As I said in The Briefing #398, these are some of my reflections on what God has taught me about the ministries of women. Following on from the importance of women in ministry considering themselves to be Bible teachers and of cultivating joy in evangelism, in this article I want to talk about the central place of training, the necessity of teamwork, and the mixed emotions of sending. All of these elements are necessary not only for any woman in ministry to be committed to, but also for any man wanting to encourage women in ministry.1
The importance of training
(i) A woman training others
When asked about being a monarch, Queen Elizabeth II apparently once said, “It’s all to do with the training: you can do a lot if you’re properly trained.” What is true for Elizabeth is also true for Christian women as they seek to minister. Training is crucial, no matter how small or large our ministry situation is. We can train others whether we have much experience or little, and as we train others we are also training ourselves.
Whoever the people are under a women’s care, I think it can be helpful to come with this mindset: “God has given me each of these people for a certain time. I don’t know how long, but I want to train them as disciples of Jesus Christ so they can minister to the ends of the earth.” And although there will be similarities in how we train each person, everyone is different to a degree, aren’t they? Therefore I find it helpful to go through the church (ministry group) rolls and think through each person. What are their gifts? What ministries have you seen them doing? What do you think they would be good at? Have a conversation with them about ministry and ask what they would like to do. This may result in something neither of you had thought of. Ask them about their hesitations in being involved with a particular ministry. Ask them what ministries they have previously been involved in.
One key way to help others overcome their hesitations is to try not to set the bar too high. The skill set someone has in January can be quite different to where they are in December. We need to be realistic, patient and gracious, and to have a long-term perspective on things. We can’t expect people to be brilliant straight away, and they may never be brilliant and that’s okay. It can be helpful to remember what we were like when we first started leading a group… or having a more realistic perspective on what we are still like! Not setting the bar too high will help develop a culture in which people are more prepared to give different ministries a go. But this is no excuse for us to be sluggish in training people and seeing improvement. It’s the opposite: we need to consider each person and their individual training needs.
When we are trying to work out a training program for those under our care, it can be helpful to think in categories such as character, conviction, and competency. This can be helpful because many of us naturally focus on one area of training to the neglect of the other two. For example, as we draw up the women’s Bible study leaders’ training program for the year, we should check we have training for them in all three areas. There is overlap with each of the three—we shouldn’t train someone in how to write a Bible study without covering how they can listen better to people—and so having these categories can help us have a more holistic training approach.
If we are hoping to train someone, it is essential that we trust them. This trust will be in varying degrees depending on how well we know them, how long they’ve been a Christian, their age, and a number of other factors. However, we do need to trust them. If they sense we don’t, it won’t really work. If we don’t trust them, we either won’t let them have a go, to make mistakes and learn from that, or we will interpret what they do in a negative light and make too big a deal out of their so-called failures. Someone we do trust could make the same mistakes and we wouldn’t react the same way. People need to have permission to fail, to make mistakes, and to grow into the task. Obviously trusting others can be complicated at times—we might have ‘inherited’ some leaders that we have reservations about—but trusting someone is key.
When we are training others, we soon see that they have different ways of doing things. We need to recognize that this can be good, and their way of doing something can be better than our way—even if we’ve been doing it our way for many years. It can be humbling for us, and hard to admit at times, but it helps when we expect things like this to happen, and it helps for us not to take ourselves too seriously and to have a sense of humour about ourselves. Rejoice when others are better than you. Thank God for them and the blessing they are for the church and for worldwide mission. I find it helpful to have the mindset that “I want to do myself out of a job”. This way we look for others to train, and are less likely to be threatened by them, and less controlling.
It’s not only individuals who have different ways of doing things. Some of us are in Christian sub-cultures where we can get too caught up with assuming someone is too young or too old for a particular ministry. Obviously there are times when age is a concern, but it’s interesting that in some places, it is not just the young men and women teaching youth group, but older people also.
