Gender, and how the church responds to gender, has been and continues to be difficult and disheartening and too often damaging and divisive. While there are certainly signs of encouragement and breakthrough, there are still too many environments that fail to support the giftedness and recognize the common humanity of half its membership.
A week or so ago I was in Seattle for the Inhabit Conference. This is a gathering of people from various parts of the world who are committed to faith-based contextual practice and neighborhood engagement. The central and guiding theme is that of ‘parish’ – a defined place in which you live, work, play, serve, and care. Parish is a term that dates back centuries and refers to the practice of dividing a region so as to allow clergy to minister, care, and provide for a particular place. The conversations last week centered around the “new parish,” discovering how, in the aftermath of individualism and placelessness, place and proximity can again shape the way we faithfully live and lead in our neighborhood contexts.
One of the sessions I sat in was focused on “Women in the New Parish.” Conferences in general – and too-often Christian conferences especially – are male-dominated; the speakers who speak, the authors whose books are being sold, and the dudes who show up to network tend to be…dudes. Despite this trend, this particular conference makes an intentional effort for a more diverse community and lineup of speakers, and part of that intentionality was a conversation facilitated by women to talk about how women are leading in these “new parish” environments.
The room was small and crowded. I sat on the floor, legs tucked close to my body but not close enough to avoid the occasional awkward contact with those sitting nearest me. A few faces lined the doorframe while others listened in from the hallway. It was a fascinating and difficult conversation. Honest, emotional, deep, and occasionally heated.
One of the first to share said she had been leading in ministry for over thirty years and was curious if anything had changed for the new generation of women leaders. Her intonation and facial expression communicated that it had not been an easy three decades; the crowd’s response revealed a general perception that not much had changed.
Another comment early on questioned the need to have a conversation specifically about “Women in the New Parish.” A separate conversation indicates there could be some separation in leadership or giftings between men and woman. And, because, after all, “there isn’t a session called ‘Men in the New Parish.'” In other words, in an already male-dominated conversation, there doesn’t need to be an hour set aside for special conversation about men’s leadership in the church.
I recognize and appreciate the point of the comment. There’s a whole lot of testosterone present at most church leadership events. But rarely is masculinity discussed openly, honestly, and helpfully in these circles. Perhaps a conversation about masculinity in the new parish (and more generally about masculinity in the church) is actually desperately needed.
While none of the conversations I was present for (thank God!) focused on mixed martial arts or the need to toughen up men in a quickly feminizing world, and while on the whole the Inhabit Conference is one of the most humble, conversational, open, and egalitarian faith-based gatherings I’ve been a part of, almost all church leadership circles retain a subtle understanding or expectation about what it means to be successful, remarkable, noteworthy.
- To write a blog is good. To write a book is great.
- To have planted a church is a good thing. To have planted a network of churches is great.
- To have cool hair is good. To have cool facial hair is great.
- To be friends with presenters is good. To be a presenter is to be great.
While none of these (well, maybe except cool facial hair) is strictly gendered, there is a connection between common benchmarks for success and perceptions of masculinity. There is a “cool guy” factor in being a great speaker and catalytic leader with a history of “ministry wins” all while touting the twistiest handlebar mustache ever seen.
I don’t want to diminish or distract from the ongoing conversation about how women are leading in the church or New Parish environments. I hope those conversations continue, and I hope I am able to continue listening in, participating in, and learning from those conversations.
But, for me, a big takeaway from the conversation about women in the new parish was the realization that the ongoing conversation about gender must be bigger than a conversation about “women in ministry” (again noting the importance and necessity of that specific conversation within the larger dialogue). Gender hits deep to the core of identity, femininity and masculinity, insecurities, and personal wiring for relationships and leadership.
The culturally-embedded ties between gender qualities and markers of success is fraught with difficulty, and real and deep dialogue on this is desperately needed – not just for women and not just for men, but for everyone.
How much of what we see as desirable and imitable is rooted in cultural norms and expectations about what it means to be a man, woman, or leader?
How much do we cast aside or diminish the work of those who don’t fit into our engrained understandings of success?
How can we be truly supportive and celebratory of God’s image as it’s displayed in the fullness and variety of gender, vocation, context, etc. we have at work in the local church and neighborhood movements around the world?