Putting women front and centre

Over the last 24 hours, a great blogpost has been doing the social media rounds (in my world) on the subject of the lack of women leaders in evangelical/charismatic churches in the UK. It’s a topic that’s incredibly close to my own heart and one that I have written on before. In fact, I’ve regularly written about some of my own experiences as a woman in the church – largely because in many circles we’re still very much in the minority.

Richard Moy’s post is excellent, in that it’s based on research he’s been conducting, and in that it provides some really concrete suggestions for what those in positions of authority and influence in the church could do to improve things. I hope that anyone in authority who reads this challenge really takes it up and runs with it:

“If a woman has been called to ministry it seems eventually that calling will come out. If that involves a 20 year time-lag and a journey away from evangelical theology to find space to outwork her calling because she got no encouragement from you then that’s on your head. Deal with it.”

As a woman in the first year of a curacy (in an open evangelical-ish church), who was sent for ordination from a very large charismatic church, and who was placed for three years at a HTB church plant while training at St Mellitus, I feel I have a voice to add to the discussion. Particularly to those women who might have read Richard’s post and felt that pursuing their calling was going to hit barrier after barrier, unless something changed immediately. What I want to say is that there is hope! Yes, there are institutional issues, but there are things that can help…

Young women gather at St Jude'sA day for young evangelical women interested in ordination, 2013.

There are plenty of exceptions…

To start, let me say that my sending church (who sent 5 women into training while I was there) were incredibly supportive of my call to ordination. They don’t currently have any ordained women on staff, but in the last couple of years have intentionally tried to have a gender balance amongst those up at the front – leading, preaching and worship leading. They’ve seized the need to be intentional and run with it.

My placement church sent another three women into training during the 3 years I was there – from a comparatively small congregation. (In contrast, one man started theological college in the same time period.) Although both ordained clergy were male, alongside myself there were several other women who would preach or lead, and a few who led worship too. I don’t think that this was a deliberate move, but their very presence meant that other women were inspired to follow their example.

Now, I find myself in a church so open to women in leadership (I think I’m their third female curate, and there’s been a female SSM for decades), that a recent service unintentionally led by an all-female cast elicited a comment of “Where are the men?” It’s the norm here, just as I think God intended!

But, these positive experiences do not change the fact that I have returned from summer festivals seething at the lack of ordained women represented. Or been angry that women in one particularly large church had no one to turn to for mentoring or the odd coffee because there was no women there ordained or an ordinand who could take on the role. There are issues, as Richard has identified.


Evangelical/charismatic women are entering training

I trained at a college were the number of women was pretty much equal with men. St Mellitus is a college with a broad spectrum (don’t let the connection with HTB fool you), and I trained alongside a number of women from New Wine churches and HTB plants. Some of these women had perhaps waited some time to begin training, but that’s their story and I can’t make assumptions on what impacted upon that.

I never felt particularly outnumbered at St Mellitus (unlike friends I’ve spoken to at other colleges) and also felt very affirmed in my calling as a woman. Whenever we raised issues of gender balance (particularly for a specific teaching slot and on the staff team) these concerns were listened to and acted upon. St Mellitus now has a faculty that offers a number of different inspirational examples for a female wannabe theological educator!

From recent conversations, I know that this year a number of women will join HTB church plants as curates and that’s a big step forward. Currently, there’s just two (and just one woman leading a plant) and that is definitely an issue. Change is happening but it will take time and quite a big culture shift in some places – but you can find a lot of support for this, if you know where to look!

There is support out there 

I’m very lucky – I readily acknowledge this – as I grew up in a denomination where issues with women are few and far between (those enlightened Methodists!) and had numerous feisty ordained women around me as I was growing up (my mother being one of the feistiest!). I had never been in the position of facing challenges on the basis of my gender until I began the ordination process, and as a result I think I was in a stronger position than a woman from a male dominated church might find themselves in.

