Editor’s Note: This week marked the launch of Rob Dixon’s book Together in Ministry, which is part of the Missio Alliance/InterVarsity Press partnership line and offers a prophetic roadmap for individuals and communities as they seek to develop flourishing ministry partnerships for women and men. We are honored to feature Rob and April Fiet this week in our Writing Collectives as they share a number of ideas and examples reflected in Rob’s book. Part One of this article was published on Monday; Part Two appears below. You can also download the full version here.
In Part One of this article, we covered two out of the five steps in the process of making a shift to full inclusion of women in church leadership. Today, we’ll pick up with the third step, which is to declare a decision.
Declare a Decision
In Matthew 5, Jesus began the sermon on the mount with the Beatitudes, words of vision that declared a decision of what the kingdom of God would look like. This pivotal moment invited listeners into a new way of being, into a community that would be distinctive from what it had been before. The third step of the roadmap―to declare a decision about including women at all levels of leadership in the church―stands apart from the other process-oriented steps along the way because it is momentary. The declaration is the fruit of prayer, study, research, and discernment, but the moment the decision is declared the congregation is invited to participate in the new vision for the church.
After a year of intensive study, each Bent Tree leader shared their convictions with the rest of the leadership team. The movement of the Holy Spirit was clear when the team arrived at a unanimous decision to include women as elders in the church. The next step was to broaden the process to include the congregation. This is a gut-check kind of moment; declaring a decision includes counting the cost (which could include people leaving the church), discerning the bandwidth needed to engage with the congregation’s questions and concerns, and providing the resources needed to make the change systemic. The movement of the Holy Spirit was clear when the team arrived at a unanimous decision to include women as elders in the church...This is a gut-check kind of moment. Click To Tweet
A church may declare its decision through some sort of statement from the leadership, a researched theological paper, a sermon series about the decision, or some combination of any or all of these. Bent Tree did all three, with the most important being the theological paper the leaders produced. The paper explored the core values of the church―such as biblical inerrancy and shared leadership―and made the case for including women as elders in the church.
Inviting the congregation to continue along on the roadmap has the potential to bring many emotions or concerns to the surface for members of the congregation. In many cases, leadership teams that navigated this shift well in their churches made themselves available to answering questions or addressing concerns that the decision raised for people within the church. Depending on a church’s governing structure, church by-laws might need to be changed to align with the decision made by the church leadership.
A theme that arose time and again in our interviews was the importance of transparency as the decision is declared, and the need for explaining what the process will look like from that point on. Since change involves loss (even when the change is good), the congregation may benefit from learning what will remain the same (e.g. the church’s core values, the process of nominating and electing elders and deacons, a commitment to the gospel and the authority of Scripture, etc.).
Engage the Congregation
In the fourth step in the roadmap, the declaration of a decision is followed by a period of engaging the broader congregation. For the Bent Tree community, this largely took the form of an invitation for individual congregants to reach out to elders and pastors in response to the position paper.
According to our research, successful congregational engagement is marked by three features: intentionality, a plurality of opportunities, and a robust pastoral emphasis. First, interviewees articulated the importance of intentionality in this phase of the process. For instance, one leader used the word “campaign” to capture how his community thought about this step. Intentional processes are proactive, carefully constructed, and they are clearly and repeatedly communicated.
Second, our interviews emphasized the importance of a wide range of engagement opportunities. Having a diverse collection of touchpoints can result in a more accessible process where there is something for everyone. Our research generated several examples of what congregational engagement can look like:
- One-on-one conversations with church leaders who were a part of the discernment process
- Congregational forums where the community gathers for questions and answers
- Email blasts with resources for further study
- Seminars with outside experts
- Sermon series that follow from the declared decision
Third, the congregational engagement process should be fundamentally pastoral. Successful rollouts effectively shepherd the congregation through the change process. Looking back on his church’s engagement process, one leader noted that “people were brought along,” in the sense that they felt seen and heard.
