So what’s a big bearded guy like me know about women’s ministry anyhow?
Does it help that when I was young I helped a proud member of the Dolphin Circle—that would be my mom—wash the glass Communion cups and put them on the big wooden pegboard to dry? (Rats, the Methodists and Lutherans would beat us to lunch again.)
Obviously, my experience doesn’t qualify me to know what’s going on with women’s ministry in Christian churches. So I talked to some folks who’ve traveled to many of our churches, hosted workshops or conferences, consulted with congregations, maybe even written a thing or two on the topic. And I consulted with women’s ministry leaders at some of our biggest churches, while conceding they’re not representative because most churches don’t have the resources and/or the willingness to formally staff such a position.
First, we need to get the big “no duh” observation out of the way: Women’s role in society and, to a large extent, the church has changed—big time. Mom’s Dolphin Circle era has evolved to my daughters’ Facebook generation.
So how well are Christian churches and churches of Christ meeting the needs of today’s women while remaining true to Scripture?
“We just don’t get it,” says Becky Molnar, who led a workshop at the Johnson Bible College homecoming earlier this year on “Developing Trends in Women’s Ministry in the Church.”
“Are we paying attention to the changing needs of women? Are we engaging their gifts, passions, and talents, or are we irrelevant to them?” she asked.
Molnar, a member of Park Chapel Christian Church in Greenfield, Indiana, has 15 years of national experience serving a variety of corporate and public sector clients as president and co-owner of a consulting company specializing in developing human potential and personal effectiveness.
You can hear her consulting background when she wonders how many churches have conducted a needs assessment of their female members, examined their demographics, or developed a spiritual inventory.
“Like my grandma used to say, ‘Get the girdle off the brain and go for it,’” Molnar said. “We need to do strategic planning and apply it to women, to find out what we need to keep doing and what we need to stop doing and what we need to start doing.”
Molnar pointed to a posting on the Leadership Network (Leadnet.org) whose key premise was this:
Women’s ministry is on the verge of massive cultural shift as younger generations of women reject traditional programming in favor of more purposeful spiritual interaction. Innovative church leaders are adapting to this rapid change by experimenting with new ways to equip women to exercise their gifts and passions through relationships, spiritual development and outreach.
During the homecoming workshop she heard about a group of about a dozen 20–somethings with little time for a traditional Bible study who gather online—in their jammies—after 9 p.m. when the kids are in bed.
“They said it was awesome,” Molnar said. “If young women tell us they need a social networking forum and we don’t do it, then shame on us.”
At Savannah (Georgia) Christian Church, Sarah Huxford, the women’s pastor, and Megan Gariss, women’s ministry intern, researched trends in emerging churches—and realized they need a high-speed lens.
“Our culture is changing so quickly that we consistently have to be talking about what changes we may need to make. The most successful ministry opportunities we had last year or even last month may not be as effective now. We have to keep the communication lines open in order to think through where we need to go. It’s a constant process.”
The duo discovered a need for more outreach, as well as what Savannah calls “going deeper” events. “In the past, based off what we’ve seen, women’s ministry was geared more toward women who were already connected with the church and were striving to deepen a relationship they already had with the Lord. While there is great value in these events, we’ve tried to create more opportunities for women to get connected with our women’s ministry and the church as a whole through nonthreatening, open-to-everyone events where our women are encouraged to bring their friends.”
One innovation the church launched is called “Coffee and Conversation,” where women all over Savannah open up their homes for a night and invite friends, neighbors, and those new to the area for an evening of fellowship. “There’s no hidden agenda, nothing to sign up for. It’s just women being hospitable towards one another. In short, we are consistently looking for more ways to get outside of our own walls and into the neighborhoods.”
At the same time, Huxford and Gariss said, their church is seeking more intergenerational mentoring opportunities. “We need each other, and we need the wisdom of those who have lived life with the Lord a bit longer than we have. Our mentoring program will hopefully be instrumental in connecting these younger women entering our church and ministry with women who can speak truth into their lives.”
Rhonda Baker, pastor of women’s ministry for Central Christian Church in Las Vegas, sees the need for the personal touch along with a technologically savvy women’s ministry. “In the past decade we have seen women’s ministry move from lecture-style teaching to DVD-driven curriculum in small groups. Now we have begun to see more online small groups, although I don’t believe these will ever replace relationships that women grow from being together face-to-face, as there is something lost in the sense of touch.”
At Central, the women’s ministry is tied closely with small groups. Those in turn have evolved toward support groups, even though the church has a separate care department set up to handle such needs, Baker said.
“We have seen the need to offer [one group] for women who have been betrayed either through pornography that her husband may be addicted to or another betrayal of the marriage,” she said.