Facing such challenges alone is difficult. I can imagine that the women Richard writes about – who may have been pondering their calling for some time, but have no one to look up to, be mentored by or to encourage them – may find them insurmountable. What is needed is strength in numbers. In my world, that includes: female college friends; a ‘Mighty Women of Valour’ group (of lay & ordained feisty women); the Gathering of Women Leaders network; deans of women’s ministry; ordained women who’ve been on the journey longer than I; and plenty of men who want to support women in ministry too. The key is getting connected and allowing them to support you!

Finding hope in statistics…

The stats aren’t great. I was shocked to discover that my area of London Diocese, Stepney, known to be one of the most affirming of women (we’ve had two female Archdeacons already), only has 3 female clergy aged 35 or under. Of the three, I’m one and two friends are the others! (Happily that number will also grow next year – although one will also turn 36. And we are from across the spectrum too.) A group of us are already working on a plan to encourage women in their vocations across the breadth of traditions in Stepney, and the same can be said for other parts of the church too.

But, the numbers look set to improve imminently. I think the church is already seeing the benefits of events held specifically for evangelical young women interested in ordination – I was involved in one in June 2013 and I know several people I met there are now training. At St Mellitus, the cohort with whom I studied on the MA last year included several women in their early/mid-20’s – a very unusual sight!

I think that the change has already begun, but it’s going to take a while before they are reflected higher up the chain. Richard particularly emphasises the lack of female incumbents in more evangelical churches – there are a few, but ones I know of I could probably count on my fingers. Interestingly, when I think of ordained women who inspired me during my journey, virtually none of them have become incumbents! They’re in diocesan/national roles, or university chaplaincy or theological education – not necessarily because they are women, but for a host of other good reasons.

The Moment of Ordination

What can be done…

If you’re reading this as a woman who is thinking about ordination, but who currently worships in a rather male-dominated context, can I make a few suggestions:

  • Ask some questions. It can be really hard, but ask your incumbent whether they’ve considered inviting a woman to preach or whether you yourself could have a go. They may ask for some suggestions, so have a think about who you’ve heard speak elsewhere, or ask for recommendations from others. “But I don’t know anyone” or “Everyone we asked was busy” are common responses to such questions, but there are ways around them!
  • Find solidarity! Align yourself with like-minded people with whom you can rant, or who can help back you up when you ask difficult questions. [Over just the last couple of weeks I’ve been part of a group doing just this for a friend – it’s massively helpful, even in the long-term.]
  • Go along to events at which you might discover more like-minded people; follow them on Twitter/Facebook; get introduced to people who inspire you – you never know what might happen. My involvement in GWL is one example of this – my first gathering was quite intimidating as I didn’t know many people, but now I have a fabulous supportive resource that I can draw upon and through which I can support others.
  • Get to know women who have been there and done that. I had female friends a little way ahead of me in the selection process and that was very handy. Is there a Dean of Women in Ministry in your area? Are there other ordained women you could meet with? I’ve made it a rule of mine that if I ever get into a vocational conversation with someone, I’ll follow it up with a coffee – I partly owe my own exploration to someone who did that for me, so I want to pay it forward!
  • Most of all, remember that God created you as YOU! It’s not an accident that you are the gender you are in this place and time. He has a plan for how you – specifically you – can impact the church and the world, so you owe it to him to follow it through!

Christmas Jumpers 2013Almost everyone in this photo is now ordained – there’s hope! (Also, this is the 2nd image on a Google image search for St Mellitus. Well done!)

We tend to like doom and gloom in the Church of England, but can I encourage people that – as far as women are concerned – the future is bright! Yes, change needs to happen, but I think such changes are beginning to happen. We’re in a momentous season for women in the church at the moment (eight female bishops and counting…) and we need to keep up that momentum.

Intentional or token?

Christian festival season usually means that the issue of gender representation rears its head again. Someone, somewhere will analyse festival programmes, working out what proportion of the speakers are female and whether that proportion seems appropriate. For Focus, that person was me, while in the green room for a BBC recording.

Focus was analysed thus:
Main stage speakers: 1 woman out of 9.
Seminar speakers: 8 women out of 27. (Though 2 of the seminars I went to had women speakers who had not been listed on the programme.)

