While in seminary, I helped plan a chapel program with the theme “Opening Doors: How Men can Create Welcoming Environments for Women in Ministry.” The idea grew out of the commonly held, chivalrous view that men should open doors for women. While there are a variety of views on whether or not that act is still necessary or appropriate, I don’t have a dog in that fight. If I get to a door first, I will probably open it for you out of common courtesy, whether you are male or female. But I do find it ironic that men are often expected to open doors for women physically, but in other avenues of life (including church ministry contexts) “it ain’t necessarily so.”
No matter your church context – whether your church ordains women as ministers of the gospel, whether they involve women as preachers or only in potlucks, whether they draw the line at eldership, or grant full equality in role and function – there are steps men can take to help women feel valued, welcomed, and included. Here are some ways you can “open doors” for women in ministry.
***Choose language carefully. Words and phrases are culturally conditioned. Sometimes words that don’t seem like a big deal to you come across as hurtful, demeaning, or dismissive to the women in the room. Choose to rise above cultural expectations and use language (consistently) that uplifts, encourages, and affirms women. Call out those in your circles that use off-color jokes, gender stereotypes, or otherwise demeaning language toward women. If you use a masculine metaphor for God in the worship service (Matt 6:9; Ex 15:3), be willing to include a feminine one as well (Deut 32:11, 18, Matt 23:37).
*** Be willing to sit in the discomfort of your privilege pressing hard against the reality of oppression. White male privilege can blind you to this reality in women. The fact that you feel right or comfortable is not license to assume that those who claim oppression, marginalization, and vulnerability are wrong. Listen to their stories and concerns. Recognize the tendency for privilege to blind you to others’ perspectives. Pray for humility and teachability.
***Show intentionality in whom you invite to speak, read, sing, and pray. You can choose to limit white male access on the platform because of your commitment to diversify the participant line up. There will always be MORE experienced men available, because men have been groomed from a young age to participate vocally in the service. That doesn’t mean women’s voices have less value. It means they have more often been silenced.
***Allow the silenced to have their own voice. Don’t just be the “voice for the voiceless.” Pass the mic to others. A different perspective is always valuable. Invite women into conversations about vision, leadership, perspectives, curriculum, a teaching series, church-wide changes, and pastoral care. When you implement ideas that they helped develop, give them public credit for their contributions.
***Pray for boldness to break the status quo, and the willingness and wisdom to know how and when to do so. If only white men have power (for instance, all elders at a church), they have the most ability and responsibility to make a change. Be willing to make changes that empower all members to join God in kingdom building work.
*** Accept your responsibility, without assuming you have ALL the responsibility. Women have to lean into their opportunities and follow God’s leading, whether or not the men in their lives open doors for them to go through. God often opens doors for women, regardless of men’s complicity or agreement. When God clearly opens a door for women, don’t stand in the doorway blocking God’s will.
***Honor each person’s uniqueness and giftedness. Our embodied reality includes gender, but that is not all it includes. Not all men are leaders. Not all women are nurturers. Not all men are teachers. Not all women like to cook. Honor those inherent differences in order to allow each person to realize their full potential in God’s image.
***Normalize women’s involvement at all levels. Don’t make it a big deal when you do invite a woman to speak or participate on a leadership team. Don’t treat her as if she is an anomaly, and you are making special concessions for her participation. Simply include them equally, and according to their gifts and calling.
***Offer your presence and be willing to dialogue with women who have experienced closed doors in ministry. Your presence is often more important than your words. Your presence communicates “You matter to me. We are all made in God’s image. You are not alone.” Your willingness to dialogue shows an openness to learning and growing. Your willingness to dialogue may be the reason she stays at your church, even if some doors remain closed.
***Choose faith over fear. Years of cultural conditioning, misguided worldviews, and sex-saturated media have led men and women to fear each other instead of forming deep friendships. Choose to see women as your sisters, made in the same image of God that you are. Choose to believe that the Holy Spirit can and will empower you to have healthy relationships with the opposite sex, instead of avoiding all contact with women over fear of temptation. Choose to be in deep community with both men and women as part of the image of God manifest in the church.
During the previously mentioned chapel, many women shared how men had opened doors for them in ministry…some told stories of how they had not. In every ministry context, there are dozens of untold stories, and women who need safe space to tell them. One video published by the United Methodist church addresses some of the oppression, frustration and even abuse women in their ministries have experienced. Their denominational policy affirms the common humanity and equal worth of women, along with the value of including women on decision-making teams. But church leaders have realized that their practice did not always align with their theology. As they shared stories of women in their denomination, they remind us
“Healing begins with first acknowledging the injuries. Faithfully hearing the stories of our sisters begins the healing process because we cannot mend what we are unaware is broken.”
When you become aware of what is broken, you have the power to assist in the healing.
What doors will you open for your sisters today?
*this post originally appeared as a winner in the 2017 Junia Project blog contest at https://juniaproject.com/men-open-doors-for-women/
The featured image is a painting by Heather Hodges Heflin and its story can be found at https://heatherhodgesart.com/collections/originals/products/copy-of-the-open-door
The door can only be opened from the inside.
PS – This painting now hangs in my office, next to my ordination certificate and graduate diplomas.