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In which The Nines is indicative of a larger gender issue in the church

The Nines, a web based ‘conference’ is the brainchild of The Leadership Network and Catalyst. They asked church leaders on 09/09/09 to broadcast, via webcam, their message to the leaders of the church in just 9 minutes. These leaders – some well known, others lesser so – were watched by church leaders around the world all day long.

Last year, I watched several of the talks from The Nines – I found some of them insightful, gutsy, interesting and a fantastic format for this day and age. I am rather over conferences overall and so the ability to watch online without the cost of a big venue, travel or event was interesting, particularly for those of us that live outside of the USA and find travelling very expensive.

This year, The Nines stirred up some controversy because of the way that they asked people to nominate speakers. They posted a list of speakers, allowed others to nominate new ones and had a “like” and “dislike” button next to their names. Sadly, it was not well set up and at first glance, I agreed wholeheartedly with Skye Jethani’s plea for them to take down the list because it reflected the values of our culture (with the popularity contest) instead of the values of the Church.  As their managing director later clarified, their heart was not to “rank” speakers but rather to have a more open-source method to hear new names, find out what worked and what didn’t and, of course, create a buzz around the project itself (ahem, mission accomplished).

I appreciated their poorly-executed attempt to flatten the hierarchy a bit. As we all know, this is the world 2.0, meaning that it is interactive and we are the people formerly known as the audience, viewing our individual voices and stories as equal and valuable.  Also, as Bill Kinnon (a man that I really want to take out for coffee and just yak for a day or six) said, we are also the people formerly known as the congregation.

We are The People formerly known as The Congregation. We have not stopped loving the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nor do we avoid “the assembling of the saints.” We just don’t assemble under your supposed leadership. We meet in coffee shops, around dinner tables, in the parks and on the streets. We connect virtually across space and time – engaged in generative conversations – teaching and being taught.

We live amongst our neighbours, in their homes and they in ours. We laugh and cry and really live – without the need to have you teach us how – by reading your ridiculous books or listening to your supercilious CDs or podcasts.

There are other questions to ponder like the sheer navel-gazing of the leadership movement over the past 50 years and whether even the idea of a leadership conference is anything more than self-congratulatory way to reinforce previously held, culturally conditioned beliefs by a select group.

But when I looked at the list, another thought struck me. Even beyond Mr. Jethani’s well-reasoned argument and my own distaste for this type of thing, is this:

Where are the women?

The entire speaker list is, as usual, overwhelmingly male. A woman doesn’t even appear until #34. There are only 10 women in the first 100 and they are the big names for the girls: Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer etc. By my count, which may not be right given my marks in Math 30, there were 37 women total.  Even the female speakers that were highly ranked are traditionally on the women’s conference circuit. Meaning that they don’t teach men typically. And most of those where in the deep bowels of the list, where the total “votes” were in the single digits. You know, where Ed Young is located.

I don’t necessarily blame The Nines for this. The Nines has become almost iconic in my mind for being representative of our culture-church tension right now – between the “like” vs. “dislike” popularity contest among Christian brothers (and a few sisters) and now this, they are showing themselves to be more of the same both from a cultural standpoint and a church standpoint.

The pragmatic side of this is that the fact that almost all of the leadership in the church today – at least of the highly visible, teaching kind – is overwhelming male. Therefore, it makes sense that the leaders invited to speak at a church leadership conference are overwhelmingly male. They are well known, publish more books, get more speaking engagements and generally lead more prolifically.

However.

It indicates the ongoing distaste that the church holds for women, the lack of respect for women in leadership, let alone the supreme lack of mentors that are raising up women as leaders.

The issue of women in leadership will not go away for the church. It will not go away for the institutional church and it will not go away for Christian families. Just like the issues of race and homosexuality, the church isn’t exactly representing God’s kingdom or heart for people by sticking their fingers in their ears and collectively humming loudly, hoping all of the feminists, gays, minorities and immigrants will go away.

The issue has been avoided or neutered in churches for too long. We hide behind platitudes and out-dated cultural roles, we hide behind one or two scriptures. We name women leaders as “directors” or “managers” instead of “pastor” and consider that progress. Women that are leading complex teams and organizations in the world or in their homes are rarely tapped to serve as elders and deacons or board members at churches.

This systemic refusal to see women as equals, to be able to receive from women, to celebrate women – not as “women leaders” but as just plain old leaders – grieves the heart of God, I imagine.

After reading The Atlantic’s recent piece about the rise of women’s influence and leadership in the world today (unfortunately titled “The End of Men”), it should be crytal clear to those in church leadership that women have something to bring to the table. And not in the stereotypical men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus way. There are gutsy, strong, intelligent women leading well.

