Shift Ministry Models

Surprise! It’s a Girl

Sexism and outliers in leadership
by Debra McKnight | August 30, 2022

No one was expecting me or looking for me when it came to starting a church. New church starts have a high rate of failure, one in five made it when I started, and most of those were started by men. One of my bishops pointed this out and I was mostly surprised that he said it out loud. It is not just the church structures that are bound up in the patriarchy, but the culture; folks respond differently to male leadership and carry a particular image of a religious leader. At my first Young Professional Summit, people said, “You are a pastor? But you don’t look like a pastor. You don’t sound like a pastor.” They were so astonished they went and grabbed friends to meet me. My favorite response to doubts about my role came from my high school-aged niece, “You don’t have to believe she’s a pastor. She’s not a unicorn. She exists.” I do exist, but I didn’t always realize that that would challenge people so much. 

Who starts churches?

At New Church Bootcamp, I was the only woman in my class. It was not hard to see why I had not been invited from the start like the guys in my ordination class. No one was looking for me. I was there alone, no team, no spouse. I was repeatedly misidentified as someone’s wife. Plus I was there to start a coffee shop and a church. The trainer didn’t think my idea would work and lamented that I had a female boss. I knew sexism was a thing; I had studied it, witnessed it, and written papers about it, but the actual practice of daily interactions can be surprising, like a hundred paper cuts. Suddenly, I had found the spot where my mere existence was pushing on the norms, assumptions, and attitudes of clergy. 

The advantage of being unexpected

I’m glad I wasn’t sent to Bootcamp from the start. I’m glad they were not looking for me. I’m a pleaser and a good student. I went to Bootcamp with a plan and it didn’t look at all like others’ plans. I didn’t know a new church start should be in a suburb, in a Gym-a-caf-atorium (that’s my word but I think it’s a good fit). I didn’t know we were supposed to become the next megachurch. I didn’t know I was too short, that my voice was too high, that my singing was too poor, and my curves too curvy. I didn’t know that my plan was too weird and that my presence alone would be radical. I thank God no one had taught me this. 

I had time to envision and practice starting new things. I had folks to plan with and dream with; folks who challenged me on the name until we landed on “Urban Abbey.” I had started smaller things and failed as much as I had succeeded. I already had a vision and a thought or two (well actually a 10-page front and back, single-spaced document) about how to get there when I started Bootcamp training. This training refined it, made it 100 times better and gave me good skills to bring home but it never supplanted the dream. Bootcamp didn’t rewrite my plan but it did add 10 more pages. I could translate the lessons into what I really needed, so I did. 

The idolatry of certainty

The challenge of new church start culture is the idolatry of certainty. It is one thing to write plans; to dream of reaching, growing, and connecting with new people; and to create something remarkably new, fragile, and lively. But there is a trap in the training. Those well-intentioned plans and disciplines can start to seem like a certainty; and expressing any vulnerability, or naming the challenge for what it really is, can be deemed as not being “all in,” or worse, not being faithful. Durable hope in the face of obvious struggle can become arrogant certainty, unmoored from the audacious calling of church work. 

Jesus never promises anyone certainty, certainly not the folks who take root in the leadership of his movement. He was incredibly vulnerable and asked us to be the same. Vulnerability is strangely enduring; it is at the heart of our faith, it gives our faith its durability. We read ancient words about seeds sown and much mended nets and they can come alive in our time. Jesus does not take on the world by its own measures or strategies, but by turning the very notions of power and strength on their head. He is not building an army—not even a “salvation army” in the way the church largely approaches “salvation” today. Jesus is not building a temple or an empire. He is building relationships and inviting us to rethink everything so we can do the same. 

Jesus’ folks are not perfect; but you know what they are, for sure? Coachable. They are open and attentive, vulnerable and present, they are honest not only about their confusion, but about their uncertainty, and they head back to fishing when they are at their lowest point. I don’t know for sure, but it seems like no one was looking for Jesus, Peter, Paul, or Mary Magdalene to do any of the faithful work they did. No one in the temple or government looked at Jesus and said, “Let’s give that bright, young Jewish man an internship and get him on a great career track.” Jesus showed up, opened the scroll, and dropped the mic. 

Seeing myself in Scripture

In Acts 16, there is a story about a woman named Lydia. I wish I could remember singing songs about her as a child, or coloring her garments as purple as the cloth she sold. But I don’t; I know a song about frogs that plagued Egypt, but not one lyric about a powerful woman. I didn’t really find her until 2015. 

In the story, Paul is going to Macedonia because he has a vision of a man, but he gets lucky and finds Lydia instead. She was among women, gathered by the river in worship, community, and prayer. Perhaps they had gotten tired of the temple’s boys club, or maybe they liked the sound of the water, the shade of the trees, and the sound of the breeze running across the leaves and grasses. Lydia is a dealer of purple cloth, but before we start imagining that she has a cute craft store, being a dealer of purple cloth meant she was a businesswoman working with the wealthy in this Roman colony. We might compare her work better to today’s Jaguar or Lexus dealers. She has some capacity and gifts, and has managed a business, which would make her still a bit of an outlier in our context some 2,000 years later. 

Not only is Lydia presumably remarkable in her professional context, she is a worshiper of God. She leans into the God of the Hebrew Bible, finding life in the stories of Moses, Miriam, Ruth and David, learning from the prophets and singing the Psalms. She is probably not ethnically Jewish, but she is in awe of the Divine and open to the wisdom she experiences in the Biblical Narrative. It is like she was waiting for Paul and the message of Jesus, his way of being in the world that included and called on her to be a part, to answer the call with her own life. 

Paul doesn’t say this often, but Lydia “prevails upon him” to stay; perhaps he figures out how she has a business. She is determined and it’s apparently not easy to tell her no. Her household is probably the first house church, and might I add, she didn’t need a bunch of follow up letters like the folks in Corinth, who can’t remember to wait until everyone sits down to eat at the communion table. Paul was looking for a man and he found Lydia, the first Christian in Europe. Look at how Paul gets his expectations re-routed: Surprise, it’s a girl!

I wish I had known this story. I wish I had known it better or sooner. Maybe someone tried and I missed it. Sometimes just showing up as you are tugs at the fabric of the patriarchy, which is news to me because I was pretty sure fighting the patriarchy only counted if there was a march, rally, or Supreme Court decision involved. Paul wasn’t looking for Lydia, yet she shows up and won’t take no for an answer. 

Your turn

Being faithful means we all need to show up in ways no one expects. Here are some starting points:

  • Show up at the conference room and remind people of the voices that are not present
  • Say “that joke isn’t funny” when it is belittling
  • Remind everyone that “Lisa” said that idea three times already and then invite her to clarify and elaborate
  • Show up to say the hard words that need to be said
  • Demand paternity leave and even take it

Sometimes unraveling the patriarchy happens when you show up and pull at the loose ends, or point out the gaping holes. Faith in everyday action is hard, but the only way to be faithful.

About the Author

Debra McKnight

Rev. Debra McKnight is ordained in the United Methodist Church and is the founding pastor of Urban Abbey ( in Omaha, Nebraska. She blogs at

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