Thursday, November 15, 2012

The problem with 'women's ministry' #1 - A Question.

Let me say from the outset that I'm a fan of women's ministry. I'm a woman and I like being ministered to. I am taught the faith, prayed for and served by many, and I am grateful to God for this.


I think our current notion of 'women's ministry' exacerbates the problem that Jenny and others have outlined of labelling neutral life options as christian or non-christian. I also think that well-meaning women's ministries sometimes cause us to lose track of what the gospel actually is, and bog us down with other things leading to self righteousness or despair.

I'm going to write a series of posts outlining what I see as the problem. I'd love all sorts of people to chime in. Feel free to give your opinion. Disagree strongly if you like. I'm thinking all this through at the moment because we're moving into a new church in a new city next year and we get to do some re-inventing.

Let's start with a question.

Is it possible for a woman to be ministered to entirely in mixed settings and to thrive in her faith?

She could go to church on Sunday, go to a combined men and women's bible study group, never meet formally with an older christian woman to chat through christian living issues, not go near women's conferences and never read christian books or blogs written specifically for women.

What do you think? What's your gut reaction?

I think all of us agree that this situation is possible, perhaps in a situation where there isn't really an alternative, but do you think it's okay? If there was a 'women's ministry' program in your church - maybe a bible study group, a breakfast, a day conference - would you think she ought to join in or would you be good with her just doing the mixed group ministry thing?

I'm keen to hear what you think!


  1. I'm going to rain on this parade and suggest that it's not possible for the situation to arise. It would require, not just the absence of a women's ministry per se, but also extreme vigilance by all men in the area: "Oh no, two unaccompanied women serving the coffee. Quick, one of you blokes join them before they start talking!" It'd be a very weird segregation that never allowed two women to be together...

    So my thought is that this can't be construed as black and white, only as a matter of degrees. Every church with women has women's ministry, though not all of it formalised.

  2. "never meet formally with an older christian woman"

    Formally is the key word here.

    1. Even so, it's not going to stop ministry going on. It's hard to isolate your not-ministered-to women under laboratory conditions ;-)

  3. I think it's totally okay. Women's conferences are a relatively recent thing, and women have thrived as Christians for centuries without them, and without feeling the need for a Women's Devotional Bible.

    I guess it depends how you define 'women's ministry'. I attend church on Sunday, I am a member of a 'mixed' Bible study, I don't read books or blogs specifically aimed at women, I don't attend women's conferences (although I have in the past, but as an unmarried women I felt largely excluded anyway) and I don't meet with a Christian woman specifically to talk about being a Christian woman. But I meet fortnightly with two other women to pray, and I go walking every week with another Christian woman. In both those things we do talk about Christian things, but I still wouldn't call it specific women's ministry. Yes, we are women, but we talk through issues of being Christians, not specifically being Christian WOMEN. It probably comes up fairly organically, but it's not our main focus.

    I guess ultimately I have never seen a lot of value in women's ministry, at least for me. Most issues that are gender-specific tend to come up in friendships anyway. But I realise I'm probably in a minority. :)

  4. I hope that your scenario is OK, because that's exactly my situation at the moment: I go to church on a Sunday, host a mixed children's cell group (with male and female leaders) on a Wednesday, meet in a mixed bible study on a Thursday evening, and go to a women-specific conference/weekend on average only once every two years. And I feel like my faith is thriving nevertheless.

    I'm at St Michael le Belfrey in York (UK), which is a large evangelical Anglican church. Although we do have a women's group, it's more of a social and outreach group.

    I feel that predominantly mixed settings are particularly beneficial for me at the moment, because since my husband became an atheist about six years ago I think it's vital for our children to see strong male Christians as well as female ones. I also think that men have a different perspective on things often, and it's useful to me to have that sort of input - once I would have taken that from my husband, but that's obviously not the case anymore. [None of which is to say anything but that he is an excellent man!]

    I have recently started praying regularly with three other women, but it's not a formal arrangement. Also, we tend to chat a lot (surprise!) and not concentrate on quality praying.

