Opening Doors for Women*

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.

A Vision of Persistence

Sally Ride was a physicist who overcame prejudice to become the first American female astronaut in 1983. Ride later co-founded a non-profit to encourage young people to study science, highlighting the importance of providing role models for girls. Ride asserted “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”[1]

The truth of that statement resounds for me, though I never wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, I grew up loving the church and wanting to serve God. I reveled in Bible study, attended youth group functions, and helped with children’s classes and church potlucks. I traveled with college singing groups to church camps and youth rallies.

And then I majored in early childhood studies and became a wife, mom, and preschool teacher.

It wasn’t that God hadn’t yet “called” me to ministry – I was serving God in several ways. But all the women I knew were wives, moms, teachers, and (a few) nurses. Until I was 35 years old, I had never seen a woman lead a worship song or prayer. Until I was nearly 50, I had never seen or heard (in person) a woman preach a sermon.

            You can’t be what you can’t see.

My call to ministry followed “a long and winding road.” In addition to mothering, and working for a preschool, I spent several years in sales and recruiting. I was mentored by businesswomen who affirmed my leadership and teaching gifts. People invested in my potential by inviting me to train others and inspired my success in business. But those gifts didn’t seem valuable or needed in my church. It never occurred to me that I might use leadership and teaching gifts to build God’s kingdom – until I’d seen other women using those gifts in a church.

I’d like to think that none of my experience was wasted; each of them served to make me the person I am today. But I’m still a little sad that my calling was delayed – by circumstance, by an attitude, by a lack of vision of what could be. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as being silenced or marginalized. The priority of men in church leadership was simply ingrained in my DNA. It was all I’d ever known or seen. But it limited me, just the same.

Maybe that’s why the story of Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the Senate floor in February 2017 struck me so deeply. As I re-read reports of that week’s political news and remembered again my own sense of injustice at that event, I realized that the words used to explain her censure described decades of my own experience as well. [2]

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

She was warned

When I told others about my call to full-time ministry, some warned that I was just being influenced by feminism. Even though women now serve as CEOs and Senate leaders, the church is different. Women have limited roles, you need to stay in your place. I was happy as a wife and mom and I also enjoyed using my gifts of leadership and teaching in my sales business. But I grew incredulous that God would only want those gifts used to improve my family’s finances. Was my only purpose in life selling people “stuff”?

Others warned that I was influenced by a desire for power. Oh, you want to be a pastor so you can be in charge. You just want to take over the church with your own agenda.  Patriarchal bias and a misunderstanding of church leadership are so evident in these statements. When boys grow up serving the church it’s often assumed they will want to be ministers. So why is a woman’s motive questioned? Biblical ministry is not about personal power, “being in charge,” or organizational control.[3] Instead, it’s about using one’s God-given gifts to benefit the “common good.”[4]

She was given an explanation.

Others, rather than provide warnings about my motives, have instead given an explanation of why I cannot lead in ministry. Most explanations focus on two select texts colored by centuries of traditional bias.[5] Many quote the texts in question without providing any historical context or theological commitments behind the phrases. But both these texts are from letters – one to a church and one to a younger minister, dealing with specific problems. Both texts presume on the letter’s recipient having far more “background information” than any modern reader can. Both passages have significant textual variations which at the very least point out the need for humility rather than confidence regarding “what the text says.”[6]

While we sometimes downplay its impact, our worldview always influences how we read scripture. Many explanations of why women should not lead and teach are given with black and white assumptions instead of acknowledging the grayscale reality of how God works in different places and times, through diverse men and women. Some have even limited their explanations to Twitter’s 140 characters![7] But these explanations have not satisfied my curiosity or swayed me from my calling.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Interestingly, scripture itself convinced me of the importance of Biblical equality for women and men in ministry.  My theology about women was well-formed before I read any feminist theory. My commitment to the Biblical text led me to several realities that push back against those two limiting passages. One is the many examples of women who have served God’s purposes throughout history.[8] Another is the importance of all Christ-followers serving as priests.