Focus wasn’t alone. The Keswick Conference had none (people on Twitter were not surprised by this), and someone at New Wine LSE tweeted this comment during the week:

Ah yes, the lay wives of clergy thing… Yes, couples where one is ordained are both called by God, but the issue really isn’t about the woman concerned, but the prevalence at many of these conferences of wives of church leaders speaking from the front while ordained women sit listening. Why aren’t the ordained women speaking??

At Focus, Wednesday morning was a highlight for me – not just because it was orchestral & choral worship morning, but because this was the first time I’ve heard an ordained woman speak at a main stage HTB network event. It was church plant morning, where those plants that were new, or changing, reported back and were prayed for. Again and again male clergy came up to the stage with their wives in tow. The men did most of the speaking. But then, the leader of a new plant in Hounslow was invited up – Libby Etherington, an ordained woman. I whooped vigorously! I cheered again when my belief that she was the first female HTB church planter was confirmed from the stage. [As an aside, in the commissioning of the newest church plant, I think HTB may have commissioned their first unmarried church planter. Another landmark.]

It’s progress, but much more work is needed…

Earlier in the week, I’d attended an excellent seminar on gender from Sean Doherty (my Ethics tutor at St Mellitus) & Tamsin Merchant (part of the brains behind the recent Young Women’s Vocations Day). The content was great, but it was the questions at the end that fascinated me:

  • How can women find mentors if they worship in churches where few women in leadership can be found?
  • What can we do to encourage women who feel called into leadership?
  • Do churches/conferences need to be more intentional about involving women, or is intentionality tokenism?

That last question was my own and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I want to see women speaking, but I want it to be because they have something worth listening to, not just because “we need to have a woman”. I hear great women speaking on a regular basis – I’ve had some great lectures from female theologians; I’ve been to women’s events where talented women have contributed; I’ve worked in a denomination where women have regularly held the top job and performed brilliantly; and I know that there are a lot of great women out there that I’ve never had the opportunity to hear.

Often, when I mention the lack of women at these festivals, people ask “well, who would you like to hear?”, which isn’t always a fair question. Do you know of every male speaker on the Christian circuit? No. Then why expect me to know which are the women who should be speaking? I do have some names I throw into the mix – especially if it’s a theological setting. But part of the problem is that at these big events, there are big-name speakers flown in from the US. Attitudes to gender within many of their churches are even more complicated than ours, and finding women who are in the same league as Louie Giglio (Focus’ top speaker, and an excellent one), Bill Johnson, Rick Warren or Rob Bell is nigh on impossible.

But I know and understand that, so I don’t expect to find women – or that many at least – in that league. What I would like is for a conference to think to itself: “Well, we’ve got a big-name from the US who happens to be male, do we have a British woman who could contribute too?” And to actively pursue balancing out the main stage speakers so that there’s an even mix of men and women. Someone, this year, should have looked at the list of speakers at the Focus Big Top and asked why there was only one woman…

It’s not all about the conferences though. In fact, for the conferences to get the idea, it needs to happen at grass roots level. There needs to be an inherent intentionality to include both men and women in all forms of leadership and speaking – then perhaps it won’t be too much effort. When I asked my question, Tamsin replied that intentionality was not tokenism, it was a change in mindset that was needed. She used an example of a lunch I’d been at just an hour earlier where everyone who had spoken had been male, but hadn’t needed to be – that’s when intentionality comes into play. Sean added that it’s only tokenism (in his opinion) if someone asks a woman to contribute by saying it’s “because you’re a woman”.

The Wednesday morning where we heard from the first female church planter was also the morning when all the St Mellitus ordinands, graduates and staff are prayed for. I like to refer to this as ‘ritual humiliation of ordinands’ day, but it’s actually a real privilege. HTB has a strong relationship with St Mellitus and many of those training there are placed with HTB plants and go on to work within the network too, but as we stood on stage, I noticed something…

Nicky G. +Richard & St MellitusNicky Gumbel & The Bishop of London pray for St Mellitus. (Credit.)

