Just Mending | Thoughts on Women in Church Leadership

UNEXPECTED MESSAGE

Yesterday, while working my way through three different books about women in the Church, I needed a bookmark. Opening the drawer of our end table, I found a slip of 2” x 8.5” paper – something a neighbor dropped off to promote her sewing business. “Just Mending” it reads at the top. “Do you have clothes that need repair?”

I hesitated. It’s not really a bookmark. What if I lose this thing? I’ll never be able to replace that broken zipper on my Uggs. Does she even repair Uggs? Uggs aren’t clothes – they’re boots. Seriously, Nichole, are you ever going to call this lady anyway? But…

And then I read the title again, “Just Mending”. God speaks to us in the most unexpected ways, doesn’t He?

I folded the slip of paper in half and placed it in Chapter 1 of Jo Saxton’s More than Enchanting. Then I piled all the books together just so and took this lovely photo for you:Reading these books has been like walking along the ocean’s edge. Sometimes the waters lap at my toes and ankles. Other times, the waves crash into me, soaking my legs, knocking me off balance. I stumble as the sand sucks at my feet, and flail my arms to steady myself.

Anyone who’s spent a day at the beach knows that the sun, the sand and the waves work a sort of magic on your mind and body…leaving you somehow relaxed, revived and exhausted, all at once.

The words of these books, the stories, wisdom, reassurances and revelations, crash over me, wave after wave. Sometimes gentle. Sometimes startling

The emotions vary, ranging from joy to sadness to anger to regret to hope, but the feeling that most surprises me is what I can only describe as a sort of comfort. I’m not talking about a warm-hugs-fuzzy-blanket-hot-cup-of-tea kind of comfort. No. I’m talking about a heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-your-body, soothing-truth kind of comfort. I can literally feel the Lord’s truth rushing in…the lies, the hurt, the pain rushing out.

Thousands of years since the fall, thousands more since the resurrection of Christ, decades since I started following Him, and God is still flushing the poison from my veins.

The sensation, at times, overwhelms. I did not expect this.

AN ITCH I COULDN’T SCRATCH

Growing up, I had very little exposure to church or Christian culture. I became a believer as a teenager, simply because I was desperate for Jesus. I doubted so much – God’s goodness, the existence of heaven, the reliability of the Bible.

But there was one thing I knew for sure: Jesus.
When I could hardly breathe, Jesus.
When I was paralyzed with fear, Jesus.
When I was lonely, Jesus.
When I was condemned, Jesus.
When I was hopeless, Jesus.

“Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief,” became my daily prayer. He has answered faithfully.

By some blessed miracle, God revealed to me that understanding and even agreeing with everything in the Bible, are not prerequisites for following Jesus. So I entrusted my doubts to Him and have been walking in the dust of the Rabbi ever since.

I acclimated to Christian culture slowly, very slowly. (I think I’m still acclimating.) One thing I’ve wrestled with for a long time is the role of women in the Church.

I love our church. It has been, for many years, our home, our family. Our church’s people are my people, our hearts tethered to one another by the Spirit of God. And my church is filled with strong, gifted, Jesus-loving women who lead in more ways than I know.

Women are not, however, free to teach authoritatively at our house of worship. While many churches hold to that belief, they can each apply it differently. For us, it means that women cannot serve as elders (our governing board) or teach from the platform (pulpit). Seems simple but it gets a little weird when you think too hard about it. What is “teaching” exactly? Is it only when you “exegete”? Why can a woman share a brief message, a song she wrote or her testimony from the platform? What if a woman writes something that someone else reads from the platform? When, exactly, does God’s truth have less or no authority?

This confused me, but I saw the hearts of the people at this church, I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit there, so I entrusted to the Lord my doubts about their position on women in the church. And just kept following Jesus.

Over the years, moving through various lay ministry and staff positions, I have not reached a place of peace about this issue. Even though I have never longed to be an elder or a pastor, even though I have never felt compelled to teach a congregation, it niggled at me, like an itch I could never quite scratch.

