Women in Ministry: Churches of Christ in Australia
Explored through the lens of church ministry
by Lauren Mallaby
Lauren is both a graduate and a current student of Stirling Theological College. She is the minister at Hartwell Church of Christ.
Seeing women in ministry has always been a normality for me – indeed I had never really considered “women in ministry” a topic at all – having both my Mum and Dad in ordained ministry. I entered the community at Churches of Christ Theological College (now Stirling) as a young teenager. Mum was on faculty and we would come as a family to various functions. I enrolled to study when Merrill Kitchen was Principal, and when Merryl Blair, and my mum, as well as other women were on faculty. Women in leadership surrounded me.
Whilst for many in Churches of Christ encountering women in ministry is a normality, there are vestiges of past mentalities often belied in language. Surprising, given that our first woman was called to minister in 1931, and our first female deacon called in 1863.  Here, I briefly follow the journey of women in ministry in Churches of Christ in Australia, while looking through the lens of my church ministry in Victoria. I certainly affirm how far we have come, but also suggest that we still have a way to go.
Women in ministry in Churches of Christ Australia
Looking back on the role of women within Churches of Christ in Australia, I have been swept up in fascinating stories. The first woman to serve in an official ministry role was Mary Thompson, who was not only the first woman, but the first Churches of Christ member from Australia to serve on an international mission. It all came about when in 1891, she responded to a call for men to serve in India. She responded to the call when no men volunteered, and in desperation, her call was accepted.
Former Federal Co-ordinator of Churches of Christ in Australia, Craig Brown, ironically notes that ‘women could study to be missionaries on foreign fields, but not study for local pastoral ministry’. Although women couldn’t study for Pastoral Ministry, they undoubtedly exhibited leadership. As congregations became established, deacons and sometimes elders were elected to give guidance and leadership. It is interesting to note that at Brighton, one of the three deacons appointed in 1863 was a woman. Intriguing, at a time when women were not seen in leadership positions within Churches of Christ in Australia.
In 1905, Miss Norman was given the distinction of being the first woman to read an essay before the brethren. Entitled, “Women’s Work in the Church”, no doubt was it read with much anxiety and apprehension. It was only seven years later in 1912 the first woman began studying at College of the Bible (now Stirling Theological College). It took 34 years after this when Miss Alice Barton was ordained into the ministry of Churches of Christ in Australia, in 1946. These ministries were indeed met with resistance from within the church.
It is humbling to recognise that our pioneering women of the 1970’s and 80’s were part of a wider movement toward equality in society and women’s ordination in the Christian church in which there were only 15 ordained women in Australian denominations – four of which were in Churches of Christ. We were, in fact, among the leaders of equity at that time. It was this movement that spoke into the rapidly changing lifestyle of women both within the church and within the wider community. More and more women were seeking paid employment and it was becoming increasingly accepted that women had talents, gifts and potential that could be utilised beyond the confines of home and even the church. Just imagine!
Rosie Ward, in her book Growing Women Leaders states that ‘even today there is no avoiding the fact that we still live in a world where to be male has been normative and to be female has been different, derivative and secondary. That is true in society, and it is certainly true in the church. There is an expectation that leadership is male, so to some extent ‘woman leader’ and ‘women in leadership’ or ‘ministry’ are oxymoron’.
How important it is, then, to have significant and strong leadership of women within Churches of Christ in Australia. Two particularly inspiring women in recent time have been Lynette Leech and Merryl Blair. Although these two women have both had challenging experiences, the overwhelming message is that they were encouraged to continue to minister within church settings. Lynette has continued this message, suggesting that leaders have a responsibility to encourage gifted women (and men) to consider theological study and ministry formation. Merryl echoes this with a vocational roles in both church ministry and theological education, also mentoring young women exploring possibilities of ministry, which is far more effective than an argument with those who disagree theologically could ever be.
Part of the Churches of Christ movement must be to take into account the New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, acknowledging that all Christians have direct access to God because of the loving relationship all people have with God through Jesus Christ. There must be an overarching acceptance that any Christian, man or woman, may fulfil the priestly functions of the church. This is indeed what Merryl and Lynette, and many women who have taken a leadership position within Churches of Christ – whatever it may be – have advocated over time.
Within my current ministry, the topic of women in ministry has indeed become relevant. While my experience has been that most people are welcoming and embracing of women in ministry, it seems to be that the loudest and most demanding voices are those that struggle with women in ministerial roles. This may reflect generational issues, or suggest anxiety around change. People who have been used to churches under male leadership struggle with a dwindling church led by a young female minister who challenges with questions and invites reflection, rather than exhibiting a more directive model of leadership. I have encountered disrespect, gossip, disparagement about what I wear and how I look. These issues have been confronted and have in fact been named as a sexist problem by those who are challenged.
