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Published Date: September 5, 2009

Published Date: September 5, 2009

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Promoting the Partnership of Women in Your Church

The process of change can be compared to a river. We are part of a flow of ongoing and changing conditions. If the river flows too slowly it can become sluggish and filled with silt. If the river flows too rapidly, it can tear away important structures along its way and be difficult to navigate. If the river has too much water it floods and loses its definite shape. If the river has too little water, it slows down and dries up. The ideal river is a work of art in nature. It has a steady source; it is fed by other streams. It flows cleanly and purposefully between well-defined banks. It contains organic life abundant in quality and quantity. It adds to the quality of life along its path. It adapts to the changing environment. And it contributes to a larger body of water at its end.

Of course, when we sail on such a river, we need to have the right vessel and the right pilot. And so the effective leader, in terms of strategies for change, knows how to go with the flow of the river or shape the flow of the river. I believe that this is what we all desire to understand: What goes on in this river of change and how can we better pilot our vessels down it?

My own journey as a change agent for women in the church began in the very early 1970s when I was a young teacher in a public school system. I attended a conference for women to learn more about patterns of discrimination in public education. I came back from the conference and shared this with some of my good friends in the school system, and together we worked for some major changes in curriculum and textbooks. We also worked to change some of the athletic policies and employment practices as they related to females in the school district.

We learned a great deal through that advocacy work. We learned that to point out problems creates real difficulties not only for us, but also for the people who create and maintain the problems. We also learned that many people do not like change, even when there is a great deal of injustice and a lack of mercy in the status quo. Both men and women often resist changes that lead to more mercy and more justice on behalf of those people who are experiencing discrimination.

At this time, my husband and I were attending a church that discussed, to some length, and finally supported the ordination of women. I didn’t think this decision was all that special, but then I learned that very few other churches had reached the some conclusion. So I soon became known as someone who had strong feelings and thoughts concerning the matter of men and women as partners in the church.

My family and I then moved to a different area of the city and joined another local church in our denomination. A friend and I began attending council meetings as observers. The men who were the elders and the deacons seemed to be very uncomfortable having women attend as observers. At first, they made jokes about it. This then progressed to a period of time when they were somewhat distressed. They even considered a vote that would prohibit observers at their meetings. I had researched this, though, and pointed out that there were no rules in our church about having observers at business meetings and that, by tradition, these meetings were open to anyone. This ended the discussion. It seemed to take about a year for them to become really comfortable with us, and there were certain times when they actually turned to us as observers and requested our opinions, recognizing we brought a perspective that might be helpful. And so even though we were not ordained, our input was considered valuable.

Finally, my husband and I made the decision that our money would talk. We agreed that we would pay only half of the amount that we pledged, because only he was a full member of the church. My half of the money was given then to things like benevolence, Christian education, or special projects. That was our way of telling the church that things were not right with us — that we were concerned that women were not equally represented in the work of the church.

Then our denomination made the decision that women could be ordained as deacons, and, after that denominational decision, our local church council voted unanimously to support it. When the council brought that decision to the congregation for an affirmation, a vote of support, it lost. Sixty people at the meeting voted no, while forty voted yes. To me this signaled that even though women could not yet be ordained as deacons in our local church, we were very close. If eleven or twelve people changed their minds, women indeed could be ordained as deacons. In our denomination at this time, many churches ordained women as deacons and some churches began to go ahead and sort of defy church laws; they ordained women as elders and some churches also said women could be pastors and that they could lead worship. These churches invited women who were ordained in other denominations to serve as guest pastors and conduct entire services on special occasions. And so our denomination was going through a great deal of what I call creative chaos and is on this journey of change still today.

Over these years of my advocacy work within my denomination, I have come to understand three important concepts for our work as change agents. Let’s turn to these now: imagery for the journey, vision for the journey, and finally, strategies for the journey.

Imagery for the Journey

There is no secret recipe that I can give you that says, “Here is what you do to guarantee good changes in your church.” The concept of women as partners in the gospel is something to be cultivated. And so I would like to help you understand where your church is in order to find some appropriate and positive ways to influence it. Otherwise, when we work for change, what we hope will be good influences can become bad influences.

