I really care about women’s ministry. Between Scriptural passages like Titus 2, and scientific studies showing the health benefits of female friendship, it is clear to me that God created women to be in fellowship with one another. Women’s ministry is one great way to serve our Father’s good design.
Although I have written a lot about women’s ministry on this blog and elsewhere, I have decided to bring it up again because of a blog post I read several weeks ago. It was written by a female author and speaker that I respect a lot. Unfortunately, the content of her post was disappointing. In it she criticized the majority of women’s ministries and women’s conferences since, by her account, they usually consist of fluff and guilt. Due to the dearth of good content, she dislikes attending women’s conferences. She therefore promised that her speaking events would offer a different message, one that diverges from the typical fare.
Again, I really respect this author, but there is something troubling to me about her critique of women’s ministry, and others like it. In particular, I see two problems:
1. The criticism is too broad to be helpful. I am the first to admit that I have made broad generalization about the state of women’s ministry today. However, I have come to realize that generalizations of this sort are about as helpful as broad brush critiques of “the church.”
Wide spanning condemnations of “the church” end up stereotyping the entire Body of Christ based on isolated, personal experiences, or based on one sole part of the Body. Likewise, “women’s ministry” is often cast as a monolithic whole and dismissed as such. However, women’s ministries are like local churches in that they are not a uniform phenomenon. Each women’s ministry is different from the next, so there is no rule for content and quality. What’s more, women’s ministry has been evolving across the country. Many churches are seeking to challenge the women in their church with holistic discipleship programs and solid teaching. These ministries hardly deserve to be included in the broad critiques aimed at women’s ministry. Neither should Christian speakers like Beth Moore, Kay Arthur, Margaret Feinberg, Jennie Allen, or Mary Kassion–just to name a few–be accused of peddling fluff and shame.
And yet that is the reputation that women’s ministry and women’s conferences have managed to maintain. Despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The stereotype has repercussions, and I have experienced that myself. As much as my team members and I plan Bible-centered events designed to foster spiritual growth, we struggle to escape the stereotype. No matter what we do, many women in my church will never darken the door of a women’s ministry event.
Critics may hope to improve the state of women’s ministry with their judgments, but the stereotype has become so entrenched that it is now unproductive.
2. The criticism is vaguely anti-woman. I know this second point sounds extreme, but hear me out. The more I hear women decry the efforts of other women in the church, or condemn the state of women’s ministry, the more I am reminded of myself as a little girl. In my younger years I thought of myself as a “tomboy,” not like those other “prissy girls” who like to dress up and play dolls. I liked to get out in the woods and play in the mud. I climbed trees and ran hard.
The concept of a tomboy is a little funny because SO MANY girls like to play sports and get dirty. Those activities are not uniquely boyish. That said, my refusal to be like “those other girls” was more a rejection of girls in general. In my mind, being a typical girl was somehow a negative, so I sought to distance myself from my own gender.
A cousin of this mindset can be found among women who “get along better with men than women.” While I won’t try to deny that this is true of some women, I also find it strange. Not all women are the same, nor are all men. If you don’t like gossip, or cattiness, or manicures, or shopping or any other host of “girly” things, then find other female friends. A lot of women don’t like those things.
Either way, I can’t help but hear a belittling of womanhood in this mindset. Equating women with gossip, cattiness, or superficiality is indeed an insult to our gender.
To me, the broad condemnations of women’s ministry–particularly, rejections of the “girly” activities they might promote–sound much like the mentalities above. Christmas teas and shows of emotion may not be your thing, but is derision of these activities really necessary? Is it really that terrible that the women’s ministry flyer included the color pink? Why can’t I shake the feeling that these critiques are a thinly veiled echo of my childhood mantra: “I’m not like those other girls.” Subtext: Women are generally less theological, less challenging, and less deep; I, on the other hand, am not like them.”
