In Ministry: An Interview with Dr. Denise Muir-Kjesbo on Thriving as a Woman in Ministry

by Amanda Brady

Children’s Pastor, Amanda Brady is a guest writer for INCM.   

In college I had a pastor tell me to only go into the ministry if I couldn’t find contentment in doing anything else.  I didn’t completely understand what he meant by that at the time.  I knew ministry would be hard work, but so are a lot of other jobs out there.  After working as a full time staff member at a church for over 8 years, I now have a better understanding.  Ministry can be exhausting – mentally, physically and even spiritually.   As a woman in ministry it can even be more difficult.  In addition to the long hours, emotional load, and struggles that come with ministry in general, women have to contend with and overcome some unique obstacles.  Is it possible as a female to thrive in ministry?  How can a woman in leadership remain strong?  I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Denise Muir Kjesbo at the Children’s Pastor’s Conference 2013, in Orlando this year.  She serves as a leader both in the church and at the seminary where she is a Professor.  She knows the struggles that can go along with being a woman in Christian leadership.  She shared her journey with me as well as some insights on how to go from surviving to thriving as a female in ministry.  

Dr. Kjesbo grew up in a supportive family who affirmed and encouraged her.  While she knew that her family supported and loved her, often others didn’t reflect this same response especially when she felt God calling her to ministry.  Instead of being told that she could do anything with God’s help, her options were limited to becoming a foreign missionary or to marring a pastor.  She decided to pursue a degree in psychology in order to become a Christian counselor.  She felt that would be the best way for her to minister to others.  While in college she took a course entitled, “Women and Men in Ministry Leadership”.  This class was a turning point in her life.  Before taking this class she compared hearing God and His calling to her life to wearing sound reducing headphones – you know someone is speaking, but it is muffled and you may not understand what is being said.  After taking this class, it was as if the headphones had been removed and she could clearly hear God’s call for her life.

Though she was sure of her call, not all doors in ministry were opened to her.  However, she was obedient and walked through the doors that were open.  Eventually, more doors were opened and in 1995, the church where she was serving initiated the process of ordination for her.  This was a huge milestone – it was an affirmation of her call from God into ministry by a church.  

One huge struggle that many women in leadership contend with is a biblical understanding of roles that women may hold in ministry leadership.  Dr. Kjesbo explained the importance of understanding whether scriptures are prescriptive versus descriptive and instructive versus corrective. Is the passage a prescription of how we are to live or is it describing a specific context?  Is the passage giving specific instructions, or is it instead a correction on something that was wrong at the time?   She points out that the two key scriptures from the New Testament that are often used to limit the roles that women can hold in the church have often not been evaluated using those guidelines.  Many people have determined that these scriptures are prescribing and instructing how women should act in the church rather than describing what was happening at that time and offering a correction of the issues that it was causing.  

In addition to the struggles caused by differing interpretations of scriptures regarding appropriate roles for women, there are other issues with which women in leadership must contend.  It is hard to find women to be mentors, role models and even just companions on this journey.  Also, women leaders often struggle with maintaining balance in their lives.  They often feel that they have to be able to do it all and be everything to everyone.  This can lead to feeling overwhelmed.  It is essential that women in leadership avoid falling into what she calls the “queen bee” syndrome.  Instead, they need to learn to network and seek support from other women.  Women in ministry leadership have the opportunity to make a huge difference.  They have the chance to impact, empower and equip people as well as releasing and blessing them in ministry.  They have an opportunity to be a role model for younger women in ministry who are facing the lack of support from many in the church.  

So, what is the key to thriving as a woman in ministry?  Dr. Kjesbo stated that it is first and foremost to pray, pray, pray!  It is essential that you make sure you are doing what God has called you to do.  Your relationship with God must be above everything else.  It is important that you determine ways to grow your own faith.  You can do this by: participating in things that renew your faith such as Bible study, listening to podcasts, spending personal time in God’s Word, journaling and praying.  It is also crucial that you surround yourself with a small group of confidential companions for your journey.  Invite a small group of people to speak truth into your life, individuals who will be honest with you if  your life is off balance.  It is imperative that you listen to them,  even when it may be hard to hear.  Read books, attend things like conferences where you can keep growing, learning and networking.  She also warned to make sure you are taking time away with your family.  

Regarding family, she also recommends re-evaluating your life and ministry as your family enters  each new season of life.  Different seasons invite different opportunities.  She also encourages to let go of things to make room for others.  Regardless of the season and where God has called you, lean in hard to Him.  Listen closely to Jesus’ heart and do what He has called you to do at that time.  When you do this, you will flourish and thrive in ministry and others will benefit as a result.

Dr. Denise Muir Kjesbo serves as the Professor and Lead Faculty for the Master of Arts in Children’s and Family Ministry and the Director for the Cory Center for Children’s Ministry at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.

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