"Behold This Woman": Misperceptions of Women in the Church | CBE International

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"Behold This Woman": Misperceptions of Women in the Church

On July 18, 2016

Join me, for a moment, in a thought experiment. Does it seem to you that women are equally, or nearly equally, represented in the ministries of your church? Think especially about activities with high visibility, such as preaching, reading, serving communion, leading worship, teaching Sunday school classes, and participating on boards or leadership teams.

Now that you have your impression, take another step with me. Actually count, as best as you can, how many women serve and lead in visible ways in your church. Do the numbers match up with your impression?

If not, you’re not alone: one of the reasons I loved the church I attended before I moved was because, despite the fact that they did not ordain women or let women preach, women seemed extensively involved in every other aspect of public ministry.

In my former church, women were on the worship team and sometimes led worship; women read Scripture during the service; women served communion; women were on the leadership team; and women, including me, taught Sunday school classes. It seemed to me that many women were actively involved at every level except the ordained pastoral staff.

However, when I started examining women’s involvement more closely, I came to a startling conclusion: women represented a distinct minority in all of these roles (with the exception, predictably, of children’s ministries). Out of typically eight communion servers, one or two might be women and there were weeks with no women serving. One, or maybe two, of the three or four adult Sunday school classes had women teachers, and they always co-taught with a man, typically their husband—as was the case with the classes I taught.

Why had I, a feminist, an egalitarian, and a woman, so significantly overestimated the presence of women? In brief: implicit and unconscious cultural biases.

Researchers consistently find that we overestimate the involvement of women, from their presence at the highest levels in the business world[1] to the amount of time they speak.[2] Research has even found that crowd scenes in US films and television shows contain, on average, only 17% women—although I confess that I have never noticed this disparity.[3]

In short, a significant amount of research indicates that we as a society tend to overestimate the presence and participation of women. If we as the church are serious about fully including women in all of the work of the church, we must be aware of the ways that we tend to imagine parity or equality when it does not, in fact, exist.

This overestimation of the presence of women is probably one of the factors behind statements like those made by John Piper, that “God has given Christianity a masculine feel,"[4] a feel that the church must maintain. While some perceive the gains made by women in society as a whole over the last few decades as threatening to men and, presumably, the “masculine feel” of the church, this perception is complicated by research from the Barna group that indicates that women in the United States are now leaving the church at a much higher rate than men.

Women still attend church at a higher rate than men, but what was a 20-point gap in 2003 (60% of men and 40% of women were unchurched) is now an 8-point gap (54% of men and 46% of women).[5] This correlates with a reduction in the work that women do in the church; in 2011 the Barna group found a 31% decrease in women volunteers.[6] And of course, men continue to overwhelmingly outnumber women in full-time, ordained positions.

It’s easy, as egalitarians, to dismiss statements like Piper’s and to advocate for the full inclusion of women at every level of ministry and leadership in the church. It’s also easy to look at the numbers from the Barna group and recognize that they do not reflect a “feminization” of the church, at least in terms of the number of women in congregations. It may even be easy to see an insistence on a “masculine feel” as profoundly alienating for many women and a contributing factor to women leaving the church, especially churches less dedicated to the full inclusion of women.

But is it so easy to see our own subtle cultural biases?

It can be discouraging to realize the ways in which we, men and women alike, may marginalize women without meaning to, by overestimating involvement or perceiving women as participating more in meetings or groups than they actually do. But it can also spur us to action.

If we return to the thought experiment we began with, perhaps your church is doing well and women actually are equal partners in the life of your congregation. But perhaps you’ve realized that this is not the case. Although we can debate whether simple parity is a meaningful goal, we can take concrete steps to encourage women to participate more fully.

Being aware of this cultural bias, this tendency to imagine that women are taking up more time and space than they actually are, allows us to move beyond it and reflect our theoretical commitment to inclusion in the number of women who actually participate in the life of the church.

There is not one magic way of doing this, but I will end with two basic, concrete suggestions. Those in leadership positions can specifically ask women to lead or serve in various ways; especially if few women currently do something (like serve communion or teach adult Sunday school), other women may be less likely to volunteer without encouragement.

Recognizing that we tend to overestimate how much women speak can help us be more deliberate about hearing women’s voices and making sure they aren’t constantly interrupted in meetings—or ignored only to have their point repeated by a man and then enthusiastically welcomed by the group.

Paul tells us to not grow weary in doing good. Let us not grow complacent as we advocate for the full involvement of women in every aspect of the life and ministry of the church.

Notes

[1] Emily Peck, “Do You Realize How Few Women CEOs Exist? These Executives Don’t,” Huffington Post 7/13/2015 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/13/weber-shandwick-female-ceo_n_77...).

[2] Although the myth that women speak more than men is still common, almost no research supports this notion. For summaries of recent research on the topic, see Anne Cutler and Donia R. Scott, “Speaker sex and perceived apportionment of talk,” Applied Psycholinguistics 11.3 (1990): 253-272 (abstract available here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0142716400008882); “Language as Prejudice: Language Myth #6,” Do You Speak American? on PBS.org (http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/prejudice/women/); Amy Roeder, “Do women talk more than men?” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health 7/23/14 (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/do-women-talk-more-than-men/); and Nikhil Swaminathan, “Gender Jabber: Do Women Talk More than Men?” Scientific American 7/6/2007 (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/women-talk-more-than-men/).

[3] “Largest-Ever Global Study of Gender in Film Illuminates a Persistent Sexism Problem,” Feminist Daily Newswire 9/24/14 (https://feminist.org/blog/index.php/2014/09/24/largest-ever-global-study...).

[4] He said this in a talk entitled, “‘The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle’ — The Value of a Masculine Ministry,” given at the Desiring God 2012 Conference for Pastors. The speech is available on the Desiring God website (http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-frank-and-manly-mr-ryle-the-valu...).

[5] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/722-five-factors-changing-women-s-relationship-with-churches#.V212W1ePlFJ.

[6] https://www.barna.org/barna-update/faith-spirituality/508-20-years-of-su...

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