As a “strong” woman, with “strong” opinions and a “loud” voice, I have been known to upset an elder or two. I have asked tough questions and said hard things and been accused of being “disrespectful”. And I have wrestled with what this means. Am I wrong? Should I be meeker? Quieter? Is disagreeing with my brother, elder or not, disrespectful? Or is it a healthy conversation that may provide an alternative perspective for consideration? Does God want me to sit down and shut up?

Well, He wants all of us to sit down and shut up sometimes! But not always. I know because I find myself begging Him, Really God? Really? You want me to go and say that? Again? Isn’t there anyone else? And He answers, “Go.”

So I go. Remembering that I don’t have to understand every Biblical passage or agree with all-things-Christian-culture to follow Jesus. A little unsure and afraid, but holding Jesus’s hand, I go.

WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED

Then last year, everything changed. As my readers already know, my family was wounded by a conflict at church that deeply affected our daughters, my husband and me.

It pains me to say that some of our church’s male leadership played a significant role in this conflict. Pains me because these men are our brothers, our co-laborers, our friends. They love the Lord and want to do what’s right and good. We love them. And, I believe, they love us, too. I do not want you to worry about the who or what or why or how. Know this: as in any conflict, we all made mistakes, and those involved have exhibited good intentions, concern, accountability, humility and grace. If you must do something, do this: mourn with us, lament for what’s been lost, weep for the brokenness of Christ’s Church and the disunity of His people. And pray for God to restore what the locusts have eaten.

I am sharing our story so that you will more clearly see this: We desperately needed women leaders to help resolve this conflict and to address the consequences that followed. But this didn’t happen…at first…

The hearts of women were central to this conflict. And male leadership was a significant part of the conflict. Add to this the fact that I am on staff, and the circle of involvement gets a little funky. In following the steps for Biblical conflict resolution, when it came time to involve another individual, we couldn’t reach out to a friend or lay leader. To protect the church and all involved, we needed to go straight to the leadership. And all the leadership is male.

We underestimated just how insufficient that would be. After a few weeks, I observed that we had to really work to help men understand the problems, but if I said three sentences about the issue to my mother or our women’s ministry director, they understood instantly. Women did provide support briefly, for specific reasons, but any momentum was quickly lost when their part was finished. Still, I wasn’t ready to accept that male leadership alone was inadequate. So I continued to walk the exhausting, precarious tightrope between advocating and submitting.

We asked God to resolve the situation. He didn’t. We asked God to release us and let us walk away. He didn’t. After nine long months, the situation had grown, its tentacles far beyond our family’s reach. That was when God gave us permission to let go. Not to leave, but to lay it down.

A couple of weeks later, two women in the church picked it up. When I told one of them that I didn’t want her to think we were giving up, she said, “Maybe it’s time for you to let others do the heavy lifting for a while.”

With a strength only God could have provided, these women leaned into the heavy boulder of the consequences of this conflict and began to move forward.

Because of these women, some things began to change. Not because the men were unfit, but because, in this situation, they were incomplete. This issue involved the hearts, minds and lives of men and women. To address the issue completely, we needed men and women to lead.

My gratitude to these women is best described by the tears welling up as I write. Perhaps take a moment to thank God for them, for how they have worked diligently, faithfully and passionately for our church family to the glory of God.

JUST MENDING

This experience has caused me to actively seek answers to my nagging questions about the role of women in the Church. As I feast on books like Jesus Feminist, and How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership, and More than Enchanting, I find that, like Ruth Haley Burton, I have not changed my mind about women in leadership but instead “I finally let myself believe something I had always known.” (How I Changed my Mind About Women in Leadership, p35)

That women are fully equal to men and should be fully free to serve God however He calls them. The body of Christ, and the world we seek to reach for Jesus, will be better for it.

As I continue to be overcome with many emotions, I find myself anxiously asking, What has this done to my daughters? What kind of changes do I need to make in my life? Who do I tell? What should I do? And on and on…

But then I look at my makeshift bookmark that reads “Just Mending” and I’m reminded of the heart-breaking-open, pain-spilling-out, poison-leaving-my-body, soothing-truth comfort that feels a lot like healing.

