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

For Momentum, as it comes to an end

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

It was recently announced that this year's Momentum festival would be the last, with Soul Survivor planning a new festival for 2017.

Thanks, Momentum, that the year I came feeling totally lost and confused about what on earth I was supposed to do, as a Christian woman who had no time for all the ultra-conservative stuff about gender and the church that I was reading about, I got to hear Jo Saxton preaching on an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and Elaine Storkey talking about global women's issues and that I realised that yes, things were going to be ok and that there was life and wholeness outside the box marked 'Biblical Womanhood'.

And thanks for amplifying all those other women's voices too because otherwise, I'd have barely experienced seeing women preach and teach. We really do have that far to go and we need Soul Survivor to keep banging the drum for women.

While I'm on that subject, thanks for 'coming out' as egalitarian and nailing your colours to the mast about it because you were so moved by the response the night you appealed for young women who had been hurt by the church over gender issues to come forward for ministry. The church needs organisations that are vocally, intentionally inclusive of women and their gifts.

Thanks, Momentum, that I found something special at Shepton Mallet when I was a thoroughly-messed up young adult with a catalogue of issues, a person who struggled even being on site at first because everyone seemed so happy and I was exactly the opposite and it just felt so bad, so crushing, seeing all those beatific faces when I felt the way I did. And thanks that I also found something special as a newlywed trying to figure all that married life stuff out. And as a justice-seeker trying to figure out what to do with my calling and my job at a time when I also wanted a child. And just a year later, as a new mother with my perma-feeding three-month-old in tow (even when he orchestrated a nappy explosion in the middle of a seminar on sex). That reminds me - thanks for giving Danielle Strickland the main stage slot that year. Her baby was only a month older than mine and seeing her up there preaching every evening knowing she was in the same stage of life as me was exactly what I needed.

Thanks for bringing together thousands and thousands of people from the supposed 'lost generation' of Christians every year for a decade and yes, for being cool enough to keep them excited about coming but also for welcoming all, not just the sort of young people who dress a certain way and go to a certain sort of church - even those who don't always want to jump around and do the Christian conga during worship in main meetings. Especially those who just like to sit quietly on the floor and keep still and think about stuff. It took me a good few years to understand those people. And then I became one of them.

Thanks for diversifying your programme as your delegates grew up and as the things we cared about and were interested in evolved, all the while keeping the core elements intact. And thanks for inspiring my generation to live differently and do some great things and get through the less-thrilling bits of life too - not just the highs of festivals and 'mountaintop experiences' - while keeping their faith alive.

Thanks for being committed to seeing healing happen, particularly emotional healing. I remember one year, a long time ago now, overhearing a young woman say that so many seminars seemed to focus on 'issues'. 'What if you don't have any issues to deal with?' she said to her friend. 'Aren't you fortunate?' I thought. You've provided the space for people to work things through and hear more clearly and I know so many people who are thankful for that.

Thanks for the terrible late-night campsite singalongs and the free hot drinks for people serving on teams and for making me spend loads of money in the bookshop and for the lovely smell of the night air and the peace of the early mornings and the pizzas and every injury I've ever sustained tripping over guy ropes in the dark and the music and for being more chilled than an event full of teenagers and the times I've heard God speak and the times I've seen Him do things and importantly, for your integrity.

Cheers, Momentum.


Tuesday, 7 June 2016

I was chatting to a friend on Twitter the other day about my post on the script we use when we do vulnerability online and we ended up talking about writing in general. I mentioned that these days, I worry that anything I publish will just be awful navelgazing. I joked then that actually, when I look at my navel it reminds me that there’s a story there. Even gazing at my own navel is a storytelling opportunity. See, I am a storyteller after all.

When I look at my navel, there’s a funny little line inside it and only I can really tell that it’s a little misshapen compared to how it used to be. It’s the only visible evidence of a laparoscopy I had done at the beginning of 2013; one of the three incisions the doctors made right before they removed one of my ovaries, the associated Fallopian tube and something else - something hidden.