    In my experience of women's groups or women's ministry, you either get narrowly-focused issues or else exactly the same sort of topics/issues/discussion you'd get in a mixed group. In the first case, I don't always identify with the narrow issues, and in the second case it seems artificial to exclude men. I'm sure there are terrific groups out there, but I'm yet to find the right one.

  5. A few thoughts... The Bible consistently talks about church as 'family' and I think this paradigm helps us here. Just as it's important for families to sometimes meet as a whole, (Christmas, birthdays, family dinners) so it's important for churches to meet as a whole (main gatherings). But the richness of family is also brought out when members gather according to their God-given relationships within the family (sisters to sisters, brothers to brothers, etc...). I would think we lose something of the richness of God's family if we don't gather in all the different ways that are possible within the family of God.

    Interestingly at the church my family attends in the morning, we've scrapped the traditional Women's Ministry, Men's Ministry teams etc... and gone for Rick Warren's 5 M's - so we have Maturity, Ministry, Mission and Memebership teams (magnification overarches them all) and each team is responsible for thinking through how to do their jobs for all parts of the church and the community i.e, the Maturity team, among other things works to think through how to grow the women in their faith in a number of ways, the Mission team, among other things, think through how to do women's evangelism. The thing I really like about this model is that it removes any territorial/kudos gaining from being "on the women's ministry committee". This model has meant that every woman at church has to be involved in women's ministry as all the teams do their thing. We have 2 paid ministers who oversee two of these teams each.

  6. I'm with Sue - member of a mixed gender Sunday congregation, member of a mixed gender Bible-study group, member of a mixed gender prayer group, don't meet formally with an older member of the congregation (male or female) to talk about Christian living issues, don't tend to read blogs or books because they are aimed at women but because I like the subject as a human being. I have gone to an annual women's conference (you know the one) but that's at least as much to potentially see friends IRL as for the topics under discussion.

    A bit like Sue, I can feel on the outer at 'women's conferences' because (despite being married and currently 'unemployed') my life does not revolve around home, hearth, hubby and hereditary (children) - if the topics were ever about "how to be a 'good Christian' wife and mother" I'd never darken that door.

    Likewise if it assumed that I didn't work in a regular job and was always scheduled for a weekday (yes, I'm aware that any day has problems for somebody e.g. shift workers). The problem with a lot of 'women's ministry' things is that they are aimed at SAHM or retirees only by having most events on a weekday morning...and I don't go to 'women's' breakfasts for the same reasons that I don't go to workplace breakfasts - I'm a night person, we only have one car (Ian needs it to get to work) and I'm unlikely to get fed properly.

    I get my dose of female friendships at the craft groups I go to (I'm the youngest member) and with other 'secular' friendships or family (three older sisters, no brothers, close to an auntie, God-sister's family...)

    The other thing you could ask yourself is if you're okay with the men in your congregation not going to any specifically 'men's ministry' activities / reading things aimed solely at men. If you think they could jog along happily as a Christian without these things, then why should this also not be true for women?

    The other thing that gets me is, aren't we ALL meant to be ministering to each other, regardless of gender? Like going to a GP, if I have a specifically 'girlie' issue, I'll seek out a female, but if none are available then a bloke will do - I'm no longer that squeamish and precious about these things (it can be lifesaving).

  7. It is OK, but its not Biblical. In Titus 2, Paul tell Titus he must teach the older women so they can teach the younger women ... We want older women teaching the younger women. (similarly for older/younger men)
    I also struggle with Christian women's conferences - especially as so many focus on the 'women' part rather than the 'Christ' part... but I think that means we need to improve the conferences rather than scrap them.
    At Crossroads we use something like the 5 M's but in a simpler fashion - Connect, Grow, Serve and my key role at church is in the serve area which is across genders. BUT I also meet with the female Growth Group leaders and am involved with our mid-week women's Bible study groups. These mid-week groups are partly a pragmatic thing of the time young mums are available to meet, but i think they are also invaluable for ensuring those young mums get to meet with older mums and encouraged to put Christ first in all of life - even when your children are young and keeping you awake all night.
    Basically, God has made us gendered for a reason and he gives specific male/female commands to men and women in the Bible so i think there is a place for men getting together occasionally to encourage each other to be obedient to the commands given specifically to them and same for women. Pretending to be androgynous is not the answer ...


