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. The people of Wintonbury 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 Wintonbury. 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 Wintonbury, 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.

When Church Hurts Like Hell

To the weary one, who has gone to church hoping to feel encouraged, accepted, inspired, but instead came away wounded, beaten and bruised…you are not alone. And I am so sorry.

I wish that never happened to you. I wish that never happened to me. I wish that never happened to anyone. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Why? Because people. That’s why.

People hurt. And the church is people. And so, church hurts.

No, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. But nothing in this fallen world is how it’s supposed to be. Not even the church. Not even God’s people. Which is probably why the Bible teems with reminders, instructions and commands about how to get along, how to do this thing we call community, how to live broken and love the broken.

Have you ever seen someone create mosaic art by hand? They begin the long process by mixing earth and water to mold the tiles, which are then dried, cut and fired. The artist then breaks those tiles into smaller pieces – cutting and chipping, sanding edges or sharpening a point, pressing the pieces into a muddy sort of clay before washing them clean. Hundreds, thousands of broken pieces fit together to reveal one, complete, stunning master-piece.

When the sun is shining and I believe God is good and my spirit overflows with gratitude, that’s how I envision community: broken lives on broken lives – with all our imperfect shapes and sharp edges and rough surfaces – being fit together and made to shine. In the hands of the Master, we become a Master-piece.

That’s on a good day. And with spiritual eyes that see through the veil of a fallen world.

But on a bad day…oh, on the bad days, I am fractured glass sinking in mud. Like quicksand, it pulls me under. On every side I am pressed and scratched and pulled and scraped. I want nothing more than to escape. What beauty, I wonder, could ever come of this? Hopeless. On bad days, I am hopeless.

Because sometimes church hurts like hell.

Sometimes going to church feels like stepping onto a battlefied. You come armed and armored, like you’re bringing your fists to a pistol war. And if, like me, your church is not only your spiritual home and family, but your place of work, there’s no escape. Which has been both a challenge and a gift. When church hurts, it’s complicated.

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