It’s about 1994 or 1995, I think, one morning at Sunday School and we are talking about ‘gifts’. We are asked to draw something depicting what we are good at. I set to work with my sheet on paper, drawing something or another to show that I am ‘good at writing’. Imagine my horror, when we have to explain to the rest of the group, what we’ve drawn and the girl sitting next to me - my age, the sort of girl who everyone thinks is good and kind and sweet - stands up and presents her piece of paper that explains that she is ‘good at helping’. Why didn’t I think of that? ‘Helping’ is nice. Helping is thoughtful. Maybe my admission that I’m good at writing is big-headed and not particularly holy. And so I feel a little bit envious and also, as if I’ve done something wrong, even though no-one gives me that impression.


It’s 2011, I’m 20 weeks pregnant and I’m lying down with my midriff exposed watching my baby on a screen across the room; arms, legs, organs, brain all looking healthy. The sonographer moves the probe to the right as he finishes up. He looks more closely. “Do you have endometriosis?” he asks. I don't.“Have you ever noticed a lump in your abdomen?” I haven’t.

“I can see a mass to the right of your womb,” he says. He leaves the room and comes back with someone else who has another look. It looks like some sort of cyst, they say, but a solid one, a big one. It’s the size of my fist - my actual fist. It might be growing. It might cause problems for the baby in the third trimester. I might have to have an operation to remove it and there’s a chance that this would bring on premature labour.

Over the course of the next few weeks, it's determined that this uninvited guest is a dermoid cyst, that it isn’t growing, that it’s not malignant and that it’s so snugly tucked away inside me that nothing needs to be done about it until after I’ve given birth. I’m told that its size coupled with the fact it hasn’t grown in the time we’ve known about it means it may well have been camping out on my right ovary since before I was born, carefully hidden yet growing ever more significant.


It’s 2015 and I’m going to a Christian festival. I’m going with no expectations. I’m over the hype, the anticipation that it’s going to be the week that God does something amazing because we’re all a bit jaded with expecting that much of festivals, relying on the ‘high’ they provide and besides, I’m working there so any sort of experience will be a bonus. On my first afternoon off I head to a seminar and at the end, I stay for the ministry because the seminar is about juggling all life’s demands as a woman and what I really want to know, what I’ve really been praying about, is whether I should give up my responsibilities at church and maybe even step back from church for a while because all it does it make me anxious and cross.

A woman comes to pray for me and as she finishes, she tells me about a word she has for me. Later that day I excitedly message a friend from church because just a couple of weeks earlier, she’d told me the very same thing that this woman has just said. It’s a picture so specific and detailed that there’s no way anyone can say it’s just a coincidence - but I have no idea what it means. 

Several weeks later I was talking to another friend about a mission trip she was going on. She was talking about what she feels is her calling in life and all of a sudden, the words of two different women, one of whom didn’t even know me, made sense.

My tale of that day at Sunday School when I didn’t feel I’d said the right thing was something I’d forgotten about for years until fairly recently, when it suddenly came back to me as I was trying to plan a devotional about God-given gifts. It was probably a jolt I needed, because it helped me to start making sense of something I’ve always struggled with - accepting and embracing what I can do rather than feeling shame about the things I’m not so good at.

As I’ve often shared in the past, much of my time in the church has been characterised by the sneaking suspicion that I don’t really fit in anywhere, with my distinct lack of characteristics I’ve always felt you’re supposed to have as a Christian and particularly a Christian woman. I read this piece the other day and it made me laugh because I recognised myself in it - particularly over the last couple of years, as I’ve struggled more and more with writing for an audience, impostor syndrome a constant presence. 

Yes, I could do writing and speaking and presenting and creativity and ideas, but I didn’t know what all that was for outside of work. It's been like a mantra that I have work skills, not church skills. I’ve also come to realise that even I still have a bit of discomfort with being open about what I’m good at because I’m a woman. So many people unfortunately see women who can talk and women who can write as having an agenda, as pushy, putting themselves out there for the sake of it. 

It’s a problem in society as a whole but never more evident than in the church, where it often feels as if speaking, writing and having opinions must come with a caveat that you don’t hate men of course, obviously, you don’t have an agenda, you’re not one of those angry or controlling women. The temptation is to minimise yourself, to become small enough to fit into the box of others’ expectations. It’s embarrassing admitting that you’ve fallen prey to that, really, but it’s no wonder.

The words from the two women - my friend and the stranger - both mentioned a gift from God in a box that doesn’t look very exciting or attractive, to the extent that I disregard it and keep on looking for something that I perceive to be ‘better’. All the while, it’s the gift in the less attractive box that’s important - a gift hidden in plain sight, a gift that’s always been there.

