Conversations around investment in women in ministry: do they speak to the UK church?

Monday 28 November 2016

Martin Saunders wrote for Christian Today recently about the experience of attending a conference of the UK's most influential church leaders and their teams, only to realise that "Ninety per cent of the people in the room were male; if you were to take pastors' wives out of the equation, that number would look even worse." He noted that in the UK at least, 'there's no doubt women are being invested in', citing well-known leadership conferences as examples of this - and who could fail to notice the image used to illustrate the piece - Justin Welby surrounded by female clergy?

It was also interesting to note Ruth Gledhill's piece published in the same week, that highlighted the visibility of women in Fresh Expressions:

"...unlike most of the larger, evangelical megachurches where nearly all the leaders are men, dozens of gifted Christian women are emerging as capable leaders of fxC churches.

Having seen a number of photos of the conference Martin attended shared on Twitter that week, I'd also noticed the dearth of women in attendance. It bothered me, as it normally would, but perhaps more so because the churches represented at the conferences were the sort of churches I attend. Women still don't have it easy in the Church of England, but the established church is often held up as an example when it comes to the inclusion of women leaders, when churches like those I've attended since I was 18 are lagging embarrassingly behind, looking, if you attend their conferences (on which I help produce an annual report) and their Sunday services, like so many boys' clubs.

I've felt compelled to move on from two churches partly because of my concerns about the invisibility of women, in one case because I felt a veneer of egalitarianism was dishonestly applied to a set-up where the opportunity to exercise certain gifts was not open to all who might fit the bill. It is genuinely concerning that hundreds of 'influential' church leaders can gather to plan for the future of 'new churches' in the UK, with so few women involved at a high level. Some new churches may be conservative and therefore opposed to women in senior leadership positions, but many aren't, meaning there is no excuse for this happening.

At the same time, the US Christian blogosphere (and indeed, the US national media) was reacting to the twin revelations of Jen Hatmaker's support for equal marriage and Glennon Doyle Melton coming out. Anne Helen Petersen had just written a brilliant piece about the 'new evangelical woman' who loves Pinterest and statement jewellery, drinks wine, goes to a church with a name like 'ONE' or 'Forest Hills' and wouldn't ever vote for Trump - but is still, of course, pretty conservative. "This election has made her feel politically homeless," wrote Petersen.

The bigger story here for some Christian women was not Hatmaker's opinions or Melton's new relationship. It was the way evangelical women's ministry had been thrown into the spotlight - Buzzfeed reporting from its conferences, national newspapers talking about the women who serve as evangelical 'inspiration' through their books, blogs, speaking tours and podcasts.

'Pastor, if you had to ask, "Who's Jen Hatmaker?" it's time to be more directly invested in the spiritual nurture of half your church,' tweeted Jen Wilkin as male church leaders dismissively wondered why on earth Hatmaker had become a talking point because they'd never even heard of her before. It was pointed out by many that churches often invest little in women's ministry and that male church leaders are disinclined to read books written by women or listen to teaching by women.

"If you are an evangelical woman with teaching gifts, there aren't always role models in your local church," wrote Kate Shellnutt for Christianity Today.

The overarching theme here, which subsequently played out in numerous discussions on Twitter and in blog posts, is a reasonably conservative one - the idea that many of the speakers and ministries influencing Christian women are not theologically robust, that problematic teaching abounds and that women would be better served by good quality local church women's ministry, which would therefore empower them to use their leadership and teaching gifts within the church.

There's been much discussion, as a result, of the way gifted evangelical women have gravitated towards parachurch ministries because they find few opportunities in their own churches. Christianity Today named organisations and events like True Woman, Propel, IF Gathering and Belong as examples of these. In the UK there are probably fewer examples and some of the biggest names in women's conferences come from the stable of influential churches like Hillsong and HTB.

A recent discussion between Hannah Anderson and Erin Straza for Christ and Pop Culture's Persuasion Podcast claimed that "the church has outsourced women's discipleship, thereby relinquishing its role in the spiritual formation of half the church."

"Women with gifting are rising up through the ranks, through blogging, through podcasting, through gaining a following online and launching from there into more visible, national ministries," said Anderson, explaining what she's observed in recent years and written about on numerous occasions, including a piece in response to the debate surrounding Jen Hatmaker and stating that this has come in response to the fact many churches don't 'have a way to integrate women into mission and leadership'.

"Women's ministry is much more entrepreneurial than discipleship ministries at large. So what you see is...collecting and advocating and building a following and building this social network," she added, highlighting that this can be both a strength and a weakness of women's ministries.

One strength of such ministries is the fact that they're more accessible to those whose churches have no women's ministry, or who have too many other commitments to attend weekly get-togethers. But Anderson's concern is that 'relatability' and a focus on 'self' - even though she feels this 'has a place' - sometimes takes precedence over in-depth teaching; 'entertainment' and 'head patting' being prioritised over 'sacrifice for something greater than yourself'.

Lore Ferguson Wilbert blogged shortly afterwards on the same theme, imploring "Pastors, keep your doors open", as she wrote:

"It’s easy for men in particular to believe they have opened the doors to women in their church, particularly in complementarian churches, if they have opened the door to one or two who are particularly gifted once or twice."

It may be a particular issue in complementarian churches but it's a problem that goes all the way across the spectrum to the functionally egalitarian churches, where one woman preaching on a couple of occasions might be held up as a positive example; where seven in ten main stage speakers at conferences are men.

"Open your doors to the women longing to serve, pastors, and don’t make them fit into little molds of children’s ministry or administration," concluded Wilbert. "These things are needed, but they are not the whole, or even a fraction, of what women are gifted to do."

It definitely needs to be noted many of the voices contributing to the discussion on women's ministry are complementarian (albeit 'new complementarian', as per the blogosphere discussions of three years ago) and from somewhat conservative churches where in-depth study of scripture is prioritised and parachurch ministries open to more 'liberal' influences are more likely to be viewed as cause for concern.

I've also wondered about the extent to which these concerns about women who have parachurch ministries come from a place of feeling women are fine to lead and exercise influence, but only under the authority of a male senior leader. It could be construed that what we're seeing here is a preference that women still only operate under male authority. Perhaps that's me looking at the issue through my egalitarian lens - I don't believe that women heading up their own organisations, ministries and churches is a problem at all - but we have to wonder whether complementarian views on the issue are influenced by this.

Despite this, it should also give us pause for thought that it's complementarian women that are telling pastors to open doors to women and advocating for greater resources to be poured into discipling and empowering them because they've noticed that the local church is losing gifted women due to lack of investment.

I may end up at a different place to these women in my conclusions about women and the church (although I greatly respect and appreciate their recent conversations on this), but as I think about the photos of church events I see - leadership gatherings from churches like mine, their networks and their 'friends' - I feel that more than ever, we could all do with considering how doors are being opened for women - and how so many doors - in the UK, in 2016 - are currently closed. As it is, women are being left absent, unnoticed and under-resourced as the boys' clubs of ministry and church leadership continue on their way, seemingly oblivious. As it is, I want to think about how I - and other women in our church circles - can help effect change.

Further reading

What I Want Pastors to Know About Women's Ministry - Sharon Hodde Miller


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