Churches lose strength when women are excluded in leadership

Is a church more likely to thrive if women think more like men than the reverse?

By Ronald E. Keener

Church staffs are typically dominated by men, aside from clerical staff, and author Shaunti Feldhahn, writing in The Male Factor (Multnomah, 2009), says that the church is cheated in the depth of its leadership because women are, for the most part, excluded.

“The most important problem involves the impact on the mission of the church. Without at all intending it and with the best of intentions, many churches by lacking female perspective in leadership may be limiting the effectiveness or reach of the work God intends for them to do,” she says. Her book is based on extensive research and she brings years of corporate human development work to this book, and related previous ones.

Feldhahn is straight forward in her views of relationships in business and in churches, and addresses the latter in a Christian edition of the book. She is a member of a megachurch in the Atlanta, GA, area.

Church Executive posed some questions to her:

Briefly, how differently do men and women think?

While there are certainly many ways in which we think alike, or have similar feelings, there are also many ways in which our brain wiring and emotional makeup are so different that we can have entirely different perceptions, thoughts and feelings about the exact same situation.

How does that affect how we think of each other?

We are predisposed to subconsciously expect other people to think like we do — even if logically we know that may not always be the case. And since we “don’t know what we don’t know,” we often completely miss or misunderstand what “the other half” is saying or doing. That dynamic can lead to anything from bewilderment, “why on earth did she make that choice?,” to damaging perceptions, “she must have made that choice because she’s emotional and not thinking logically.”

You say, “The more high-level a woman was, the more likely she was to share a viewpoint similar to men.” How so?

I don’t know whether the high-level women got to that level because they thought more like men (and thus were pulled by men through the ranks more quickly), or whether the act of rising through the ranks changed the way they thought.

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Probably both! But the reality was that high level women were far more likely than women at other levels to have similar thoughts and concerns as men. For example, the notion that a personality conflict between employees was not just a nuisance, but dangerous: a threat to the work of the organization.

So will a business enterprise — or church — more likely thrive if women think “more like men” than the reverse?

It is not so much that women need to think like men, as that women in a male-led or male-oriented workplace (which is usually the case both in corporate America and in the church), will be more effective and have more influence for what God has called them to do if they understand how to approach men. And the more effective its people, the more any enterprise is likely to thrive.

From a business or ministry perspective, we have all seen how important it is to have representation of both men and women in decision-making. The different way women think is created on purpose by God to bring strength to his Kingdom purposes; ministries (and businesses) will by definition be more effective at His purposes if both perspectives are included. That is very likely one of the reasons why God’s Word regularly espouses seeing women as equal partners — it is not solely out of love for his daughters and a desire for justice (although that is part of it) but because God knows his purposes are less likely to be fully realized with half of his created perspective missing.

That is one main reason why I hope church leaders see this as the critically important issue it is, and encourage getting this information into the hands of women in both secular and Christian workplaces. It seems as if men misunderstanding women and women misunderstanding men both have more adverse effects on women, professionally.

At home, those misunderstandings and lack of awareness usually lead to equal levels of heartbreak for both parties.  But since many workplaces are led by men (which is the case in most of corporate America and in the church), unfortunately, the reality is that misunderstandings on both sides end up having a more negative impact on women than on men.  And as a result those women, and their female perspectives, are often sidelined or left out of the decision-making and that is very likely to hinder what God wants to accomplish through those women.

When the teaching pastor in the pulpit is a woman, what are men typically thinking? Even some women say they prefer a male pastor.

This subject is hard to navigate because it is so tied up with the debate over whether the Bible reserves that solo pulpit role for men when teaching the whole church, or whether that was a cultural caution that should not be “law,” today.

As an aside, it is because of that debate and my desire to respect and minister to every type of church, that when I am invited to share at churches on Sunday morning, I do not teach by myself. Instead, we arrange the sermon time as an interview format, where a male pastor interviews me onstage as the sermon time.

