'90s Women Talk About Their Place in the Church
by Diane Benge with many thanks to all the women who contributed
Why all the fuss about women in the Church?
It seems that women have vastly different experiences depending on their gifting. If their call is to prayer or children's work they are generally supported and encouraged. If it is in the area of serving they are definitely supported!
What do I do with these gifts?
But what happens when a woman is gifted in the area of teaching adults rather than Sunday School children? What if she has leadership qualities which would see her appointed an elder tomorrow if she were male?
Rae is in her fifties and attends a Gospel Chapel. A few years ago her experience in the Church was of isolation, self-doubt, loneliness and frustration, but things have changed.
"The church I am in now has developed policies which encourage the contribution of gifts from women, as well as men. This has made a huge difference to me. When I am invited to share my insights on Scripture or something from my life in the Body of Christ, I feel that I belong. I feel welcome and hospitably treated.
"Of course, I was always able to contribute to the life of my church, but in limited ways, because the policy was to exclude women from leadership. I got little satisfaction from pouring tea or teaching Sunday school (though I did both those things), because my area of gifting was not being used.
"Now, I take my turn along with other women and men in leadership of the service, chairing or preaching. There are very few activities I could not be part of if I was gifted in that way. The atmosphere is inclusive. And so now I am a fully functioning member of the Body. I am part of the team, giving and receiving. I am very grateful for the growth in understanding on the part of church leaders, who had the courage to make changes in church policies."
Magda is also in her fifties. "All my life," she says, "I have valued the things of God very highly, and wanted to serve him in the church, but I have never felt appreciated or that I have been able to contribute fully by using my gifts. I would really like to use my talents, but there seem to be so many road blocks.
"I have strong administrative and organisational abilities, but have been told that it would have been better if my husband had them! I am a thinking woman who has been told that 'women are not permitted to teach'. I have been called a 'witch' because I rationalised with a leader about the gossip in his home group.
"When I became a Pentecostal I wanted to do what was right, and so for a while I forfeited my cognitive ability, but attending the Bible College of New Zealand has been my saving grace. There I have discovered that my thoughts are not totally wrong, and that God is bigger than the church!"
Women who hold positions of responsibility in the community, particularly in the paid work force, are sometimes considered a threat to men in the church, perhaps because they have learned to be strong.
Chris is a worship leader in a large city church. When she was asked to lead worship at a student conference she was amazed how many female students came up and said how encouraged they were to see a woman in that role. "At my church," she says, "we are a long way down the track. People are evaluated according to their gifts rather than their sex."
Nevertheless, she has had certain men who have left the service when she was leading worship, or who wouldn't sing in a choir she was leading, saying "I won't come under a woman's leadership".
"This is hurtful, and I've had to work it through, but God said to me 'whose ministry is it anyway?' and I had to learn not to let it bother me. There is no point in getting militant, that only makes thing worse. Eventually nearly all the men came back of their own accord."
Chris says that her problem is not that she's a woman, it is that she is a strong woman. "I am assertive and directive when I lead and the more I mature, the stronger and more passionate I get. Only one thing matters to me, and that is to be obedient to God; to do that I sometimes have to bypass what other people think. I won't be bound by fear. I believe in living life with a passion. One problem with the church is that often the women are stronger than the men."
Chris works as a secondary school teacher. "It's interesting, when I'm at work there are strong women all around me - they are astute, they speak their minds, and they have strong good minds, but you don't see that in the Church. The Church prefers its women to be passive, compliant and wishy washy."
Susan is also a worship leader. "Some months ago I felt God
gave me some insight regarding the worship in our church. It was getting rather narrow and there were aspects which were being ignored completely. We seldom read from the Bible and we had stopped praying for missionaries. Confession had no place at all.
"As a worship leader I was concerned about these things. I spoke to an elder about what to do. He told me to write down my concerns, hand a copy to each elder and then attend an elders' meeting to discuss it with them.
"He also told me that I should bring my husband to the elders' meeting, as they would be more likely to 'hear' me if he was there. I thanked him, but said that these things were my 'burden' and not my husband's. I also said that if I could stand before Jesus on my own, surely I could do the same with the elders!
"Apparently not. My meeting with the elders was at best uncomfortable, and at worst hugely upsetting. One elder in particular was rude, abrupt and dismissive. 'What are you talking about?' he said, 'there is no problem.' The others sat passively.
"My only consolation was that over the next few weeks I saw each of the suggestions I had made implemented, but none of the elders ever said a word to me about the meeting. Ours is a small church and these are men I know well. Why did they treat me like that?"
