Designing Women’s Ministry

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AMBy Michelle Van Loon at www.MomentsAndDays.org and www.MichelleVanLoon.com

The new women’s ministry director invited all adult women to a brainstorming meeting. “We want to help you become the women God is calling you to be,” she explained as she passed out sheets of paper with each phrase of Proverbs 31:10-31 on a separate line. She read the passage, then did a bit of contextualizing to help us re-imagine the language of the Ancient Near East in our suburban experience. For example, the director noted, “She selects wool and flax, and works with eager hands” (vs. 13) could be interpreted to mean, “I have a good attitude about my work in the home”.

She instructed us to take a few moments to reflect on our lives and circle the words in the passage where we felt we were the weakest. “I’ll be using this information to plan Bible studies and other events that would target the areas where the women in the room suggested they might be struggling.

The whole thing seemed an exercise in both misreading and misapplying the text. I was already planning on writing a protest statement on my sheet and talking to the director later when I caught the eye of one of the single women present in the room. She looked like she’d been stabbed in the spleen, which I later learned was a pretty fair reading of her emotions at that moment. The passage we were supposed to use to define our weaknesses begins with the question,

“A wife of noble character who can find?” (vs. 10).

One of the other single women present asked, “What about those of us who aren’t married?”

A quick, patronizing response (“Just circle what applies to you in your situation”) highlighted the unwritten rule that the primary audience for women’s ministry in this church was married mothers of school-age children. Older women who were empty-nesters might serve an advisory role as mentors for this group, but all others were functionally invisible and without purpose.

I wish I could say this was an aberration, but some form of this unwritten caste system exists in many congregations. Biblical womanhood as its been taught in most of the suburban, theologically-conservative churches I’ve attended (churches with both complementarian and egalitarian leadership structures, I might add) tends to target married mothers. It is as if the fact that slightly more than half the adults in the U.S. are single isn’t a factor, nor is it that those of us who are parents are outliving our active childrearing years by decades. When Proverbs 31:10-31 becomes a checklist, and it, along with a few other texts (Matthew 10:38-42, Titus 2:3-5, 1 Timothy 2:9-15) become the template for women’s ministry, local church discipleship becomes nothing more than a noxious form of Christian peer pressure.

I’m currently reading Aimee Byrd’s No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God, and she echoes the same concerns about the focus in women’s ministry on sentiment, performance, and flimsy theology. Byrd, whose blog is called Housewife Theologian, and who is a part of the Reformed Mortification of Spin podcasting team, speaks with clarity to her stream within the Church about women’s ministry. In addition, she addresses issues that transcend that stream and bleed into other adjoining ones. When local congregations marginalize, neglect, impose dated culturally-bound 1950’s stereotypes or allow the Christian marketplace (conferences and pre-packaged curriculum) to set the agenda, the whole church suffers. Byrd challenges the Proverbs-31-As-Checklist paradigm:

Is there a separate gospel for women? Everyone would answer no to that. But when we start getting into specific details of ‘gospel-driven gender roles’, we may be inadvertently sending that message. Much of what is taught in the blblical womanhood movement focuses on the role of a wife and mother. While these are treasured, life-giving roles to be praised, singles and motherless wives have felt marginalized by this message, as if they cannot properly fulfill their design in biblical womanhood. Where is all the teaching on the women who left their households to follow Jesus and even provided for his ministry? Where is the teaching on Phoebe as a model of biblical womanhood, a prominent woman in society, and a patron to Paul and many others?…much less effort has been put into equipping women to be good theologians, which Jesus emphasized as the better portion.

Some Jesus Creed readers may question whether there should be gender-specific subgroups within a congregation, just as others have raised valid questions about age segregation. There’s much we could discuss about both of those questions, but for the purposes of this post, I will say that I’ve benefitted greatly from time spent in prayer, study, fellowship, worship, and service with other women of all ages and life stages. (Just as I have benefitted from spending time with both men and women!) The single-gender group benefit stops for me when a few texts and a dogmatic filter of a particular flavor of “biblical womanhood” sets the agenda for those relationships in a church. 
What does women’s ministry look like at your church? Are women of all life stages included and celebrated? What sorts of topics/curriculum are your women’s groups studying? What drives those decisions? 
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.