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January 19, 2011

MaryKate Morse: How women plant churches

I have planted two churches.

When I finished seminary, I wanted to pastor but couldn’t get a call. I went on to do doctoral work and then again felt a clear pull to the church.  When I was invited to plant a church with two other pastors, I jumped at the chance. Finally, I was doing God’s work exactly as God shaped me to do it.

The first plant was an evangelical contemporary church.  The other leaders were male ELCA pastors, and I am an Evangelical Friends pastor. When I left six years later, we had established a vibrant worshipping community of around 400.  I left for three reasons: (1) team leadership is very hard (that is a story in itself), and (2) the resources spent maintaining the church consumed more and more of our time, such that we had less and less impact on people’s lives.  (3) God said it was time.  Leaving was difficult. I loved the people and the church. 

I waited two years and planted another church across town. This one had two visions: to be ethnically diverse, and to be focused on formation and service.  I began the church with my Puerto-Rican pastor friend, Miriam.  We gathered an ethnically-diverse core team, including Latino and African-American persons.  We planted a missional community that was engaged in participatory worship and neighborhood service.  It was a house church with no paid positions.  Our offerings went to an AIDS orphan project led by Kenyans and to serving our homeless friends.  The faith community was small, vibrant, and deeply committed to each other. I left after four years. I left for two reasons: (1) I had mentored two others into pastoral leadership and wanted to give them full rein, and (2) God was calling me to other work. Again, leaving was difficult.

What did I learn? First of all, I didn’t learn this, but you might. I was just being faithful to my call. Women leaders can plant churches. The challenges and blessings of church planting are gender neutral. If God puts it in you to lead, then you lead. Anything else is disobedience to your identity and calling.

Second, I learned that church planting requires lots of space for self-reflection and prayer.  Church-planting is not for the faint of heart. It is creative hard work that requires regular soul-searching.  I found the challenges invigorating precisely because I couldn’t rely on my skills but instead needed to stay at the foot of the cross and rely on the Holy Spirit.   

From the first church I learned that team leadership is the most challenging type of leadership model, and it requires extra time devoted to working on relationships.  From the second church I learned that working together as an ethnically diverse team is not the primary difficulty. The real challenge is ecclesiological diversity -- from Pentecostal to Quaker to Reformed traditions. I’m still thinking about how worship seems to be more connected to our identity in Christ than to our skin color.   

As a woman church planter did I bring anything unique to these church planting ventures? I’m hesitant to genderize leadership skills, so I’m reflecting on what I brought not as a woman but as a leader. You can make your own conclusions. My motivation was to create communities for people to become more like Christ in character and call.  I invested time in discipling and training, and thought deeply about how culture and behaviors shape a community. I did everything I could to empower persons to be creative and make decisions within the defined mission and values of the community. It was a thrill to me to bring people into a living relationship with Christ and then see them set on fire to serve others.  

I believe a church is ultimately known by its people as they live like Christ in their everyday lives, and not by its name.  Perhaps because I’m a mother it makes sense that my focus was on growth and independence, but maybe that is what the church is really supposed to be about whoever its leader is.

 Any thoughts or questions for me?

MaryKate Morse is professor of leadership and spiritual formation at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and director of strategic planning at George Fox University in Portland, Oregon.  She is the author of “Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence” (InterVarsity).


Thank you

I wanted to thank you for sharing your insight. The last two paragraphs I can personally identify with in terms of what I am leading in my community and in my training and workbooks to empower people to live a Christ-focused life 'on fire' in their daily lives and activities. It reflects the ability for one person to make a change that will positively impact an entire community. This was truly inspiring and will be something I reflect upon as I continue this journey.

Mary and Martha

Ken Bailey, a New Testament scholar, shares an insight into the Mary and Martha story (Luke 10) that is incredibly challenging for women's leadership.

