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Published Date: March 5, 2004

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Becoming Better Servants

Some time ago, the movie Legal Eagles featured a scene in which two lawyers, a man and a woman, organized some shipping invoices. One of them put the invoices in piles according to the size of the shipment; the other organized the invoices according to the shipment’s destination. They kept redoing each other’s stacks to make the division more “logical.”

In my experience, that’s too typical! What seems logical to women seems illogical to men. What seems to be a natural and effective way of organizing work to a man looks confused and haphazard to a woman.

I’ve especially noticed that in the church, the differences between men and women often hinder us from fulfilling Christ’s work. Only when I began to recognize and appreciate these differences did I see how men and women could, instead, become effective partners in ministry.

What follows are generalizations, I admit. Each of us possesses both masculine and feminine characteristics, and nothing is true for all men or all women. Yet in my ministry, I’ve noticed both masculine and feminine tendencies that can conflict or cooperate in Christ’s mission.

Meetings and motions

Susan came to her first church board meeting knowing the main subject would be choosing Sunday school curriculum. She assumed the elders would look through each sample and discuss its strengths and weaknesses, finally conferring on which best suited their needs. Having taught Sunday school for many years, she felt qualified to contribute to the subject. Nonetheless, she made it a point to study the sample curricula before the meeting.

Early in the meeting, Susan discovered many of the elders had already formed their opinions about the curriculum. One man, in fact, quickly moved that his choice be adopted. To Susan, however, the following discussion seemed more like a debate. She didn’t participate because the others seemed sure of their views and she wasn’t. She had expected to form her choice during a discussion, but felt out of place in a debate.

When the elders finished sparring, they approved the curriculum proposed in the motion and moved on to another issue. Susan went home that evening feeling inept and unprepared. She questioned her ability to serve on the board.

The problem, however, was simply that Susan was used to meetings run by women. In female settings, women usually attempt to achieve a consensus before voting. They often solve problems and develop opinions as open discussion proceeds. For many women there is truth in the quip, “Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.”

In a structured debate, a woman may initially feel foolish and out of place. Similarly, in a free-flowing discussion in search of a decision, a man may feel he is standing on quicksand. Although the steps of each method differ, either can lead to a good, unified decision.

Conversing and competing

The men and women I work with tend to use conversation differently. For men, conversation can become competitive, and that may confuse women.

Al (a professional landscaper), Jim (an electrician) and Janet (the church treasurer) met to discuss a proposed plan to light a church memorial garden. Immediately, Al and Jim began to make additions to the plan. Each time Al added a group of trees or bushes, Jim increased the lighting. When Al sketched in a flowerbed, Jim wanted to light it with state-of-the-art outdoor fixtures. When Jim proposed underground wiring conduits, Al suggested an under- ground watering system. When they didn’t ask Janet’s opinion, she felt left out.

Al and Jim earnestly wanted to use their particular gifts to serve the church. And both assumed if Janet had anything to say, she would speak her piece — just as they were doing.

Janet, on the other hand, assumed they would at some point ask for her input. Among women, it’s usually considered important that everyone participate in a conversation. Women are apt to notice when someone isn’t talking, and they’ll often attempt to draw in a quiet person by adjusting their conversation.

When a female member of a predominantly male group is not drawn in, she may feel intentionally excluded. Meanwhile, the men usually assume that if a person wants to speak, he or she will take the initiative to do so.

Somehow many women have absorbed the idea that men are not to be interrupted. Many times I have chosen my words and, with sweaty palms, attempted to interrupt, only to have the conversation shift to another topic.

Consequently, I now keep this sentence in my conversational arsenal: “I wonder if I might say something here.” I’m not being aggressive or pushy. I’m simply trying to find an appropriate way to interject myself into a male-dominated conversation.

At the same time, I encourage male leaders I work with to invite seemingly shy women into discussions. I’m not claiming that men and women can or should change the way they converse, but making each more sensitive to the other’s conversation habits helps them better work together.

Random or sequential

In my experience, men and women organize their work differently, especially when they work in groups. Women are more likely to think of work as a jigsaw puzzle. They tend to divide the labor as they go, deciding what needs to be done at any stage of the process.

I’ve watched, for example, a team of women put out a church mailing at the last minute. Several stages of the work were in process at the same time — envelopes were getting stamped, letters were being folded and envelopes were being stuffed. If the envelope stuffer ran out of folded letters, she went to help the folder. Soon someone else was stuffing. Eventually, this apparently random activity produced a church mailing.

However, I know many men who would be driven crazy by working this way. That’s because men tend to see work as a stairway with a clearly defined set of steps, and each step should be completed before the next is begun. Progress can be measured at any given point.

Remember the curriculum discussion? The men didn’t want to buzz around the issue, discussing it this way and that until a conclusion mysteriously emerged. Deciding curriculum was a job to get done, and done in an orderly way: motion, debate, vote.

Diplomacy or disagreement

Men and women in my setting tolerate conflict differently. Men can put up with continuing personality conflicts and disagreements seemingly indefinitely. Many women, on the other hand, become acutely uncomfortable when people are at odds. They often want to straighten out everything without confronting anyone.

Mary Lou and Mark were co-chairs of the adult education committee. Mary Lou generally led the committee meetings, and did so in a way that made everyone feel included and comfortable. When conflict threatened, she was usually able to turn the conversation and smooth the disagreement.

One committee member, Carla, was a brusque, no-nonsense woman with a distinctly negative attitude. She had a habit of deflating new ideas with sarcastic remarks or reminders that similar programs had flopped in the past. Other members of the committee found her difficult to work with, and meetings often bogged down in silent irritation.

Mary Lou tried several indirect ways to change Carla’s attitude and to curb her negative remarks. However, nothing seemed to work and committee members began to stop attending. Mary Lou dreaded direct confrontation, so she went to Mark to discuss what they should do.

Although Mark didn’t consider Carla’s attitude a serious problem, he agreed to talk to her. He called her and politely but firmly asked her to stop “dousing the Spirit” with her negative attitude.

From that time on, whenever Carla started denigrating an idea, Mark simply said, “That’s enough, Carla. Let’s be a little more positive.” After a while Mary Lou also began to gently but firmly veto Carla’s negative attitudes. Carla wasn’t miraculously transformed, but the meetings became less stressful and more productive.

Both Mary Lou and Mark learned from the experience. Mark discovered from Mary Lou new ways to develop group cohesion, and Mary Lou learned from Mark how to deal directly with disagreement.

Bridging the gender gap

I wouldn’t want these generalizations, based on my limited experience, to be applied too strictly to any particular individual or situation. Yet I’ve found it helpful to identify a few gender-linked tendencies. As a consequence, as I work with men and women in my church, I continually remind myself of three things:

  • My way of thinking isn’t necessarily wrong, illogical or less intelligent. Then again, neither can I assume my way of reasoning is right, logical and more intelligent. It’s just different. Men and women have much to learn from each other, and to do so we have to accept each other.
  • Keep a sense of humor. I don’t take difficulties and confusion too seriously. Treating the differences between men and women with lightness and fun helps us recognize and bridge the gaps.
  • Be myself. Christ has called me to my place in his service and given me special gifts to fulfill that calling. Therefore I don’t need to be just like anyone else, especially not a man! Men and women have been created to work together to serve God’s will. We may do it in different ways, but our business is to encourage one another to become better servants of his will, not our idiosyncrasies.

Reprinted from reNEWS, a publication of Presbyterians For Renewal. Copyright December 2000 by Nancy Becker. Adapted from Leadership Journal, Winter Quarter 1991, with permission.