Now here’s where my analogy goes slightly awry, because in 2013, that thing that had been hidden away inside me since goodness knows when (growing teeth, just so you know - because dermoid cysts are a fascinating yet slightly terrifying example of the things our bodies can do) was whipped out and disposed of. I never knew it was there before and I can’t tell that it’s gone now. But this is a story about the significance of things unseen, the importance of the things we don’t notice and pay no attention to even though they’re definitely there and have been for a very long time. It's a story about never listening to the people close to us when they affirm us, mentally stamping every positive statement with 'Not good enough, though' until God probably, finally, gets so sick of it that He gives us a smack round the head.

I have a voice that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with or accepting of. And I’m still not entirely sure what it means to embrace it and what that means outside of work these days with blogging having changed the way it has and a busy life and having recently started attending a different church where I’m only just starting to consider how I might be involved. But what I do know is that it no longer means silencing myself and dismissing my voice because somewhere, there must be a pretty box filled with the gifts I think I’m supposed to have, rather than the ones I’ve always had.

Scripted vulnerability

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. 

It’s probably a product of the boom in confessional journalism and its Christian equivalent, the storytelling boom. We’re all storytellers now and perhaps we’ve internalised the idea that every significant event in our lives must be presented as a carefully-structured essay, a sermon of sorts, or like so many sermons a list of points that speak of the learning and practical application that have come out of our pain. 

We hold off writing about things, not simply until we’ve got our thoughts on the subject organised, but also until we’ve got a structured message, some clear takeaways for our readers and an opportunity to be inspirational - perhaps with a few key ‘shareables’ highlighted specifically for that purpose. 

This week a friend shared a lengthy update on social media, informing people of the tough year they’ve been having and being thankful that things have turned out ok, even though they still have a lot to work through. As people commented with love and support, expressing admiration for how open and ‘real’ my friend had been, it struck me that much of the post's perceived ‘realness’ lay in the fact it didn’t follow what I’m now recognising as the script we, as Christians, often follow (consciously, unconsciously, who knows?) when reflecting on difficult times. 

We describe the difficulties and pain; we bring the focus back to God; we give thanks and count our blessings; we move into reflecting on any positives that have come out of the situation and our lessons learned. We can hit ‘publish’ safe in the knowledge that we’ve followed the approved framework for dealing with life’s knocks and that people will like it. 

Don’t misunderstand me: this ‘script’ isn’t wrong. It’s helpful sometimes and yes, it can be inspirational. It’s quite natural for many people and in many circumstances - but sometimes it’s hard to get there. Sometimes it feels like we’re never going to get there at all. Our feelings aren’t so neatly organised and I wonder if we’ve perhaps lost something in shying away from sharing the messiness of our thought processes, preferring instead, by the time we’re ready to share on our blogs or on Facebook, to tie it all up neatly into a set of inspirational learning points that make us seem like real writers, or teachers, or ‘thought leaders’. Or at least the right sort of Christian. 

We should be able to write about our struggles - if we want to - without waiting for the perfect time to share, when our attitudes are right and we can say all the ‘right’ things. We should understand that praising people and telling them how inspirational they are when they describe their pain using the ‘right’ narrative isn’t always helpful. We pick up on what we see and keep quiet accordingly when our emotions and thoughts and questions don’t follow the approved script because we worry what people might think. Our thoughts aren’t for everyone to see unless they’re ordered correctly. That's something I've been guilty of in recent times, my head a swirling mess of half written essays not considered well-formed enough to be shared because there's no teachable moment for you, or because things are still difficult, or because I can't look at them objectively and give you some life application fat to chew on.

Everything bad that happens to you doesn’t have to be a teachable moment. When being ‘real’ becomes scripted, it doesn’t seem so authentic any more. We can share our truths without completing a checklist of themes and words. And the difference will show, as it did for me this week when I read my friend's Facebook post and as it does always when I think about the stories that have stayed with me the most.

Three years of Project 3:28

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

This week, the Project 3:28 report on the numbers of men and women speaking at Christian conferences and events in 2015 was released - the third annual report produced since a small group of people got together - first in conversations on Twitter, and then over dinner - to talk about the way platforms are dominated by male speakers. All of us were interested in the issue of gender justice in the church; all of us were concerned that Christian organisations were not doing enough to represent a diverse range of speakers, gifting and expertise.