Perhaps I’m reading too much into these critiques. But I do know one thing for sure: these broad criticisms need to stop. Last year I wrote a post for Her.meneutics titled “Why It’s Your Job to Break the Women’s Ministry Stereotype.” Today, I am issuing a much stronger message: Stop bashing women’s ministry. I don’t doubt that some of you have had bad experiences. There are a lot of you out there who have. But not all women’s ministries are the same, and God is doing some amazing things through the women in His church. Over-generalizations about women’s ministry that fail to reflect this nuanced truth are doing little more than bashing an entire arm of the church. So please, stop perpetuating sloppy stereotypes that fail to honor your sisters and God’s work through them. It’s just not right.
Great post Sharon!! I’ve recently had some conversations with more “progressive” Baptists who had merged their Christian ed and ministries in the past and were now trying to resuscitate girls’ ministries because they found there was something really special in having girls together. I appreciate your call to women’s ministry very much.
And historically speaking, when women’s ministries were dropped in the 20th century on the basis of “equality” or “efficient unity”, women’s leadership and influence actually decreased. Although also at play is a change in understanding men and women–we no longer consider men and women to be essentially different as they did in the 19th century. There is also a shift I think between more service oriented women’s ministries, such as women’s mission societies, to more Christian education and discipleship oriented women’s ministries, such as Bible studies, prayer groups and conferences. How do we encourage women’s ministry while acknowledging women and men also have shared qualities, concerns and desires? I think you begin to argue in this new way in your post too by not essentializing women’s qualities, which is also great. But I would also like you to comment on this shift from mission/social service to bible study and spiritual growth as the basis of women’s ministry.
**Edit: My post above should say the “early 20th century”–as in 1900 to 1930s. Of course women have made great strides in leadership across the 20th century.
As a former women’s ministry coordinator and one who has enjoyed the more “feminine” ministry events, I am grateful for your plea. The women’s ministry bashing I’ve witnessed has always smacked of an attitude of superiority – and that hurts. Yes, there is a need for women’s ministry to be broadly focused and for events to be planned that don’t come across as stereotypically female. But I think we need to be careful not to swing the other direction and ignore those who do appreciate the “frillier” stuff. After all, as I think you’re suggesting, there’s nothing inherently wrong in “girly” activities or with actually enjoying them. Where the criticisms may be founded is where women’s ministry has skewed only toward the girly. But you’re right, the criticism needs to be specific to be helpful, not hurtful. Bashing just shuts down the process and silences those of us who would have loved to be part of the solution if we hadn’t been made to feel like the problem.
I was getting ready for work this morning, and I found myself thinking about how much your writing has blessed my life. This post is no exception. Thank you for your boldness and for sharing your heart with us, especially about big but oft overlooked issues.
In general, I find that I’m constantly hearing about or witnessing woman-on-woman bashing. It’s a sad fact that we women often classify ourselves into camps and refuse to cross into “enemy” territory; tomboys vs “girlie girls”, “crunchy granola” moms vs working moms. This spills over into how we face women’s ministry and may explain why we see a “dearth of good content” — if the content addresses a group that you don’t identify with, you may feel like it’s thin. But it could be helping your sister beside you, and it could help you minister to a sister in the future.
For example, I recently joined a women’s small group studying a text on being a single Christian woman. I am recently married, and warily joined the group recognizing that the content may not apply to me. Less than a month after the group began, I was able to share lessons I learned at that group to a single coworker who was struggling. Without opening my heart to listen to the content I thought “wasn’t for me”, I may not have been able to do that!
In the end, we are all women and we are all Christians. We are taught to celebrate our differences as members of one Church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26; why do we preach these verses and then forget to apply them between women?
Yes, BUT 🙂
Listen, what you are talking about is why I rarely bother to criticize women’s ministry. If people are benefiting from pink and tea parties, and Beth Moore or Carolyn Mahaney or whoever, then good for them. I’m not better than those who benefit at all. But is it really SEXIST if I don’t?
