What follows are some of my personal reflections on the ministries of women, whether they’re staff members in a church or involved in everyday ministry with others. Some of what I have to say is more applicable for women employed as a member of a pastoral staff team, but most of it is also about normal Christian discipleship and ministry in any context. These thoughts are what I’ve come to see as important not only for women in ministry roles, but also for men who wish to support them in their ministry.
The priority of God’s word: You are a Bible teacher
When I first joined a staff team, my pastor said to me, “Jane, you are to think of yourself as a Bible teacher”. So often the wisest things are obvious, aren’t they?
If a woman keeps thinking of herself as a Bible teacher (as a man in a similar ministry should also do) she will regularly return to the basic question of all faithful Christian discipleship: “Is the Bible governing every aspect of my ministry: my relationships, the one-to-one personal meetings, the small groups I’m part of, and the larger settings?” Just because a woman may not be preaching to a mixed congregation does not mean she isn’t to think of herself as a Bible teacher. Others at times may think of her primarily as a counsellor or administrator, but if she is someone in Word ministry she needs to be clear—and her pastor does too—that she is a Bible teacher.
If a woman thinks of herself as a Bible teacher, then God’s word should set the agenda for her ministry. This ought to result in a Christ-centred ministry, rather than one that is self-focused or one that is problem-centred. It is all too easy to build a ministry that revolves around us rather than Jesus Christ, and we can end up wanting people to be dependent on us to make us feel needed and important. Teaching God’s word is an excellent cure for this, as the focus turns from our agenda to God’s.
It’s also helpful to remember that there is a false dichotomy when we try and separate Bible teaching and pastoral care, as if we have to choose to do one or the other. Bible teaching in its many and varied forms is the greatest form of pastoral care we can give to others. Reading and teaching God’s word is a pastoral exercise not only because of the explicit issues that arise from the text, but because in relationship with others we can share the things that come up for us personally. God’s word brings up issues that we don’t think to bring up, or don’t want to touch on. It helps us therefore proclaim the whole gospel—grace, sin, judgement, salvation—and not just select those aspects more favourable to us and others.
When people we minister with mention how they appreciated a pastoral insight or awareness—or how we missed out on something—it’s a real reminder that we minister with people. Too often we think in categories of ministering to someone. When we think more in terms of ministering with rather than to, we are more likely to listen and learn from others, whatever their age, and whether they have been a Christian ten years or ten minutes.
As a woman opens up God’s word with those God has given her to be in ministry with, it helps her relationships with them. It helps her get to know them as God’s Spirit convicts, challenges and encourages them together. When a woman remembers she is a Bible teacher (and not a counsellor, administrator, etc.) it also helps her realize her limitations, which is both freeing for her and best for others. I find it helpful to carry around a list of names and numbers of counsellors and GPs, as these men and women can give professional help that I cannot. The list is in the front of my diary so that when it comes up in conversation I can indicate that this is a normal thing, and not a cause for embarrassment.
The Bible is the place to start when coming to think about the ministries of women. Because it’s God’s word, it’s where we truly begin to understand what it means to be human—what it means to be male and what it means to be female—and therefore it is foundational in any discussion of the ministries of women. There are some texts that are especially pertinent—for example Genesis 1-3; 1 Corinthians 11, 14; 1 Timothy 2—and there are many resources that help us think further about these passages. We’re not necessarily going to agree with everything that we read or hear, but positions contrary to what we hold to can be very helpful to get us working out why we disagree, and thus helping us work out what we actually believe and why.
It is key for anyone who wants to encourage women in ministry, male or female, to have a grasp on what these key texts mean. Too often we can throw up our hands:
“The passage is too hard.”
“If those two godly men disagree, and they are New Testament scholars, then how can we know?”
“Does it really matter anyway?”
“These passages cause too much division.”
“Isn’t this just relevant for the original recipients?”
“These passages are all about women, so I’ll let the women work out what they mean.”
But what happens when we ignore what these passages say, or pass over them as being culturally bound? We make our assumptions about what ministries of women are about before looking at the Bible, and then we often are either more conservative or more liberal than the passage itself. Neither of these ‘results’ is good for the church. God in his sovereignty and goodness has given us these passages for a reason. (As I write this, I have just read Claire Smith’s new book, God’s Good Design, which works its way carefully and clearly through all the important passages about men and women. It’s a must read!)
