn’t create her female by accident. He’s well aware of her gender and her gifts, and He makes no apologies for designing her that way. God is the one who places calls on people’s lives, so leave that part to Him. Our job isn’t to call but to equip those He sends us. Ask yourself, “How am I equipping ALL the leaders God has given me?”.  

In ministry, practicality is gold. We want to know how to do things and we want to know how others have done things we want to do well. Next month, I’m going to continue this conversation with a Part 2 that will focus on the nuts and bolts of how this nerve-racking concept can be put into practice without a shred of moral compromise. In the mean time, take some time to think about your volunteers, interns, and staff. Could they say they are a better leader because of their time with you?  

A good leader produces more leaders. A good leader puts time, effort, and energy into raising up new leaders, encouraging and developing their gifts, helping them realize their potential, and opening new doors for them.


Kristen is the middle school pastor at North Coast Church in SoCal. She’s been married to the funniest man she knows since 2011 and together they eat all the sushi they can, watch “Arrested Development”, and chase after their 3 year old daughter. She has a concerning obsession with wiener dogs and goes to wiener dog events & conventions in her free time. Her passion in ministry is creating space for students to use their gifts, helping students make connections to God and each other, and developing and launching new leaders.