Things Christian Women Should Hear
I spent most of yesterday periodically checking the ongoing Twitter conversation #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear. I wanted to chime in to that conversation with my own experience, not because I am bitter but because I deeply believe we can and must be better. The more we bring these experiences to light, the more we can work to ensure women in ministry don't have to hear those things.
Today, I'm particularly grateful to the male colleagues who listened in on the conversation and amplified our voices as they genuinely look to be better. After the conversation(s) yesterday, I want to chime in with a different thread: #ThingsChristianWomenShouldHear. How do we practically and tangibly help male mentors (those wonderful, supportive men who believe in young women leaders and want to make space for us and are doing their best for us) think through what it is like for women to be in these spaces and navigate these positions of leadership? How do we help them to better help us, so we're not walking into the woods alone?
So, to the male mentors in my life (and in the lives of others), with all my gratitude and love, I offer some humble suggestions from young women called to lead. Here are a few of the things Christian women SHOULD hear from you as they pursue vocational ministry.
1) "I'm sorry. How can I be better?": recognizing that you have blind spots. There will be things you don’t see, times you let us down unintentionally, stuff you don’t know how to think through because you’ve never had any reason to do so. It happens, and it’s ok. We’re not bitter; we just want to be better. Seek out ways to become aware of your blind spots. Ask the women you have mentored and served with what their experience is like working in the Church (and even what it's been like working with you and your team in particular). When they point out a blind spot, listen to them. Resist the urge to brush off their experience with “Well, it wasn’t meant that way,” and just believe what they say. Be brave enough to receive their feedback (even if it’s painful). Offer an apology; even if you weren't the perpetrator of a (micro)aggression, an apology goes a long way to communicate your solidarity and your intent to work to change behaviors/attitudes that contribute to stifling patriarchal structures.
2) “What do you need?”: cultivating empathy and practicing putting yourself in her position. Thinking about what it was like for you to first navigate these leadership spaces is a good place to start, but it’s also important to think through what those experiences will be like specifically for young women leaders right now. Ask your wives, sisters, daughters, nieces, female friends and colleagues in order to better understand the female experience (in Church, at work, in the world). Seek first to understand and ask how to best support the women you work alongside. Let them define what they need rather than assuming on their behalf. And then do something to help.
3) “How can I help?”: discovering the best ways to support the emerging leaders you know. Again, let them define what they need rather than assuming on their behalf, and give them opportunities to ask for the help they need to get there. Find ways to use the power and position you have to make space for the young women who are called to lead. Are you consistently offered speaking opportunities that you have to turn down because your schedule is so full? Do you know someone who wants to be preaching more often? Pass her name along! Be proactive about looking for and helping the young women leaders who are swimming upstream. Let them know-- in your words and deeds-- that you are on their team.
4) "She / Her": adjusting your language and practices (as individuals and as organizations) to be gender inclusive and women affirming. When you preach and teach, use illustrations and examples that invite women to find themselves in the story you’re telling. Better yet, have a woman preach often and learn how to find yourself in the story she tells. Take a look at the landscape of your staff: who occupies significant positions of authority, who makes the key decisions for the direction of the Church, who is on the platform on Sunday? What’s the balance between men and women? And are women only doing children’s ministry or admin work while men compose the board and preach? Or are both genders consistently evenly represented and equally heard in all areas of church life and in all levels of the leadership hierarchy? Do the young women you want to support have other women leaders to look to in your organization?
5) "I just want to echo what she said...": amplifying women's voices. Women in the workplace (particularly in male dominated fields) often suffer many micro-aggressions, like "man-splaining" (a man condescendingly explaining something to a woman, usually something she already knows a lot about), "manterrupting" (a man interrupting a woman for no real reason), "bropropriating"(a man taking credit for a woman's idea). In addition to listening well to your female colleagues, amplify their voices by vocally giving them credit for their ideas. We're on each other's team, and the more we can amplify each other, the more we'll all be heard.
6) "Let's get lunch!": putting the Billy Graham Rule to rest. Be aware of patriarchal structures that keep women from getting the spiritual formation and leadership experience they need, and proactively find ways to make sure women are not excluded from the “inner circle.” Even when male leaders don’t mean to be intentionally exclusive, often by default they keep women out of the conversations important to organizational growth and development. Rather than in offices and conference rooms, many of an organization’s ideas are pitched, their projects are launched, and their events are conceived around kitchen tables, over cups of coffee, and scrawled on lunch napkins. These pivotal leadership conversations often happen among friends as they share their lives together, and when the idea/project/event becomes something like a concrete leadership opportunity, it’s offered to those who are around the table. The problem is that women don’t often get seats at those tables for several reasons. One, for instance, is the “Billy Graham Rule,” which suggests that male pastors / church leaders (in order to keep their conduct “above reproach”) should not spend time alone with women who aren’t their wives. Even men in church leadership who don’t strictly subscribe to this rule tend to have mostly male friends and colleagues, which means that many of the innovative “Wouldn’t it be great if we did __?” conversations are happening in “old boys’ clubs” without women present to contribute or participate. For example, think about the potential young women leaders in your student ministries (and other areas) who aren’t getting the same amount or the same kind of pastoral attention and discipleship that the young male leaders are getting, because a male pastor doesn’t meet with young women but hangs out with the young men all the time. If we are serious about supporting women in church leadership, or rather since we are serious, they need to be not only at the conference table, but at all the other tables as well.
*Just to be absolutely clear: interpersonal / ethical boundaries are super important, and I by no means intend to disparage anyone for maintaining boundaries that are necessary for their emotional/professional/holistic well-being. I just want us to be careful about issuing the BGR as a categorical imperative because it has significant negative consequences for professional interactions between male & female colleagues. I'm not advocating anything not in keeping with the highest HR standards of any professional workplace.
7) "Would you take a leadership role in this [project / organization / etc.]?": finding ways to advocate for emerging women leaders. Is there a young woman hungry to study the Bible, showing up at all your events, coming whenever the church is open? Invite her to share a meal with you (and your spouse/family, if you feel more comfortable). Just share a table together, and ask her how she’s hearing God’s call and how you can support her. Pay attention to the women who tirelessly volunteer because they believe in the cause/vision, and invite them to step into greater leadership (because chances are they might not know how to ask for those leadership opportunities themselves). Is there a woman in your church who seems to single-handedly carry one of your ministries? Ask her if she would consider serving on the board for a term. When hiring a new pastor/staff person, ensure that women are well represented on the hiring search committee and in the candidate pool. We have been conditioned to think “male” when we think of leadership… But let’s make it our practice to think about how to include women who have competency but may lack confidence, and invite them into the leadership positions they’ve excluded themselves from or have been excluded from by a system that favors men.