Over the past two weeks, as a part of Missio Alliance’s commitment to Women, we’ve published a series called Band of Brothers. It includes reflections on a women’s role in Church Leadership as well as a case study of a male-driven church planting movement in Boston. You can read the entire article here.
The recent influx of new church plants into the Boston area has been well-documented, and I have had the opportunity to observe this phenomenon firsthand. For the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to pastor a church in Cambridge, MA (located in between Harvard and MIT) through our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church.
Church plants have been a welcome sight! Many of these churches have blessed me personally with new friendships, partnerships, and fresh urgency to bring the gospel to the Cambridge/Boston area. I now consider several of these church planters to be some of my closest friends and allies in bringing Jesus to our city.
However, as I have seen new churches emerge, what has surprised me across the majority of these church plants is the uniformity of theology, the shared narrative of Boston as an “unchurched” city, and the assumed gender roles within church leadership. From my perspective, the church planting movement and its largely uniform practices and beliefs seem intent on not only bringing the Christian message, but also a specific brand of Christian culture into the New England region. This church planting movement seems intent on a specific brand of Christian culture. Click To Tweet
A Homogenized Definition of Leadership
I was recently asked if I knew any recent church plants that supported women in leadership and realized that I could not name any offhand outside of my denomination. The definition of what it means to be a church leader in my city feels like it has narrowed over the past ten years from what I believe to be open to all people who have been empowered by the Spirit of God, to men only, specifically men who embody dominant “leadership” traits.
As an Asian-American male, I regularly struggle with feeling that my Asian sensibilities tend not to be valued as “leadership” traits in Western culture, leading me to intentionally suppress my Asian sensibilities in order to be perceived as a leader, especially when I interact with non-Asian populations. Whether real or perceived, the “bamboo ceiling” is something I have to account for as an Asian-American senior pastor in a multiethnic church and a predominantly white city. The definition of a church leader in my city has narrowed to men who embody dominant traits. Click To Tweet
To have so many church plants come into the city and have so few of their leaders look like me, unintentionally, but implicitly communicates how I am somehow an outlier who does not belong or an imposter who has assimilated into dominant culture. As an Asian-American, I know that I have to deal with these dynamics as I navigate Western culture, but my hope continues to be that the church would be countercultural in this area and find value in my cultural identity and sensibilities, not as a “diversity project” but as an integral, essential part of the Kingdom of God. When I see the lack of diversity in the church planters in my city and those on the way, there seems like there is a lot of room for growth here.
The implications for women in leadership has been even clearer. My own journey as an Asian-American has helped me empathize more deeply with women who feel marginalized as they pursue their call to and serve in pastoral ministry and leadership. I cannot help but see how the barriers for women parallel and surpass (at least I am permitted to lead!) my own experiences and struggles.
Three Steps Forward
To be clear, I am not interested in changing the theology of the new church plants in my city or to slow down their rapid expansion into the Boston area. I have great respect and appreciation for their task of making the gospel both clear and accessible, especially to under-reached populations. I have genuinely been grateful to be around churches that hold different views than me on various issues and yet, be gracious enough to have a relationship with me so that we can mutually learn and benefit from each other.
When it comes to gender roles within the church, I know that there are deeply held Biblical beliefs that guide complementarian practices and I am not interested in the work of “debunking theology” here. The steps forward are ones for me, for those in my denomination and for communities who share similar values and beliefs.
I have been excited to be a part of a denomination that both affirms women in leadership and values church planting. I would welcome other networks, from a more diverse theological portfolio than the present one, to begin to plant churches in my city. There are plenty of people to reach! Networks with a more diverse theological portfolio need begin to plant churches. Click To Tweet
While I have come to different theological conclusions, I have appreciated how so many of the Boston-area church plants articulate such a sharp and developed theology. The challenge is to provide a clear and persuasive Biblical response to male-only leadership models and be more explicit about the assumed theology undergirding communities like my own.
Live it Out
Churches (including my own) that claim to support women and minorities in leadership need to more fully step into and practice this conviction. While I affirm women in leadership, I am constantly reminded of the ways that I have implicit, sexist biases, consistently make assumptions from a male-centric point of view, and fail to support my female leaders in a more robust way. While my church and denomination theologically affirm women in leadership, I am reminded that the vast majority of pastors and leaders, continues to be male.
Until churches that espouse these values more fully live into them, I am not sure how much can move forward.
On October 29, Missio Alliance is convening #SheLeads, a Summit of Women and Men seeking to advance the Blessed Alliance. Learn more HERE.