Some not as equal as others
"I suppose what I feel about my status in the Church," says Catherine, who is 31 and works as a policy adviser in the public sector, "is that I am regarded in many ways as a second class citizen! It seems that women are not quite equal. Unfortunately, there is nothing overt and tangible that you can rail or fight against, it is simply the subtle nuances that add up to an overall impression.
"Actually, some of them are not so subtle. At the church I used to attend it was not until five years ago that women were allowed to serve communion, and then it was only married women. And that was a non-traditional church."
"I've attended this church since 1981," says Joanna, "and I still feel as if I don't belong. Sometimes it makes me very cross."
Janice is in her thirties. "It is not so much that I have been barred from doing something because I am a woman," she says, "but rather I have sometimes been frowned upon: 'What does this "girl" think she is doing? She should be home raising a family rather than climbing the corporate ladder and preventing men from having the opportunities she takes' - that sort of thing. Actually I hate being referred to as a girl! I am a woman, and if I were a girl then I would be doing neither corporate ladder climbing or family raising - I'd be at school."
Penny teaches in a multi-cultural school. She is 29 and has only recently become a Christian. It strikes her as particularly unusual that no women take leadership roles in the Baptist church she attends. "Even though the house groups are led by couples, only the man's name ever appears on the roster."
On the roster
Joanna is 46 and has never married. "As far as I can see," she says, " my place in church is on the roster! And once I'm on a roster it is assumed that I am on that roster for good, and it is very difficult to get off."
Helen, in her thirties and single, has had similar experiences. "I began attending a Presbyterian church and straight away I was put on the 'making the tea' roster - I hate the presupposition that women do kitchen stuff and men do money. I was also asked to teach Sunday School (I don't like children); to help with Youth Group (I can't relate to teenagers); and to go on the flower arranging roster (I can't arrange a single rose, let alone two or three huge bunches!). Because I am a woman I was supposed to be nuts about kids of all ages, into kitchen/catering stuff with a passion, and really good at flower arranging.
"I did not stay long at that church. The pressure for me to be involved on their terms, no matter what my personal needs were, drove me away. I have not been regularly to a church for some time, because I'm not prepared to put up with that sort of treatment."
"Why it is that the women are asked to join flower rosters?" asks Janice. "Why are the lawn mowing rosters left for the men? Personally I know that I am better at lawn mowing than flower arranging. Will the Church get into the '90s before it's too late?"
It is the experience of many that women fit in fine in the Church, so long as they are married with children whom they stay home to look after. They are then 'in their proper place' (and are able to attend the Women's Bible Study held at 10am on Tuesdays). But there are a number of Christian women who do not fit into this slot.
"I am a morning person," says Catherine. "I like to get up at 4am, so I was scanning the church bulletin for a morning prayer group. There was only a men's morning prayer group at 7am once a fortnight. I noticed that all the women's meetings were held on a weekday morning, usually from 10 to noon. I looked at all the women in the church, and thought about how many held down full time jobs which would make it difficult, if not impossible, to attend a 10am meeting.
"It seems to me there are two assumptions here: if you are married and have children you will not be working and can therefore go to a women's meeting; and if you are single or married without children, you do not need to participate in women's groups - these women are simply not catered for."
"Sometimes I feel excluded from the women's 'clique', and judged because I work and am not a full time housewife," says Sarah, a working mother in her mid-forties. "I know this is quite irrational - we are living in the '90s for goodness sake - but I still feel it.
"Making relationships with non-employed mothers is hard because they tend to put me on a pedestal and assume we have nothing in common. Trying to disabuse them of this notion is well nigh impossible. Making relationships with the men is even harder, because they never cease to be amazed that I understand about computers and the Internet. They are clearly uncomfortable in conversations where they can't work out which box I fit into: 'what is this "skirt" doing understanding men's stuff?'"
"If you're not married," says Penny, "people want to know why not."
"I have heard many pastors expound the glories and wonders of the married state from the pulpit," says Catherine, "but I have never heard a solitary word about the benefits of the single state. Or, for that matter, the complications and problems.
"My last church had a singles group for those aged 20-35 -why stop at 35? - which was run by a married couple. I got the distinct impression that the church leadership regarded it as a pseudo-dating agency rather than a group dedicated to the welfare of single people in the church."
"The patronising way Christians try to make out that singleness is probably God's plan for me, suggesting in condescending tones that I might like to think about missionary work, makes me want to commit murder!" says Helen.
Joanna attended parish camps for some years but doesn't go any more. "They are designed for families and young people. This year's theme is family relationships - where is my place in that?"
"It is a shame," says Penny, "that whenever we talk about relationships in the Church it is always husband/wife relationships. What about relationships between parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends - aren't they just as important?"
