Counsel for a Complementarian Pastor
Complementarians celebrate that men and women are not interchangeable, that while we are created equal in value and dignity as image-bearers and co-rulers of creation, we are distinct from one another in good and mutually beneficial ways. Unless your church is a statistical outlier, more than half of its seats are filled each week by women, which means that a majority of your congregation is not like you in some fairly significant ways. Studies show that women form moral judgments differently than men do, that they have different communication styles and different relational needs. Their participation levels and contributions in mixed gender groups are different than men’s. It would be logically inconsistent to affirm that men and women are not interchangeable and then disciple them as though they are. How should these differences impact the way your church ministers to women?
I believe it is a pastor’s charge and privilege to value, cultivate, and deploy a discipleship vision for every woman of his church. But to do so will require that he think beyond a male perspective of ministry. I offer four suggestions to help you do just that.
1. Know what shapes their thinking.
The women of your church may not be listening to the same voices you are, nor may they filter messages the same way you do. While you were following blog posts about the latest mega-pastor downward spiral or creation debate, they were likely reading about the evils of yoga pants. Your women were probably aware of Fifty Shades of Grey far sooner than you were. They gave Jesus Calling a space on their bedside tables and a place in their quiet times for a full seven years before Challies blogged about it.
Do you know what books and blogs your women are reading, both secular and sacred? Can you name ten dominant female Christian voices on the internet or in the women’s section of the Christian bookstore? Do you know the messages each of these women is communicating? Which female bloggers, writers, and teachers are faithfully pushing women toward godliness? Make it a point to educate yourself on the voices that are speaking to your women the loudest. Pastor them towards those voices (both male and female) that they can trust.
2. Seek their perspective.
We are all, to some extent, prisoners of our own experience. That’s a simple reality, and it’s only a liability if we are not aware of it. But it does mean we have to stretch ourselves to see another’s perspective. If you’ve lived your entire life as a man it’s possible you may not see the same needs, sense the same hurts, or value the same issues the women of your congregation do. But don’t worry—help is at hand!
To be clear, I’m not talking about your wife. Though her perspective is valid and valuable, it’s not likely to represent the normative experience of women in your church. Because of her relationship to you, she is usually connected, sought after to lead, and surrounded by attention without going through the normal channels the average woman does. This is not her fault, but it does mean you would be wise to ask some pointed questions of other women in your congregation about how connected, valued, and equipped they feel.
It takes bravery on your part to ask, and it takes a brave group of women to respond honestly to that inquiry. Help put them at ease by being the only man in the room. Studies show that even when meetings are split 50/50 along gender lines men do most of the talking. Women tend to be silent for fear of being negatively stereotyped. You will be amazed at the vulnerability level that results when you shift the gender ratio heavily toward female. And remember, just because you may not be able to relate to her experience doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Seek to understand as a brother.
3. Help them lead.
If Deborah or Huldah were a member of your church, would she have a place to exercise her gifts? We complementarians have some work to do to reclaim and celebrate the notion of women as leaders. Regrettably, many of our churches hold simultaneously a pure theology and a broken practice: We may affirm equal value and dignity with our lips, but our ministry structures tend to be far from it. And women are taking note. Seeing few or no places to serve, women with untapped gifts often conclude they must change their theology to be able to serve meaningfully in the church. We don’t want our female leaders to leave. We want them to find their places in leadership with us, but how?
We must actively help them. Leaders rarely develop in a vacuum; most can point to a senior leader who advocated for them. Pastor, what gifted and able women in your church need your guidance and advocacy? Be proactive about identifying and empowering women to lead. Pursue them to serve, and then lend them credibility by publicly celebrating their gifts. Evaluate and, if necessary, adapt your ministry structures and hiring practices to ensure they reflect your belief in the vital contributions of women.
4. Set them up to win.
Because women are typically primary caregivers, ministry to women is a “ministry of more-than-halfway.” It requires us to think not just in terms of, “What discipleship opportunities can we make available?” but to meet women more than halfway by asking, “How can we remove as many participation barriers as possible?” If women’s Bible study is scheduled at 6:30am on Wednesday it’s probably not going to gel. If women don’t have midsize settings to meet other women of varying life stages, organic mentoring relationships will likely be slow to form. Having gathered their input on needs and challenges, implement a ministry model that is both meaningful and accessible. How much budget can you allocate for childcare to ease the cost of participation? Is a retreat format or a conference format more doable for your women? What is the typical ebb and flow of the calendar for women in your demographic, and how can you accommodate it? Make participation as easy as possible, and women will invest their time.
Pastor, what elements of your discipleship strategy affirm the equal but distinct needs and gifting of women? Take steps to enter into our experience. We comprise over half your church, and we crave your empathy, your active attention, and your nurture to flourish both inside and outside its walls. We are not interchangeable, so help us be our best complementary selves.