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Women in church leadership

Posted by Lucy Moore on 18 Nov 2009

Just back from a conference where for once I wasn't speaking about Messy Church, except in the all-important by-the-way conversations, but on women, or the lack of them, in church planting. As you know, I'm not a rampant feminist, bras are too expensive to burn, dungarees are too fiddly when you need the loo, and there are so many aspects of church and mission that I would rather be thinking about.

But doing some very elementary research into the question of why there aren't more women in church planting, I have got quite passionate about it all. I guess because it's an issue of injustice and Jesus tended to speak out against injustice.

Penny Marsh and I have knocked together a paper that addresses some of the issues and suggests action to take, which I have included below.

One point that came up in the discussion is the need to encourage people. Women thrive on encouragement and are often good at giving it too, though churches in general aren't terribly good at encouraging. And I suspect that many men like to be encouraged too - who wouldn't?

So as a tiny outcome from our friendly seminar at the conference, to both women and men leaders of Messy Churches, BE ENCOURAGED! You have no idea of the fantastic job you're doing, warming all these families up to church, introducing them to Jesus, growing the kingdom person by person, household by household. You are joining in with God himself and creating, welcoming, nurturing, just by your gentleness and the warmth of your welcome. You may sometimes see Messy Church from a down-on-the-floor-scrubbing-off paint viewpoint, but in the wider picture, your willing servanthood means that whole families are dancing into the kingdom, gluey egg box in one hand and cake in the other. Be encouraged! Be proud of what God's doing through you and your mess! And encourage each other, women and men, young and old to see the good in every person and every situation, however messy.

Women leaders in church planting, emerging church, Fresh Expressions and other forms of church

These findings are not the result of systematic research but rather a snapshot of opinions and perceptions from people - women and men - involved in church planting within different denominations.

The question raised was, 'Why aren't there many women in church planting?'
The answer is that there are plenty of women in church planting, but that they are simply not as visible or recognised as the men.

Possible reasons for perception of lack of women in leadership
Culture: in our society, men are more likely to be in leadership roles in business, banking, teaching, arts, healthcare... almost any sphere of society, than are women. (See the appointments only recently of a man to lead M&S and to lead ITV). Women are still brought up with very subtle messages that to put themselves forward is pushy and inappropriate.

Church tradition: it has been suggested that church planting often happens in church traditions which don't traditionally have women in leadership role for 'biblical' reasons. This is a moot point.

Language: may well play a part in excluding / belittling / disabling women's gifting and role, and bigging up men's ('building' versus 'growing'; 'pioneering' - suggesting hairy legs and machetes).

Men and women lead in different ways: this is, of course, a gross generalisation, but needs bringing out into the open nonetheless. Where 'leadership' is seen as authoritarian only, and valued in terms of tasks achieved, men are more prominent than women who often prefer a more egalitarian, team-based, relational leadership approach. Perceived success is often seen in terms of numbers, whereas women often work with smaller numbers and greater depth. (Yes, yes, I know this is a generalisation.)

Women don't need to be prestigious (again, a generalisation): women are too busy getting on with the job to attend conferences, thus too busy to network and become more visible. They would often rather be doing the job than going to conferences. Women are 'under the radar'.

Vicious circles: men head up Christian organisations; these men organise a conference; they know and trust and therefore ask to speak only other men from conferences; mostly men go on conferences as only men are speaking; men network with other men so enlarge their circle of male contacts for heading up Christian organisations, speaking at conferences, writing books and articles; these men become better known... (Witness the problems Mission 21 had in sourcing women speakers or workshop leaders. Even the stories told on mainstage this year were without exception told by men. The pictures on the PowerPoint slides were of three men and one possible androgynous woman who might have been a teenage boy.)

Role models: there are fewer women role models around for women to be inspired by, and women often respond well to role models.

