I walked into the room.
I was ill equipped for exposure to the below freezing elements outside, immediately thankful for the rush of warmth that greeted me as I crossed the threshold. It was my first Christmas party of the season, and I was still trying to rally my enthusiasm for the return of the season of high-heels, patterned tights and red-lipstick, especially when I wanted nothing more than a cup of hot tea, an over-sized sweater and a good book by the fire.
The counter boasted a beautiful spread of holiday delicacies as ladies, dressed to the nines, simultaneously relished and bemoaned all the sweet treats calling out to them while they caught each other up on the last 6 months of life flown by.
She was lovely, a school teacher for impressionable third-graders, and every bit as gracious as you would hope for the person caring for your child. She asked me what I do for a living vs. what I do in my dreams, and we discussed matters of passion and vocation.
Eventually the topic of church came up and we discovered that we used to be a part of the same congregation. When I asked her why she left, she expressed, in very simple terms, that she didn’t feel like there was a place for her there as a woman.
She shrugged as she offered in complete graciousness, “there was no representation and no invitation.”
I stood there for a moment as I processed what she had just shared. I think her statement probably garnered a gesture of concession in the form of a raised eyebrow and tipped head. “Touché!”, I thought.
Initially, I was stunned that someone whom I’d never previously met, who knew nothing of my opinion on such matters, would offer up such a pithy assertion. But what made my tongue stick in that moment was the realization that while I really wanted to be able to say her response surprised me, I actually, unfortunately, could not.
What strikes me most about this story is that if judged on the basis of appearances, one might be compelled to assume she would have felt right at home within a complementarian climate. Soft-spoken, though articulate; she worked with children for a living, was kind and maternal. Of course she would gravitate toward the more support-oriented ministries [if-you-will], such as hospitality, prayer, or perhaps children’s or women’s ministry. She was a woman after all.
But please hear me on this.
To make this assumption would be to rob her of her personal, robust womanhood, which is not strictly linked to gifts that fit into a “maternal” construct.
To make this assumption would be to cast a pale, two-dimensional portrait of a strong, dynamic, educated and intelligent, multifaceted woman.
None of this is to say for a moment that any of the above categories of care are less than, or nonessentials; or to imply there is, or ought to be, a hierarchy among positions within the church [simply read 1 Corinthians 12]. All of them represent beautiful and vital contributions to the overall health and thriving of the congregation!
But perhaps she wanted to be equipped to teach? What then? What of the women who are gifted in academics, or public speaking, or music leadership, et cetera; who long to use their gifts within the context of the church. What of them? We do a significant disservice to the body by limiting the areas in which women [and men, for that matter] are considered competent to serve and utilize their God-given talents and passions.
Now, I’d like to zoom out for a moment.
In the ongoing debate regarding issues of gender within the church the messages often get muddled and convoluted; like we’re all asking, if not demanding, something different while insisting we’re actually saying the same thing. As a result, I think those in leadership often feel at a loss as to where to begin, and honestly, I get that.
And yet, only on very rare occasion have I ever heard it asked,
“Okay, so what exactly is it women want from the church?”
We could all offer up our own individualized appeals in an effort to answer this question, and we do. My Twitter feed (like this blog) is chock-full of pleas from those of us trying to explain why women often feel minimized, disregarded, not represented or invited; and all that the church ought to be doing to straighten it out. But if we could cut through the white noise for a moment, I think we would find the overarching answer is simple:
At the end of the day, we simply want this: to be asked the question.
Rather than ushering us off to the nursery before learning that we have absolutely zero knack with or passion for children, or assuming our appropriate role is on the coffee or hospitality team before realizing that we can’t even boil water; ask us the appropriate questions before stuffing us into a mold that quite frankly doesn’t fit.
The questions are simple:
“What are your God-given, Spirit-breathed gifts?”
“What makes you come alive?”
“How can your great gifts meet a great need within the body and broader community?”
And then, perhaps even more importantly:
“What can we do to equip you, as an image bearer, to fulfill your calling; to optimize your gifts for the sake of the Kingdom? “
When these questions go unasked a glass ceiling is unintentionally established; one that requires brute force and an exhaustive amount of persistence to break through simply to be heard, let alone listened to. And the damage is two-fold: a vast majority of incredibly gifted and capable women will never make it to the front lines because they are not willing to scream in the faces of men to be heard, and those who do are likely to be perceived as aggressive, obnoxious, or even ill equipped.
