hoping to help bring change at church, part three

church building

I’ve mentioned a few times that I have two goals for my church, but I’ve never laid out exactly what they are in this series. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you probably already know what they are, but I’d figure I’d spell it out.

  • I want my church to openly and honestly declare that they support women.
  • I want my church to approach the reality of abuse with abuse victims in mind.

Those two goals encompass a huge set of changes– and I’m only positive about a few of them in the short-term. This is going to be an extended process if it happens at all, and I’m trying to keep myself realistic. I can’t expect sweeping changes overnight, and the only thing that will ensure is that I burn myself out much faster than anything can happen.

I am working on articulating– to myself, and to others– what I would like these changes to be, specifically. What I do know, right now, is that it’s not really a set of policies I want to put in place. What I want to see happen is a fundamental shift in how this church treats women and abuse victims.

One of the problems is that this church, just like other denominations that claim to “be supportive of women,” doesn’t distinguish between women can lead and women should lead. It might seem subtle, but it’s not.

The difference comes down to recognizing the absolute necessity of having women involved in leadership, and not just saying “oh, if you want to.” This church is in a strange middle place of having women in leadership– on the staff, on volunteer teams, as teachers– but not allowing women to serve on the elder board. With one half of their mouth they claim that they “support women” and say they think that women “can be leaders,” but with the other half they say that they do not support women and that they can’t be leaders.

My partner and I have gotten a multi-pronged reason for why the church was set up this way, and the reasons have varied according to who we spoke to. One of the staff mentioned that it was because our founding church didn’t have women on the elder board, so when they appointed our elder board (the elder board is self-appointing and not elected, because the church doesn’t have a member role), they just didn’t appoint women and it’s stayed that way. Another suggested it was because that the elder board is itself split on this issue, so they haven’t been pro-active. One of the pastors explained that they believe in the “biblical approach” (read: complementarian), but that they’ve “allowed” women to serve in other positions, just not the elder board.

However, the official reason I’ve gotten from the elder board and the senior pastor was that they believe this position is a “compromise” regarding a contentious issue. Obviously, I disagree that this is a “compromise” at all, but that’s what I am going to be arguing for when I meet the elder board. Initially, I’m going to be asking that the elder board change their position and allow women to serve, but my real goal is for the elder board to be representative of the church– so somewhere around half of them being women. This comes from my desire to see this church not just “allow” a woman to lead, but to seek, encourage, and train women to be leaders— something that men have gotten in evangelical churches for years. They do this to a limited extent, but I want to see a shift happen. This church, as I’ve explained, went out of their way to be racially diverse– they thought that was important enough to actively pursue. I want that same attitude reflected in how they treat women: important enough to pursue.

For the second goal, I want to make it clear that this church hasn’t been antagonistic toward abuse victims. I’ve seen many churches over the years be openly dismissive of abuse victim’s needs, and I’ve heard horror stories about how “church should not be safe”– from multiple people in different denominations, different areas of the country. It can get so much worse than that, too– churches and church leaderships can engage in massive cover-ups that can go on for thirty years or more.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure about this church’s stance toward abuse victims. All I know is that, as an abuse victim sitting in a Sunday morning service, I’ve been hurt, and I’ve heard things that I know perpetuate and legitimize abuse for abusers and their victims. However, I think all of that is done because of innocence, and what this church needs is education. It’s an extremely difficult thing to face, standing in front of a congregation, knowing that 20% of the marriages you’re seeing are abusive, that 25% of the women and 10% of the men have been raped, that 40% of the people were abused as children, that half of those were also sexually abused. It’s not a reality that I’d want to face every week as a pastor.

But it has to be faced.

It has to be because the abuse is ongoing, because pastors preach to abusers and their victims every week. They are speaking into the hearts of wounded people– people who probably don’t even know that they’re being abused.

And churches, pastors, leaders, they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how what they say can be manipulated by an abuser to give them even more power. They don’t understand how abusers work– how they are actually attracted to church because they know we’ll give them a multitude of second chances, and extend grace and forgiveness and compassion.

These are the things I want to see change.

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  • I had never thought of it that way for some reason. You’re right though: there’s a distinct difference between “yes women can lead,” because that implies that men are allowing women to lead, granting them a boon by doing so, and only if they “really want to.”

  • Keep bending the moral arc.

  • Just curious… have you heard of a ministry called Cross Current? It’s been done through our church several years. Now, first I have to say, it addresses people who “have struggled with same-sex attraction”- as if that were abnormal. That’s the caveat. It’s gentle, and it’s steeped in love, but it is there, and it will be offensive to those who consider being gay to be biologically normal. I won’t sugar-coat that, at all, in the name of honesty, even tho I’ll probably get yelled at by other commenters for bringing it up at all, considering that aspect.

    The positive side of the ministry is that it’s a paradigm shift in thinking about abuse for most fundy churches that get involved in the program. It includes leadership training for the leaders, including some basic, professionally-based Counseling 101, and the group is intended to perpetuate itself- by recruiting attendees to go through leadership training themselves and become leaders.