There is a women's fellowship group at Joanna's church, but all the women who attend are either married or have been married. "There is also a group for older singles, but no one over 35 goes. It seems that no-one quite knows what to do with single females who are over 40 in the church. Sometimes I wonder why I go. Friends of a similar age group tell me they feel the same in their churches.
"I guess God knows where my place is in the church. I wish he'd let me in on the secret!
"One thing I get really sick of," she says," is people who are determined that I should be overseas as a missionary because I'm single and I'm 'free'! So far as I'm concerned, the classroom I teach in is enough of a mission field - or battleground! I am quite sure that is where I should be for now."
"Before I married," says Janice, "people so often told me I should be married. The misguided belief that all people should get married just puts unnecessary pressure on those who are single. While the issue of marriage was seldom a concern to me, pressure from others sometimes led me to start questioning why I was still single. What was wrong with me?"
Married without children
In the Church if you are married, you are expected to have children.
"As a childless, married woman," says Janice, "I know that I am loved and accepted just as I am by God, and by my husband, but there are many times when I do not feel accepted by those in the Church.
"I attended a Christian wedding once where there was strong emphasis on having children as part of the marriage. The couple (and the congregation) were told that marriage is made up of 'three C's - Church, Commitment, and Children'. Not all marriage services are so blatant, but in the Church there is this pressure 'when will a family be started?'"
"These questions, innuendos and comments are blatantly intrusive in my view. In the secular world I might be asked whether I intend to have a family (perhaps in the context of getting a job promotion - although it is becoming less acceptable to raise this issue in the corporate world - or in casual conversation). A 'yes' or 'no' answer is equally acceptable. But in the Church my experience has been different. Mostly the question asked is when I intend to start a family.
"The innuendos come in all forms, from the overt comments to the more subtle ploy of asking women to be on creche rosters and holding women's groups during the daytime when women in the work force cannot attend."
Sandra is in her late thirties and holds down a demanding job. She tells of having been taken aside by a 'concerned' woman at her church and asked in a kindly tone when she was going to stop being selfish and give her husband children, as God intended. After all, she was told, having a career is all very well - but your true purpose in life is to be a mother.
"This is not the only time our childlessness has been questioned," she says, "but it was the most hurtful." Sandra's husband has been diagnosed infertile.
Maureen has been married for five years. "All our friends have averaged two babies in the four years we have attended this church," she says, "and the church is naturally centred around these young families. Infertility is not dealt with at all. People don't know how to broach the subject and so avoid it (and sometimes us)! Some Sundays I cannot face going to church, knowing that I may have to rush for the door in floods of tears again."
"There are many reasons why people can't have children," says Janice. "I suspect that most couples in this situation struggle within the Church. How can we fit in when everything is built around children and families?"
Married with children
But those who are married with children have their own struggles. Justine is 34 with two pre-schoolers. She attends a Presbyterian church where her husband has recently been appointed an elder.
"I myself have taken a leadership role in several things since we arrived three years ago. (Our church is open to women in leadership roles - two of the eleven elders are women - though some of the men struggle with taking instructions from women.)
"Now that my husband is an elder, the expectation is that I will still be able to be involved in Sunday School, music practices, and Bible Studies as well as helping out with support services and social activities. Prior to my husband's appointment as an elder I was able to do quite a bit as he was happy to see to the children, but now he is too busy.
"I read about the '90s woman being career woman, wife and mother par excellence, and it seems that our church has similar expectations. The problem for us is not which of us takes a leadership role, but the expectation that we both can, and that we can still hang together as a caring, happy, well-balanced family."
And what about leadership?
Linda is in her early forties. She has worked hard to raise the profile of women in ministry in her independent charismatic church, with some measure of success. But it was an uphill battle. "In my experience it is rare for men to be genuinely interested and concerned to release women into leadership within the Church."
She firmly believes that having women fully involved in Church leadership and ministry is not just a 'women's issue'. "It is a Church issue. It affects half of any given church. Women are a significantly under-utilised, God-given resource in the Church."
Says nineteen year old Kathy: "At my mother's church, a family left because they didn't agree that women should be in leadership. I found this quite surprising and out of date. Doesn't the Bible tell of many instances where women do the same things as men in the church? I think that men and women should be doing exactly the same things, and that has been my personal experience."
"It is very difficult for women with a calling and equipping to Church leadership when they are overlooked or sidelined for years by their male counterparts," says Linda. Some years ago, she and her husband were invited to join the Eldership Team. Her husband declined. "The elders never discussed with me whether I personally felt called or equipped to serve in this capacity. Presumably I had always been destined to be an elder's wife!
"Statistically," she says, "those of us with a calling to leadership and ministries such as teaching are not the majority. Many women are content and obviously fulfilled, functioning in their gifts and ministries - mostly these are ministries which have traditionally been acceptable for women. But while we may be in the minority, our freedom to function, or lack of it, affects the whole body. It will never be complete without us.
