Hi there, pastor. I know you. I grew up as a Baptist pastor's kid and observed you from all angles. I watched how you wielded your power, how you interacted with women of all ages, and how your theology shaped your practice in the inclusion or exclusion of females in your circles of influence. I changed denominations a few times, but I'm still listening to you preach each Sunday. I've worked for large evangelical organizations in which your voice was heard, loud and clear. I have even served as an interim pastor myself and now serve as a part-time chaplain. And in the middle of all that wrestling with the internal realities of a Church that is often not affirming of women using their full giftedness, I have been tempted to give up on finding a place at the Table, of working with you side-by-side.
Gratefully, I have seen instead that you have the potential to be our most powerful ally.
It was a male pastor mentor that encouraged me most to use my giftedness in whatever ways I could, even providing a platform for me to do so. And if you are reading this letter you likely feel that same yearning to explore how God might want to raise your sisters up as allies in building this big, beautiful kingdom. And for this, I pause to thank God.
You see, a movement is afoot, shifting under our feet, made possible in part by the Internet in all its equalizing power. And this fiery rumbling is setting women free, one by one, story by story. Men and women in Darfur and Kenya and Mexico and South Korea and North America are tasting of the gender reconciliation made possible by the gospel. And when it happens, we often see power unleashed for the kingdom that astounds even the most stalwart soul.
As I've written before, People are beginning to stop seeing women as dangerous, men as wild, and each other as the enemy.
I'll skip the theological debates, thank you, and just say that if you're interested in pursuing the above, these are some humble recommendations on where one might start in a church setting:
Father, I don't know all the answers on how to raise women up in our church through the power of the gospel. But I am opening my heart to the study of your whole word, to exploring the gender reconciliation made possible through Christ, and I won't give up until I have found a resting place where both male and female can fully image their good God by serving as allies. I humbly ask you to show me what this means in my current context, and to give me the wisdom and discernment to know when to wait, when to move, and how to engage your people in this mission. All for your glory. Amen.
- Revisit Church history.
Recognize some bad theology trickled down from some Church Fathers (including Tertullian the Trinity Guy and Augustine) in this area—and the subsequent ways women broke through anyway to serve as volunteers, pastors and missionaries. Why they were kicked out of their pulpits in the early 20th century with the rise of fundamentalism, and why many are returning again. (See No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry around the Turn of the Century, available on half.com)
- Expose yourself to books that will challenge your thinking and help you gain a broad Scriptural view of where you stand on this unavoidable issue.
Half the Church: Recapturing God's Global Vision for Women by Carolyn Custis James - Carolyn has written several great books, and she mercifully started the theological dig that has led so many of us to follow in her footsteps. She is a winsome voice for restoring God's daughters around the world.
How I Changed My Mind on Women in Ministry: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals - A book of people like you who have struggled and been led to move toward gender reconciliation in the kingdom. Bill & Lynne Hybels, Nancy and John Ortberg, etc.
Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender - John Stackhouse hits a home run in this book from Baker Academic. How do we move forward, knowing equality will not be fully realized until Jesus returns? He moves beyond the complementarian/egalitarian divide and somehow gave me hope again.
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Review the Bible's View of Women by Sarah Bessey - A new book from a millennial who loves the church, champions the gospel, and is helping us to move beyond our debates through her peacemaking.
Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God by Suzanne Burden, Carla Sunberg and Jamie Wright (releasing March 1, 2014) - Why, yes, we have been writing a book these last four years, and we are eager to make a theological case for Christian women from all walks of life to take their place alongside their brothers, all for the Kingdom's sake. Click the image here to support this coauthor. She thanks you! (Note: this is an amazon affiliate link.)
- Provide opportunities for women in a team-based setting.
Allow me to get personal. Just putting a woman in the pulpit or just "allowing" her to do this or that new thing will not move your church forward in the gender reconciliation the gospel makes possible. Those with power must champion and work with those without power. You have to cast the vision, provide opportunities for women and back them up fully no matter what some of your congregants think. Remember also that the Creation story paints a beautiful vision for men and women as colaborers, a vision redeemed as Scot McKnight points out in his book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. How will you lead your congregation beyond fear to encourage healthy male/female teams that offer up a beautiful example of the reconciliation the gospel makes possible?
- Reevaluate regularly to make sure you are providing opportunities in practice, not in theory.
Author Carolyn Custis James drives this point home in her post "So What Happens After You Sit at the Table?":
"One of the most common mistakes is when men carry on with business as usual after adding a woman to the team. They talk over her in meetings (as they often do with each other). Her ideas are sometimes overlooked and only gain merit if and when a man repeats them as his own. The men have private sometimes impromptu meetings as before, network on the golf course, and make decisions that impact but exclude her. Sometimes in meetings she has trouble fighting back the tears, which we're told is an absolute "no-no", although afterwards it's not unheard of for one of the men at the table to confide to his teary colleague that he knows exactly how she feels. She exists outside their all-male network and feels less valued, marginalized, and increasingly frustrated.
Men think she’s just impossible to please.
By adding a woman, the whole team has a marvelous opportunity to discover a whole new way of working that yields better decisions and strengthens the team, if they are willing to make the effort, learn to value, listen, and learn from one another, and live out the gospel around that table. That's what this change requires. That table presents the context in which the men discover they actually need her to be there with her ideas, honest feedback, and initiatives—that offering a seat to her was as much for them as it was for her."
And that is my prayer for you, pastor: that offering a place for women in your church's mission will bless you back a hundredfold. May it be so.
Did this post prompt any ideas or discoveries? What impact might setting women free have on your congregation and the spread of the gospel in your community?