For Elders Who Are Facilitating Gender Inclusion, Start Here
For so many Churches of Christ, the process of implementing gender inclusion is a brutal one. After the years of classes, studies, and prayer, after the hundreds of meetings, after talking with other churches, and after the scholars have gone home, elders are left with the question, “How are we going to do this?” Do we yank off the band-aid? Do we use the scaffolding method? Do we ask if people want to do this? Do we just tell our people, “We are going to do this,” and let the cards fall where they will? And underneath everything, the question is really, “Can we survive this?”
While I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, I was decidedly unprepared for the brutal fallout when my own congregation began the gender inclusion process. After all, we were already far more progressive than many churches on most issues. No one seemed to balk at women taking the lead at any other time, but now that we were approaching the 10:30 Sunday hour, bombs were exploding all over the place. Progressiveness didn’t appear to help us as we took on this culture shift.
If you are an elder who is convicted by God that gender inclusion must be implemented, then I am praying for you, as are many, many others. Being an elder is no cake walk. Others have entrusted you with their precious church family, and you have agreed to lead. I suspect you said “yes,” because you can’t say “no” to God. And if you are like my elders who led us through this process, you are convicted that status quo can’t remain even if it is the easier path.
While we were chest deep into our implementation process, like many minsters and elders, I spent a great deal of time talking with upset people. I learned many things that I probably should have known, but didn’t.
As a 25-year veteran communication professor and consultant, I so desperately wanted to help the process go well by helping people talk to each other and work through the conflict. I can’t say with any confidence that I did—at least not as much as I desired. On some level, I knew conflict management was really the key, and we were told that relationships would make or break the process. We thought we were working on those very things, but we were missing something pretty important. By the time I really figured out what was going wrong, the topic itself had hijacked us, and we couldn’t seem to regain our balance; at least that is my perspective.
In hindsight, I can pretty clearly see what was working and what wasn’t. The classes and seminars, while skillfully and thoughtfully taught, weren’t all that effective in persuading people, primarily because a large majority of people refused to go. We did not anticipate people refusing to study. I still have trouble with that. As a lifetime Church of Christer, I was appalled, putting many people on my own personal, and completely unofficial, probation list because they wouldn’t study. To be clear, classes and studies are absolutely necessary, but they were not the persuasive tools that we needed them to be.
I found out what was persuasive by talking to people. I logged a lot of phone hours during that time. When I had the chance to just share my own story, I found that people would listen to me, open up, and share more. Those conversations were when I felt the anger and resistance begin to back down a bit.
I was specifically placed in a Church of Christ home as an adopted child. Being a part of this church family is part of my identity since before I was born. As an off-the-charts extrovert and serious Jesus lover, I went to a Christian college as a communication major and never looked back. I loved my field, and it was only when I was asked to join my church staff in my 40s, that I realized that, had I been male, I probably would have chosen ministry. I had all the same talents, just the wrong gender. Honestly, that wasn’t even in my consciousness of a possibility because at that time, it wasn’t. Along the years, the issue would pop up, and because of my personality and professional experience, I should have been the one to champion gender inclusion. I didn’t. I was busy with other things.
When my elders asked me to serve on a committee and study the issue, that was my first serious attempt to ask myself, “Are these things I’ve been taught biblical, or do I just think they are?” I’m embarrassed to say, I was painfully ignorant of biblical female activity and leadership, despite being a life-long student of the Bible and loving obscure biblical facts. I didn’t know Huldah, I didn’t know that Miriam was a prophetess. I’d studied and taught about Deborah many, many times but had never connected the dots. Although I knew some of the famous passages about women, I just didn’t accurately realize that women in first-century churches were active teachers, preachers, prayer leaders, financial supporters, and more. Poor Phoebe was always just swatted aside as completely inconsequential. As further embarrassment, I just didn’t see non-inclusion as a justice issue or as a practice that caused any harm. I was so very wrong, and I deeply regret my passivity.
Through conversations, I saw people could relate to my experience, and these conversations created cracks of openness to the possibility of change. Further, people really listened when I shared that our elders were so convicted by God, that despite choosing the more difficult path, they simply couldn’t say “no” to what God was calling them to do. I should have known this type of sharing is what really persuades people. After all, I work with hundreds of clients and am constantly coaching them along these same lines. In the communication world, it’s a known fundamental. I’m constantly requiring speakers to bring in the human factor to balance out the information. Emotion is what encourages others to listen to the information rather than tune out things they don’t want to hear. Maybe I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, or maybe as a Church of Christer, it was ingrained in me that information was the most important component. I don’t know. What is I do know is that I will always regret not seeing this very obvious thing sooner and doing my dead level best to create space for a variety of men and women to share.
For elders who are facilitating gender inclusion, start with your story and share it both publicly and privately. Alongside the timelines and classes, share your history. Share how God has been leading you, how your mind has been changed, and how your heart can’t say “no” to God, even though that would be easier. Share how you are nervous to tell your parents. Share you fears about the damage that has been done to the women you love. Share how you can’t sleep at night because you are worried about how we are going to get through this as a church family. Your people have trusted you enough to ask you to lead them. If they can hear from you the reasons why you are leading them in this way, despite the oncoming conflict and difficulties, you will have a far better chance of maintaining trust. Essentially, much of the transition success comes down to trust and if you don’t share the “why,” people won’t see this as a necessary move for your church. Instead, they will see you as a troublemaker and won’t listen to you at all.
Gender inclusion implementation is certainly a complex and layered subject. I don’t pretend to provide a comprehensive list of what you should do. However, in the weeks ahead, I do plan to share more of what I learned by going through the process in hopes that God has equipped me to help others. For now, start with your story.