I grew up in a small, middle-class, mostly mono-cultural community of white Mennonites. In school, I almost always found it easy to achieve success. I generally had access to good schools and attentive teachers, and my parents spent quite a bit of time educating me informally at home.
I set high standards for myself and had high expectations of others. I truly believed that others could do better if they applied themselves. When they failed, I blamed them for not trying harder or using the resources available to them. I didn’t understand how being a white person from a middle-class community and supportive family contributed to my educational success or how structural inequality and unjust social conditions made it harder for certain people and groups to succeed. I didn’t realize that I was buying into deficit ideology.
What’s Deficit Ideology?
Deficit ideology blames a marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised group for the problems they face while ignoring any wider systemic factors impacting the situation. Essentially, it says that the deficit belongs with the individual rather than in the system or culture.
I blamed those who struggled and failed in school for not trying harder, but there were actually additional social factors at play. Many of those who struggled in school came from less privileged backgrounds than I did. For example, the schools they attended were known to be of poorer quality; girls were often stopped from continuing past grade eight (after all, they wouldn’t need it for running a home and raising kids); and moving frequently meant they lost a lot of time in school. So why was I blaming them for something beyond their control?
Another popular example of deficit ideology is when women are told to wear different clothing or take self-defense classes to prevent themselves from being attacked by men. This assumes that sexual harassment and assault are women’s problems, when in fact most of the time it’s men who are the perpetrators and therefore the ones responsible for solving the problem. Instead of focusing on the perpetrators and how our society enables their bad behavior, we blame the victims.
Though we don’t name it or recognize how it functions, we’re immersed in deficit ideology. We may even believe it’s a good thing, particularly when it absolves us of any responsibility for systemic inequality. In actuality, it works against us, distracting us from the real issues and breeding inequity and injustice.
Deficit Ideology in the Church
Looking at the church, we may think deficit ideology happens predominantly in complementarian churches. Yet, it can happen in egalitarian churches too, particularly if the theological change freeing women to participate equally in ministry has just happened.
Theologically, a given church has agreed that women are permitted to preach, lead, and teach, but ideologically there are still barriers. For example, a pastor, deacon, or elder position opens, and no women apply or seem eligible. People may blame women—saying they’re not interested in the roles or aren’t qualified for the roles—instead of seeing that women have historically been excluded and not able to train for the roles in question. In other words, it’s a social deficit (a systemic inequality), not a deficit in women, that led to the shortage of women applicants.
In addition, most churches are still led by men and employ traditionally masculine leadership models and styles, meaning that women don’t see people like them in those positions and therefore dismiss themselves as candidates for the position. It’s also crucial to note that church leadership tends to be white and conforms to white cultural and leadership practices, making it even harder for women of color to rise to leadership positions.
What We Can Do
So, what can we do to help prevent deficit ideology from inhabiting in and ruling over our churches? I propose a deep and wide approach.
Get to the root of the issue at hand by continuing to ask “why.” If no women are applying or seeming eligible for a new leadership position, ask questions. Why are no women applying? None are eligible. Why? They don’t have sufficient training, and many feel they don’t fit the position description. Why? They’ve been excluded from training programs and the position has been geared toward men. Why? Only men have been permitted to fill these positions and only men have been defining what makes a good leader.
What can we do now? Create more inclusive leadership definitions and models so that we reflect and welcome a diverse pool of leaders. Promote programs and other opportunities for women to be trained and equipped for leadership positions.
Broadening the scope, a wide view pushes us to view the issue in context. We must ask who and what impacts the scenario. This is not just individuals or groups, but systemic or institutional issues. Here are some questions that can help widen your approach:
- What or who has contributed to the situation or problem we have now?
- How and by whom has leadership, success, or spirituality been defined here? Are there other ways of looking at it?
- How might our cultural context be impacting our theology surrounding the issue?
- Who is being included in our evaluation and conclusions? Who is represented here? Is there space and safety to challenge each other and the status quo?
The deep and wide approach is not a cure-all for deficit ideology, but it can go a long way to opening our eyes to the real issues at hand and creating greater possibilities for our churches to be equitable for women. So, when we make decisions, when we hold meetings, when we explain problems or results, and when we apply solutions, let’s take the deep and wide approach.
For more on deficit ideology, check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PukJq0xApQ8&feature=youtu.be