During one of our 2020 Zoom Sunday morning services, a preteen in our church expressed emotions that I recognized as symptoms of anxiety. We were talking about our biggest fears, and she felt comfortable relating hers.
I don’t battle anxiety. I don’t personally know the feelings. I know some signs, and I have compassion for those who struggle with it, but I don’t understand those struggles to the extent that I could offer on-the-spot help when she needed it.
I knew someone in the church who did. I called on her during our Zoom hour, and she gave that girl brilliant tips on managing her feelings, as well as the security of knowing someone else understood.
Yes, our “sermons” look a little different than the average. I don’t do all the talking. I love to get up and give a good sermon, and make no mistake, I’m good at it. Increasingly, though, I’ve realized that’s not the best tool in my box to disciple people.
In fact, because I’d been doing collaborative preaching for a few years, our transition to online wasn’t as difficult as it was for so many churches. People were already involved each week, so we didn’t move to “talking heads” on video. We simply continued more of the same via Zoom.
The Case for Collaboration
In my years of doctorate research, I learned about the promise of collaborative preaching on Sunday mornings. Women, this is our superpower. We are collaboration experts—science says so. This can have its benefits and pitfalls, but as leaders, we can choose to use it well.
Women are stereotyped as bringing a communal, nurturing presence to the workplace. So most collaborative work falls on them, either by choice or mandate. Women do most of the mentoring, training, and extra assistance, but they receive less recognition or tangible reward for it.1
The outlook on collaboration differs between genders as well. Researcher and consultant Pam Hein found that, “Women are more likely to agree with the statement ‘Being a good team player means helping all of my colleagues with what they need to get done’ while men believe, ‘Being a good team player is knowing your position and playing it well.’”2
Science believes in women’s edge in collaborative work. In a global study of fifteen-year-olds, “teams of girls outperformed boys in collaborative problem solving.”3 Women are statistically more attracted to teamwork as well. Unfortunately, this appears linked to their feeling that others might be more competent than they are, while men feel more self-confident in their solo abilities.4, 5 Nevertheless, women understand that facilitating a group project can net far better results than operating as a lone ranger.
But what does this have to do with Sunday morning preaching? Research (including my own doctoral work) shows that communal efforts before, during, and after sermons improve congregational discipleship. Enjoyment of the subject and an ability to articulate and act on what they’ve learned improves greatly when congregations have participated in their own learning. School kids aren’t the only ones who do better when they’re actively involved. Turns out, so do adult church members.
In our church, this collaborative approach takes several forms, including:
- Hands-on experiments
- Congregational teaching
- Guest speakers and panelists
In all this, I’m doing two things. I’m using the tool of collaboration to disciple people in a far deeper way than they otherwise would be. And I’m using my edge as a female pastor to use that tool better.
Hesitancies on the Road to Collaboration
One of the greatest obstacles to interactive preaching is actually the pastor’s ego. It’s difficult to take the steps needed to succeed in this type of teaching. First, a pastor has to admit they could be wrong or not have all the information necessary to answer a question. Most pastors aren’t comfortable with that, but female pastors feel more at ease for several reasons.
In the global study mentioned above, girls “tend to be more interested in others’ opinions and want others to succeed.”6 Again, this can be hazardous as women subject their opinions and voices to men, but in the pulpit, it has advantages. A woman pastor who has a genuine interest in the thoughts of others will be less likely to fear those thoughts and guard against them. She will want the group to succeed in the goal—discipleship—rather than herself to succeed in being the sole authority. Girls and students of color in that study showed an attitude that the majority of boys did not: they “think teams make better decisions than individuals.”7 The majority of boys preferred to work together when it suited their individual goals, but not when it met those of the team.
Women are also better at “boundary spanning”8—the key to getting out of our silos and ensuring communication is heard and understood across levels.
Teachers also need to feel confident enough to allow their congregation, and the Holy Spirit, to steer the conversation in a way they might not have planned. I ask questions, and I know where I think the discussion should go, but sometimes I’m surprised that people really need to focus elsewhere. Recently, what I thought would be a side topic (the difficulty in understanding ritual purity laws) ended up being central. The congregation wanted to know how to answer friends who argued that the Old Testament God was capricious and just plain weird. I couldn’t have anticipated that, but I’m glad we had that discussion.
In fact, group intelligence—the ability for a group to be effective and wise in what they accomplish—increases when more women are on the team! This is believed to be because women are more perceptive to the nonverbal cues of other team members and thus more encouraging toward the contribution of members with something to say.9
By these measures, women who teach collaboratively have the advantage over men in the pulpit. Men are statistically more likely to collaborate when it comes to expertise and knowledge—they will offer what they know. Women, however, work with others in a more holistic manner.10 This greater scope is what a congregation needs to grapple with difficult questions and mystery, not just knowledge of Scripture. While this giving of self can become overwhelming, it can also be a positive trait for discipleship.
As we accelerate toward a culture that expects collaboration and participation, women are uniquely situated to disciple better, because this is what we’ve known all along.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.
- Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2016, 74–79, https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload.
- Renee Cullinan, “In Collaborative Work Cultures, Women Carry More of the Weight,” Harvard Business Review, 24 July 2018, https://hbr.org/2018/07/in-collaborative-work-cultures-women-carry-more-of-the-weight.
- Tim Sandle, “Women Are Better at Collaborative Work Than Men,” Digital Journal, 10 December 2017, http://www.digitaljournal.com/business/women-are-better-at-collaborative-work-than-men/article/509630.
- Drake Baer, “Why Women Collaborate, Men Work Alone, and Everybody’s Angry,” Fast Company, 24 October 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3020561/why-women-collaborate-men-work-alone-and-everybodys-mad.
- Derek Thompson, “Why Women Prefer Working Together (and Why Men Prefer Working Alone),” The Atlantic, 21 August 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/08/why-women-prefer-working-together-and-why-men-prefer-working-alone/278888/.
- Andreas Schleicher, “Girls ‘Better at Co-Operating on Problems,’” BBC News, 21 November 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/education-42018274.
- Schleicher, “Girls ‘Better at Co-Operating.’”
- Sarah Jane Gilbert, “The Silo Lives! Analyzing Coordination and Communication in Multiunit Companies,” Working Knowledge, Harvard Business School, 22 September 2008, https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6011.html.
- Fernando L. Mompó, “Women Are Better Collaborators (Now Scientifically Demonstrated),” Co-Society, 15 April 2016, http://www.co-society.com/women-better-collaborators-now-scientifically-demonstrated/.
- Cross, Rebele, and Grant, “Collaborative Overload.”