The failure—and potential—of women’s ministry has been a popular topic over the last decade. From Why Women Don’t Like Women’s Ministry to Why We Don’t Need “Women’s” Ministry, the blogosphere is still alive with discussions of what’s wrong with such ministry and why so many of us, who thought we were the only ones, feel like grotesque misfits in traditional women’s gatherings. Read the articles and you’ll find some common themes. Browse the comments, and you’ll discern significant pain behind the words of women hurt by well-intentioned ministries designed to help women connect—not to make them lonelier than ever.
Back in 2007, I wrote two articles on this topic: Why I Don’t Do Women’s Ministry and a more constructive follow-up, Ideas for Women’s Ministry. They originally appeared as posts on Gifted for Leadership, where they surprised me with their popularity. Even more surprising, after nine years, they remain consistently popular on the site (and on my own blog) and still inspire lively conversation.
What did I write? In short, much about traditional women’s ministry holds little appeal for me. I have long felt most women’s ministry programs were designed around the lifestyle and desires of one kind of woman—and I don’t fit. As a full-time working professional, I’m not available at 10 o’clock on Tuesday mornings. As a 21st-century woman with more than enough ways to fill my time, I’m not compelled to sacrifice family time, much-needed rest, or real-world relationships for anything less than a serious faith-building challenge. And as a Gen-Xer, born into a world of crumbling and corrupt institutions, with the thirst for authenticity characteristic of my generation, I have no interest in signing a mutual agreement to pretend the world is something other than what it is.
Yes, that was my experience with women’s ministry—and judging by what others have written, I’m not alone. While I think things are changing as many churches adapt their programs, women’s ministry either has been on the decline or has a PR problem—or both.
What about men’s ministry? In general, it’s less vibrant than women’s ministry and absent from a lot of churches. The downsizing of national ministries to men may suggest overall decline in interest. Anecdotally, my conversations with men reflect low participation.
Why the decline? As generations have shifted, gender-based ministries have failed to keep pace with changing preferences and needs. By nature, traditional gender-based ministries hold narrow views of men’s and women’s lifestyles. In current culture, both men and women fill diverse roles and follow unique daily rhythms. We no longer hold as much in common within our sex as many churches would like to believe. Our lifestyles, preferences, and attitudes contrast sharply. We don’t all enjoy baking or sports. We don’t all have children; we’re not all married, single, engaged, or divorced. In fact, male and female professional accountants may have more in common than two 35-year-old women.
Ministries build themselves on common denominators—and in the process make assumptions about who we are. This approach is doomed to fail—what do all women have in common? all men? Biology, anatomy, and a few similar experiences are not enough to deeply bond us.
Such ministries compete with family time, in short supply for many. Today, people don’t always want time away from families. We don’t see each other all week; why would my husband want breakfast at church on Saturday morning instead of pancakes with the kids? Why would I want to spend Tuesday evening at a ladies’ Bible study when my family is home without me, after we spent all day apart at work and school?
Only in a room full of men would I automatically bond with another woman. Many factors determine whether true relationships form. Our ministries are faulty when they make assumptions about what women are like, what men prefer, how we spend our time, and what we need. They are flawed when they discourage families from being together, make people feel pigeonholed and misunderstood, and appeal to the lowest common denominator—in the process encouraging everyone to stay immature rather than grow.
So is there merit to gender-based church ministries? Should churches simply shift the way they do gender-based ministry, or should they abandon it as a passé form of ministry?
For three reasons, I contend gender-based ministry does have value:
1. We need understanding and friendship from our same-sex peers. Expecting me to connect with all women is like expecting Kim Kardashian West and Maya Angelou to be best friends. But I will, and need to, connect with some women in a way I can’t connect with men.
2. We desperately need godly examples and mentoring relationships. I polled Christian men and women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Their experiences with gender-based ministries were mixed, but everyone said he or she wanted to connect in such ministries. We still want what gender-based groups provide, especially if they can help us form authentic relationships across generations.
3. Most compelling is the passion behind complaints about traditional gender-based ministries. People aren’t just ignoring them and hoping they’ll go away. Their emotional responses suggest they believe in such ministries’ promise and they’re hoping for something better.
How can gender-based ministries be more effective? Strategies will differ by setting and leadership gifts, but consider these general principles:
1. Acknowledge diversity. Even if you don’t have much racial or socioeconomic diversity, you certainly have diversity in lifestyles and personalities.
2. Be well-rounded. Appeal to the intellect and the emotions. The fun side and the serious sides of life. No one should treat all women as emotional basket cases and all men as football-crazed manly men.
3. Recognize many roles and life stages. Women are not just wives and mothers; many will never be either. Men are not only husbands and employees. Allow people to be individuals, regardless of their circumstances.
4. Be honest and non-judgmental. People don’t look to the church to solve problems that have easy answers. Acknowledge the trials of life in the 21st century and let people be real.
5. Avoid feminine and masculine ideals. Most are rooted in culture rather than Scripture, and few can live up to them (and many don’t want to). When we insist on ideals, we erect barriers to relationship with Christ and his people.
6. Challenge people. I can enjoy Christmas tea and pancake breakfasts at home. But a deeper, more authentic relationship with Christ and his people will keep me coming back. Accept people as they are, then ask and equip them to grow.
So is there a place for gender-specific ministry? Yes, but not as the primary way we relate and minister to one another. Inevitably our categories become narrow and stereotypical, and we define people primarily by the gender-based categories they fit (or don’t fit) into. Only when the church knows how to minister to men and women together, to whole families, and to individuals in their uniqueness, will our gender-based ministries meet the needs they are best designed to fulfill.
© 2016 Amy Simpson.