Three years on, I'm really encouraged by the conversations that Project 3:28 has started. I'm particularly encouraged by the organisations that have contacted the working group to let us know that they're being proactive about finding more women to speak at their events. It's clear to see that effort is being made, because these are the organisations appearing in the top half of all those ranked. One of our longterm aims for Project 3:28 is to be able to set up a database of women speakers, listing areas of expertise and experience, so we'll no longer hear that 'we didn't know any women to ask' or 'we couldn't find anyone' - but in the meantime, seeing that certain organisations are committed to a more equal balance of speakers is a really positive step.

Last year, I talked about some of the common objections to the project and why we still believe it's a valuable source of information. The fact remains that it is produced by volunteers, in our free time, completely unfunded. So this year I thought I'd talk about some observations I've had about this year's statistics and questions people have asked on social media.

Yes, the events ranking lowest for gender balance of speakers are the ones that are openly more conservative

It's clear, that despite small increases in the number of women speakers, that they're probably going to continue to rank lowest because of their beliefs about the circumstances in which women are permitted to teach - even as some streams become more proactive about recognising the gifting of women and more open to them preaching and teaching.

But the events ranking not far above them are officially egalitarian - so what gives?

Some organisations have some catching up to do. This was something that particularly stood out for me when analysing the data from the Hillsong, HTB Leadership and Focus conferences. Having a basis of faith that says women can lead and teach doesn't always translate to women actually doing these things. Sometimes that's down to historical patterns of appointing leadership, how people are noticed and given prominence. Sometimes it's because of old boy's networks that rely heavily on in-crowds of people who socialise together, speak at events together, and are all on the same committees together. Sometimes it's because of events looking for the biggest names on the Christian festival circuit to sell their programme to prospective attendees - names that are more likely to be male, because that's how conference culture works. What's clear is that those organisations whose theology is essentially egalitarian, but are low ranking, could do much better.

What about other elements of diversity?

Project 3:28 looks at the balance of men and women speakers. Someone asked us this week whether or not we know anyone specifically doing work on racial diversity at these events. We don't - but we think it's a really important thing to think about. We've explained that because of the way we compile the data, it would be more difficult to look at racial diversity because it's much less easy to make a judgement about someone's race from looking at their name on a programme. Just as the majority of conferences are male-dominated, they are also dominated by white speakers - that's clear. They're dominated by middle class speakers and able bodied speakers. So there is much work to be done in achieving diversity that reflects the church as a whole.

We haven't covered every single event and conference here

That's true. When we looked at the data for 2013, we started with a group of events based on what we could find at the time. We have stuck with this list to enable better comparison year on year. But we know there are numerous events that we have left out. Some people have already made suggestions of others we could look at next year. If you can see any we've obviously missed out, let us know!

What about the balance of men and women on the main stage versus seminars and smaller talks?

We chose not to include this data, again because so far we've stuck with what we can compare year on year. However, my counts differentiated between main stage speakers and other speakers and I can confirm what some people have asked: male speakers dominate 'main stage' sessions at festivals. At many events, women are also more likely to show up as speakers at sessions focused on subjects that have more traditionally been considered a woman's domain - marriage, children's work, family life, mental and emotional wellbeing. It's not problematic in itself to see women speaking about these topics, but just as many women are gifted teachers on other subjects that are more likely to be seen as the preserve of male speakers.

The knotty problem of wives

Something we have looked at informally, and something people have asked us about, is the number of women present at festivals only as a 'husband and wife act'. This varies quite a bit between the events, but we felt it was difficult to represent these numbers with integrity. Some women have a ministry with their husbands, some independent of their husbands. Some speak in their capacity as a 'leader's wife'. It's difficult to make judgements about the data here without seeming critical about the women involved - and that's not what we would want to do, at all, because we know they are gifted teachers and leaders in their own right. Our general feeling is that many events could be more committed to finding single women speakers, women who lead churches on their own and women whose husbands are not in ministry.

Things are improving...but there's still some way to go

Women have the knowledge and the gifts. Organisations need to be more intentional about seeking them out and inviting them to speak.