It’s not necessarily clear from this photo, as it doesn’t show the whole stage and some of the people are obscured, but while standing up there I became aware of how few women were present. One of the things I love about St Mellitus is the fact that men and women are split pretty much 50/50 – there’s no noticeable imbalance. (If anything, given all the people in my year who did two years not three, our final year will be rather female dominated!) Yet in that group on the stage, there were only four female students – i.e. four women who are placed in churches that are part of the HTB network and go to Focus. There was (as far as I could tell) one woman who had trained at St Mellitus and now works within the network. There were an awful lot of men. All the women I’m training with will get (and have got) jobs at the end of it all, but it doesn’t look as though any of them are at an HTB network church. Is there an intentionality to have women leaders? I’m not sure. Curacies are often the luck of the draw, but at the moment it seems that the men are luckier. [Obviously, these churches can and do take curates from other colleges and many people I train with wouldn’t necessarily want to be part of the network, but there is a definite absence of women in leadership.]

We need a church that is intentional about sorting these imbalances out. In the mean time, I’m going to be intentionally asking the same questions and making the same points over and over again, until something changes. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.

Growing disciples, digitally

The beginning of this week was spent in a Christian Conference frenzy at the Royal Albert Hall for HTB’s annual Leadership Conference. The stats are pretty impressive, present were over 4000 people from 900+ churches and 50+ countries – the RAH was full to bursting. The Queen had even allowed the Royal Box to be used – and HTB used it to seat homeless people and ex-offenders.

Needless to say, getting a large number of Christians of a more evangelical/trendy persuasion together in one room meant that there was a great deal of technology about. When the house lights went out, the hall was lit up by small rectangles and larger rectangles – iPhones and iPads, presumably used for note taking and tweeting (or, in the case of one of my colleagues, buying Olympics tickets). Oh, and Bible reading – at the moment when the room of 4000 was asked to turn to Hebrews 11 the Bible app promptly crashed.

That wasn’t the only way in which the iPads and iPhones impacted the wider world – Twitter went a bit nuts. The number of people tweeting about Tony Blair’s nuggets of wisdom during his interview on Monday morning caused the former PM to enter the world top 10 of trending topics on Twitter. Twitter (and the #htbleadershipconf hashtag) also meant that those not at the conference could engage with it – albeit via the sometimes unsatisfactory and unrepresentative medium of responding to soundbite quotes. My battery was drained by mid afternoon thanks to frenetic Twitter activity…

Nicky Gumbel interviewing Tony Blair (credit)

It therefore seemed appropriate (especially given my existing interest in the subject) that one of my seminar choices was a session on ‘Digital Disciples: How Social Media is Changing the Church’ with Al Gordon. I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d learn anything new – which isn’t me being big headed, more me being aware that I’ve thought a lot about this area already – but I was really impressed by the way in which the session explored social media in terms of its missional value, rather than simply being a marketing tool.

Al had two sets of three points [he’s two years ahead of me at the Vicar Factory and I can tell the preaching classes have made an impact…] which I thought were well worth sharing. Firstly:

  • Be invitational – ‘come and see’ is happening electronically, so be public in your faith and invite people into it.
  • Be incarnational – social media isn’t meant to replace our presence in offline community, it’s supposed to strengthen and transform our relationships.
  • Be inspirational – live your life online for God.

Then secondly, three specific ways in which we can do this:

  • Champion Connectivity – move from being a consumer to a contributor in the life of God and the church. We want to connect people with God to enable this process to take place. [An interesting question within this which I think Vicky Beeching’s explored is whether churches should enable/encourage/allow the congregation to tweet during services.]
  • Mobilise micro-narratives – in a post-modern world, meta-narratives are viewed with incredulity and our own stories have become more important. We have a powerful impact when we can mobilise the stories of the people in our churches. 90% of people trust a peer recommendation compared to 14% who trust advertising – how can we build on this?
  • Reshape relationships – get yourself online and reconnect with people, enabling them to follow you as you follow Christ.

It challenged me greatly and has even prompted some thoughts regarding my next sermon slot. Watch this space – St George’s might be getting something a little different next month…