Curating a pastoral process is particularly critical since there may well be backlash. Every leader we interviewed for this project described some form of pushback from individuals or groups within the larger community. One leader remarked that “even after the process, angry pockets in the church can persist.” This high potential for disagreement should motivate a pastoral process. Leaders might not be able to persuade everyone to align with the church’s decision, but it is important to honor everyone involved in the community through pastoral dialogue. As one pastor remarked, “How we have conversation is just as important as what we decide.” Leaders might not be able to persuade everyone to align with the church’s decision, but it is important to honor everyone involved in the community through pastoral dialogue. Click To Tweet
Implement the Change
After engaging in the other four steps of the roadmap, it’s time to take a breath, acknowledge the costs incurred, and provide care and support for the leaders who have been part of the change process from the beginning. Then, the process must continue. A theological shift needs to propel cultural and structural shifts as well. In other words, practice should begin to align with theology. For a shift to be successful and long-lasting, the change needs to become integral to the way a congregation “does church.”
Implementation involves intentionality with words and titles. Perhaps a congregation has given female staff members the title “director” when the more appropriate title is “pastor.” By making this shift verbally when addressing these staff members and in places like the church website, the church’s value of the inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership is made clear. These small changes help the congregation see the vision for where the church is going. As one leader we interviewed commented, there will not be any congregational buy-in if the people can’t see “the picture.” Another church changed out the pew Bibles with New Revised Standard Version Bibles so that people were reading the same inclusive translation the pastor was using during worship. Implementation involves intentionality with words and titles. Perhaps a congregation has given female staff members the title “director” when the more appropriate title is “pastor.” Click To Tweet
Implementation is difficult because it requires a church to confront systems and practices that may have become largely unconscious. These changes may elicit strong responses in both church leaders and worshipers, which may be difficult to navigate after a change process that may have gone on for some time. Effective implementation will ensure that church leaders are supported through the process, and that support and encouragement will also be given to any women who are first to be called to lead. One church leader shared his commitment for providing a young woman with support by saying, “I don’t want her going into any context wondering if she should be here.” He went so far as to say, “I’ll stake my job on it” as he shared his passion for helping the church hire their first woman to a leadership position. Even when there is congregational buy-in, when a church has its first female leaders, all kinds of dysfunctions can emerge. Support for these first female leaders is of utmost importance.
The roadmap for making this shift can span over the course of months, or even years. Even when a church has navigated all five steps, its leaders must remain intentional about implementing the change. Over time, those committed to making this shift may notice places of unintentional bias against women, systems that are set up to exclude women, or small habits that continue to marginalize women. For example, one leader shared the story of decisions being made by men on the team at a local golf course, a practice that effectively cut women out of the decision-making process. Noticing and eliminating that informal decision-making loop created a more inclusive leadership community for their team. As these kinds of habits and patterns come to light, churches will need to make continued steps toward implementing the shift.
A Biblical Mandate
The first chapter of Genesis lays out God’s vision for the full and equal partnership between women and men. In Genesis 1:27, God tells the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” This command firmly establishes the principle of shared leadership, of women and men working together to steward God’s creation. The first chapter of Genesis lays out God’s vision for the full and equal partnership between women and men. Click To Tweet
In pursuit of this Genesis 1 vision, the hard work of implementation continues at Bent Tree Bible Fellowship. Five years from their discernment process, the congregation is currently on its second generation of female elders. Day after day, shared leadership is becoming a reality in their church community.
Indeed, Bent Tree and the other leaders surveyed for this project demonstrate that it is possible to make an egalitarian theological shift. Congregations who aspire to make the shift to the full inclusion of women in church leadership can follow the roadmap outlined in this series: identifying catalysts, gathering leaders, declaring a decision, engaging the congregation, and implementing the change. May the Gospel advance in greater measure as our faith communities discern fresh ways to partner together as women and men in ministry.