For Elders in Conversation with Upset Families about Gender Inclusion, Read This
My bizarre combination of communication professor and ministry means I may be uniquely positioned to see how some communication dynamics can derail the gender inclusion process for our churches. In all of our hours and hours of studying, praying, interviewing other church leaders, working on timelines and classes, researching church culture changes, and consulting with those who had been through the process, no one ever talked about these particular dynamics. My worlds had certainly never collided in just that way; it was a new puzzle that I wasn’t prepared to solve. My deep desire is for your experience to be less painful.
On the list of things I should have known, and kind of did, but not enough, is the role that gender communication style differences played during individual conversations throughout our gender inclusion process. As a 25-year veteran communication professor and consultant, I melted down and wept when I started connecting all these dots. I didn’t see this coming and I deeply regret that. I should have known.
As couples began requesting meetings with shepherds to discuss their opposition to gender inclusion, I was sucker punched with the difference in reports. Shepherds would report that the meeting went very well, that they discussed issues and everyone behaved. However, when I talked to a female about the same meeting, the report was drastically different. I heard things like, “They don’t care if we leave or not,” “They don’t understand how upsetting this is,” and “They aren’t listening.”
Read below and trust me:
There are two levels of meaning in every communication interaction: informational and relational. Every message conveys content and also reveals something about the relationship.
Men and women’s primary purpose for conversation is different. Men primarily converse to give and take information. Women primarily converse to establish rapport. Listen to male friends talk about a sport, hobby, or concert; there is most likely lots of factual information going back and forth. Compare that to how much women talk about their relationships, sharing a multitude of insignificant details that create intimacy. For males, shared activities, not conversations, grow friendships. Of course, women have informational conversations too. And of course, men can use conversations to grow closer. The vast research supports, while we can do both, our motivation for why we talk stays pretty consistent. A classic resource is You Just Don’t Understand! by Deborah Tannen.
Men and women have different views of conflict, although no one handles conflict very well. Women in particular may avoid talking openly about a conflict because it feels like something is wrong with the relationship. Remember, women’s primary purpose for conversation is to establish rapport. Males don’t mind the conflict conversation so much but they want to get the information they need, fix it, and move on. For males, conflict is not necessarily a red flag that something is wrong with the relationship; it means they have a relationship.
I observed that women were making the spiritual decisions for the family, while men were making the corporate decisions at church.
Numbers one and two are things I have used for my entire career to help provide insight for helping people talk to each other. But I didn’t realize the impact of these dynamics on our gender inclusion process until I began hearing these drastically different reports on the same conversations. Our shepherds went into the meeting calm and collected, sharing information and their commitment to the process. They left the room thinking things went well because everyone kept their cool.
The women left the room feeling like the shepherds didn’t appreciate their lifetime of sacrificial service. Since the conversations were information-heavy instead of being used to establish rapport, women felt deeply hurt, unappreciated, and ignored. “They don’t care if we leave or not,” or, “They don’t care if I’m upset.” Did our elders say or even think those things? Of course not, but that’s what women heard. Let me very clearly say, our shepherds did appreciate all the hours of service and the ways these amazing women contributed to this church. They cared so very deeply that people were upset. They simply weren’t verbalizing those things. I view it as one group speaking Spanish and another group speaking Russian with no translator. In connection with this, because the focus was on what women could or could not do during the 10:30 hour, it somehow inadvertently devalued how women had been serving their entire lives.
Let’s deal with number three very briefly. I have another article in the line-up about conflict, but gender certainly played a role. By and large women just hated the conflict and didn’t see the necessity of the change, no matter how they felt about the actual issue. Keeping the peace was more valuable than anything else. Why would our leaders throw hand grenades into our church unnecessarily? Women hated the conflict and wished to avoid dealing with it. Amy Bost Henegar’s article provides some helpful insight.
Finally number four: women were making the spiritual decisions for the family about where to attend church, while men were making the corporate decisions at church. I can think of only one family in which the male’s scriptural convictions motivated the decision to leave our church family. After many, many conversations with women, it was clear that the husband was fine with gender inclusion and didn’t want to leave, but did when the wife strongly objected to the change. This surprised me and I don’t pretend to explain the irony of those dynamics. However, I do know that statements one, two, and three are a big part of it.
For those of you who are navigating these conversations, I pray these conversations will be opportunities for you to connect with people who are brave enough to actually have a difficult conversation, instead of just leaving. Pay attention to what these women really want. They want to know that you see them, appreciate their value, recognize their lifetime of sacrificial service, care that they are upset, and understand their fears for what this conflict will do to this church family. Read here about sharing your own story effectively, then share your convictions for justice and for how God wants you to lead this church. These conversations are anything but easy. The stakes are high and the fallout is painful. If I can be of service to you in any way, please reach out.