And I hear God say, Don’t worry about that, Nichole. Right now, we’re just mending.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Just Mending | Thoughts on Women in Church Leadership

  1. What to say?! So appreciative of this post. Honest and yet honoring. Truth-speaking without being condemning. And talking about an issue I care a lot about! I’ve grown up surrounded by gifted women who have powerful anointing on their life. As the capital “C” Church, we still have a lot of work to be done (especially amongst us male leaders) to fully honor, elevate, and release our sisters to do the work of the ministry. Thanks for this Nichole!

  2. What a good post. Thank you for the way you pictured the men. They often don’t understand women’s problems. Thank you for questioning. And for forgiving. May God bless your “mending,” I think He is doing this in all of us as we grow to be like him.

    • Thank you so much. As I fret a bit about my daughters and why I didn’t come to this revelation when they were younger, I try to remember that it is also good for them to see that God is always working in us, that changes is ok, even for the gray-haired among us.

  3. HI Nichole, great article about such a touchy subject. You write with such grace and it’s always good, what a gift God has given you. I personally did not know about what your family went through because we never talk, unfortunately. I’m sorry you are having such a hard time.

  4. You have such skill with writing … I can just feel the strong waves as you talk about stumbling on the sand! I also felt much heartache as I continued to read along. To hear of conflict between families/believers, that doesn’t appear to have been resolved (John 17:23). Heartache, to read some of the difficult life issues you dealt with growing up … many the result of men who failed in some way. Lastly, heartache to read this report of male leadership at Wintonbury, described with words like ‘insufficient’, ‘inadequate’ and ‘incomplete’.

    Clearly, much of this blog revolves around women leadership in the church. I have tremendous respect for the many women leaders who serve in such key roles at Wintonbury … including yourself. I also can’t share enough about how my life is enriched and balanced by my wife and the other women in my circle of relationships. As a man (who hasn’t walked in your shoes) I may seem bias towards God’s design of headship (1 Cor 11:3) and glad that He saw man alone in the garden as not good and gave him a helpmate (Gen 2:18). But, I am also overwhelmed at times with the command to love my wife as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25), and the responsibility to be the spiritual leader in my home. Lord, give us strength to live for you!

    As a long time member at Wintonbury, I recalled (and I’m sure you can as well) again and again being cautioned to not spread bad reports, and was reminded of that too.

    My prayer is that you can finish mending from the conflict, find confidence that God’s plans are greater, and that we all can love … as you wrote so well in your January blog … by being kind, compassionate, truthful, respectful and gracious.

    • Hi Scott. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I truly appreciate it. I am saddened to hear that you saw this as a “bad report”. I certainly did not intend for it to be so. In fact, Doug and I both reviewed the piece before publishing and had either of us considered it gossip or a bad report, I would not have published it. Doug and I had already taken the necessary steps to resolve the conflict, we did not see the post as negative and we did not think anything I wrote would come as a surprise to those involved.

      The purpose of this post was to share my personal journey from new-believer to cautious-complementarian to pretty-sure-I-can-call-myself-an-egalitarian-now. The title “Just Mending” refers not to healing of the conflict but to the healing of my understanding of God’s view of women.

      There is much more to be said, and I would love to talk with you about this further, but I wonder if it might be better in person or over the phone – especially because there seems to already have been some misunderstanding. I’ll email you to follow up.

      Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts! -Nichole

      • Thank you for your feedback, written with patience towards my understanding.

        Mending … to repair and restore to usefulness. I did expand the use of that word throughout your post(s). To the conflict you mentioned (I didn’t read there was a restoration), the tears in the fabric of your childhood (losing fathers, ‘ravages of abortion’, frequent moving etc), and now the ‘pains me’ feeling towards the men of Wintonbury (being ‘insufficient’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘inadequate’). That was where I prayed for mending, not as much on the evolving opinion of your theology.

        In regards to what this post reports about our church and the male leadership there; I did anonymously share your post with two women in my life, to see if my view was totally misplaced or overly biased. Their reaction was stronger than mine, so I do encourage you to reflect on that aspect of it more deeply.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s