    As a survivor of childhood sex abuse, I found it liberating, refreshing, and a very safe place. We had a mixed group of women (the small group portion is divided into same-sex groups, to help victims feel safer in sharing), who had a variety of experiences, ranging from childhood abuse as I suffered to victims of violent attacks. Every one of us went out from the course changed, and achieved some degree of healing, along with the encouragement to seek professional and ongoing counseling and support as needed.

    Overall, I found it a positive experience. It might have possibilities for your church, especially if they consider themselves fundamentalists- it appeals to them as a “safe” program, being “Biblically based”, but it makes great strides for abuse victims in the training.

    Ideally, a program like this one would embrace a wider world view, and be more inclusive and loving toward gays, but as you said… small steps, and this might be one your church would be willing to take in the right direction.

    Just a thought.

    PS for the yellers- I’ve pretty much stopped following the comments on these posts. I love this blog, but don’t have time to get drawn into debates and discussions, now that college has started up again. So, if you say something directly “to me”, and I don’t respond, I’m not ignoring you. I just don’t always see the follow up comments.

  • I wish I could be there with you for this. Consider me in the peanut gallery cheering you on. <3

  • Rachel

    I hope they are listening to what you have to say. In our church one young woman is passionate about the role of women. She discussed her concerns with the pastor (during her and her husband’s pre-marriage counseling mostly I think). He read many of the resources she brought to his attention and he has changed the way he talks about the role of women in the church substantially. We already had women elders, and they sometimes preached, so it was mostly a change in how he viewed the scriptural teaching and the ideal situation. The practical situation hasn’t really changed.

    All this to say one voice (or a few) can make a difference if people are ready to listen. Like you said, though, sometimes it takes time and that can be discouraging. Thanks for sharing.

  • Another thing that comes with the ‘can’ versus ‘should’ approach is that when a church takes the passive ‘can’, it usually means that a few women hold roles with a bit of authority, but they don’t really get to lead, not in any true sense. A fully supportive church puts women in the same types of roles as men (with the same title they’d give it were a man holding the position) and lets/supports them as they actually do work that matters.

  • You’re doing amazing work. Keep it up.

    I’d love to hear/read more about how pastors in general approach the issue of abuse. I’m finally coming to grips with my own abuse after years of normalizing and denying it and could use some education myself.

  • It doesn’t matter at all if they want to hear. They need to hear, and the important thing is to keep talking so they have no choice but to hear. You’ve made a fine distinction here: that women not only should be considered able to lead, but that it should be absolutely mandatory to have women actually leading. Without walking the walk, the talk is meaningless and will only cause confusion and divisiveness. I’ve met a number of sexist zealots who insisted that they’d treat women with respect “if they deserved it”–and then made sure to set their standards so high that very few women indeed “deserved it.” (And obviously I was not among that exalted number.) I see churches doing the same thing–by insisting that women who “deserve it” can lead, but if you look at their actual leadership, you see very few women indeed up there on the dais.

    This applies to other places too, obvs–businesses for example. When I consider a business’ record on gender rights, I look at whether their board of directors or upper management have an even gender mix and minorities equal to the percentages found in society. If a company thinks women can lead, then why don’t they have equal numbers of female leaders? So yes: this is something we need to hold businesses and organizations alike accountable for.

  • I wish you the best in your quest. People doing what you are doing is how we make progress.

  • Thanks for linking to my article. I hope people find that one and some of the rest of my work in women’s ministry helpful as they visit.

    I’m not sure if you have have made the link directly or not, but I think that your second point is actually tied up in your first. What I mean is this: One of the reasons that we MUST (not just can) have women at all levels of leadership is that women will see things that men don’t…like abuse.

    Given that something like 30% of women have now experienced some form of sexual violation/abuse in our country, it is only natural that women in leadership are going to be sensitive to this important issue in their friend’s lives (or their own).

    I suppose that there are ways to fix our lack of attention to the needs of abuse victims without women at all levels of leadership. But having women in leadership will naturally resolve the other issue and are part of the argument for the need. So let’s fix the leadership problem and lots of other issues can be resolved as well.

    • They are very much connected- when I argue for one I’m also arguing for the other. They just tend to come out in different ways on policy levels.

      • I could imagine a cool series where each post highlights a church problem (such as this one) that would be naturally resolved by women’s leadership.

    • I wholly agree. That’s why women need to be involved in upper-level corporate management and in higher office as well. There is just no way to safeguard against a marginalized group’s predation at all–when one group is deemed inherently inferior, there is simply no real protection or recourse for that group when abuse occurs–and it will, because religious groups are made up of just humans, nothing magical about ’em, nothing inherently “better” in them than in any other group’s members. We have to stop seeing “church group” or “Christian group” and thinking that predation and abuse just can’t possibly happen there. A feminist whose blog I follow, Shakespeare’s Sister over at Shakesville, once wrote, “When one’s god is male, one’s males become gods.” It’s important that women be involved at all levels of all the spheres of life not only so they can spot abuse, but so potentially predatory men know that they don’t have total control over the women in their care and won’t be given carte blanche to just run roughshod over any marginalized groups.