Three conclusions from 2015, a year of shifting faith

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A photo posted by Hannah Elizabeth Rose Mudge (@boudledidge) on

I'm not particularly proud of quite a few of the blog posts I've written over the years; some of them show me at my absolute worst: enjoying drama, taking mocking things and trying to be clever with it a bit too far, being full-on cynical all day every day. One post I am particularly proud of, however, is the one I wrote about my journey with motherhood, faith and church in May last year. It meant a lot to me to finally be able to write about something that had been plaguing me for so long - and as I was to discover, it meant a lot to other people too - people who could identify with what I was saying. People who, in a couple of cases, had never felt about to vocalise what they were feeling before.

After the post, 2015 continued in much the same way. Pieces about millennials and the church were still being written on probably a weekly basis. The Evangelical Alliance even surveyed UK millennials for a fascinating report, Building tomorrow's church today, which is great, because we hear an awful lot about Christian and post-Christian millennials in the USA, but there are some enormous differences that mean we can't assume too many similarities.

After another few months of reading all the open letters, all the hot takes on why people who have issues with church are just consumer Christians and selfish babies, having all the thoughts, being able to reel off all the buzzwords and stock phrases about my generation and church, and developing a bit of an obsession with pieces about Hillsong churches (and how they square with current popular narrative that young people are leaving flashy megachurches and discovering tradition and liturgy), 2015 ended up being all about coming to some realisations and making some decisions.

1. God is not some disappointed performance manager

I've struggled to work out where it came from, but pretty much ever since I've been a Christian, I've tended to see myself as a bit of a disappointment. I feel as if it's most likely that it started from a place of low self-esteem and perfectionism, and that it was made worse by pressured Christian contexts, anxiety, together with a combination of not having fully taken on board key bits of scripture and, let's be real here, snobbishness about a lot of what I've always seen as saccharine, self-helpy, feelgood rubbish that seems to quite often be delivered as part of cringey women's events that I wouldn't normally touch with a bargepole.

I'm talking about stuff like God's love, acceptance and grace. And also the fact that actually, I'm not a terrible person because I didn't want to get 'on board' at the vision meeting and my anxiety went off the scale every time there was a call for people to serve on more teams and all I could feel was dread when I got an email about 'events you may be planning in your area'.

I have this story that I tell for laughs; it's about the time I listened to a sermon about 'giving yourself a spiritual healthcheck' and we were all encouraged to think about being in a car, and whether we would say that God was in the driver's seat or the passenger seat, or sitting in the back (or tied up and stuffed in the boot, I thought, because that's genuinely how I felt about my relationship with God and church at that time, a couple of years ago). And of course behind many of the stories that we tell for laughs, there's a lot of pain. For me, it was a pain that grew until I couldn't cope with the incessant Sunday morning calls-to-action to join up, get better, commit to improving x and y - so I had to tune them out. I had a coping strategy for the anxiety caused by feeling like an awful person at church. It may not have been a very sophisticated coping strategy (effectively, it involved just not listening), but that's what I was doing.

I was talking to someone about it last autumn and she told me I didn't need to feel guilty. It was hard for her to see how I could beat myself up - a full-time-working, mothering, writing, household-running person. I told her that around the time of the spiritual health check incident, I'd heard a church leader tell people like me - 30-somethings balancing careers and young children - not to get 'complacent' about the Kingdom and about getting involved in church stuff. As an exhausted, recently-returned-to-work, toddler-parenting Christian, I was pretty ready to let him have it over that comment (but I didn't, because I was too cross). However well these comments are meant, they can cause deep hurt. And it still burns, but I know God knows. He sees. And I don't believe He's shaking His head and tutting at what my life looks like now.

2. He also has a sense of humour 

The perfectionist in me doesn't like those words like 'consumer Christian' and 'complacent'. So in 2015, having felt I'd retrieved some of the headspace I'd lost in the baby and toddler years, I set about making sure no-one could accuse me of being either, thank you very much. This involved improving my prayer life (and because I like peace and quiet and nobody being up in my space, that means walks on my lunch break), getting back into reading again, and visiting some different churches. Excitingly, I have even managed to listen to a few sermons online (only a few, mind you - there are only 24 hours in a day). Related to this, because it's not easy to claw back time from my day to do it, I also spent a good few days on Twitter, on and off, having a ranty discussion about full time pastors and academics being snobby about people who don't have the time or enegry to constantly read and learn and expand their minds. I attended my first ever New Wine summer event, my first ever Youthwork Summit, and as always the Gathering of Women Leaders. And I've been talking to people at church about what's been going on.

