Few places in our culture are more segregated in terms of gender equality than many churches. The progress of women’s leadership in business, politics, education, and nearly every strata of society seems to outpace the progress of the church as a whole. While some churches wholeheartedly affirm the role of women in full leadership, others cordon off certain leadership positions.
This is the fifth installment in the “Segregating Worship Series,” and you can read my articles about Worship Segregation here, Music Style Segregation here, Racial Segregation here, and Economic Segregation here.
Whether some churches choose to re-visit and update their stance on women’s leadership or not, the shift in culture’s acceptance of women’s roles will ultimately cause churches who do not accept women in leadership to reconsider their positions.
Worthy of note is the inconsistency with which churches affirm women. Many are happy for women to teach children or to teach adults but hesitant for them to speak in a proclamatory way in a worship gathering. Others affirm women in leadership within the church staff but fall short in giving them the title of minister, relegating them to titles such as “director” or “coordinator.”
In terms of music, I have known churches who affirmed a woman’s working with the choir and rehearsing and leading them but didn’t allow her to lead the full congregation. Others have been content with a woman leading from the organ or piano bench but squeamish about a woman leading while standing in front of others. Still other churches allow women to lead (even preach and proclaim) in overseas missions posts and even allow these same women to share about their experiences in a full congregational gathering, yet they retreat at the point of calling the presentation a sermon or referring to the delivery as preaching. All the while, in nearly every church and denomination, there are women who teach (perhaps even with dozens of highly publicized videos) in a way not different from any preacher, yet they are relegated to some parallel track in terms of full congregational access to leadership.
While many other levels of worship segregation have all but dissipated, why does gender discrepancy persist so long? While churches from the liturgical leaning perspective have been more open and affirming to women and churches in the charismatic stream have fully embraced women (and even find them among their founders), churches between these poles have hesitated.
Why such a hesitation among those in the middle? Why have churches with more formal worship styles had a greater representation of women worship leaders than churches with guitar-led services? What can we do to begin to diminish these gaps? Regardless of where our churches lie along the spectrum of acceptance of women in leadership, what roles should we play?
Assess Traditions Likely all of us are more strongly impacted by tradition than we realize or acknowledge. Even college students with whom I work are keenly shaped by the practices of their relatively young lives, and they can be resistant to considering alternative options. Learning to ask good questions is the starting point. How old is the tradition? Where did it originate? Is it still valid? How could/should it be altered. Are the premises on which the tradition was constructed valid?
Analyze Power Analyzing power begins with us. Each of us holds power, and power is an inevitable component of every relationship. We readily submit to power each day, and power is continually shifting from one person to another. When power becomes stagnant and ceases to shift and be exchanged, power becomes coercive and suppressive. What powers drive and control us? How readily do we submit to the powers of others? How willing are we to share power? Are we insecure with our own power?
Explore Stereotypes All of us are shaped by stereotypical behaviors, and over time, we begin to believe that stereotypes are true when in fact they may be bogus. In the past, some perceived women to be weak, frail, needy, and content in behind-the-scenes responsibilities. As we read such a list, we readily acknowledge the flawed thinking in such stereotypes. However, failure to ponder intentionally the stereotypes that surround us causes us to be deceived by misinformation from the past.
Acknowledge Fears All change is fearful, and even early adopters can be initially apprehensive to change. However, feeding our fears with misinformation prolongs our darkness and keeps us imprisoned. Often our fears are not based on truth, and they are only emotional responses fed by long-held perceptions. Conceding that our fears are “ours” and that we hold the power to explore their passionate control over us can be liberating.
Think Theologically While our concern for the role of women in leadership may be biblical, it may not be Jesus-like. Certainly scripture can be read to exclude women from leadership in the church; however, the model of Jesus affirms full engagement of women in open discussion of God, and Jesus defied the conventions of his day regarding the role of women by the way in which he esteemed and related to women. Viewing the Bible in terms of its foundational principles can help us to look deeper into its meaning.
Explore New Models Whatever our church’s current practice, we all have much to learn by exploring the practices of other congregations and learning from them. What models for including women have been created and are being used by other congregations? How have they moved from their past to their present position?
Take the Lead When in a situation in which women are not affirmed appropriately, men must take the lead. In instances of unequal power, the less powerful person is unable to advocate for him/herself. Those who have power and position must advocate for those who deserve an equal seat at the table.
Be Prepared Women who believe they are called to serve the church in leadership must be prepared and ready when the time comes. For many of us, our leadership was discovered and affirmed when we were able to step into a position to fill-in for someone initially for a limited time. The church and its schools and seminaries must intentionally prepare women for leadership roles in order for women to be ready to move forward as positions and responsibilities become available.
Begin Where You Are All progress starts somewhere, and we must not fail to intentionally step toward a new reality even when where we currently find ourselves is a long way from where we might like to be. I serve in a church that is completely inclusive of women in leadership roles. Friends who visit our church’s worship are often not as surprised by the reality that a woman may be proclaiming from the pulpit as they are that women help to receive the offering, greet guests, read scripture, lead in prayer, and assist with the Lord’s Supper. Similarly, encouraging girls to play guitar and participate in youth led worship prepares them for future leadership.
Do you have an opinion about gender discrepancy? Please leave a comment below.