When Patricia Rohach surveyed Christian church women across the country as part of her doctoral dissertation on women’s ministry, she got an earful.
One person she interviewed said, “Not all pastors in the different Christian churches I have attended have been positive toward women, and there have been many instances of devaluation of women through attitude and lack of addressing teaching about women. It isn’t as much a negative approach as it is an ignoring of women, by not acknowledging their existence, joking about them publicly, and treating them as the ‘little ladies.’”
Another responded, “Until the late 1990s, when a women’s director was hired, we were not allowed to do much of anything, and all limitations were on us. One time I stood up to pass the Communion plate to a person several seats down from me, and was reprimanded for ‘serving Communion.’”
A third woman said, “The same restrictions on women were in place during 1950 as are found in today’s Christian church, with some exceptions. Compared to the present, fewer women in the 1950s were doing public teaching, speaking, praying, baptizing, or serving Communion.
“We were respected and loved; however, we best served the purpose in the kitchen or the bedroom, as our pastor would say. Community and relationships were void spiritually; we were like tokens, and used with no value. It was demoralizing.”
“When women moved out of the church and into the workplace, the two worlds of women’s movement ideas and the idea of godly destiny for women collided; this has caused emotional difficulty for women today,” Rohach wrote.
And she concluded in her 161-page paper two years ago: “There is some progress in allowing women to be more involved in all areas of ministry; however, the Christian churches as a whole are very slow, compared to other denominations in the United States. It is the responsibility of the Christian church to create an environment for women that will allow women to use their spiritual gifts in all facets of the church.”
The dissertation for Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana, led to a doctorate of religious studies with an emphasis on women’s studies.
Things Are Changing
A survey conducted as part of her doctorate studies indicated that, regardless of perception, things have changed for women in Christian churches during the past five decades. For example, veteran women’s leaders recall how they were widely barred from baptizing believers in the 1950s, but female leaders today report that relatively few churches do so. Old restrictions on serving Communion, leading worship, or praying aloud when men are present also have dropped, she found.
Rohach has led women’s ministry for almost two decades. She established just such a ministry in 1992 for a new church plant in Las Vegas, served as women’s ministry director at Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, and now works on the other side of Lexington at NorthEast Christian Church.
She said she gets calls or e-mails every week “asking for some advice or direction to develop these programs.”
“Women have unique needs, which can be met only through relationships with other women,” she said.
Rohach pointed out her survey showed that the top two needs for women are spiritual maturity and relationships with other women.
“That would be a perfect basis for setting the primary goals of a women’s ministries program,” she said. “The purpose would be to lead women to Jesus Christ, to become fully devoted followers of him, to encourage women in their spiritual growth, and equip women to respond to God’s leading in their lives.”
While some churches try to meet the needs of both men and women solely through groups mixing the genders, they are missing an opportunity, Rohach said.
“There is a level of intimacy and sharing that cannot take place in a coed group for the men or the women. Often, a spouse is not able to share when the other person is in the same group.
Some Things Stay the Same
“Then there is the age-old problem of the communication differences of men and women. Women really do need to process through talking and men are quick decision makers and problem solvers. That causes some tension in a mixed group. Then, the idea of being a single woman in a married small group can be very uncomfortable for a lot of women.”
Like other ministries, the outreach to women must change with the times and culture.
“We now are focusing more on Bible studies that are shorter in time and in homework. The woman with young children or with a blooming career can complete these studies as they live with the interruptions or constant activity around them.”
But applying what is learned in those Bible studies is important as well.
“The mentoring ministry to women is vital. In this environment, whether it be one-on-one or a small group led by a mentor, women need to know how to live their lives as godly women.
“More and more women are coming from unchurched homes and some do not know what a normal marriage, home, parenting situation, or spiritual life looks like. In a mentoring program women can share how God has helped them or taught them principles of living through his Word. They also will learn how to have a relationship with Jesus rather than knowing about him.”
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor of The Columbus Dispatch.