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Emerging Women

Are Women Leaders Finding a Place in the Post-Modern Church?

On a Sunday morning in downtown Portland, Deborah Loyd stands to offer the message to a crowd of 150 at the church she planted with her husband, Ken, and best friend, Crystal. Her white-blonde dreadlocks tucked neatly in a colorful scarf, tattooed arms outstretched so she can read the text for today’s sermon — Deborah defies the modern church’s definition of what a pastor should be.

A thousand miles away in a 150-year-old church in St. Paul, Minn., Debbie Blue stands at a simple lectern and reads her prose to a group of 30-something urbanites, many over-educated and underemployed. This is not an open mic night. This is church. This is the House of Mercy — the space Debbie created with her pastor friends Russ and Mark, so people like her could gather and move together toward a shared vision of Christ.

As our culture continues to wax cynical about the viability of religion, women across the country are using their creativity and their pastoral callings to make space for people drawn to God in ways hard to explain on a traditional Sunday morning.

This is the emerging church — that invisible life force that manifests itself in living rooms, artist studios, old cathedrals and borrowed back rooms of neighbor- hood bars. No single institution or net- work of friends can claim full responsibility for its inception. No hierarchy or denomination holds its keys, and as a result more and more women leaders such as Deborah Loyd and Debbie Blue are finding the freedom and flexibility to innovate in ways that previously could not have been imagined. This is especially true for women whose faith springs from more conservative evangelical settings where the pastoral call of women is often ignored at best and more commonly, silenced.

For Blue, getting to this place required some imagination, faith and the camaraderie of friends. As pastor and parishioner in denominations where the inclusion of women was a long-held and lived-out value, Blue’s obstacles centered around figuring out how to make a living (an ongoing challenge), and explain to her newly formed congregation that this was church after all, even if the sermon sounded more like poetry and the theology seeped through the finely crafted music of the rockabilly House of Mercy band.

For Loyd, the move to pastorate and church planting came with the realization that there was really no room in the church she had been attending for women to fulfill their callings — and less room still for the disenfranchised youth to whom she longed to offer Christ’s love and hope. It didn’t take long for Loyd to realize following her call would also require leaving everything familiar behind. Finding the funds and emotional resources to bring her sense of mission to reality required raiding her own bank account as well as taking her marriage to the heart of egalitarian practice, far beyond the comforts of a shared ideology. Deborah and Ken succeeded, but it wasn’t easy.

When Loyd and Blue arrive in the strange new land we call the emerging church, where do they find the encouragement and support to establish new forms of ministry?

Mentors and friends

For many women involved in new church plants, access and opportunity come in the form of friendships with key mentors, often male, who have both the desire and ability to open new doors and make vital connections. While success in the emerging church is not dependent on this kind of openhandedness, women leaders are well aware of the benefits they reap when friends, especially those with a long history of ministry experience, allow their influence and resources to be tailored to the needs of the leader and her new endeavor.

Church planter and founder of the Center for Emerging Female Leadership, Liz Rios cites Rudy Carrasco, a recognized voice in the faith-based initiative arena, as a personal encouragement. “To me, Rudy is a bridge builder and a model of how to encourage woman leaders. Rudy has been opening doors and helping make connections for me since the beginning of our friendship. I love the way he’s always thinking about how different kinds of people can contribute to the conversation. Gender just isn’t a barrier.” This kind of encouragement made all the difference for Rios, especially when it was clear Carrasco and the communities he represents would gain nothing from his generous effort. Other leaders, including Spencer Burke, Jim Henderson and Brian McLaren are well known for their similar styles of encouragement.

But this kind of tangible support for women is rare, even in the organizations and communities that seek to provide resources to the emerging church. Too often these women, while experiencing warm welcome and support within the communities they create and sustain, find themselves oddly placed on the outskirts of the very conversations and gatherings that seek to represent the realities of the emerging church — the very realities they themselves as innovative women leaders embody. As an active participant in Emergent and a blogger who focuses on women in leadership, I often find myself in the unique position of hearing about these women’s experiences.

At national conferences and during theological conversations, male participation still dominates many seminar discussions. When emerging women innovators manage to overcome obstacles of expense and childcare to attend, they are met with a scant handful of female presenters, many of whom have no first-hand, on the-ground knowledge of the emerging church, and many more male presenters who are often unaware of the unique contributions women are making in the movement.

Mutuality, where men and women lead together and share power as peers, is still not a functional reality in the organizations and networked friendships that claim the mission of providing resources to the emerging church. And while the ideology is present to fully embrace women as viable leaders in our new context, old ties to a more conservative evangelical ethos are painfully apparent as key male leaders in the movement struggle to recognize female peers and share power so these essential voices can stand beside them to lead the way. Movement leaders, eager for change, find themselves stretched to make room in a conversation that has so far been largely shaped by their own voices. Perhaps new allies will be needed across gender lines to mentor the movement to the truest embodiment of gender equality.

Thankfully, for women who find themselves compelled to live out their mission call in the everyday world of the post-Christian culture, participation in a national dialogue about the seismic cultural shifts affecting the church today is not required. Women leaders beyond the personal reach of allies like Rudy Carrasco, Jim Henderson, Spencer Burke or others may miss opportunities to bring their well-tried wisdom and creativity to the larger conversation, but they are never excluded from the adventures of the Spirit. This is the beauty of the emerging church; no form of innovation and creative expression is out of place where the local community issues a welcome.

Only time and patience will reveal if the emerging church in all its forms — local communities and national gatherings — will come together to jointly reflect the power and innovation of women’s unique leadership. In the interim, more and more women are finding the courage to embrace the call to cultivate new communities of faith, often overcoming obstacles within themselves to recognize their place in God’s kingdom. More men are finding ways to offer tangible support. And little by little, partnerships will continue to develop where men and women join as peers to fully engage the ethos of the changing culture — a culture that often holds mutuality as a litmus test for what is trustworthy and right.

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