The League of Invisible Women

In many places, these women are not allowed to preach — but I believe God is parting the seas for them to lead in other ways.

Christian women are among the most overlooked people groups in the world. Though women comprise more than half of the church, in most churches on most Sunday mornings, a woman will never take the stage to address the congregation apart from worship. When you look at the major leadership conferences hosted by Protestant groups, you’ll either find a few token female speakers or none at all. When you analyze the levels of leadership attained by Protestant women in Christian non-profit organizations, roughly 82 percent top out in middle management, with just a handful reaching executive or C-suite levels.

With facts like these, it’s easy to see why some would say God ignores women and considers them irrelevant to his purposes. But this has less to do with God and more to do with the powers that be and the specific stories we tell.

For the last seven years, I’ve been talking to female Christian leaders around the globe about the successes of their ministries. Here are 10 women God is using to accomplish mighty things:

Kit Danley in Phoenix, Arizona

KitPhoenix is Ground Zero in the debate over undocumented persons, and Kit Danley has been working the front lines of this issue for more than 30 years through her organization, Neighborhood Ministries. She (gladly) gave up her well-heeled Scottsdale neighborhood to truly be a neighbor to Phoenix’s poorest immigrant families. “My work began because real people we knew were suffering in the shadows,” Danley said. “Their fathers were deported, their mothers lost jobs, and teens were dropping out of school. . . . [T]hey were caught in a political storm.” Neighborhood Ministries serves three of the most impoverished communities in urban Phoenix, providing food, clothing, parental training, tutoring, scholarship assistance, job training, and job placement.

Emily Chengo in Nairobi, Kenya

emilyEmily Chengo, a skilled leader and native Kenyan, is the African director for ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries), which was founded as a response to the crisis of Christian leadership resulting from the Rwandan genocide. “I oversee the work in eight different countries — Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo,” Chengo said. “I [have] a lot of strategic responsibilities and help countries stay focused on plans, but my passion is to help women build better futures for their families and communities.” ALARM equips local pastors by offering leadership training and courses in theology and the Bible, as well as providing resource mobilization. Chengo helps African women in the Ngomongo slums build businesses, and she also administers microfinance loans and has played an active role in resolving conflicts between warring tribes in South Sudan.

Arloa Sutter in Chicago, Illinois

Arloa Sutter established Breakthrough Urban Ministries in 1992, which began with a few church members serving daily lunch in a small storefront on Chicago’s north side. “I grew up on a farm where people took care of each other,” Sutter said. “When I came to the city, I was perplexed by panhandlers and dumpster divers. There was something not right about that.” Today, Breakthrough operates two homeless shelters in East Garfield Park, a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side crushed by disinvestment. Breakthrough serves nearly 1,000 homeless adults each year, provides 24,000 nights of shelter, serves over 70,000 meals, and distributes 10,000 bags of groceries to low-income families in the neighborhood. Said Sutter: “We’ve built a very positive culture where we feel God’s love and presence. There’s a sense of peace and structure and order and love that’s important — especially for homeless guests. This is a safe haven where they can begin to heal.”

Paula Hayes in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Paula Hayes left a lucrative career as an electroneurodiagnostic technologist in Seattle to found and direct a nationwide children’s ministry in Thailand that prevents juvenile drug use and stops the human trafficking of children. Thailand is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking, and is one of the nations with the highest amount of commercial sexual exploitation of children. “The worldview of the parents is horrific,” Hayes said. “They think of the children as property . . . so they put kids in slavery and have the money sent to them.” It’s difficult to gather the actual number of victims because of their unwillingness to file complaints and the hesitancy of the government to take action against trafficking. “I want to inspire people to look at children as the hope of the world,” Hayes said. “The church is the hope of the world and the children are the hope of the church.” Since 2005, Hayes’ ministry has touched the lives of more than 48,000 children.