I more or less stopped going to women’s ministry events at my former church because I nearly always left them feeling terribly discouraged and like I couldn’t measure up to the speaker’s ideas about womanhood. I wanted relationships with other women, I wanted to be accepted by them, but I wasn’t growing or being challenged in a good way. So I dropped out, for the most part quietly.
I fit some female stereotypes. I don’t fit others. It’s not all about me and I get that women’s ministries are generally aimed at doing what they can to reach what leaders think is the “average” and that will probably leave some people out.
I currently meet informally with a group of 4 or 5 gal friends. I get a lot more out of that than ANY women’s event I’ve ever been to. If it’s not theological in a study way, it’s at least genuinely relational and we get into some cool applied theology discussions sometimes. I learn from gals who are more girly than me and those who are just as quirkly different from stereotypes. I, a married woman in my early 30s with no children, learn from an experienced mom, a new mom, and an older single.
Would I try a women’s group event at my new church. Yes, I probably will. But I’m not going to go for years just because its expected. If I’m not getting anything and don’t think I can make a difference, I’ll go make a difference somewhere else. Because I know I can do that now.
Rejecting “women’s ministry events” is NOT rejecting women. Nor is it a condemnation of those who DO benefit from those events. I refuse to do theology lite anymore because that’s what some church leaders want to feed women or because that’s what some women in some circles limit themselves to. There are plenty of women – plenty of people – who want more and different. God can meet us where we are – with or without an event or women’s ministry director – with or without flowers or crafts or talks about making sure husband’s get enough sex and that you make your home welcoming with a perfect southern living decorating style and follow the current parenting formula to get your children to look you in the eye and obey you promptly.
There’s a dying world out there. There are orphans. There are women enslaved in my region. There are victims of domestic violence in our churches. There are teens cutting. There are pregnant girls considering abortion. No more pretending. I just won’t.
Fantastic post! And convicting. I’m one of those who, at times, has claimed to get along better with men than women. But you’re right… it’s more of needing to seek a little harder to find the women who are kindred spirits.
Wonderful thoughts from ALL of you! Thanks for weighing in! I’m glad it struck a nerve, or at least created some much needed conversation!
Very much needed post. You have touched on the passion of my life-to eliminate any judgment on other Christian women-period! I would like to understand why and how we teach girls to find their self worth ONLY in setting themselves apart from other girls or setting the other girls apart from them. As young girls it is the cheerleaders against the tomboys, the smart girls against the pretty girls. Once I heard a father proudly stay “my daugher plays soccor like a boy” a if that was better! I wanted to scream at him- SHE IS NOT A BOY!!! Once older, it is the working women versus the stay at home moms, the no epidural birth versus epidural, the breast feeding versus not, the home school versus public versus private, and on and on. I was incredibly blessed by a circle of older woman in church and in our family who truly did not practice that Truth be told, I am still shocked when I see it happen. There is really no such thing as “women” ministries-there are only ministries in Jesus’s name. I for one will not mock anyone else’s devotion to Jesus even if it not what rocks by boat. Let’s take on the leadership of blessing, annointing, and working together.
great thoughts! Such a hard topic to tackle
Good points, Sharon. As others have said, afternoon teas and lacey tablecloths may be what makes people comfortable (including some men), while it is a big turn off to others (including some women). The point is to do what we can to make sure that the focus of any event – whether a women’s ministry, men’s ministry, or mixed group – is on God and not on our selves either individually or collectively.
One way my wife has engaged in women’s ministry for years now is to organize a summer Bible study, complete with childcare, so that young moms have a place where they can study God’s word together without feeling like the kids out of school are preventing them from doing so. Older women take part too, so there is a nice inter-generational aspect to it all. It’s not fancy (no lacey tablecloths or fine tea sets), but it is a ministry by and for women who want to grow in God. I think that means it counts as women’s ministry, doesn’t it?