Quite some time ago I was asked to speak at a large Christian gathering. I was quite surprised that I had been asked and this showed in my knee-jerk reaction when I was approached by the organizers, “Me?” I spluttered. “Are you sure?” As soon as I had revealed my disbelief I regretted it. Aren’t we supposed to exude confidence as platform speakers?
A more appropriate response would have been something like “Of course. Let me check my schedule and I’ll get back to you.” But no, my insecurities were on open display now, perhaps even making the organizers wonder if they had actually made a mistake to ask me. But I accepted because I felt encouraged that this network was trying to include women in their events. In the past they had not done so as intentionally. So I was grateful to be asked and hopeful that things were changing in Christian culture.
I preached a good message at the gathering. I’ve been preaching for long enough to know the difference between a disaster and when it all goes well. I can often discern when God is trying to convey an important message. I think that happened at this gathering. I’m not saying that revival broke out! However, all in all, I think I spoke clearly, God worked through my message and it was broadly received by people. Afterwards, people who heard the message encouraged me with affirming words.
Silence Speaks Volumes
However, I also felt mostly silence from my male peers. Men were celebrating the other speakers who were men, as they should have because their talks were very good. Yet there was very little acknowledgement surrounding my message. The leadership of this network was also pointing out publicly how well the men had spoken, however did not reference me at all. I thought that was very strange. I grew doubtful and my insecurities surfaced. I was worried that I had done an injustice to female speakers and perhaps women would never be asked on a platform again in this context because of the memory of my average performance. I know how precarious the whole realm of female speakers and leadership is. While many men who might do badly at preaching, for example, might be given another chance, women are never given a chance again if they perform badly.
There is extra pressure on women when they engage in speaking events or public leadership. I felt that pressure. This is embarrassing to admit, but I decided to go to one of the organizational leaders and ask them if my talk had been any good, because I was beginning to doubt myself. However, I was enthusiastically assured that I had preached very well. I remember that after that time I took all of this to God in prayer, and felt He was saying that I need not listen to human approval or try to please men – He was enough for me. I felt extremely comforted by God’s grace.
This small experience that I am vulnerably sharing is one of many I have had over the course of my ministry. These kinds of experiences are all very similar, even though the names of people, the denominations and the contexts are different. They always leave me feeling as though we are going backwards regarding the progress of fully welcoming women in the church. Even though Christian institutions, churches and academia are trying hard to welcome women, which I’m very grateful about, in reality women are still feeling excluded. I regularly debrief this kind of thing with many women who feel the same way.
I think it’s time for the people of God to look a bit deeper when it comes to fully welcoming women into all aspects of life in the reign of God. I use the term ‘welcome’ intentionally as this connotes a posture of true Christian hospitality which relies on accepting the other as opposed to a word like ‘inclusion’ which can sound more clinical. Christine Pohl, in her book Making Room, implies that this kind of welcome or hospitality can point to a longed for alternate reality, this is what I would call the kingdom of God. She says:
“Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive countercultural dimension. ‘Hospitality is resistance.’ Especially when the larger society disregards or dishonours certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves. They point to a different system of values and an alternate model of relationships”
The kind of welcome I am talking about here requires men and women to work together.
Put yourself forward regardless of insecurities
Women need to keep accepting invitations to speak, preach and lead even if they don’t feel that they are worthy or capable. Of course we need to honestly assess our gifts, talents and capacities, but I find that many capable women are asked to participate in events yet decline because they feel that they are not competent. I have shared my insecurities about public speaking and I know that many women struggle with the same insecurities. This is something we need to work through with God’s help. It is hard when men can appear to be so confident in the public sphere. Also, men are more likely to feel that they deserve to be asked to participate in events, panels, conferences and the like. Women generally speaking, can find it hard to imagine that anyone would want their opinion on important matters. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) has always been a great encouragement to me in that it speaks to me that I must not hide my gifts because that will not help to grow the kingdom. When I hide the gifts God has given me for mission, the reign of God is at a disadvantage. Click To Tweet
Stop with the token female talk
I find this incredibly hurtful because of course it implies that the opportunities that have been given to me are because of political correctness rather than merit or because of God’s gifts discerned in me. One of the ways we can solve this problem is by making sure that we have more than one female on panels, conferences, gatherings, organizations and on various faculties. It's been implied that I was chosen because the organization needed a female. Click To Tweet
Encourage women without patronizing them
I find it so encouraging when I am affirmed without being patronized. This means that the men around me recognize how difficult it is and how much pressure there is on a female to perform in Christian contexts, so they make special effort to encourage me. Sometimes bravely in public settings. They know that women can be insecure sometimes regarding speaking up, showing up and putting themselves forward, so they speak words of affirmation that are carefully thought out in order to bless. These words must not be token, fake or paternal, but rather authentic and with a motivation to enable women. I pray and hope for more men in Christian organizations like this.
Work through the issue of unconscious bias so that women are welcomed equally
Organizations and churches are putting affirmations of women in their constitutions, formal documents and vision statements, but in reality women are still being excluded. We need to go deeper and think about the unconscious bias that we all have which might be stopping us from truly welcoming one another. In the example of my experience at the gathering where I was asked to speak, I think excluding me was simply an issue of unconscious bias. We tend to affirm those who are like us rather than those who are different to us. It was not intentional but the effect was that I felt that I did not truly belong. There is a lot of research occurring around this concept of unconscious bias that the church needs to take hold of, theologically critique and absorb what is necessary in order to allow the Spirit to transform us at a deeper level. I think that unconscious bias is something that the Church needs to explore more carefully. Click To Tweet
I am grateful for the steps that Christian organizations are taking to invite women to the table, include women at events and enable women today. I think it’s time however, to welcome women as true friends and coworkers in proclaiming the gospel and building God’s kingdom alongside of men.