So where are their voices in the church? And why aren’t they speaking to the leaders of the church? Not only about women’s issues and leadership but about the church as a whole?  Instead, we welcome voices that teach a very conservative view of male-female relationships and demean women from the pulpit while ridiculing men who share household chores.

My current opinion (meaning it’s shifted often and likely will again – probably next week) is that reform is rather impossible from within at this stage. It’s been attempted, for instance, by those of us that have identified with the emerging church over the years, but has quickly been sat in the corner as a niche market at best and heretical architects of the destruction of the church at worst.

I can’t see the institutional church changing. I see them, as Julie Clawson so eloquently wrote, sailing this sinking ship until the bitter end.

They are so afraid of their cultural assumptions being challenged that they’ve lost sight that those assumptions are in fact cultural. While others will read this article and celebrate that women now have opportunities and then work hard at helping men and boys overcome years of false programming regarding what they were told a man had to be, some will continue to live in fear of the idea that God values and gifts women as well as men. That truth is finally being seen in society in major ways. The question remains if Christians find ways to help both men and women succeed, or will the church continue to fail men in its attempts to keep women down?

This is part of the Great Emergence, the major shift in the history of the church, the massive rummage sale that the church has every 1500 years or so, as Phyllis Tickle says, to get rid of the junk and clutter we’ve accumulated due to culture and other forces.

The culturally conditioned western evangelical mindset is over. It’s just that no one in there is listening to us say: We want to hear women. 

We want to celebrate women’s history and voice. We want to see women on our boards and in our pulpits – and not just in a symbolic way. We want to stop denigrating men and creating false culture wars or perpetuating stereotypes of gender.


We want to be the voice of God in our culture, giving women and men honour.

It remains to be seen if the “leadership for the church,” like The Nines, will continue to perpetuate the status quo or take a bold step out towards embracing the voice of the other.

(Another item of note: where are the non-whites in that conference listing? In today’s overwhelmingly pluralistic and immigrant-driven culture, few of us work or live in an all-white neighbourhood, particularly those of us in the western world but evidently, the Christian leadership speaker circuit is primarily an upper middle-class all-white neighbourhood.  In the world today, what was previously termed “a minority” is quickly becoming the norm (thank you, Jesus). And for those of us that are white (or in my case, incredibly, unbelievably white) few of us don’t interact with or have friends or family members that are non-white. I would hope that our churches and in particular our leadership would reflect our current state of affairs, welcoming the voice of “the other” to the discussion.)

Thoughts?

(UPDATED TO ADD: Also, in the same line, here’s a follow-up on women working outside the home – comments are fantastic as usual. You guys are smartie pants.)

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church, emerging church, faith, women
  • Julie Clawson

    Thank you for this. I was seriously just wondering this as I looked over the list for the new Nines. A few well known women, and tons of men, most I've never heard of. Do people really want to hear from 20 or so young white male pastors of megachurches? Is there no interest in learning something new, or caring about all of God's missions being represented? Sigh. Just to say, I hear you sister.

  • Jules

    Several of my friends have worked on trying to add a better representation of the Church. However, The Nines to me is a larger symptom of the problem. It is mostly a white, male, mega church event. None of which that speak for me or as I see a gathering to be. Which Julie has pointed to. Added, has anyone noticed most of the top voted speak against the LGBTQ community?

    What else is missing from this list and even from your post? LGBTQ. Where are they. We are here, we are very much a part of the Church and part of the conversation. I nominated Candace Chellew-Hodge. Her total votes, the last I looked, was around 6. Even Andrew Marin, who is not LGBTQ, but an ally in the tension has about the same amount of votes.

    Again, a symptom of the problem. We think, in our western minds, that church is still lead by white males and who own the market of the church. Women even circle around this, if you look closely as to who is voting for these speakers. I've watched the hash tag with horror, discontent, and depression. No diversity of the true church. Even more depressing is that those who have had problems with it has been of where are the women or where race is represented. Yet again, LGBTQ Christians are overlooked, forgotten and if they do get a nod, it is to be talked about like we are a people group, a mission field and hold no relevance to the gathering.

    So I wonder, when we get all the women and all people's to speak all the guff dies down. Yet, in the margins are voices of the LGBTQ that seem so easy to forget.

    Jules

    PS: I have been working with some others to do a similar broadcast. Watch for it. We will be allowing ALL people to speak. For me, that gives me hope.

  • ed cyzewski

    A wise friend of mine who knows something of seminary and church leadership structures said that organizations, whether or not they are Christian, become immoral in the end because we have to serve the organization at some point above the people within it. Therein lies the tension of the church today. How organized should we become and at what cost? Our past organization has come at the expense of diversity, but we need to figure out how far to go now in the other direction or in other directions most likely.

