I really hate those "home parties." You know, the ones where you go to someone's house and hear about the latest gadgets, skin care products, or overpriced home decor. The hostess serves brownies and everyone talks about their kids and how busy they are. Then the sales representative stands up and gives a hyper-peppy presentation punctuated by polite gasps of delight from the women packed in the living room.
A few of the women get really giddy about the whole thing and start ordering everything that catches their eye. Some of them find just a couple of things they like, grab another brownie, and head home. I twitch uncomfortably and look for the least expensive item on the order form. I feel obligated to order something. After all, the hostess cleaned her house and made snacks for us, and if I don't order she might not get her free "hostess gift."
I learned my lesson when I once tried to leave one of those parties without buying anything. I had spent the entire party looking at my watch and thinking about how if I wanted to, I could make those doodads myself with some cardboard, fabric scraps, and magic markers. But I didn't want to. And I certainly couldn't imagine paying for any of them. But as I tried to leave, the sales representative cornered me with a desperate smile and asked me what I was going to buy. Everyone else stared at me as if I had been caught shoplifting. I did manage to escape without lightening my checkbook, but not entirely unscathed.
I don't go to those parties anymore. I've conquered my sense of obligation to attend. I don't even try to come up with excuses anymore. I just picture myself at the party, looking at my watch, wondering why in the world I agreed to spend my evening there. I imagine the feeling of watching the other women and wondering why I seem to be the only one who isn't enjoying myself tremendously. And I politely decline without bothering to explain.
I must confess I've had the same experience with women's ministry events. It's been a long time since I attended a women's Bible study, luncheon (why don't they just call them "lunch"?), or anything else just for Christian women. I've spent enough of my life feeling bored, self-conscious, and out of place (think junior high gym class).
In my experience, the people who plan these events make all kinds of assumptions about who I am as a woman. For starters, most assume I'm a full-time stay-at-home mom (and the best time of day for a meeting is, of course, 10:00 in the morning). They also seem to believe I enjoy making refrigerator magnets, spend most of my time thinking about fashion and chocolate, and can think of nothing better than getting away from my husband and kids (even though I've been at work all day) and hanging out with my "girlfriends." This isn't me—at all.
Am I a misfit in women's ministry?
I used to think I just didn't fit. Somehow I wasn't like most women, and this probably had something to do with my spiritual life, so I should try harder to fit in. Now I realize that's not true. In fact, the funny thing is, I don't really think I'm a misfit. Most women I know feel the same way I do about women's ministry programming. I know that women's ministries do connect with many women and provide important opportunities for growth. But they seem to be focused on serving a relatively small segment of the population. So I wonder: Why do so many of our women's ministry efforts treat women as if they all have the same lifestyle, schedule, goals, affinity for June Cleaver, and penchant for pink roses? And why are we expected to call ourselves "girlfriends"?
I don't mean to undermine the importance of women's ministry, or trivialize the effective ministry that's happening in many churches. But by and large, I believe our churches are running shallow, one-dimensional programs that miss important opportunities to minister to many women.
And I suspect I'm not the only one who has felt misunderstood and discouraged by the "ministry" we have experienced. We can be and do so much more. Why don't we challenge each other? Why don't we take ourselves seriously? Why do we alienate so many women with our ministries? Here are six opportunities you should remember when creating future events for the women in your church.
1. Recognize that women are not all the same.
Those who are called to women's ministry have their work cut out for them. It's not an easy job to minister to such a diverse group of people. But anyone who wants to appeal to women in general must recognize that women come in many different shapes and must create programs that appeal to more than one type. This is the same for any demographic group in the church, but perhaps most of all for women. Our lifestyles, circumstances, and preferences are so diverse. Not everything has to appeal to every woman—but if nothing about a church's women's ministry program appeals to a particular woman, she'll quickly get the message that she's not okay and not wanted.
2. Respect women's intellectual abilities.
Too often, we seem to buy into the world's lie that we are purely emotional beings, at the whim of fantasy and hormones, and not smart enough to go deep. God created us to feel and to think. Our souls hunger not only for the presence of God, but also for knowledge of his truth. Ministries that focus only on women's emotional needs or that stay on a shallow level are doing a disservice to their women and to the larger body of Christ. And they're failing to reach many women, who will never be engaged by a ministry that does not challenge their intellect.
3. Recognize that women are not just wives and mothers.
Women aren't required to fill these roles in order to see God's purpose for their lives. I'm both a wife and a mother, but if I were neither, God's calling on my life would not go away. It's pointless to ignore the importance of these roles in the lives of many women, but we must acknowledge that women are unmarried, childless, divorced, single, struggling with infertility, focused on their careers, and everything in between. They're all important to God, and none of them should have the impression that God's plans don't include them.
4. Make it safe to talk about real life.
In my experience, most topics are off the "approved" list at women's ministry gatherings. This is a systemic problem in many churches, so I don't think it's fair to blame it on women's ministries. But if a women's ministry program were able to make it safe to talk honestly and biblically about our experiences with spiritual doubt, depression, injustice, loneliness, temptation, abuse, regrets, sex, career success, insecurities, need to achieve, perfectionism, financial worries, sexual harassment, boredom, anxiety, exhaustion, great books, compulsive eating, addictions, and things that keep us awake at night, that ministry would produce some powerful life change.
5. Affirm real women.
We should not walk out feeling worse about our potential in Christ than we did when we walked in. Many women feel torn down and devalued by the church—simply because they are women or they are the sort of women God has made them to be. And while some have commented that I seem to be whining about my own experiences, or feeling sorry for myself, I'm actually not too worried about myself. My commitment to Christ and to the church is intact and independent of what I experience in women's ministry. I am truly concerned about those women who have written off the church, and by association Christ, because of what they have heard the church telling them about their own worth. Any women's ministry program must help everyday women feel like they belong.
6. Challenge women.
Besides the nursery, women's ministry may be the only place where many of our ministries seem designed only to make us comfortable. We need to create opportunities and spaces where women feel challenged—and are able to challenge one another.
I realize these ideas aren't very specific. So here are a couple more specific thoughts:
- Create a sports ministry for women.
- Hold a book club.
- How about get-togethers that don't require mothers to leave their children behind? Moms who work outside their homes aren't looking for more time away from their kids, so they might be more likely to attend events that welcome their children.
- How about helping women to form intentional mentoring relationships with each other? Many women are looking for mentors but don't know how to ask for one, get started, or keep it going.
- Hold a lunchtime Bible study for women who work outside their homes, in a location convenient to their work.
- Ask women to share their stories or to teach each other about something they're passionate about.
- Get women together to do some powerful service in your community—and welcome families to participate as well.
- What if interested women ran a business together and used the proceeds to help other women get on their feet?
So how about your ideas? How can we do women's ministry differently to appeal to a wider audience of women? What have you seen work well? What do you wish more churches would do in their ministries to women?
This article originally appeared on GiftedForLeadership.com.
Amy Simpson is editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership, Senior Editor of Leadership Journal, a speaker, and a Co-Active personal and professional coach. She's also author of the award-winning Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.