This is a tremendous shame, because had they been engaged from the beginning on the basis of equal merit with their male peers, I believe the results would be astounding.
If the assumption was that there were no assumptions to be made; that every person is his or her own, bearing the mark of the Creator uniquely in the way that only he or she can, we would have a much more adequately equipped army.
I can’t help but wonder what my friend at the Christmas party might have said if she’d been asked the appropriate questions.
I can’t help but wonder how her contributions might have enriched our community. Unfortunately for us, it will be another congregation that reaps those benefits.
The good news has not changed, my friends. It has always been, and will always be about the Kingdom of God coming to invade earth, setting the oppressed free. And if we, as the children of God, are going to accomplish this in tandem with the Spirit, we’re going to need everyone fully engaged in the mission, all utilizing his or her gifts in full measure.
Let us not be deterred.
Rather, let us begin with intentionality, granting our sisters a voice. Let us begin by asking the question. Let’s recognize the value of representation and invitation for all of God’s children.
What a timely article! Just this week a leadership need (which I was not seeking) arose in a church committee in which I am the longest serving member. Both my experience and gifts (identified by others so it’s not just me puffing up my abilities) made me uniquely qualified to fill the need and, honestly, the logical person to do so…apart from my gender.
However, no one was able to step away from their well-conditioned “chairperson = man” mindset.
And I had no desire to be “perceived as aggressive, obnoxious” by offering myself as, perhaps, a better committee leader over the current (non-administrative, harassed young father) who said he’d be go ahead and continue as chair unless someone else wanted to.
Came to realize I have never been asked those questions by my church.
Of course, they wouldn’t know what to do with me based on my answers…none of which would include serving in the nursery, teaching Kindergarten Sunday School class, providing coffee and snacks, etc. (all of which I have willing done).
I agree that not all women want the opportunities but the grief is that they are not even given the courtesy of being asked. Not all women are leaders, as not all men are leaders. We relate with people and give them room in order to find out who is who and what they are called to. When this doesn’t happen, women leave and often find a place to plant themselves where they can bloom.
I know a church network in UK which is great in every way except this one – women can’t be in church leadership. Consequently, due to the excellent teaching and incitement for people to go and live meaningful lives, a high proportion of the women in this network are in senior management positions in government and the corporate sector… and the church misses out on what God could be doign through them.
Thanks for this.
Isn’t that the wrong question, “What do women want from the church?” Should it not be, “What does God want from His women in the church?” That places the focus where it should be, simplifies everything and, IMO, removes any claims of wrong motives. It frees us to be all that He wants us to be.
Perhaps that is the best question, but still, I think the question I’m asking is based on the premise that God wants all his children using their gifts, that He does not discriminate based on gender, in which case, it’s the stereotypes that need breaking at this point. Thank you for your insight.
Although at times I may give the impression otherwise, I am one of those women who are not willing to scream in the faces of men just to be heard. I figure if I have to scream in somebody’s face then it’s just not worth it.
I’m so tired of the fight
Ahh, Margaret, I’m sorry. It really is taxing, and that’s so unfortunate. We can always continue to pray for change. When we’re discouraged because other’s won’t listen, there is One who always will.
Spiritual warfare via misogyny should be considered here. The dark side is at war with the potential, beauty, grace and heavenly power of women. This statement is not to excuse men from their limited and sometimes dominance focused view/treatment of women within the context of ministry, but to open wider the discussion as to what and whom we’re fighting. I am a redemptive artist, dancer and writer who has served in the church as a visual arts director. I am currently working on my doctorate with a focus on the arts and social justice, – a focus birthed by the negative treatment I suffered from church leadership, as well as the leadership of other traditional Christian venues. I’m grateful, as the Lord broke my heart for the oppressed globally as a result of my own pain, opening my world and inspiring me to start a nonprofit, but my heart grieves for what the church – all of us – have lost in marginalizing half of our population.
Yes of course, your comment immediately makes me think of the opening chapters in Why Not Women by Loren Cunningham & David Hamilton, highlighting this issue exactly. Ephesians 6 speaks clearly to this issue, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavely realms.” This is true of anything that is of the Kingdom, there will always be opposition standing against its growth.