Most of this has been great, and it's led to some serious moments of realisation that have cleared up stuff I've been agonising over for years. Giftings and callings, for one. I know I've written before about my ever-present anxiety that I have nothing to offer the church. Ask me what I'm good at, as a woman in a seminar at New Wine did, during one of those often-awkward 'discuss with the person next to you' moments, and I've always been able to tell you, but never have I thought these things have anything to do with my place in the church.

Thanks to two identical words at two different times from two different people, one of whom I had never met before and have never seen since, and several weeks of trying to figure out what on earth they meant, now I know that they do. And when I announced this to my husband, he reminded me that he's only been telling me the same thing for the past few years. 2015 has taught me that I am truly terrible at believing anything anyone says about me unless I've had a personal revelation of it - which brings me on to my decade-long suspicion of saccharine, cringeworthy platitudes aimed at Christian women to make them feel good about themselves.

I remain a truly humorless feminist killjoy on this point: if you're telling women they're precious princesses to try to combat structural oppression without critiquing patriarchy...just don't. But last year, I read an old post that Glen Scrivener shared, and by the end I was basically cheering at my desk. Then I had a conversation with Glen that started with me grumbling about my long-held dislike of 'princess' terminology and ended with him saying 'The Prince totally loves us. But He doesn't leave us in the chamber. He calls us to the throne.' By this point, I was basically channeling a little bit of fandom that really shows my age ( "Damn straight, you tell ’em Albus, testify!", snap snap snap etc.). It's ridiculous how you can be blinkered to something for so long. Especially when God further rubs it in via a prayer-ministry based moment several months later.

3. The church could take some tips from the charity sector

You're probably really concerned about what I'm going to suggest at this point, given the picture of charities that the media has been working hard to paint in recent months. Over the last three years, my day job, coupled with my status as a millennial who's suspicious of being sold things and marketed to and just wants, like, authenticity, has left me beyond disillusioned with megachurch culture, the marketing and strategising and branding and careful curation of a presence and, as I would refer to them when at work, the donor journeys. I'm talking about the 'journeys' that, in the church, can put members on a sort of treadmill of predictable topics and lead-ups and build-ups to courses and initiatives with the idea that they will take certain steps.

At this point, feel free to call me hypocritical, because in my working life, this is essentially what I do, day in day out. It's also probably the reason I would quite like a break from it on a Sunday. I'm not alone - in recent months I've read umpteen pieces expressing the same sentiments (they are, after all, a key point in this debate on millennials). Pictured at the top of this post is how Sarah Bessey put it very neatly in the excellent Out of Sorts

Now, I'm not stupid. I know that a lot of this is key to the running of churches and that it's not necessarily a bad thing. Recently it occurred to me, however, that one of the current major concerns fof the third sector needs to be a key consideration for churches too. You can't have the strategy and the marketing and the journeys without focusing just as much on retention, in a way that is authentic and is meaningful and genuinely communicates that you care, that you're appreciative. Openness and honesty are important, because they build trust.

If you can't give a member of your church a straight answer on what the church believes about a particular issue when the member can see from your practice that it's obvious you have a definite opinion, that's not honesty. If being part of the body of Christ is very much about community, what happens when people feel like little more than another resource to be exploited? If you talk the talk on diversity but who gets to 'play' on a Sunday shows you don't walk the walk, how are those whose faces (or bodies) don't fit going to feel?

When care, community, openness, trust, and the idea that members can play a meaningful part in something important are deprioritised, there will be a problem with retention. Call me a lazy consumer if you like but my work and my eperience tells me it can't all go one way for too long without people becoming disillusioned. And this isn't confined to certain types of churches  or denominations (although I do believe size is a major factor). It shouldn't be ignored. I know that churches do think about turnover, but despite sometimes being tackled with the best intentions, it's sometimes misguided.

The end of 2015 saw us make some exciting decisions, and the first months of 2016 will see us exploring our options as a result. Things haven't been easy, but change is coming.

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