The imagery that I find most helpful is the concept of gardening, which I like to conceptualize in four stages. The first stage is breaking the soil and sowing the seeds. We must prepare the soil for seeds by supplying water and the right kind of nutrients needed for those particular plants. My own church would fall into this category; we see a great deal of support for the ordination of women, but not yet enough to make it happen. The soil is being prepared; some seeds are being sowed. We do not have any small plants yet.

The second phase of gardening imagery is tending the new shoots. Such a church may have ordained one or two women as deacons. They may be having a difficult time getting more women to accept the nomination for the office or getting the congregation to vote for them because it is not yet a completely accepted idea in the church. The goal here is to find ways to encourage those shoots to grow and to cultivate many more shoots.

Third, we must tend the growing plants. In this stage, immature fruit is appearing. I like to imagine tomato plants with rather large green tomatoes. A church in this stage would have ordained women as deacons several times. They would have no problem finding women to accept nominations or electing them, and are interested in seeing women ordained as elders or pastors. They may even start thinking along the lines of what we would call “ecclesiastical disobedience”; they may consider how to move ahead to affirm women as partners in the gospel even though their denomination may not be entirely supportive.

Finally, the fourth phase of our gardening imagery is preparing for the harvest. In these kinds of churches women have been ordained as elders, have spoken as guest pastors, and are serving in creative positions such as pastoral assistants or directors of congregational life or Christian education. These churches may be very close to the ultimate harvest on this journey, when their members run their ministries according to their gifts and regardless of their gender.

Vision for the Journey

Now let us explore the vision for the journey, or why we are committed to this difficult work of gardening. Our vision is to break down the walls that divide. Restricting the use of women’s gifts in the church divides the church. It puts up a wall that separates people from each other. The church is to be united under Christ. Understanding this vision is crucial in our work for change; we must understand the ultimate goal and our role in it.

As we carry out our vision, and as we go on our journey, there are three important points that I would like us to remember. The first is that God’s great desire is for unity. Ephesians 1:8b–10 tells us, “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” If there are any walls that divide us as Christians or as people in this world, God is not pleased. What God wants ultimately is a sense of unity. He is not asking here for uniformity, but rather for the unity that comes from being centered in Christ.

The second important point as we carry out our vision is the concept of one body with many members. In 1 Corinthians 12, as in many of Paul’s writings on spiritual gifts and the work of people in the church, notice that there are no references to men or women having certain spiritual gifts. Paul provides no gender restrictions here.

The third important point as we carry out our vision is that of hospitality, a very important scriptural concept. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to offer hospitality to strangers and to each other. In his book, Sharing the Search: A Theology of Christian Hospitality, Methodist minister Thomas Hawkins explores the church as a lifestyle enclave. He writes that often our churches are based on something other than being connected by Christ. Relationships in the church are developed and enhanced on the basis of shared human characteristics, which then leads to exclusion. In my denomination, for example, many of our families have roots in the Dutch immigration, so there is a distinct ethnic flavor to our congregations. What we don’t often realize is that when we carry on in our ethnic ways we are excluding people who want to come to us in Christ. What is more, we have somehow connected our ethnic patterns to the way we worship and go about doing the work of our church.

Instead, Hawkins challenges us to see the church as a community of believers as the body of Christ, where relationships are developed and enhanced on the basis of respecting one another as made in the image of God. We must understand that we are all created, redeemed, and gifted by the Spirit, and that who we are in Christ must be the foundation of our relationships. Hawkins also makes it clear that the priesthood of all believers means that we are priests for one another. We advocate for one another. We encourage one another. And we help one another along our spiritual journeys. Again, there are no gender restrictions in the priesthood of all believers.

Hawkins says that our stress upon fellowship, which encompasses our social connections in the church, comes at the expense of genuine partnerships in the gospel. He sees that we have fractured partnerships in the gospel in order to maintain a sense of social unity based on our own definitions of what that social unity is; many churches therefore are not really true members of the body of Christ because they are most concerned with keeping the peace and maintaining the social way of life.