Andy Stanley at Northpoint Community Church was the first to invite me to do that format, and I’ve now shared in that way at dozens of other churches.  Sharing with the whole congregation at once has become a very effective and compelling way to open the eyes of both women and men (especially on my personal relationship findings, as published in For Women Only and For Men Only), and give them a common language to talk about these things.

That said, what are men typically thinking when the teaching pastor in the pulpit is a woman? In general, it appears that both men and women can listen well to both men and women. However, I — like other analysts — have observed that men are more likely than women to “check out” of church participation in general.  One of the reasons is that they are distressingly likely to subconsciously think of faith or religious practice as “a woman’s thing.”  Presumably, that type of male disconnect is that much more likely if the primary teacher in the pulpit is a woman.

Does the Christian workplace (of churches, agencies, parachurch organizations) present a whole different layer of problems of men and women in the workplace?

Yes; the Christian workplace, especially churches, adds a completely different type of problem — another layer to take into account — to the already existing issues that occur with men and women.

This is what I have observed in my research. First, though, it is extremely important to note that although the Christian workplace adds a layer of complexity and certain problems that would not occur in the secular workplace, it also adds a great deal of positive benefit to the interactions between men and women as well that also are sometimes missing in the secular workplace.

For example, if believers are trying to evidence the fruits of the spirit — however imperfectly — factors such as patience, kindness and self-control are likely to mitigate some of the damaging factors that often hurt gender relationships in other workplaces.

That said, here is what I have observed about the additional layer of actual problems that frequently occur between men and women in a Christian workplace: I do not believe these additional problems are a result of bias or a lack of goodwill. Rather, believers with good intentions are trying to follow scriptural mandates on how men and women relate but perhaps in some cases going beyond Scripture or don’t realize that how they are applying Scripture leads to an end result that seems unlikely to be what God intended.

For example, in my reading of 
Scripture I can easily see the justification for Wayne Grudem’s conclusion 
that Scripture limits church governance and whole-body (Sunday worship) teaching to men, and that that is the extent of the scriptural limit.

And it is also very clear that Scripture as written places men in the leadership position of the home. Yet there are churches, ministries and Christian businesses that either specifically believe or implicitly act as if, therefore, all leadership positions should be reserved 
for men, or that a man should rarely be put in a position of working for a woman. It goes without saying that such a conclusion would not exist in a secular workplace today.

As another example, as I speak at many dozens of churches a year I regularly run across a woman “director” with a seminary degree, who has been hired and given the responsibility to run a major division of the church (for example, the women’s ministry or small group ministry) and shepherd those people. In other words she is a pastor in all but title.

If that woman was a man, it is much more likely he would have been given a “pastor” title to match the responsibility. That is an example of a well-intentioned effort to apply Scripture that seems to have resulted in an application that seems a bit unjust and thus is less likely to be what God intended. That type of situation, too, would be much less likely in a secular workplace.

Does the Christian ethic affect a man’s thought life with women? Is there an additional tension or conflict not found in other workplaces? How should men deal with this?

Yes, there are many aspects of the Christian ethic that are very, very beneficial for the thoughts and perceptions between men and women. For example, in my surveys I found that the Christian emphasis on “taking every thought captive out of reverence for Christ,” leads Christian men to be far more likely to force themselves to look away from an inappropriately-dressed woman than in the secular workplace. And that care, as every such man knows, will make it easier to fight the temptation the next time and help keep his thought life pure.

Another example: Although Christian men in my interviews shared the same type of private perceptions or frustrations as other men with certain female patterns of behavior, they often seemed more “forgiving” of those frustrations — especially when it came to issues of balancing work and family life. A woman needing to avoid long work hours because of family needs was still viewed as a less likely candidate for the demanding jobs, for example, but there was much less likely to be annoyance because of it. The Christian men’s thoughts toward their female counterparts were, in many cases, simply more gracious.

