By Mark A. Taylor
New York publishing executive Joanne Lipman wrote last year about the subtle barriers and “benevolent sexism” she’s experienced in an industry that says it’s open to women leaders. After reading her article, “Women at Work: a Guide for Men,” I couldn’t help but wonder: Do women working in my world, i.e. local churches and parachurch ministries, also feel stymied by the men who dominate their workplaces? I wrote several women church leaders to get an answer, and I reported last week all of them answered “yes.”
Since then, I have heard from a couple more women who said they couldn’t relate to Lipman’s experiences. One, a megachurch minister’s administrative assistant, was “offended” by Lipman’s article. Another, a family life director in a heartland congregation, said she doesn’t feel she receives “any less respect or credibility” from the male ministers at her church because she is a woman.
That’s good to hear. Let’s not make a problem where there isn’t one. But let’s also not ignore the reaction from others who must negotiate an equal footing even in church settings where they’ve been trusted with significant responsibility.
One young woman, on the leadership team of a Midwest congregation, encounters men at church who instinctively “run meetings or projects . . . with power, who don’t have to do the long work of earning the respect and credibility I feel I must earn every time I speak.” She described meetings where her ideas “were seemingly ignored until they were ‘reappropriated’ by a man around the table.”
A Christian college administrator wrote, “In general, women have to work harder than men to be heard, to earn promotions, to earn raises.” This has been her experience, even in higher education.
A ministry consultant and former church staff member wrote, “We’ve emphasized the negatives of women in church leadership so much that we basically encourage women to expect to be disrespected.” And she asks questions for every man working with women leaders: “In a meeting, who do you ask to take notes: a man or a woman? Who do you ask to return the most important phone call? Who do you ask to prepare the mailing?”
A parachurch staff member offered a more nuanced response. “Misunderstanding goes both ways between the sexes,” she wrote me. But “as a woman, I am culturally conditioned to listen to men’s perspectives. . . . I agree with the author [Lipman] when she says she doesn’t want to blame men and too much man shaming exists. But it is helpful for men to do a lot of listening without getting defensive, because we are not starting from the same point when it comes to gender in churches.”
Not that she hasn’t felt respect. “If anything,” she wrote, “in the last 10 years, the men I have worked with have been deferential, as many of them are becoming more aware of their own privilege; they want to make space for others. I am incredibly grateful for these men.”
Different churches will come to different conclusions about how and where women can lead. Many, many are acknowledging the giftedness and insight that women among them can bring to the tasks of ministry. But cultural issues remain after spiritual and biblical questions are answered. It would be a shame to invite women to the table without giving them a voice once they’re there.