Another helpful reference as we consider the vision for our journey is Hiding, Hurting, and Healing by Mary Franzen Clark. In a section entitled “De-view from De-pew,” she maintains that women in the church are hiding and hurting because of the way that they experience exclusivity in the church. She writes that the harm caused by separation, division, and oppression is not taken clearly or seriously enough. Then she says that we must attend to those who are suffering because our cultural ideas of roles only muddies God’s plan. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to all believers, not on the basis of sex. And since we are all created in the image of God, there is no basis for division. Clark argues that it is wrong for a few designated church leaders to tell the rest of the people where they belong and how they should or should not minister. Instead, the direction of ministry is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit. The church leadership should help confirm each member’s gifts and facilitate their functioning rather than setting up barriers. And then she has this wonderful question: “What is so threatening about trusting the Holy Spirit to direct people?” She asks the question innocently, and yet it is very threatening to some in the church since too often we work to maintain the walls that divide. If one is concerned about being part of the body of Christ, then, of course, there is nothing to fear in allowing the partnership of women in the gospel.

I once listened to a pastor preach that, “We are most humane when we are most God-like.” To be humane means to have what are considered the best human qualities: kindness, tenderness, mercy, and sympathy. I remember thinking to myself, is the church a humane place for women? Do the women experience belonging completely in the church? And I remember thinking too that genuine hospitality would indeed make the church a humane place for women.

Strategies for the Journey

My final section here on the journey is strategies — how to do the gardening. Let’s look at the creative problem-solving process: the process for us to lay out our plans for change so that we use our energy and our abilities well. There are seven steps to the creative problem-solving process. The first step is developing and clinging to your vision. This is a sense of mission we have already examined at length. We must operate from a clear sense of vision that what we are working for is right and godly.

The second step is holding to your belief. When we have a belief, we have a sense of commitment. Sharpen your beliefs in biblical equality. Know what you believe, and why you believe it.

The third step in the creative problem-solving process is setting a goal. This is what we want to work for; it is the formal change that we desire. It involves preparing the soil and sowing the right seeds. After all, if we want to grow a crop of tomatoes, we had better plant tomato seeds.

The fourth step is gathering resources. What gardening talents do we have? Who we can rely upon? Who are the experts? Experts are a resource; we need people whom we can call upon in our community to say, “We’re facing this problem. What advice can you give us?” Be sure also to gather books and other resources from CBE.

The fifth step is asking the “IWW” question, which stands for “In What Ways?” In what ways can we reach our specific goal? For me it would be, “In what ways can we encourage the ordination of women as elders and ministers?” That would be at a denominational level. In my own church it would be, “In what ways can we encourage the ordination of women as deacons?” This is your brainstorming step in the process. List as many ideas as possible, and do not be afraid to suggest things that seem off the wall.

Step number six in the creative problem-solving process is taking action. With each action step, ask yourself the six questions that journalists often use: Who is going to do this? What are we going to do? When are we going to do it? Where are we going to do it? Why are we going to do it? And then how shall we do it?

This also means that a back-up plan is available. Sometimes when I get involved in taking action, I discover that things are not going as well as I hoped and so I say, “Let’s switch gears here and see if we can adjust and go about this in a slightly different way.” Sometimes people ask me, “How can you take action like this when there are no clear models for doing so?” Yet, I believe we have models in Scripture. God’s people throughout Scripture had to both adapt to change and create it. Take for example the story of Esther. She was a powerful change agent. Examine her story carefully to see how she went about her work. If we need a model for organizational change in the church, we can turn to Acts 10 and 15. Peter received a vision about eating unclean food and was then directed to the household of Cornelius, a Gentile. The entire household received Christ and was baptized, and Peter was amazed by this because he and the other apostles had no idea that the gospel would also be for Gentiles. When this was reported back to the council at Jerusalem, the leaders were somewhat confused by it. Yet, they finally agreed that it seemed right — and that they did not have any indication that it was not right — and made a few suggestions about doing things decently and in good order. And from that point on it was very clear that the apostles would take the gospel to the whole world.