LaVerne Tolbert in Los Angeles, California

LaVerneThere are approximately 370 metropolitan areas (those places with a core urban area of 50,000 or more) in the United States and Puerto Rico, and a theological crisis is taking place in these urban areas. “The dynamics in the inner-city make it a little more difficult for pastors and leaders to attend seminary,” Tolbert said. Urban areas don’t often attract recent seminary graduates, and urban clergy aren’t typically attracted to seminary. Yet it’s these areas — with high rates of crime, teen pregnancy, and poverty — that need solid theological and biblical teaching the most. This theological crisis inspired Tolbert to establish Teaching Like Jesus Ministries, Inc. “My ministry encourages excellence in the local church by bringing quality teacher training, parent training, abstinence education, and foster/adoption ministries to congregations in the inner city.”

Dina Katanacho in Nazareth, Israel

Dina Katanacho is a Palestinian Christian who heads up the Arab Israeli Bible Society in Jerusalem, where she works to alleviate the systemic patriarchal abuse under which Arab women suffer. “Women do not have it easy in the Middle East,” Katanacho said. “We are the most disadvantaged sector of the community and are subject to unique social pressure. The social institutions, religion, keeps them marginalized in school, in the workplace.” Katanacho strives to create a space for women to have a voice and exert influence, an effort which led her to launch a Christian magazine written entirely by local women. She also ministers to marginalized women in abuse centers, equipping them with the life skills they need to handle difficult, stressful relationships.

Jo Anne Lyon in Road Fishers, Indiana

JAL5_focusJo Anne Lyon is the sole general superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, which has 5,000 congregations in more than 90 countries. She is the first woman elected to the top job and the only woman in the evangelical world that is the head of a denomination. In her role, Lyon guides the vision, message, and missional priorities for the Wesleyan Church. Strongly committed to social justice issues, she views her biggest responsibility as keeping the church focused on its real identity and purpose. “The church does not have a mission in the world,” she said. “God’s mission has a church in the world.” 

Bev Murrill in Sydney, Australia

Bev Murrill is to the church what a serial entrepreneur is to business. Murrill, alongside her husband, adopts churches that are sick and breaking down, nurtures them back to life and health, and appoints leaders they’ve mentored to steer the organization. “My tendency is that of a pioneer. I start things up and when they’re doing well, I generally raised up leaders who can take it on,” Murrill said. “I’m not one of those people who needs to keep ahold of something that used to be mine.” Murrill has adopted or planted more than 14 churches in Europe and Australia, launched a successful women’s magazine, and established a ministry in Uganda for abandoned HIV children.

Sandi Savage in Baltimore, Maryland

Sandi Savage is the executive director of BeLoved Ministries, an organization she started after finding God and receiving healing from rape, sexual abuse, and drug, alcohol, and porn addictions. Savage had worked for 13 years as a go-go dancer, stripper, and booking agent for adult entertainers. Now, through BeLoved, she provides the connections and healing necessary to help sex workers leave the industry. “We go to strip clubs and porn conventions and connect with sex industry workers to encourage, support and spur them along in their life and provide them with life resources,” Savage said. “I know when I was in the industry, I didn’t feel like I even had anyone to talk to.”

Jane Hsu in Taiwan

JaneJane Hsu is the executive chairman of Lifting Hands Network in Taiwan, an international network of Christian professionals committed to providing leadership development and resources to individuals and organizations seeking personal and spiritual growth. “Many Christians are neither people of influence nor joy, and their hearts are full of doubts,” Hsu said. “They are spiritually hurt from incorrect interpretation of the Bible and oppression from dysfunctional pastors.” In her role, Hsu helps executives lead with integrity, equipping them the tools needed to expand their influence.

Halee Gray Scott
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  • gwally

    Such inspiring women! Proud to know three of them, and love that they have forged ahead, despite any obstacles thrown their way. Thanks for the great reminder of how God is using women around the world 🙂

  • Bev Murrill

    I’m so blessed and honoured to be in this list; thanks so much Halee. I’m also aware that we are a tiny tip of the iceberg of literally millions of women who are out there doing their absolute best to fulfill the purposes of God. Fantastic article.