      Out of all the blog entries you could have done, I’m glad it was the one about female leadership and empowerment that got the attention. Congrats to you and best wishes–

  • Wow! Go you! I wish I was that brave, I’m at the looking for a new egalitarian church phase. I’m very interested in hearing how the change process goes and would like some tips on dealing with gender issues in the church.

  • Your goals are more than worthwhile and I wish you every success in achieving them. However, I do have a question: Since the powers that be in your church are probably implementing their policies because they sincerely believe that they are doing God’s will. How do you plan to persuade them that you have a somewhat different take on what God wants and that your point of view should have parity with theirs? When you try to convince them that the church should extend more wholehearted support to women and abuse victims, won’t they just say that their definition of support is sanctioned by God and you just need to get over your rebellious inclinations and resolve to be more obedient?

    • Peggy, one of the gifts of Protestant Christianity (it has plenty of vices too) is that the path to reform is clear. You show people that your position is more biblical. If the Bible is true AND your position is true, then it should never be a problem showing that your reform is a needed one.

      • The interesting thing about this church is that making a case for a “biblical” position won’t work. In the conversations that I’ve had so far, it seems like many of the elders think that women should be able to serve on the board– they just don’t allow it because it’s a “divisive issue” with “many points of view,” and the stance of this church (which I like, most of the time) is not to take a stance on anything that isn’t necessary for salvation, or “the essentials.”

        • This is probably a restorationist “independent” Christian church?

          Obviously, when something involves policy issues you always take a stance. They have in fact taken a stance that women aren’t leaders, whether they like to admit it or not.

          That is a rough environment to initiate change. Prayers for you and the congregation.

          • It’s non-denominational. I’m not familiar with “restorationist.”

            That they have, in fact, taken a stance is a big part of what I’ll be arguing.

      • Hmmm . . . . Jeremiah, it seems to me that your explanation rests on the assumption that the church elders and I would agree on the truth that we think is expressed in the Bible concerning a given issue. But if there were agreement on the truth expressed in the Bible’s words, there wouldn’t be any necessity for reform, since both sides would see the issue from the same perspective. According to my reading of the Bible, I’m convinced that my position deserves consideration. And according to the elders’ reading, they see no need for change; they are doing what God wants.

        I read Samantha’s reply below and it seems that the elders of her church are operating more from a sense of tradition or perhaps what they believe will be acceptable to their congregation. Or maybe they are afraid of offending higher-ups in the church organization and then being censured. It is also possible that the elders do retain allegiance to the “women shall be quiet in church” literal biblical interpretation and are trying to avoid seeming narrow-minded and intransigent. The latter circumstance would imply that they are not terribly secure about the correctness of their beliefs and don’t want to risk an open debate.

        Anyway, these are a few of my thoughts. Hope i made at least some sense. My prayers are with Samantha as she proceeds with her quest. I hope she doesn’t run into a wall constructed from the stone of patriarchal certitude.

  • I hope they do really listen to you. I’ve found that Elders can be a stodgy bunch that don’t exactly embrace change gracefully, but of course that’s only been my own experience. Fingers crossed for you!

  • With you on your journey! On a similar quest myself. In particular I’m keen to see the language in church change – no more gender based ‘jokes’ or stereotyping – and the intentional identification of women with gifts of speaking and leadership. I blog about my own journey on this at

  • I don’t see how we can get around the fact that the Bible was written by men who had a patriarchal world view. This world view comes through loud and clear to me. I’ve argued for the complementarian approach, but there are passages in the NT I just couldn’t get around that seem to me to be hierarchical. I don’t see how you can build a biblical argument that women should be elders. I’d love to read a post on how you would build such a case. For me, I’ve had to conclude that the biblical position on women is evidence that mere humans had a whole lot more to do with writing the Bible than evangelicals have previously admitted, i.e., the doctrine of inspiration doesn’t mean that the writing is without human bias. I think it’s nuts to think women can’t be/shouldn’t be elders when we have women serving as university presidents, secretaries of state, and prime ministers. But I think the “nuts” is in the text.

    • I think it’s possible to advocate for the egalitarian position from the New Testament while being very aware that the NT was written by mostly men (possible Hebrews was a husband-wife team), and men who were a part of a sexist, hierarchical system.

      Being aware that the NT was written with sexism embedded into it actually makes the times when the hierarchy was overturned just that much more incredible. Paul was unbelievably sexist– and he praised dozens of women, recognized some of them as having been his “leader,” and pointed to others who were prophets, apostles, deacons, and ministers. That’s… pretty fantastic, considering. It’s the “considering” part that we have to never forget.

  • Whoops – I just included a link to my church on your blog, and then I just read your comments rules, so if you don’t publish my comment, that’s fine. Just hope you enjoyed reading it 8-D

  • You use the word ignorance referring to their attitude towards victims and education as a solution. Just a suggestion, maybe they lack empathy. Education is head knowledge, what they need is heart knowledge. This is much harder than throwing statistics, and even case studies. What they need is testimony sharing their pain and faces of the victims.