(ii) Training for women in vocational ministry
Depending on where a woman lives, her access to formal training can vary hugely. There is an abundance of Christian literature and online resources that can help to a certain extent. There is the Moore College External Studies certificate that offers online help to many students around the world. If a woman can attend lectures in a city, she may be able to choose from many good colleges, but many have no such luxury. It has become more normal for a woman on a staff team to have a diploma or degree from such institutions (although many women on staff teams do not have formal theological qualifications and are absolutely brilliant, and a woman gaining a theological degree is of course no guarantee she will be great on staff). Now more than ever it has become easier for women to study with part-time options, suiting many with children and those who desire to combine secular work or work for their church with study. If you are a minister, are there are some women under your care who you want to encourage to go to college? As a result of their training, they will hopefully have grown in their love, desire, confidence, and competency to minister to others, whether back at your church or on the other side of the globe.
Whatever a woman’s formal training is, there are some excellent training resources aimed specifically for women in vocational ministry. For example, in Sydney there is the Equip conference, and also the guided study leave program at Moore Theological College. This program can be anything from two weeks to several months. It might be that a woman is a children’s worker at a church and she wants to write some Sunday School material on Philippians. Over the time she is at Moore, she would meet with a faculty member specializing in that area, have access to the library, and be able to sit in on lectures. I am sure that colleges elsewhere would also have programs suitable, and it is always worth enquiring.
For women who have completed a theological degree, there are a number of post-graduate options, such as a Master of Arts in Theology aimed specifically at those in pastoral ministry. It has been great to see more women studying the MA part-time with their churches giving them the appropriate leave to do this, recognizing it as part of their continuing training and of benefit to the church as a whole.
Some women in vocational ministry find it helpful to have a mentor or trainer that they meet with. For others a small group that meets every couple of months is key. Most women I know who meet up regularly with someone have taken the initiative in this, which is great. When some women first start out in formal ministry they find this particularly helpful, as it can help them develop in confidence as they talk through different facets of their work. A number of other factors will also determine whether a woman feels the need to meet up with someone else, including her ministry situation, how isolated she is, and her personality. An advertisement I read recently for a women’s worker position at a church included in it the provision of a mentor from outside the parish. Obviously not every woman would want this, but it is great that the rector had the insight and care that this might be something that would help.
The necessity for teamwork
God has given us others to minister with, and for the most part these men and women are laypeople gifted by God for the building up of his church. However, under this section, my focus will just be on staff teams, and specifically women working on staff.
(i) Ministries that complement
There is a common problem not often talked about when a woman joins a staff team. If she is involved in a specialty ministry like children, youth or women, as opposed to a more traditional assistant minister’s role, then her senior minister may be encouraging her to take initiative and run events, all because he is wanting to help her. But before too long what often happens is that her ministry grows a life of its own, almost independent of the other ministries happening at church, and problems begin to arise. Training doubles-up, the calendar is unnecessarily full for our parishioners, and tensions arise amongst staff.
At the risk of stating the completely obvious, staff planning days are helpful in avoiding these problems, as staff can talk about how the different ministries at church will seek to complement each other. If the church has a mission statement, ask how each ministry helps achieve that. Fixing dates when everyone is in the same room helps communication and prevents clashes later on. It will also help the staff see what training and events can be combined or what are lacking as a whole. A women’s worker ideally should be aware of what is happening in the youth ministry, and vice versa. As a result, it is more likely they will also help out in each other’s ministry, such as the youth worker coming to speak to the mums about ‘the internet and your teenager’. We should be interested in other people’s ‘paddocks’, and this always ends up benefiting the ministry we are primarily responsible for.
(ii) Women on staff
Something I often get asked is “Are there any jobs for women in ministry?” It depends on where you live. In Sydney there are jobs, despite some people suggesting that because Sydney evangelicals are generally conservative, with many men being happy to identify as complementarian, that these churches must therefore be anti-female. This is nonsense. Once someone actually sees how many Sydney churches employ women, especially compared to other churches and regions, they can be
quite taken aback. Women are employed in a variety of ministry capacities, both full-time and part-time.