“The biggest benefit of a women’s ministry [or] small groups [ministry] is the transformation of lives that ripples into every other sphere with an opportunity to influence others with the love of Jesus,” Baker said. “I can’t imagine the church being without a specific women’s ministry, whether it is targeted or more strategically aligned like Central’s, any more than I can imagine it would be helpful to remove a mother from her family.”
In churches across the country, women’s ministry has changed from “event focused” to “small group and ministry focused,” said Chris Adams, senior lead women’s ministry specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources. That means unfamiliar roles for participants young and old.
“As we move into the future with younger women and younger leaders, it appears it will be less structured and more spontaneous. It will grapple with those difficult issues women face in our culture,” she said.
“Structure may become more simplified and Bible study and application even more important. It will be vital for older leaders to come alongside younger women, share their wisdom, and learn from them. Younger leaders will have to play an active role in developing ministry to reach women in their sphere of influence.”
Women want more than a social function, because they are struggling with challenges at home and in the workplace, Adams said.
“And if we are not dealing with these issues, women will not find relevance in our ministries. . . . Just partying together is not reaching women today.”
Thankfully, churches can get material today that wasn’t around before.
“The availability of so many Bible studies specific to women has changed the face of women’s ministry,” said Debbie Scheller, women’s ministry leader at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
“In years past, women’s ministry consisted of teas, fellowships, and providing meals or baby showers for the congregation. Today, most women’s ministry has its foundation in Bible study. This has been a wonderful advancement.”
But even good studies can become an end rather than a means, she warned.
“One of the trends I see is that we have to become more missional with being disciple-makers. We have gotten comfortable taking one Bible study after another without a Great Commission and Great Commandment heart. We have become fixated on being fed without desiring to seek the lost.”
Even with 1,200 involved in women’s ministry on Southeast’s campus, Scheller said the church still strives to connect with a younger generation.
“They are much more interested in building authentic relationships versus the fluff that has sometimes become too important in women’s ministry. We are intentional about reaching out to them as we plan upcoming events or programs. They love giving their input and we have welcomed that.”
In contrast to Southeast’s success, Karen J. Diefendorf, academic dean of Lincoln Christian Seminary, sees many Christian churches struggling to bring young females into the fold.
“My impression is that women’s ministries in many (and perhaps most) of our churches is still geared toward older women (and now I am one),” said Diefendorf, who’s also chief of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center & School’s training division at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“I speak at women’s retreats, and there are only a few younger women scattered among the crowd. If you attend Milligan (College’s) or Lincoln’s Women’s Days, it’s an older crowd, too.”
Even younger women who are seeking vocational ministry find that one place they can share their talents, teaching a Bible study at their church, is dominated by older women or retirees.
“This is still valid ministry, but disappointing to some of our younger women who had hopes and dreams that their giftedness might not be relegated to just doing ‘women’s’ ministry,” Diefendorf said.
Nancy Karpenske, women’s ministry director at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado, said the current generation “wants to be empowered to develop their own ideas.”
“Younger women seem to be less likely to find time for an ongoing Bible study program,” she said. “They are attracted to a specific study for a specific period of time. But they are not convinced that personal daily Bible study and interaction with a group of women should be a priority for their lives. They are not interested in being prepared to take over and perpetuate existing programs.”
But whether it’s existing or new endeavors, women’s ministry is vital for three major reasons, Karpenske said:
• Women set the tone for the home. When they are growing spiritually, they are influencing their husbands and children.
• Women more naturally seek and create relationships. They influence their friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
• Women are typically the “workforce”—the volunteers the church relies upon to serve. When a church recognizes the value and potential of women and invests in them, the church has the optimal potential for growing.
With all the talk of a rapidly changing world and reaching the Facebook generation, we get a timely reminder from Kay Moll, who’s on the women’s and missions ministries staff of Christ’s Church at Mason, Ohio: “Women’s ministry has not changed so much in what it seeks to do, but in the way it is done. Just like every other area of the church has changed or is changing in the way it ministers, so must women’s ministry in order to be relevant.”
The church near Cincinnati offers several ministry opportunities, large-scale outreach events, Bible studies, and special interest groups. The latter especially offer a nonthreatening entry point to which women can invite their friends, she said.
“For example, one of the women who began attending our Book Club (called Soul Food) lost her husband. She was new to the church family, and this was about the only thing she had become involved in beyond Sunday morning.
“Every member of the book club was at the funeral service. They surrounded her with love and comfort and got her through a very difficult time.”
It’s hard to imagine that even that old Dolphin Circle at my small hometown church could’ve done it any better.
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.