When we take action, we are creating disharmony and disequilibrium. As individuals and organizations, we do not change unless the harmony is upset. For example, I can go along in my own home and not pay attention to the dust and the laundry that is piling up until we get a phone call that someone is coming to visit us. Then I notice the house is not in good shape! And suddenly to restore my sense of harmony with what is going to happen, I need to get busy and clean things up. There are many more examples about how we all act when there is some kind of pressure on us to shape up. If we can create a sense of disharmony in the church, then people will pay attention and work to create harmony again. And then they will discover that the only way to create real harmony is to indeed break down all the walls that divide, which means including women as partners in the gospel. The discomfort that we must go through is vital, and worth it. It is almost like an active intercessory prayer; we are interceding for those who come after us. We want to leave the church a better place for the men and women of the future — to help ensure that they will not need to struggle over this particular issue.

The last step — step seven — in the creative problem-solving process is evaluation. We ask ourselves: How did things go? What seemed to work? What didn’t work so well? What didn’t work at all? Why did it work? Or why did it not work? And then we say: Do we stick with our sense of vision? Do we keep our belief? Do we keep working on our goal? Do we need some new resources? Do we need to take a different focus on the action? Do we need to take action in a different way? Then we reconsider again, as an ongoing process, as many times as needed.

First, let’s consider the concept of risk — the chance of injury, damage, or loss. For gardeners like us, it is the degree to which human relationships are questioned and conflict is aroused, because the proposed activity disturbs the harmony. In other words, the activity may upset the customary ways in which people relate with each other. There will be some pain and suffering as we work to change the church, to create a better harmony. Therefore, before we work for change, each of us needs to thoughtfully ask ourselves, “How much disharmony can we tolerate? What’s it worth to us?” Based on our answers, we can then consider these low-, medium-, and high-risk strategies for change:


  1. Pray regularly for God’s assistance and guidance in the process of change.
  2. Study Scripture to learn as much as possible about God’s will for men and women. Study your church’s creeds and doctrines, as well as statements such as CBE’s “Men, Women, and Biblical Equality.”
  3. Read materials that can help you stay informed about women’s issues in the church, like Priscilla Papers and Mutuality.
  4. Share ideas and feelings privately with trusted friends at your church.
  5. Avoid remarks that belittle women and men.
  6. Encourage more lay participation of both women and men in worship services. Perhaps in your church only men may be ordained and give sermons. But women can certainly read Scripture, lead intercessory prayers, prepare special music, lead worship, and make announcements. The important goal here is that women become visible in your worship services.
  7. Encourage the church council to make full use of all members’ gifts.
  8. Encourage other women who are serving in leadership positions. Seek them out. Affirm them.
  9. Vote at congregational meetings and encourage other women to vote.
  10. Contribute money to causes that help women in your community.


  1. Share concerns with elders or members of your church board at a time when they come to visit your family.
  2. Share ideas and feelings openly with many others in church.
  3. Attend conferences and meetings that explore expanding women’s roles in the church and report back to your congregation on what you learned.
  4. Speak at congregational meetings on issues pertaining to women.
  5. Request that your pastor prepare sermons on topics relevant to biblical equality.
  6. Raise questions at appropriate times and places so that other church members can hear, consider new perspectives, and have the opportunity to learn from you (you can always point them to resources that have been useful for you).
  7. Donate relevant books to your church library and write book reviews for your church newsletter.
  8. Suggest specific topics to the adult education coordinator for church study groups.
  9. Recommend specific gifted women for church leadership positions.
  10. Request that your church arrange to have speakers on women as partners in the gospel.


  1. Give appropriate materials to officers and leaders in the local church.
  2. Notice sexist remarks and indicate that they are inappropriate.
  3. Notice sexist language and imagery in church services and church educational materials and indicate why they are inappropriate.
  4. Request pastoral care and advice from elders and ministers to deal with problems and matters of conscience. For example, if a male elder in the church ignores your gifts, then it may be time to approach the pastor and say, “You know, I need some pastoral advice in dealing with this situation.”
  5. Organize a forum, discussion group, retreat, or conference to address the topic of women and the church.
  6. Request (by proposal, appeal, protest, etc.) that your local church and your denomination study the unresolved questions regarding women’s use of their gifts in the church.
  7. Request that your local church respond to your denomination’s decisions regarding women, especially if the decisions are restrictive.
  8. Assist in forming and maintaining speakers’ bureaus concerning women’s issues.
  9. Use consciousness-raising techniques to help others understand areas of injustice.
  10. Decide whether or not to give full financial support to all aspects of your church