  8. As Michelle said, Titus lays out a pattern for us of older women teaching younger women. As long as this is happening, I think it *might* be okay to do away with the formal stuff.

    It would be lovely to have a church where older women are naturally taking the initiative to train younger women, and relationships are an organic free-flow of mutual encouragement, teaching and confessing of sin to each other. This isn't always the case, hence the reliance on 'official' women's ministry. I think there is another way forward: work on changing the culture of the church, so women take initiative to develop gospel based relationships with each other (that is, friendships that are built on our foundation in Christ and genuine Christian living, not just having kids the same age, talking about boys or getting together for a gossip).

  9. Another thought. One of the problems with women's programs is that they can often be too prescriptive, i.e. how high should my singlet top be? Should I wear a bikini at church? Is working as a mum okay? How many times should I be having people over? What is more godly: a clean house or a messy house? (I have heard two completely different answers on this in my years going to women's events). As someone who has given a number of women's talks and pastored different women, I find dwelling in the prescriptive unhelpful. But for some reason, you can't get away from it in women's ministry. Far better to establish the heart motivation behind why we do things - to focus on truly 'getting' grace, reading the Bible for ourselves (rather than always relying on a women's speaker to do application for you) and making Christ the center of our lives.

    A friend of mine made a really insightful comment on this. Helping women live out authentically christian lives takes time and ongoing relationships. You can't do this with easy one-liners. If all you have are events, talks and books then it's easy to be left with a prescriptive list of do's and don'ts rather than genuine gospel living.

  10. Onlinesoph we need to talk! You so speak my language!!

  11. I'm with you both, MichelleP and Onlinesoph!

  12. Thanks everyone, so far. Keep 'em coming.

  13. Lots of smaller churches have no formal "women's ministry". I have never gone to a women's conference in my life -- I find mixed gender events much more interesting. Most of this stuff didn't exist even one generation ago.

    1. Maybe there's been a bit of an explosion in recent years, but the CWA has been around for generations.

  14. Of course it is okay. Because it is in Christ that we have everything we need for life and godliness. Otherwise we'd be saying that God couldn't work to bring about the maturity He desired for them because the local church didn't have a special women's discipling program. That said, the Bible tells us that women encouraging and teaching other women is really helpful to Christian growth. What it does NOT say is how this is to be done. It doesn't say, "You'll meet once every fortnight and work through this specific Bible study booklet on homemaking with the pretty pink cover." I often feel these debates have a lot to do with cultural isolation.

  15. This isn't a gut reaction, since I saw this first thing this morning and have been thinking about it off and on during today ;)
    I would probably answer "yes" to your question though, except for the bit about needing to learn from/be taught by an older Christian woman (since that is actually in the Bible). I guess things like women's conferences and books/blogs might equate to being taught by a woman who is more mature in the faith though. I have certainly found this since I've started following blogs and getting through more Christian books aimed at women.
    But I do find I enjoy mixed Bible study groups more than ladies-only ones. The difficulty I find with women's ministries and study groups is that they are often (as Laetitia pointed out) geared very much towards mothers, and, given the time of day they are scheduled, at stay at home mothers. This tends to happen with other growth groups as well (at our church there's an "older people" one and a "young single adult" one, for example). That's not to say that there won't be a more mature Christian person/woman in your group that you can learn from/be mentored by, but it does often mean that our conversations tend to revolve around issues related to the particular life stage you are in (for example, parenting young children and the choices involved therein....) and perhaps less around how we are going in our Christian lives.

  16. Yep, I think the titus older women teaching younger is significant. Submission, loving children, respecting husband etc, we all need lots of help on. But how that happens can and should vary, depending on the context.

    Perhaps the wording could change in the question? We all probably agree it's possible - God can look after us even in solitary confinement! Maybe change it to optimal?

    Can you just briefly explain what jenny talked about in "labelling neutral life options as Christian and non-Christian" or link us to it?

    I agree that women's groups can lead to either self righteousness or despair. The home bakers look down on the ones who shop-bought cakes and vice versa. But that's not a reason to get rid of it, it's a reason to keep loving one another despite (and even sometimes because of) our differences.