In recent anecdotal conversations with peer women in ministry in Churches of Christ in Victoria, however, I have found that he overwhelming message is that women are accepted within Churches of Christ today. There are, however, still challenges surround social stereotypes and role expectations, gender balance, justification of presence (trust) and respect of independent agency. For those outside Churches of Christ, the freedom of women within our movement can be surprising.
While there is still discrimination in certain settings, a woman in ministry is no longer an oddity, due to the struggle and determination of the women who have fought before us to allow us to enter into ministry in a generally simple and natural way, and within a community that is underpinned by commitment to the contribution of all members, regardless of age, race, or gender.
We must continue to journey together, gently and confidently, into a future that is full of bright hope for all people to ministers of the word of God. This won’t always be easy, and it won’t always bear fruit. Men in leadership positions must make it a natural part of the language of conversation for leadership in churches to be inclusive. Forums like AGM’s and Conferences must have a diverse range of voices. Women can stand firm in their call to pastoral ministry, in the wake of the determination and strength of the women who came before, paving the way for all of us today.
“From this vantage point looking back, we can only be grateful for the vision of Christian women of the past, as they found ways of expressing their faith and dedicated service to God, the Church and to the people. While the role of women in the church is different in many ways, never-the-less it still manifests the same qualities of commitment and creativity that was characteristic of our predecessors.”
- Lesley Stirling
(A good short resource on the history of the women in ministry in Churches of Christ, Australia is found on the Churches of Christ Australia website: ‘Telling our Story: Women in Ministry’)
 Kerrie Handasyde, “A historical Overview of Women’s Ministry in Australian Churches of Christ”: Telling our Story: Women in Ministry, Churches of Christ in Australia”, 2012; accessed via http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 7.
 http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 8.
 http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 4.
 Graeme Chapman, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A history of Churches of Christ in Australia (North Essendon: Vital Publications), 1979, 16.
 Marian Hackett, Women of the Century: A tribute to the women of South Australian Churches of Christ (North Essendon: Vital Publications), 1997, 12.
 http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 7.
 http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 8.
 http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 10.
 Hackett, Women of the Century, 41.
 Rosie Ward, Growing Women Leaders: Nurturing women’s leadership in the Church (Abingdon, United Kingdom: The Bible Reading Fellowship), 2008, 9.
 http://cofcaustralia.org/blog/2012/11/29/telling-our-story-women-in-ministry/, 13, 19.
 Hackett, Women of the Century, 5, 6.
Blair, Merryl. “A Woman in Ministry”: Telling our Story: Women in Ministry, Churches of Christ in Australia, 2012
Brown, Craig Brown. “Introduction”: Telling our Story: Women in Ministry, Churches of Christ in Australia, 2012
Chapman, Graeme. “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A history of Churches of Christ in Australia”. Vital: Australia, 1979
Childers, Jana. Ed. Birthing the sermon: Women preachers on the creative process. Chalice Press: St. Louis: Missouri, 2001
Fraser and Morphet, Pty. Ltd. Prahran Churches of Christ Historical Digest – October, 1966
Hackett, Marian. Women of the Century: A Tribute to the women of South Australian Churches of Christ. Vital Publications: North Essendon, 1997
Handasyde, Kerrie. “A Historical Overview of Women’s Ministry in Australian Churches of Christ”: Telling our Story: Women in Ministry, Churches of Christ in Australia, 2012
Handasyde, Kerrie. Privilege to Serve: A history of Christian Women’s Fellowship in Victorian and Tasmanian Churches of Christ. Gowans and Son, Chipping Norton: NSW, 2009
Leach, Lynette. “My Journey”: Telling our Story: Women in Ministry, Churches of Christ in Australia, 2012
Ryrie, Charles Caldwell. The Role of Women in the Church, Moody Press: Chicago, 1970
Stirling, Lesley. Beginnings: History resource of Women’s Work in Australian Churches of Christ, 1863 – 1982,
Tuohy, Nick. The Hartwell Church of Christ, Vic. Published by Australian Churches of Christ Historical Society: Digest, January 2001
Ward, Rosie. Growing Women Leaders: Nurturing women’s leadership in the Church. The Bible Reading Fellowship, Abingdon: United Kingdom, 2008