For example, God prepares “works in advance for each of us” to do, “so that the body of Christ is built up” (Eph 2:10, 4:12). The Spirit distributes gifts to each one of us “for the common good” (1 Cor 12). God is the one who gives “different gifts,” but makes us “one body” (Rom 12). All of us are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood” who should “use [our] gifts to serve others” (1 Pet 2:9. 4:10). In these texts alone, more than 50 verses that remind us God is the one who gives these gifts for the good of the kingdom. Yet in none of these texts does God limit who might receive or use a gift based on gender. God doesn’t make mistakes when distributing these gifts. If the Holy Spirit has gifted someone to lead or teach or preach – God intends for those gifts to be used for God’s glory, and for the expansion of God’s kingdom.

Since this is true, I am empowered to persist because I want others to know Jesus. The Biblical story from beginning to end shows movement away from the fall’s curse – new life in Christ, freedom from sin, flourishing in relationships. God’s priority throughout scripture is that the life-giving gospel is proclaimed so that people might be saved.[9] We are called to participate in God’s kingdom work and live as people free from oppression who care for others and seek their well-being above our own.

I also persist because young girls – and other women – need to see “someone who looks like them” serving as a minister. They need to physically, visually see other women “doing whatever careers they might like to do someday.” They need to see it in their minds, as mentors speak value and vision into their lives. They need to see it in their future and recognize their own potential as they move toward that future. They need to believe it before they can achieve it.

            Because you can’t be what you can’t see.


[1] Quoted by Chelsea Clinton in She Persisted: 13 American Women who Changed the World (New York: Philomel Books, 2017). 22.

[2] One take on those proceedings is here: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/nevertheless-she-persisted-and-the-age-of-the-weaponized-meme/516012/

[3] For example, see Matt 9:35-38, Mark 10:35-45, Luke 4:16-21, Acts 3:6-10, Rom 16, 1 Cor 9:18-20, Phil 2:1-4, 1 Timothy 3, Heb 11:36-40.

[4] 1 Cor 12:7.

[5] 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-12

[6] Both Philip B. Payne, Men and Women in Christ (2009) and Cynthia L Westfall, Paul and Gender (2017) provide excellent bibliographies for further reading on the variety of textual and translation issues with these texts.

[7] One such thread: https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/practice-discomfort-centering-womens-pain-church?platform=hootsuite

[8] Deborah, Huldah, Esther, Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan woman at the well, Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, and Lydia all come to mind, to name just a few.

[9] Note Jesus’ priorities in Matt 9:12-13, Luke 4:42-43, Luke 19:10, Luke 22:42, John 4:34, Paul’s priorities in Rom 15:15-16 and 1 Cor 9:19-23, and God’s priorities in 1 Tim 2:3-4 and 4:15-16.

Cautious or Courageous?

