A while back I asked a 30-something male pastor if he had a conscious strategy to empower women in ministry. His answer was, “I just follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.”
Mmm. Well that’s one of those unanswerable comebacks, but let me have a go anyway.
If you think that you as a white, 30-something, male with a relatively privileged background are an uninterrupted channel for the Holy Spirit, then let's apply to the Vatican for sainthood straight away! Am I really to believe the fact that every preaching opportunity in the last year was given to young, white men, was a move of the Holy Spirit?
But, YOU reading this are thankfully not that guy, so thank you for caring enough to find out what at least half your congregation needs!
Firstly, open yourself up to the reality that you (like all of us) are prejudiced to favour what feels familiar, comfortable and relatable to you. Then pray that God will open you up to notice those who don’t fit into the above mould. Actively take note of these people and ask God how you can encourage them and empower them in your church. If you feel ill-equipped to do this then ask someone else in your congregation (maybe a woman) to make a list and bring it to you. Or brainstorm with a team of people; a team that is diverse in age, marital status, gender and colour.
Here are some practical ways to empower women:
1. Ask them. Ask them what their gifts are and how you can provide opportunities for them to use their gifts. On that note: don’t reserve preaching opportunities for times when you are called elsewhere. How will you evaluate and support this gift if you are not present to hear it and give feedback?
2. People who feel disempowered need to see examples of people like them, up front and visible. So ask women to make announcements (not tea). Ask women to serve communion (not tea). Ask women to come forward to pray or share or preach or baptize.
3. Examine the make-up of those serving, leading and ministering in your church critically. If there seems to be an imbalance, then set out deliberately, led by the Spirit, to correct this. Ask more women onto your leadership teams if necessary. Churches need balanced teams rather than charismatic leaders alone. When you visit people for prayer at home or in hospital do you have both men and women present?
4. Single women deserve a point for themselves. These women are as available to minister as single men. At any age.
5. Some women need to be challenged to step up to leadership just like some men! If you can’t do this; find someone, male or female, who can be a ‘talent-scout’.
6. People need to see no one is above the so-viewed ‘lesser tasks’; so have men serve tea and teach children’s church.
7. Don’t open with or use predominantly male references or illustrations when you’re up front - like rugby (yes, I do know there are female rugby teams). Don’t make jokes at the expense of women. When these jokes come from a male leader they become weapons not jokes.
8. Be mindful that gender-neutral terms in the Bible have often been translated with male-gender pronouns. Try to correct this or get a new translation.
9. Don’t be threatened. If you feel threatened by strong women then you have issues that need to be worked out with a trustworthy colleague behind closed doors. Go and do the work.
10. I truly hope this doesn’t need to be said, but I suspect it does… Don’t talk down to women. Realize that some of the women in your congregation are lawyers and doctors and actuaries and have teams of staff reporting to them. They are smart and capable. I am not one of the above, but I am smart and capable and find it patronising when a male pastor assumes he knows more than me about how to lead, how to guide or manage others or world issues.
11. Be sensitive to the global issues women face: violence perpetrated by physically powerful males, rape, abuse, trafficking. Chances are a good proportion of the women in your church have experienced some level of these. And every women is haunted by the threat of rape even if she hasn’t experienced it. So be careful of imagery of force and power, even biblical stories which are heavily-laden with cultural stuff that is not specifically rebuked (eg.polygamy). When reading a story like that of David, don’t assume we all relate to David. Some of us are sitting thinking about how Bathsheba felt and whether God cared about her too.
I hope that’s a good start, no doubt the women in your congregation can give more insights, so ask them!