We domesticate the story by making it about hospitality. What this story really is about is the growth of women's leadership in the church. The anxiety Martha feels is not that the dishes are not done, but she can see that as Mary sits at the feet of Jesus she is being called into leadership and discipleship. The anxiety arises not from chores to be done, but from the challenge this call will have on their whole world - particularly their place in society.

He speaks briefly about this in his book "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes". In just one paragraph, he revolutionized my thinking!

The story then makes sense in the context of Luke 10 as the disciples are sent out two by two - will this be asked of Mary and Martha as well? Could they be the first church planters?

As an African-American female

As an African-American female who is also an evangelical Quaker, I say "thank you". Just now experiencing some increased tensions regarding women in ministry, I enjoyed reading about your experiences. I have long felt that whatever God calls me to I will do, regardless of what obstacles man may present.

I'm glad that you have pursued two different venues for church planting. It has given you a diverse experience with which to look at life and it also inspires me to keep pursuing the things that are of importance to me.

You also talked about eccesiological diversity presenting issues and while it can, as a racial minority I have found race and culture presents difficulties of almost if not equal proportion.

Interesting insights

Interesting insights MaryKate, which I know will be encouraging within our tribe (I actually found this post on the Christian Associates FB page :). In light of funding limitations and bivocationality as the rising norm, we as a church planting mission probably need to invest increasingly in leaders who can start smaller communities and who may not fit the standard profiles for lead planters. And along with those kind of leaders, we probably need to invest (even more zealously) in empowering apostolic types who can cultivate the linking of individual house churches. This would help cover for common weaknesses in this ecclesiology related to multiplication, inclusivity of nonChristians, diversity in leadership, and animation of a sufficiently-gifted greater "body" in a give area (i.e. able to impact neighborhoods/cities in standing as a clearer communal sign and foretaste of the Kingdom).

Thank you so much for this

Thank you so much for this post. I am a woman planting a church in Seattle and I resonate so much with several things you said.


Dear MaryKate, thank you for sharing these reflections on your church planting experiences. It also helped me to get to know you a bit better.
In Jesus,

Your Ministry Story

Once again you have inspired me. Not to find a ministry, but to minister where I am as I am led. You know my story. An old guy who answered a life long calling to return to school. I so admire the fact that you and your spouse have yielded to the call upon your life. I know that you remain faithful to God and respond as you are called.

Women church planters

Your story was encouraging. I planted a church in Argentina in very difficult circumstances. Initially I worked with two lay couples (Argentines) as I was committed to team leadership. I discovered that the men of the congregation were much more willing to take responsibility in areas that normally a male pastor would deal with. I was delighted with the way the small congregation that came about was committed to each other and to reaching out to others. All that to say thank you for your story. You are right, church planting is not for the faint of heart. One will be stretched far beyond one's imagination. However, the incredible delight in watching God plant his church and grow his people is beyond the power of words.

female church planteres

I am encouraged by your article, simply because it reflects one more woman pastor with a "success story." There are far too many stories of failure and pain, and I do wonder if it is due at least in part to our not recognizing and accommodating the differences between female-led church-plants and male-led plants. The biggest issue, in my mind, is that because half the Christian world does not embrace women in ministry, women have to work harder and cast a wider net in order to raise the same "crowd." I am very interested in discovering how the community of Christ might better equip women who are called into church planting.


Thanks for all your comments.
And we don't know how to embrace and coach women to plant churches. I think some secretly believe that men wouldn't come to a church led by a woman. Others don't believe women have the grit and leadership gifts to lead a start-up church. But mostly it's a lack of faith and imagination in the power of God to use whomever God chooses and gifts.

Can a woman plant a church?

Did you write any more on this subject? I am a woman planter in Socal. I never knew we were so rare. Any experiences and aha's that you had would be of great benefit to read about!

Yes, MaryKate, I think it's

Yes, MaryKate, I think it's about growth and independence. But that's not enough. Plant leaders, whether female or male, need to be coached toward what maturing ecclesia means for them. Too often this is lacking.

Appreciate you and your insights! Thank you.

Dan Steigerwald

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