So how should Christian men and women in the church workplace deal with the temptations, frustrations, impulses and desires they might encounter?

As in any other situation, I believe the key is first, working to understand one another and realizing that how God has wired the other person is completely legitimate (in other words, realizing that the other person’s way is not necessarily “wrong,” and could in fact be a strength not a weakness).

Second, to have grace with one another and work toward positive relationships (“as much as it depends on you, live at peace with all men”). Third, similar to a marriage, to keep short accounts and address frustrations before they become huge problems that derail the ministry that God intends to be done.


When men can’t talk with women

What are a couple issues that men are unable to address with female colleagues? Feldhahn responds:

Wow — most of them, actually. Of the hundreds of men I interviewed I found very, very few who felt able to talk frankly about these issues with female colleagues.

First, there was a fear of being misunderstood or making the situation worse because he didn’t know how she’d respond. But second — and very important — the men often weren’t sure exactly what it was that was frustrating them or causing them to view the woman as unprofessional or not a team player or what not.

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They just knew they were frustrated or disappointed, and without being able to isolate exactly what the issue was, which is what I was trying to do in my book. They couldn’t address it in a productive way and thus tended to gravitate towards those they felt comfortable with instead of off-balance — which was more likely to be other men.


Should women watch how they dress?

Shaunti Feldhahn has some pointed advice for women on their dress in the church work environment:

I have done private workshops for the female employees of churches and ministries on this subject, and I advise the same thing as I do in the corporate work environment — to be very cautious about how we as women dress and present ourselves, to ensure that the impression we are making is the one we intend.

Just because a woman is a Christian, it does not mean that that woman understands the reality of the visual wiring of the male brain. According to my research, the main reason why women at times dress in a distracting manner is that they have no idea how certain clothes choices are perceived by men. That is the case because the female brain does not have the same automatic, biological predisposition to view an attractive image of the opposite sex as “sexual.” So women, having no equivalent, literally have no clue what that gut-level reaction feels like when men see the woman in the low cut top or tight skirt.

In my experience, once a woman is aware of how the male brain perceives certain clothes choices, it makes it much more likely — although unfortunately not certain — that she, as a Christian, will make the choice to honor her brothers in Christ.

Excerpt: Men coping with women’s emotion’s at work

Some of the most fascinating interviews I conducted were with entrepreneurs who had hired a woman to run their business for them: essentially, a man hiring a woman to be his own boss. I came across a surprising number of these situations. One such entrepreneur, Paul, had hired a strong, no-nonsense woman, Jennifer, as his new president when his wireless telecom company hit a wall in its growth. He spent a large portion of our interview talking about her strengths. But when I asked him if there had been any bumps in the road that he viewed as being gender related, he brought up something that I heard over and over in many of my interviews — her “emotional side.” [He said:]

“At work, men have difficulty dealing with that emotional side from women. I think that is multiplied in a work environment even more than in a personal one, because when women show their emotions in a work environment, men perceive weakness. From our company’s standpoint, with Jennifer being a strong-willed, emotional person, it is so easy for a man to view those emotions as negative, as weakness. When we see emotion, we automatically see it as, ‘You are not thinking.’”

I found that the assumption that “emotion” means “you are not thinking” is nearly universal among men, and often leads itself to a fear of emotion getting involved. In the interview above, Paul respected Jennifer enough to hire her as his superior in his company. So I asked him how he worked through his concern about her being “emotional.” Did it ever make him wonder how she would handle his business? His reply:

“Whenever I encounter that situation [emotion] I have to get into my logical side and try to keep in mind why I hired her; I mentally review her qualifications. I know she is extremely smart. And I know she is capable, despite the emotional side of things. I also force myself to recognize that her emotional capacity can be very positive, but it can also be a problem if it gets too far out. Which it has with Jennifer from time to time.”

— Excerpted from The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace, by Shaunti Feldhahn, (Multnomah Books (2009).


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