Lack of encouragement: women respond well to encouragement and affirmation, but the Church is not terribly good at providing this to its clergy, leaving them isolated and friendless. Women are good at bringing failure and vulnerability to for example chapter meetings, but learn not to show these traits after being in church structures for any time. When did someone in authority last encourage you? When did you last encourage your team? Do bishops set aside time to rejoice with their clergy over successes or does everyone assume someone else is doing it? Because, chances are, they're not.

Training: women often have to juggle family and training for OPM, whereas men often just do the training: training is doubly hard for many women to get through.

Biological time bomb: when many men are planting churches (aged 25-45?), many women are making young children their priority: invisible and unrespected work as far as the Church is concerned, despite the crucial importance of childhood for Church and society and individual well-being; and despite the fact that bringing up children (school gates, mother and toddler groups, and so on) provide unbeatable opportunities for networking, and making links with community and church.

Perceptions: pioneer women have been perceived to be 'awkward'. It is very hard to mention gender inequality without being perceived as a bra-burning rampant feminist in dungarees. (Did you start to read this report with a wry smile or a half-laugh?) It is hard to keep a sense of humour in the whole area of gender inequality, and this leaves many people who care about the issue with less of a voice.

Finances: women are far more likely to be unpaid church leaders than men. Money is a sign of value in our society and in our Church, rightly or wrongly.

Issues and actions
The Church works best when we work together in a complementary way: the body of Christ needs different gifts and skills held in creative tension. At the moment the Church is tying up one arm behind its own back. Men need to champion this cause too, not assume that it is not their problem.

  • Church needs to take collaborative leadership seriously, not just pay lip-service to it while putting authoritarian models into practice. It's good to see so much emphasis on shared leadership in the MSM course. But how does this impact on the structures of Fresh Expressions and other similar organisations - and on the structures of the denominations themselves? Structurally, church organisations need to challenge themselves about the lack of women in decision-making roles (including theological / training colleges). It is much healthier if this challenge comes from men as well as women.

ACTION: for each organisation reading this to self-evaluate their gender balance and to encourage others to do the same.

  • More female role models need to be actively encouraged to step forward: mentoring, visibility. The Sophia Network (Jenny Baker, Sharon Prior) would be able to advise on this and suggest ways forward.

ACTION: Lucy to contact Jenny to see how to take this forward. Organisations could nominate a person to liaise with the Sophia Network to talk about mentoring and general visibility of women.

  • Conferences need to be challenged about maleness of speakers. (I mean, the balance of male / female speakers!)

ACTION: look at the next conference you organise through a 'gender focus' pair of glasses.

  • Publishers need to be challenged about lack of women authors, and editors need to make every effort to get a balanced set of authors in an anthology.

ACTION: look at your own library. Are women represented in the books you read? Emails to publishers requesting a change are taken seriously.

  • Women thrive on encouragement: the Church proactively need to provide this as an intrinsic part of continuing ministerial formation and staff reviews throughout a person's career. Chairs, bishops, and so on should be advised that encouragement is crucial to the well-being of their clergy and lay workers and suggestions made as to how they might systematically encourage their teams.

ACTION: someone from that level of church authority to delegate to someone to suggest how encouragement could be built into the system. Over to you, bishops and chairs.

  • Culturally, women are still primary home-makers in many (though not all) cases: conference organisers and ordinand training bodies need to be aware of this issue, value the crucial role of parenthood and make it easier for women to fulfil both callings more easily. Childcare provision, timing of sessions and expectations of early morning or early evening work would be good places to start.

ACTION: men and women in training to start discussions with colleges as to what the issues are, and to feed in results to Sophia Network or the group receiving this document.

  • How can Church value and resource and enable growth in the most influential work in the church planting field that many women (not forgetting many men also) do, which is bringing up children?

ACTION: for denominations and organisations to reflect on what resources they provide for this and to work with specialists in family work to improve the situation.

BRF and Messy Church are exploring the whole faith at home question (in collaboration with other church organisations) and will make results public as soon as possible. If these could be taken seriously, change could be effected on the back of these results.