women, men & church: what hurts, what helps

kathyescobar church stuff, co-pastoring, equality, ex good christian women, leadership, women in ministry 14 Comments

cocreators of wholeness and hope

Two fridays ago The Refuge hosted our first “Beyond Seminary: Moving Theology into Practice” gathering. Our amazing friend and seminary professor Dr. Deborah Loyd facilitated and we were challenged, encouraged, inspired in all kinds of ways.

There were 25 of us there, 21 women and 4 men. Yep. That was a little hard for me but probably tells the real story. Oh, we have to figure out how to get these conversations more balanced! Real, lasting change will happen when both genders are equally committed to learning and change together. I am so grateful for the amazing men that were indeed there and do know some other male leaders who wanted to come but couldn’t make it. They embody the humility, honesty, and willingness-to-engage that is what the church desperately needs.

Deborah started with a solid foundation of the reality that our theology on gender in the church has been built on biblical interpretation through the eyes of patriarchy and seeing what we want to see as opposed to the bigger story of what’s really there. Then, we quickly moved into reality:

What is really happening in our real life experiences related to gender equality in the church?

What disempowers?

What are some best practices to move toward change?

I thought I’d just share a brief summary of what we came up with in these two major categories–what hurts, what helps. What disempowers, what empowers. What continues the deep divide between genders in the church, what heals it. 

Here’s what hurts and disempowers women (and ultimately men, too) in the church:

  • When women aren’t part of the decision-making, power bodies of the church (pastoral leadership, elder teams, guiding teams).
  • When men are seen as employees and are paid properly and women are seen as volunteers and expected to work for free.
  • When women’s contributions and faithful input aren’t acknowledged (so many behind-the-scenes things happen by women in the church but are often unthanked or women’s contributions aren’t valued as highly–men are seen as the ones who “make the plans” and women are the ones who “execute them.”)
  • The media messages about women, how we should look, think, act. (I’d add the messages about what it means to be a “good Christian woman” (or man) that is solidified through so many of the books, blog, bible studies available at Christian book stores).
  • Stereotypical retreats and the same-old-same-old men’s & women’s groups –men do certain things at their retreats and groups and women do others.
  • When boards and conference line-ups don’t reflect equality at all and are very imbalanced. Most are still mainly men with a few women sprinkled in.
  • A scarcity mentality among women–that there are only so many places at the table so we had better fight to keep our spot. This can create a competitiveness that is really sad and limiting.
  • When women are not given the titles of “pastor” when that’s what they are really doing.
  • Comments about our looks and gender (Oh, do I have some crazy stories about that!)
  • Many sermon examples, scriptures, stories, quotes tend to be male-focused.

What else disempowers?

It’s really easy to get stuck there, and even as I read these brainstorms through again, I had that icky-and-hopeless feeling creep in. These things are so engrained into our church systems that it is going to be hard work to shift it to a more healthy, balanced place. With the bad theology and generations of patriarchy embedded deeply into our psyche and practices, it won’t be an easy shift.

However, change is happening. And can happen. We will just have to intentionally apply ourselves to some new practices, men and women together.

Here are some tangible and practical “best practices” that can help us move toward greater equality in the church:

  • Friendship. This is a core practice that opens doors to equality. We’ve got to find ways to practice being true friends together.
  • Be intentional about inviting, including, empowering, and releasing women into all levels of leadership. It won’t drop out of the sky so needs to be clear and strong message–“we need you, we want you, and here’s how we can make this happen.
  • Pay properly and equally. Period. Figure it out.
  • Avoid gender-biased comments (on both sides) about looks, athleticism, feelings, and other stereotypical ways of viewing both sexes.
  • Create intentional and brave conversations about gender in our communities–places to share, evaluate, process, adopt new practices together.
  • Ask at every table of leadership: how can we make room, make this table more balanced, who’s missing?
  • Recognize the realities of childbearing and honor it completely. That means keeping positions open, building flexible schedules, re-thinking the plans for advancement in churches & ministries.
  • The older generation of both men and women mentoring, supporting, encouraging, calling-out the younger generation of female leaders. Not just women supporting women but men and women supporting men and women.
  • Consider how to support women practically and tangibly through seminary and then ministry related to childcare help, books, mentorship, and financial support.
  • Start naming the elephant in the room before certain meetings and planning sessions get started–“We know women haven’t had an equal voice in this before. How can we shift that dynamic in here right now so everyone is heard?
  • Conference organizers and local have a solid and clear list of female speakers to draw from and use them; intentionally work toward balance.
  • Men showing up for gender equality conversations as much as women do (I added this one).

These are just a few of the things that were shared in our gathering. What would best practices you add?

My prayer and hope is that more and more spaces & places would be created where women and men were working freely alongside each other as equals, friends, brothers & sisters, and co-creators of wholeness and hope.

God, help us find our way together.


A few other notes:

  • Please read my friend and Denver pastor Kevin Colon’s reflection from the morning on Creating Gender Respectful Environments. I had already written this post when I read his, but really his summary is much better and so encouraging.
  • I’ll be at Sentralized in Dallas this Thursday and Friday sharing the content I love from Down We Go and would love to see you if you are there.