    I think it's also really important to remember that many women feel intimidated or uninterested in mixed groups. (I'm not smart enough/I don't know my Bible well enough/I'm not interested in theoretical discussions etc). But generally these people won't comment in this type of forum. Most of the women here - I am guessing - feel relatively at home in a man's world, so it would be worth asking women in a different context.

  17. A formal women's ministry is not necessary, or the Bible would command it.

    An informal women's ministry - that is, women encouraging one another in their faith, and older women teaching, training and setting an example in godliness to younger women: well, Titus 2:3-5 makes it pretty clear that Paul gives the latter responsibility to older women (rather than to male overseers like Timothy), and in any mixed group of Christians (ie a church) you'd hope the first was happening naturally and organically.

    So, no, it's not necessary for it to be formal; but, yes, there should be some ministry of "women to women" in any healthy church.

    This will include "women's issues" (hence the list in Titus 2:4-5) - in fact, I'd think informal and formal women's ministry would rightly include issues particularly relevant to women - but hopefully not just "women's issues", not an "exclusive" version of them (e.g. for mums only), and certainly not an unbiblically legalistic version of them (e.g. patchwork and homeschooling).

    In Titus 2 it's the gospel that drives all our behaviour, teaching and training, whatever group we belong to. So gospel, gospel, and more gospel: that's what I'd hope to see in women's teaching and women's encouragement.

    If women's ministry doesn't major on the gospel and good, meaty Bible teaching, but instead on some legalistic version of what womanhood looks like, or just on the mums and married amongst us, no wonder if many women feel discouraged and alienated by it.

    But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s have women encouraging women with the gospel and God’s word, whether formally or informally doesn’t really matter.

  18. ps I'm aware that not of of this is directly related to your question, more to the ongoing discussion!

    Is it possible for a woman to be ministered to entirely in mixed settings and to thrive in her faith? Is it okay for her to avoid women's events?

    Yes; and yes, it's okay (or the Bible would command her to attend). But you'd hope that women will be ministering to one another informally, at least. And you'd hope it's not fear - or an ineptly run program - keeping her away.

  19. Sounds like a blessed relief to me ... (answering your initial question).

  20. Funny Simone, when I first read "Women's ministry" I immediately thought of the ministry that we women give to others ... I had to re-read the first couple of lines before I twigged you were talking about the ministry women get from others! Which makes me wonder if women just naturally like to give more than get. When I think of all the women's ministry I've been a part of, much of it has revolved around service to others rather than ourselves.
    In answering your question, I think that yes, it's entirely theoretically possible that Women could have all their ministry done in a mixed settings, and be completely fulfilled. But sometimes it's just great to be able to hang out among other women and talk about women specific issues. Both are good. Both have value.

  21. Simone, I'm interested that your question asks about a woman being ministered to. I think it's probably hard to divorce growth in maturity from ministering to others as well. There are a stack of ways to do that that may not have anything to do with a women's ministry but I think one valuable thing about women's ministries is that they can give women with teaching gifts the opportunity to develop them.

  22. I think my basic answer would be yes. My day-to-day experience is learning in mixed settings and I can only remember attending one 'women's ministries' event. It's not that I don't like them, it's just that the time and place are usually quite inconvenient for me. I've always thought that the Titus 2 passage isn't referring to formal instruction e.g. we'll meet every Thursday at 10 am, but more of an informal encouragement by our conversation and the way we live our life. We don't need it to be institutionalised. Some will say that the older women aren't doing the job of teaching the younger ones. With two adult children I feel like I'm starting to creep into the 'older woman' category. I'm wondering whether older women are a little reluctant to start encouraging younger women because they worry about being seen as too prescriptive (not wanting to say you are more/less Christian if you do this or that). As a younger woman it's good to seek advice from older women and to consider it in light of what the Bible has to say about the issue.


    Here's my solution to the formal/informal with Titus 2 ....

  24. I'm not sure if I should say it, but Women's ministry can sometimes make me nauseous. It's focus often annoys me, so I try to avoid it.

    On the other hand I have had in the past been mentored by an older an older women and found that to be beneficial.