Popular speaker and author Jen Hatmaker’s recent interview with Jonathan Merritt affirming same-sex relationships led Lifeway to stop carrying her books. The uproar surrounding both this interview and Lifeway’s decision kicked off a helpful conversation in the blogosphere about, among other things, the way in which conference events have served to outsource women’s ministry from the local church.
Jesus Creed-reading women, I’d love to hear from you. Have your congregational leaders recognized and affirmed your gifts – or simply thanked you for your help with the church to-do list?
Women’s ministries in many local churches often tilt toward social events with an inspirational tagline: Christmas teas, Mother’s Day brunches, spa-themed retreats. There well may be a women’s Bible study or two serving as a backbone for these ministries, but often, these studies serve up pre-packaged materials from recognized brand-name speakers like Beth Moore, Lysa Terkurst, or Nancy Leigh DeMoss. It is telling that the women I’ve met who are leading parachurch, community-based study groups like Bible Study Fellowship or Community Bible Study migrate to these groups because they’ve found there isn’t a ready place for them to teach, lead, or study in greater depth in their local churches.
Aimee Byrd tackled the topic in this thoughtful post. And Sharon Hodde Miller offered some practical suggestions about how local church leaders might reclaim some of what they’ve ceded to conferences, video-led pre-packaged Bible studies, and parachurch ministries.
Miller’s first point toward strengthening ministry to and by women in the local church seems obvious: Leaders should affirm the gifts of women. Yet in most of the congregations I’ve attended over the last four decades, I’ve learned most leaders tended to affirm women who served in nursery, ran VBS, or taught third-graders, whether these women were actually gifted to do so or not. My leaders rarely noticed the gifts God gave me to offer to my brothers and sisters in Christ, but they did praise my willingness to get in the trenches and do the nitty-gritty of wiping up spills in the nursery or cutting out 100 lion silhouettes for a craft at our church’s VBS. While service is both a spiritual gift and a command each of us has been given by our Savior to offer ourselves sacrificially to one another, it has been extremely rare in my experience to have a leader look past the church programming to-do list and actually notice what God might be doing in my life.
As a younger believer, I got pretty good at serving. Maybe I hoped somehow that my service might make a place for me to offer the communication/teaching gifts I believed God had given me. At the time, I believed service was the only thing the church seemed to want from me, so I cut out lion silhouettes without complaint. Perhaps, I thought, I may have the spiritual gift of crafts.
One day during this period, a retired Methodist minister attending the same non-denominational congregation as my family and I did sought me out after services to offer me an unexpected word of encouragement. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. “I see in you a student’s heart and a teacher’s gifting. If you were one of my congregants, I would have found a way to send you to seminary.”
I didn’t really believe I could exercise any other gift in my local church beyond nursery duty and craft projects. Teach? Lead? Those things weren’t on my radar screen at the time, and they certainly weren’t on the radar screen of my own church leaders. When I did find my way into a seminary classroom more than a decade later, this Methodist minister was one of the first people I contacted to thank him for seeing how God was at work in my life. His words to me back then have shaped the way I hope I’ve mentored others here and now: “I’ve been watching you. I see how God has been at work in you, and what you have to offer others.”
Certainly some leaders have difficulty affirming the gifts of the women (and men!) co-laboring with them in ministry because of their own insecurity or immaturity. A few others may find their strict, unhealthy application of complementarian theology tells them they shouldn’t do much to encourage the women in their congregations who may be demonstrating leadership or teaching gifts. But in most cases, it seems that church leaders find themselves so busy with the tasks and problems of ministry that there isn’t always space for to cultivate and celebrate the gifts God has placed in their midst. But this neglect has left many women with leadership and teaching gifts searching outside of their local congregations for spaces in which these gifts can be exercised.