    The less organized my Christian community is, the better I feel about it. However, I do worry that this kind of deconstructed community could also backfire into inaction and lack of mission, which is sort of why we're here. So far we've had either a white-male dominated mission or a weak mission as our alternatives, and I think enough people are hurting that we're willing to try some other things out. What will they look like? You've got me!

  • Julie Clawson

    Jules – I did notice that. I felt that in "voting" on the site I more often was voting against voices that spread hate than for the voices I admired. How depressing is it that that is what a church conference represents?

  • Mike Clawson

    When I heard about this conference I remember thinking it was just a lamer and more male-dominated rip-off of the C21 conference, which featured an entirely female slate of speakers (though it was definitely not just a women's conference) and gave them each 21 minutes to talk – which is still way too short, but way better than 9.

  • Songstress

    So who did you nominate?
    The list has a feature to nominate and they don't seem to care who gets put up there.
    Or, are you content to throw stones at what someone is trying to do instead of trying to help them by nominating or voting for who you want to hear?

    Trying not to ask that in an accusatory way but I have seen a lot of comment on this list, but my recollection was that last year's Nines deal had a variety of speakers that weren't all white, megachurch types.

    The comments on their blog say they are looking for some new voices. Let's get out there and nominate.

  • Stretch Mark Mama

    It's definitely a systemic problem. I spoke with someone within another large Christian leadership organization, and his response to the lack of female speakers (at his own conference) was not that they didn't support women leaders or didn't want women leaders to speak–but that it was very difficult to *find* them. As you said. Systemic.

    I appreciate The Nines because it is very accessible and adaptable with time. There's a lot more at stake when putting a no-name (regardless of gender) up on a stage versus adding that (pre-taped) voice to an online conference.

    Here's an idea — what if for one of the upcoming online conferences they a) set a topic and b) allowed video submissions from the no-names (regardless of gender)? Then there could be a screening by the conference leaders to pick out and show a certain number of those videos (alongside the regulars). Those that get shown are the ones where the person has something beneficial to say. :) This might be one way for more women to have an opportunity to speak.

  • Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Thank you to everyone for your perspective!

    I did want to clarify that my point is not to be anti-The Nines (I'll likely watch some of the speakers, no doubt, and be blessed) but rather that the speaker roster – open source or not – still represents the lack of women in the evangelical church. It's just making it clear that even if we offer open voting, there really aren't too many evangelical women openly leading.

  • Todd Rhoades

    Sarah,

    I'm Todd from Leadership Network… the one who started the infamous 'list'.

    You are correct in saying that there are not a lot of evangelical women openly leading. The same can be said for African Americans and other ethnicities.

    At Leadership Network, we are doing our best to find and platform big church / small church / women AND men / and anyone other than the 'white guys'.

    The evangelical world is still mostly led by the 'white guys'. Not that that's bad (I am one), it just is what it is. The good news is that there are some sharp leaders out there that don't fit that profile. We're constantly looking for them; but you're right… they're harder to find.

    So… my suggestion… whether you like the list or don't like the list… nominate some of the people YOU think should be looked at. And… we'll take a look. But don't read too much into the list… it was just an experiment in 'crowdsourcing'. And with nearly 400 speaker nominations, I think it was successful.

    We have a few other tricks up our sleeves for THE NINES this year. I hope you all will take the time to join us. The website should be up in a couple weeks. I think you'll find that we a group that is as diverse as any conference you've seen!

    (And if you have other ideas for THE NINES, please take a moment to shoot me an email at toddrhoades@gmail.com

    Thanks!

    Todd

  • djchuang

    Good considerations you've raised with regards to systemic problems, and systemic problems are rarely reformed within — it often resolves by a revolution (does that mean blood being spilt?) or by raising up new institutions. And raising up new institutions require new kinds of leaders, yes? Lead on!

  • Julie Clawson

    Actually I would argue that there are a lot of women and African Americans and Asians, and Hispanics… leading – even in the evangelical church. They just aren't being listened to. There's a huge difference there. It's easy to believe they don't exist when they aren't featured at conferences, pastoring the latest "in" megachurch, given book deals with huge marketing budgets, and linked to on all the trendy blogs. Just because the white guy world hasn't acknowledged us yet doesn't mean we aren't out there

  • Todd Rhoades

    Then, by all means, Julie… nominate some! :)

    Todd

  • Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Todd, I so appreciate you stopping by to offer your perspective. Thank you and I appreciate that you received what I wrote in the spirit that I wrote it – not one of division but of questioning.

    And Julie, you are right on (as usual). I think that's part of why I am of the belief that it's a lot to expect the reformation to come from within – that's why a lot of us are "outside the system" now in a way.

  • Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Also, Jules, I wanted to say "thank you" for your comment in particular.

  • mizmellymax

    love this post, Sarah, and all the comments. Is the Nines available outside of north america, do you know?

  • Julie Clawson

    Todd – will do :)

  • Joy

    Sarah, thank you thank you thank you. I was so discouraged to read just this past week that our church (2-years-young southern baptist church plant) has formed a committee to gather information and make recommendations to the leaders (a team of four men), and every single member of that committee is a man. This isn't a decision-making body — it's information-gathering, yet they didn't ask a single woman to participate. How can they effectively shepherd a group of people if they don't listen or hear from half of them???

    I'm attending the True Woman conference this September. We have both male and female speakers. Yet at men's conferences, they only have male speakers. Interesting, isn't it?

  • Carol Howard Merritt

    I'm a speaker, author, pastor, social justice leader, and unambiguous LGBT advocate. But… because of all those things, I no longer identify with the evangelical movement. Sadly… there was no room for me there when I became a pastor 12 years ago at age 26. I hope things are changing in the movement. But many of us just wanted to serve rather than fight for the right to serve, so we went mainline.

    I'm so thankful that you're speaking up and wrestling with all of this. Perhaps it will be better for the next generation because of you.

  • Sue Densmore

    Sarah – Great post! The comments have been entertaining, as well.

    I am constantly discouraged when I look at lists at most of these conferences. Women are seldom included, and if they are it feels like a token.

    Regarding the "hard to find them" argument, I had the following thoughts. And I would ask any of the men who have shown up – Todd, in particular – to consider this.

    When you get a call from a neighboring pastor who needs a guest preacher, whom do you suggest? Do you have women in your own body you know are gifted preachers, and suggest them? Do those who claim they "cannot find" women leaders/speakers know their own home church bodies well enough to know if you've got someone? How often are you willing to give up your own pulpit to mentor women preachers? How hard will you push the governing body of your own church to take a chance on a woman leading something, or teaching something with men, or preaching?

    See, I know I have a gift to preach and teach, and I know that it can be used for any audience of adults (or high school kids – I teach public school music.) And I am in a church where the pastor has formed a preaching team, and I am on it. And I am not the only woman on it. And he steps aside and mentors us in our gifts, and allows us the chance to pursue it.

    Most pastors, who are the ones who should be "equipping the church to do the work of ministry," don't appear consider this one of the gifts they are supposed to help "equip."

    It must be exceedingly discouraging for the women in those churches – sitting there, knowing they have a gift they aren't allowed to use, or even worse, thinking God made a mistake in gifting them that way!

    The reason there are less women leaders, is that the local church leadership won't take a chance. It has to start there before the big conferences will even see it.

    So, my challenge to those conference planner types is to look around a little harder and stop worrying about getting a woman with a "name" or a published book. Take a chance on someone you know can do the job, and let her loose.

    And all you guys who are just sitting around in your local churches lamenting that you "can't find" women leaders – make some. Mentor some. Stop "quenching the Holy Spirit" because of the cultural norms you have clearly adopted and elevated to the same level as the Bible. (Pharisaical, I say.)

    Take a chance. You won't be sorry.

  • Jill

    Sarah,
    Thank you for your comments. I am a woman and a pastor nurtured in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a church that even with some ongoing struggles in places, has nurtured women in leadership for several decades. I've been a pastor for 18 years, nearly 10 in my current congregation. My congregation is served in all positions by men and women. All that to say I am fortunate, but also in some ways spoiled because I've found myself in places where I haven't faced the same struggles that other women called to ministry face. Thank you for your reminder. It's easy for me to just get up each day and do my job and forget that my ability to lead in this way is bigger than my congregation and community.

  • Megan@SortaCrunchy

    A few weeks (months?) ago, Jon Acuff at SCL asked for reader comments on the most important contemporary Christian writers (or some such). I commented right away with my "vote" for Brennen Manning. His writing has changed my life in the way few others have. Yet going back over the list after I commented, I saw a deplorable lack of women voices represented. It broke my heart, yet there I was, not thinking of women voices either.

    Thank you for pointing this out, Sarah. We evangelicals have this incredible ability to pick and choose the weight we give to cultural context in the NT letters. Women ought not wear gold jewelry or braid their hair or wear expensive clothes? Oh, but CULTURALLY that means __________

    Women ought to be quiet in church and not teach men? Oh, but there are crickets chirping into silence when it comes to our understanding of the cultural significance of those passages.

    So, yes. We pick and we choose and our culture is shaped.

    BTW – I appreciate that Todd has stepped into this conversation. I am absolutely nominating Ann Voskamp for The Nines. She speaks of the heart of my Savior like few others I know. I would LOVE to hear her words to the church!

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