"Sadly, the silence of many frustrated women has been interpreted as satisfaction, when in fact it has been a survival tactic! The fear of being labelled 'radical' or 'feminist' makes it hard for many, like myself, to make our concerns known."
For some women the fight simply becomes too costly, and they realise that they must put their energies into other areas, such as the workplace, where they find a greater sense of appreciation and freedom to function. Jennifer is one such woman.
"One of the saddest and most difficult decisions of my life was the day I realised that the mind-set I was up against in my church was too strong to continue fighting. I was hitting my head against a brick wall and achieving very little. My husband, family and friends encouraged me to hold my head high and continue to believe that the leadership and teaching gifts God has given me are not misplaced. I have been able to use them in other churches, in parachurch groups and at a local Bible College, but I still long to be involved more fully in my own local church."
Amanda, in her mid-twenties, was brought up in a Brethren church where women were allowed to participate at many levels of church life, but not to be elders or to teach on their own. "At University I developed a great zeal for all issues to do with women in the church and I had opportunities to develop my leadership abilities. I was President of the Christian Union, and a member of the National Executive of Tertiary Students' Christian Fellowship. Scripture Union also helped me to grow - thanks to them I developed an interactive and creative worship leading style.
"Sadly, for many women, it is only in parachurch groups that they discover their worth, equality and leadership abilities.
"Put me back in an environment where women's contributions are minimal or non-existent and my hackles rise. I am utterly convinced (even though I regularly fall into the victim role and have flutterings of self doubt) that Jesus highly esteemed the women he mingled with and that he wants to redeem the world and the relationships in it - including those in the Church."
The last word must go to Linda: "Church leadership," she says, "please stand with us! Encourage us to develop our gifts. Give us opportunities to function at our full potential. And please, please don't be threatened by us."
Behind the Veil
Sharon has been a Christian for 25 of her 50 years. During that time she has worked as a Physical Education teacher in a secondary school for blind girls in England, and as a teacher and boarding-hostel supervisor in an Indian school in North India. For the past five years or so, Sharon has been a teacher and rehabilitation trainer of the blind in Afghanistan. Recently in New Zealand for some rest and relaxation, she shared the following story.
"In seeking to grow as a Christian, I have attended several courses at a Christian conference centre in England. It was at these courses that I first encountered evidence of the devaluing of women in the western Church.
"On several occasions, as women invited the Holy Spirit to come and teach them more of God and their walk with him, the wounds engendered by their treatment in the Church were exposed. Women would share their pain at the lack of acknowledgment of their spiritual gifts; at the assumption that they would fill lesser roles, such as serving teas, running the creche, running the 'Over Sixties' meetings and delivering the magazines; and at the lack of recognition of their musical talent and leadership abilities. All in all, the women related a feeling of inequality with men in the church.
"The most vivid expression of such suppression of women came during a 4-day course where one woman (we'll call her Louise) described a dream in which she saw herself at the front of a line of women dressed in long gowns with veils that covered their faces. (Louise had never seen this type of dress before, but what she described was familiar to others. It was a Burka - a veil which covers a woman from head to foot, leaving only a small area of mesh, through which she can see out, but through which no-one can see her face. The Burka is typically worn by some Muslim women, from the age of about 15, and is now a familiar feature attributed to Taliban restrictions.)
"In her dream, Louise led the women to the edge of a stretch of water across which were stepping-stones; but the gap to the first stone was too wide for a normal stride. Floating on the water between her and the first stone was a wooden cross. She recognised the significance of the cross, but was reluctant to step onto it, as it seemed it would just sink or tip her over.
"Louise felt that the meaning of the dream was this: each of the women following her represented the incidents in her own life when she had felt deprived of her identity, personality and value. Other women began to describe similar feelings, so our speaker suggested we might find time the next day to deal with some of these hurts."
At that time Sharon was travelling through the country, speaking about her work with blind people in a Muslim country. She happened to have a Burka in the back of her car and suggested to the conference speaker that it may help to bring this garment in and show it to the other women. He asked her to wear it, which she did.
"At the sight of me dressed in this garment," says Sharon, "one woman instantly let out a long scream and then fell to the floor wailing. Six or seven other women (none of whom had previously seen one of these garments or knew of its significance in Muslim cultures) also began to weep.
"The men in our group then graciously accepted responsibility for the men in English churches, confessing and asking forgiveness of these women for their sins.
"It had become apparent to all present that the Burka spoke to them of the same sort of suppression by men in our churches (and in western society) - even if more subtly disguised - as we attribute to Muslim men (and to the Taliban)."
Names have been changed for the purposes of this article.
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