I will say, I love the way you have managed to use your pain to procure something beautiful and beneficial for others. That is a true gift, something we should all strive for. Thank you for letting that be such a significant part of your response, it’s incredibly redemptive.
Finally, I’m reminded and encouraged by Romans 8:18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Keep going friend.
“When these questions go unasked a glass ceiling is unintentionally established.”
I’m not so sure the glass ceiling is unintentional. Too often it seems like churches are men’s clubs where the men get to play church. Its a sad thing to say but I rarely feel the Spirit of God moving in any church I visit. I watch the men (because I’m not in the nursery) and I can sense the power they derive from their roles. Is this how its supposed to be? And do we REALLY need to use as an example every week, something to do with women submitting to their husbands?
Lin, I hear you on this point, aaaabsolutely. I often feel like you’re 100% correct, however I always try to assume the best in these circumstances, particularly in my writing and speaking. It’s very easy for me to become angry about this topic, or feel defeated and jaded– to me, it IS a justice issue– and then operate out of such attitudes. That is certainly my natural bend. But ultimately, I don’t believe that such attitudes will ever effectually change anyone’s heart on the matter, nor will it engage the conversation. So in that regard, I try to assume the best and give people the benefit of the doubt, hence my “unintentional” bit. Sometimes I think you’re right, it is intentional, however, at least at this point, I don’t think that is always the case.
But no- this isn’t how it ought to be. I’d be curious to know what kind of churches you’ve visited that have been so harshly dismissive toward women. In my own experience, it’s not been so overt or intentional.
But of course, I hope, I pray, that this is changing.
Thank you for this! It was very encouraging!
Thank YOU for reading Crystal-Lee! 🙂
I have felt this way at most churches I’ve been to. I have gifts in leadership in music and several other areas…NOT in children’s ministries. It’s just not my thing. I have taught microbiology in university and a local college. I’m a teacher to adults, not kids. I have 6 kids but that doesn’t mean I am gifted to teach other kids. I could, but it doesn’t motivate and inspire me. But I’ve been so often stuffed there. And it’s too bad for the kids, because they need something I simply don’t have. They don’t need another mom, they need someone who ‘gets’ them and knows how to inspire them. My gift is to do that with adults.
It’s madening to be bursting with a vision but have nowhere to impart it.
And Ive seen many women just lose heart at church and feel “less”. And it begins to knaw at their self-worth, and they feel that somehow God loves them less. It’s a tragedy. The same men that won’t let women hold places of leadership in their churches are the same men who don’t seem to have a problem letting their wives work and earn a good income for their family. At least be consistent. Because as women, we are discouraged in the church.
“It’s maddening to be bursting with a vision but have nowhere to impart it.” – It was so weird to read this comment because I felt like you were reading my mind!!! Yes, we are discouraged and it’s getting old. Praying for change and encouraged to see signs that it is happening!
Oh wow, I couldn’t agree more! Gail hit the nail on the head here, it felt like you were reading my mind! I also just had this same conversation with one of my pastors saying, “I love kids, don’t get me wrong, but you do NOT want me in kid’s ministry, it just wouldn’t be fair to the kids.” It is definitely disheartening, I often feel this way, it’s exhausting, but praying for change indeed. Thanks for sharing!
Ditto, Patricia. Well said. I’m one of those who loves my child and adores kids, but have no desire to work with them. I do better with adults. You cry resounds by many. My husband and I are going to begin working on planting a church soon, God willing, and our target, first and foremost are going to be women, so, come on over to Washington! We need women (and men :)) who can lead because of their calling and gifting, not their gender.
I believe more value should be placed on nurturing in society as a whole, and especially within the church. I also believe it’s true that women tend to have certain traits and men tend to have certain traits, but these are *not* a tick-box list of attributes. We’re not robots! Within the church, if you’re good at something, there should be the opportunity to do it. We should celebrate one another’s gifts and build one another up. No one should seek to be more than someone else, neither should they be made to feel less than. We are all called to serve, not to be served.
Sandy, yes I agree! I loved Bob Edwards’ post just a few days ago on confusing equality with sameness. Certainly men and women are different, and those differences ought to have space to be celebrated, rather than thought of as universal or prescriptive. Thanks for reading and sharing!