In 2016, Pew Research released findings that shook people’s assumptions about religious life in America. Women, traditionally considered the more spiritual sex, were leaving the Church faster than men. A requisite month or so of uproar followed. Experts dissected the research, the blogosphere exploded and various theological traditions were blamed for the exodus.
A few provocateurs claimed it was a necessary correction, blaming “the feminization of the church” for the demise of Western Christianity. Then a book was released on the subject: Jim Henderson’s The Resignation of Eve: What if Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone?
Henderson’s zinger of a title summed up the problem. The church has always relied heavily on the contributions of women, from the female disciples who traveled with Jesus and funded His ministry out of their own means to the nameless grandmother who showed up early to brew the coffee you swigged down before church last week. But women are growing increasingly disenchanted with the Church, and even when they do show up, they’re sure not going to brew your coffee. Female volunteerism plunged 31 percent over the course of 20 years.
“Well, of course,” you may be thinking. “Women have careers now. They don’t have time for all that stuff.” And even though women did, in fact, have careers back in the early nineties, there is some truth to that. Today’s women are too busy to throw themselves into unpaid church work the way their grandmothers did, even if they wanted to. Which, it seems, they don’t.
Henderson names this movement in The Resignation of Eve as an “epidemic of quiet, even sad resignation among dedicated Christian women who are feeling overworked and undervalued in the church.”
It’s not so much that women feel the Church doesn’t value the contributions they do make; it’s that they don’t see opportunities or don’t feel the freedom to bring their whole selves to the table.
Younger women especially have a hard time reconciling the opportunities the secular world affords them with the limitations they face in the Church. Uncertain about whether the Church would consider their gifts, education and abilities an acceptable offering from a female, and not wanting to create controversy, many women consciously or subconsciously side-step the issue. They opt to minimize their church involvement and pour the best of their energies into their careers. Besides, what’s a marketing consultant supposed to do on the decorating committee, anyway?
And then there’s that pesky detail about needing to earn a living. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for ministry-minded homemakers to volunteer 10-plus hours a week at the church down the street. The pastor’s wife was practically on staff, expected to provide leadership and pastoral care to the women of the church. Church provided an outlet for women to use their gifts, but as the secular world held out opportunities that eclipsed the church’s stained-glass ceiling, volunteer work became less of a priority. Churches compensated by hiring staff—specifically, male staff. The gulf between professional and lay ministry widened, and women were left with fewer female leaders to look to as role models, or go to for counsel and encouragement. The pastor’s wife had her own career to manage, and the respected Sunday School teacher’s daughter was too busy teaching ethics at the local college to take up her mother’s mantle.
It isn’t all gloom and doom, of course. These trends have resulted in many positive changes as well, but the fact that a growing number of committed Christian women are fading quietly into the pews, then out the back door, should concern us.
The body of Christ requires a balance of male and female leadership to remain whole and healthy. To allow one half of the body to atrophy while the other carries the weight (whether it’s men or women doing the heavy lifting) results in a lopsided image of the Church that is frightful to behold.
So, what can the Church do to let women know they are welcomed and needed just as they are, and to empower female leaders for ministry?
First of all, we can respect women’s education, experience and career obligations, instead of expecting them to fill traditionally female roles. If the CEO of the local bank loves making cupcakes for the Women’s Banquet, fine, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to ask her to chair the finance board. And don’t grumble about the oncologist not taking her turn in the nursery rotation. Humility is great, and every church needs people to make the coffee, dust the pews and staff the nursery, but if you’re constantly tapping women for kitchen work while passing them over for roles that might be a better fit, don’t be surprised if they feel undervalued.
Second, male leaders can intentionally seek out female input. Women have an incredible wealth of wisdom, insight and parallel perspectives to offer the Church and the world—as men do. Imagine what the Church could look like if it paired the contributions of both together. And pastors, many of the women in your congregation are just waiting to be asked. Be intentional about including women among your advisors, and prodding for female attendees’ perspectives.
Last but not least, churches can hire women. About half of the students in seminary nowadays are women, which makes a powerful statement about women’s desire to bring their whole heart, mind and strength to Christ’s service in the Church. Even churches that are big on male leadership should be able to see the benefit of having called, gifted and theologically educated women on staff to minister to other women. There are some things women simply don’t want to talk about with a male pastor, and that a man will not be able to speak to like a woman can.
It is not good for man to be alone, and that holds just as true in the church board room as it does in the family. Let’s work on building a church that isn’t just hushing one side to hear the other, but where both men and women are encouraged to bring their whole selves to the table, using every gift God has given them for the sake of the Kingdom to the glory of God.
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