A repost from 2013 –

My journey through vocation and ministry has been a long, winding road. Very few people have heard my full story, because at various intersections and roadblocks I’ve been able to overcome barriers without making a lot of noise. Additionally, I am cautious about what I post, or where I share my stories, because I don’t want people to jump to conclusions about what I believe without being willing to have an actual conversation about it. And there was a time when I was in a ministry job where I feared if I “showed my hand” too soon (or too loudly) I would have risked losing my income. I’m not so fearful now – partly because as a full time student, I have no income to lose. 🙂  But I also think that maybe my passion for God’s word and God’s will has fueled my courage for God’s women.
Many stories shared via Mike’s blog have been from God’s women within the churches of Christ who have stayed in those fellowships and found a voice and an outlet for their gifts. My path, instead, led me from non-instrumental churches, to a church plant that used acappella worship but allowed instrumental special music, to an “evangelical” independent Christian church…and most recently to seminary. I grew up a preacher’s kid who attended a small Christian school and two church of Christ colleges. I didn’t wake up one morning in my “c of C” life and say “HEY! I don’t fit here!” I just kept asking questions along the way, and watching to see what doors God would open.
The churches of Christ I attended in my 20s allowed me to work in children’s classrooms and cook for potluck suppers. If memory serves me well (and I’m 50 years old, so no guarantees) I participated by singing on a praise team a few times (on the front pew, with a mic) before congregational dissenters put an end to that novelty. When I was in my 30s, the church plant we joined allowed me to sing “special music” but not lead worship…when we merged with another church plant, women were allowed to sing on a praise team that led worship from the front, with microphones. That is, as long as a man was actually leading the praise team.
When we joined an independent Christian church it was immediately evident that women were allowed to do much more. Women occasionally read scripture or prayed in the service. Women were allowed participate on praise teams up front. Women were allowed to serve as “ministry coordinators” (their term for deacons, so no one could complain about “women deacons”). As a ministry coordinator I was allowed to lead a group of first impressions volunteers.
After we’d been there three years, I was hired as the Children’s Ministry Director. As such, I was considered part of the “pastoral staff” and I was allowed to attend all staff and elder meetings. In addition to “administrating the programs” involving children and families, I was allowed to participate in hospital calls, pastoral care, long range planning, and curriculum development. I co-wrote a class on spiritual gifts and led a church-wide initiative to connect people to serving opportunities. I led small-group Bible studies, and even spoke – from the pulpit, with a Bible in hand – for non-Sunday morning special services (twice in 11 years). I was allowed to do ministry in many ways.
I was “allowed” to do ministry.
Yet, in 1st Corinthians 12:4, 11, 18 we read      There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them…All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. …God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.
And in Ephesians 4:7, 11-12 says     To each one of us grace [gifts – same Greek word] has been given as Christ apportioned it…Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up
The Spirit distributes… God has placed… Christ apportioned…
Calling and giftedness are the role of the Godhead. Not one of the passages on spiritual gifts limits any specific gift to a specific gender. Not one of the passages on spiritual gifts suggests that church leaders have the job of assigning specific gifts or roles to specific people. Instead, church leaders are exhorted to equip God’s people for service. In fact, the purpose of such variety is for the benefit of the whole church, as well as for the growth and maturity of the individual using those gifts. Consider these other scriptures:
Continuing Ephesians 4: 12-16…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith…and become mature…speaking the truth in love we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament [NJB says “every joint adding its own strength!”] grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
And Romans 12:3-6…Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.
And I Corinthians 12:6-7There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
When I am asked a question about what I believe about women in ministry, the challenge often presented is “What about what the Bible says?”  Generally, they are referring specifically to the two limiting passages, 1 Timothy 2:11 (I don’t permit a woman to teach or to assume authority) and I Corinthians 14:34 (Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak). If that was all the Bible said on the topic (as in the much often quoted attitude God said it, I believe it, that settles it!), there would be no debate, right? Life would be so much simpler…
Ah, but that’s not all the Bible says on the topic. And the spiritual gifts passages (encompassing over 52 verses in four different books) are just one example of that tension within God’s word. It can’t all be harmonized perfectly. So the reader must use discernment in reading and interpreting and applying the texts – all of them – in a way that brings glory to God and supports the ultimate goal of bringing others into the kingdom. In connection with those goals, there are two additional passages that we should note.
I Peter 4:10-11:Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.
I Timothy 2:2-4 (yes, please note this comes right before one of the limiting passages)…live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
There is no doubt that topic is deep and important and valuable to all of us (not just me and my daughter, who is even more courageous about the conversation than I have been). Our families, our churches, and especially church leaders need to be willing to have these hard conversations. I believe God will hold us accountable for using our gifts the way He intends (not the way society always expects) and I also believe God will hold us, as leaders, accountable for being good stewards of the gifts he’s given each of our church members, including women.
We need to encourage each other to have genuine dialogue about things we disagree on, not just assume that what has always been is the only reality in which God can work, or that cautious avoidance will prevent rocking the proverbial boat. And in the meantime, while we wait for important conversations to take place, we need to be courageous. Courageous enough to use the gifts God has given us and encouraging others (both men and women) to do the same.