It must be said that too often in church practice, both historically and currently, men have distorted these passages to justify evil practices done to women, and to think of women as second-rate human beings. This, however, does not give us license to discard what they say or minimize their truth. These passages give women a fuller understanding of who they were created and redeemed to be, and how they are to serve in Christ’s church. They’re liberating! Two good questions a woman can ask herself of such passages are “If this really is God’s good word to me, what is the challenge that I need to hear and heed?” and “If this really is God’s good word to me, what is the comfort I need to hear and heed?”
The joy of evangelism
It is a common problem that in any given week for those in vocational ministry, whether male or female, very little of their time is spent in evangelism. So what can a woman do? When I was on a staff team in parish ministry, I found it very helpful to lead Christianity Explored. The church advertised it constantly, rather than having the mentality of “We’ll wait and see if anyone is interested and then we’ll start a course”. Being regularly involved helped me see God at work, and reminded me that the gospel is powerful to change and save people. I think being involved in a course like Christianity Explored helps a woman on a number of other levels:
- It develops her skills in apologetics.
- It helps her grow in her ability to teach the Bible.
- She becomes more aware of pastoral issues for people who aren’t yet Christian.
- It helps a woman relate to people she may not normally come into contact with.
- It will hopefully increase her love for the lost.
- It will hopefully increase her confidence in the power of God’s word and the power of his gospel to save and change people.
- Having a course at a set time helps many women as they don’t have to keep initiating things every week.
- Hopefully having this regular time of evangelism makes talking about Jesus and sharing Jesus with others more normal and natural for her in other relationships.
- Hopefully she will desire the church as a whole to be more involved in sharing Jesus with others.
- Hopefully she will become more fearless in evangelism.
Leading evangelism courses in the past as a staff member, and recently as a lay member of a church congregation, has been a great antidote to discouragement that is such a big killer in ministry. Sometimes the ‘group’ I led was just one person, but it was still so refreshing to be talking about Jesus with another. There are, of course, mixed emotions; not everyone becomes a Christian during the course, but who knows what will happen between them and God in the future? It is a wonderful privilege to be involved in sharing Jesus with others.
Watching your life and doctrine closely
We all have frameworks to understand life, whether we are conscious of them or not. My framework to understand life is this: “God is completely sovereign, God is completely holy, God is completely good”. No matter what happens, these three truths remain. We might want a framework that says “God wants me to always be happy”, but God’s word shows that this isn’t going to help anyone.
Whether a woman’s main ministry is in the contexts of one-to-one or conference speaking, whether it’s with children or seniors, teaching God’s word has many personal benefits. It can teach and remind her of doctrines that are key for her to better understand God, and to keep going in life and ministry.
As we work through God’s word with others, we are reminded that it is God who saves, not us. Holding on to this truth helps us to pray and be thankful to God (Eph 1). It also helps prevent burnout, and it reminds us that we don’t have to be someone else, as God works through us with the gifts he has given us. Remembering that God is the one who saves people, and not us, can help us be calmer about life and ministry.
Sufficiency of Scripture
God’s word is often at odds with the world we live in, and when we combine this with our desire to see people be saved we can feel pressured to think, “If only this passage was not in the Bible, they would become a Christian”, “If only these letters were written by a woman, she would become a Christian”, or “If only the Bible was written in 2012, they would become a Christian as it would be so much more relevant to them”. God has given us one Bible and we don’t need another.
Holding on to the authority of the apostles helps us to not falsely separate Jesus’ words from Peter’s or Paul’s. It gives us confidence in the portions of the letters of the New Testament that are concerned with ministries of women, and that what these men said is not something that Jesus wouldn’t have wanted them to say. These passages are trustworthy, and we need to consider them seriously.
Grace and forgiveness
We will continue to sin, as will those we minister with, but as we teach God’s word we keep being brought back to the cross. The Bible reminds us what we have been saved from, and therefore should help us be more merciful and loving to others, willing to forgive them when they have wronged us. It helps us move on when we need to and not hold on to things, becoming bitter and resentful. When we are brought back to the cross, we grow in our desire to see people saved, to experience this grace and forgiveness for themselves.
There are different fads and trends in our Christian subcultures that promise to help us in ministry, some of which are more helpful than others. What I’ve mentioned above aren’t the latest, hippest things for women in ministry. They are basics: God’s word is central for life and ministry; evangelism is important; pastors are Bible teachers, not primarily counsellors or administrators. But these basics have served the church well, and are key in any discussions about ministries of women.