It is very important for a woman not to have a victim mentality and think she has a right to a job (which of course is important for men also). Women in ministry are leaders, so therefore it is great when they take the initiative in finding positions, or are prepared to be tent-makers for a certain time while a church gradually increases their budget. Some women choose to be tent-makers long-term for a variety of reasons. Sometimes when a woman leaves a staff team her position may not be replaced (for a variety of reasons), and that is what is often the focus of people’s conversation when discussing ministry positions for women. What I don’t often hear in that same discussion is the churches that are creating new positions. This can result in a negative tone that is quite anti-male. We need to remember we are on the same team.
Some women (and some men) don’t get the position they’d hoped for, or their role changes, so flexibility is a great asset in ministry and it helps teamwork. When we are prepared to give things a go, we sometimes find we do end up liking it. Other times it will be a wrong fit, but it helps to come with a gracious attitude and open mindset.
There are ministers who wonder about the worth of employing a woman even when their budget would allow for one. Their reasoning is often that laywomen can do what the paid woman does. When a woman is on staff she shouldn’t have a hierarchical view that results in her doing most of the ministry and leaving others feeling useless. Rather, having women on staff should ideally increase the involvement of laypeople as the woman trains and encourages them in ministry. The woman on staff is freed up much more than the average layperson to think through how best those under her care can grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Some people have said to me that some married men don’t employ single women because they are worried about sexual temptation. I’m not sure how widespread an issue this is. While it’s great the man is concerned for his sexual purity, I am concerned that it is the single woman who is treated as if her presence is the problem. God has called us to be in relationship with the opposite sex, whether we are married or single, and what is key for all is being godly in each of those relationships. We need to keep learning how to relate across the genders in a pure way, and I’m not convinced absolute avoidance actually ends up helping, as we don’t necessarily learn to do what is right. (Obviously there are some people whom it may be good for us to avoid.)
(iii) Having a sense of humour
Having an appropriate sense of humour and being able to laugh at yourself makes you much easier to work with. Although we need to be serious at times, when we are able to laugh at ourselves we can more quickly and easily admit we are wrong, which is key for teamwork. Having a right sense of humour helps us grow in humility, and this helps us grow in confidence. Therefore we will be more prepared to raise difficult issues, and when conflict comes up we are less likely to attack the person but want to deal with the issue.
The mixed emotions of sending
Saying goodbye to people as they leave for ministry reasons brings mixed emotions. We are excited about the ministry God may do through them in the future, yet we can be tempted to hold on to them as we worry no-one else will fill the gap. But having an atmosphere in our churches where people are prepared to go and minister elsewhere is brilliant. When we make mission normal it helps people be prepared to go. It helps them and us sit loosely in this world, and it helps us trust God that others will come and minister with us.
To help women be prepared to go, I think it is good to give them different models of women who have taken risks and who have done various types of ministry, so they see that normal people do a whole range of things. The more they are exposed to them, the more normal these ministries become in their thinking. This also gives them opportunities to air any concerns or fears they have, and so you know where they are at and can chat to them about it. Churches having link missionaries and having missionary groups come and speak can help. If your church is in a city where there is a good Bible college, then having female student ministers can also help different ministries be more normal in the church’s thinking.
You may have noticed a common theme running through these three topics—what is helpful for a woman in ministry to remember is almost always the same thing that a man needs to remember. All ministry is about people, growing them and building them in faith in the Lord Jesus. This will require training, teamwork, and a mission focus for both men and women in ministry, which will allow them to better serve the body of Christ where God has placed them.
- Full disclosure: I’m on staff at Moore College, which affects my viewpoint somewhat. Let me share my experiences anyway. ↩