I’ve thought a lot about gender issues within Christian community, but something that happened recently helped to put words to my experience as a woman in the church. I went out to dinner with some new church friends to celebrate my birthday, and as we were entering the restaurant I held the door open for them to walk inside ahead of me. Instead of following my lead, they stopped walking altogether and jokingly chastised me that “it just wasn’t right” before essentially pushing me inside so they could hold the door.
Needless to say, it was an awkward transition.
Although this is just one small experience, I believe that it resonates with the current status of women in church leadership.
We don’t know how to walk through a door when a woman holds it open.
We’re so conditioned to receive teaching and leadership from men in official church positions that it can feel awkward when the message comes through a different medium. I can count on one hand the number of female pastors I’ve heard preach, and I spent most of their sermon time focused on how they got to the pulpit instead of what they say from it.
So just as we learn how to behave as “ladies” and “gentlemen” when we are out in public spaces, we must learn how to follow women leaders. As with any socialization, this learning needs to be intentional (and even subversive) if we hope to change the traditional and gendered ways of structuring our church communities.
Here are some ideas for how we can change church culture:
Use Your Voice
Too often I have found myself fuming after a sermon that relied on gendered stereotypes, yet I haven’t channeled that frustration into speaking to my pastor about why gender issues are important to the whole church body. If you have the time, create space to meet with the leader to address your concerns. If you’re not feeling confrontational, write a letter or an email instead. The important thing is doing something; silence can be easily translated as subtle affirmation.
Watch Your Language
Words are one of the easiest ways that we reinforce gender roles within our church communities. This week, affirm women (of all ages) that you see leading others well. As we begin to shed old ways of relating to one another, we have the opportunity to call each other into God’s unique purposes for our lives—let your words reflect how you desire to see others grow.
Change the Script
Few things get under my skin as much as gender-specific church programming that relies on tired stereotypes (see my Google search for “men’s retreat” and “women’s retreat” below). Instead of replaying these narratives, encourage leaders who plan events and create church messaging to focus on topics that all believers can relate to. We need to rekindle our imagination for how God relates to us, and our church programs are a perfect place to experiment with new ways of engaging our faith.
Learn the Difference Between Peacemaking and Peacekeeping
Although ethereal “spiritual values” such as harmony and goodwill are often used to silence the call for women’s full equality, don’t take the bait. Remember that true peace, God’s shalom, is fundamentally at odds with oppression and injustice. As we work with God to uproot both subtle and blatant evils in this world, there’s going to be some opposition.
Find a Friend to Walk with You
Just as Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, we too should have a partner to come alongside us in supporting women in church leadership. Ideally this would look like someone you personally, but there are growing resources for finding support. However you find it, don’t let yourself believe that you’re alone in this struggle—collectively we possess a strength that we are just beginning to realize.
I write these suggestions not only to encourage you, but me as well.
It’s easy to feel like gender issues are too deep and complicated to be rooted out, but I am encouraged by this scripture from the book of Romans:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, English Standard Version).
Just as God’s love for us is unwavering, so also is the promise of that love to transform and redeem our world, communities, and lives.
Let’s focus more on the open door and less on who is holding it open.
Photo Credit: morguefile.com