Leveling the Playing Field: Professional Sports and the Success of Women’s Ministry

The US Women’s National Soccer Team celebrates their victory over Germany in the 2015 World Cup.

This weekend the Indiana Fever and the Minnesota Lynx will face off in the first game of the WNBA finals. Now, if you didn’t know the WNBA finals were happening this weekend, don’t worry; you’re in good company. By and large, women’s professional sports have failed to gain the attention that men’s team sports enjoy. And despite your brother-in-law’s assertions, the disconnect probably has little to do with women being less athletic or less interesting than men. Thank you, US Women’s National Soccer Team.

Famed sports’ commentator Frank Deford recently joined NPR’s Steve Inskeep to discuss why women’s professional sports get less attention then men’s sports. His conclusion? Inertia. The media is used to covering sports a certain way, and the public is used to watching sports a certain way. So that even as Title IX invited girls and women into the world of sports, they are still limited by how far they can go.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to women in the Church. Generally, I’ve been encouraged by how women are taking ownership of their faith and are teaching others to do the same. They love their families, are active in social justice, and committed to personal growth through the means of grace. At the same time, I do worry that this growth could be stalled if we don’t take a hard look at infrastructure.

Like sports’ fans, many of us are accustomed to church ministry happening a certain way. And unless we change this, women’s contributions to the Kingdom will end up mirroring what’s happened in professional sports. Yes, women will have opportunities, but they will continue to exist outside the mainstream. Simply having Christian women top the NYT’s best seller list doesn’t mean that Christian women are flourishing in the Church any more than the existence of the WNBA finals means that women are flourishing in professional sports.

So what can we do? Deford offers some valuable insights to how women’s sports can gain more visibility and credibility, and most of them relate to changes in infrastructure. As I listened, I realized that his insights could be equally valuable to us.

1. Tie it to money. In order to raise the profile of women’s professional sports, Deford recommends that league officials high tail it to Vegas and open betting lines. Without realizing it, Deford is echoing something that Christ himself taught: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” So while I don’t recommend taking bets on who will lead your church’s women’s ministry next year, I do think money is part of the equation. If we don’t invest our resources in equipping women, our hearts won’t be invested either. For a local congregation, this may mean budgeting to bring in a female speaker, hiring more women on staff, or helping women afford theological education. When resources are on the line, we’re more likely to care about the final outcome. In other words, when we place a bet, we’ll watch the game.

2. Link women’s efforts to men’s efforts. Another part of the WNBA’s trouble is that their season runs during the summer, with the playoffs hitting just as football season is opening. For many sports fans, this sends a subtle signal that the WNBA is not *really* basketball because it doesn’t happen during “basketball season.” Deford notes that women athletes who enjoy the most visibility are those who compete in tournaments alongside their male peers, such as in golf or tennis. Women and men don’t compete against each other, but they compete at the same time and place. So that in the public eye, women athletes have just as much credibility as the men do.

When it comes to local churches, it is very common for women’s ministry to be siloed from the main mission of the church. For many church leaders, the “women’s auxiliary” is precisely that—auxiliary to the day to day functioning of the church which is often led and conducted by men. This presents several dangers including sending the signal to the congregation that what the women are doing is not truly “ministry” in much the same way the public sees the WNBA as something less than “basketball.”

Because men are already established in places of visibility and influence in the Church, the surest way to promote women’s calling is to tie it to them and the central mission of the Church. When male leaders visibly work alongside female leaders, the congregation learns that female contributions are just as valuable and necessary as male.

3. Work as a team. The third thing Deford notes is that women’s sports will only gain visibility through team efforts. The success of women like Serena Williams or Lindsey Vonn does not mean that female athletes are meeting success across the board. Correspondingly, the success of a Beth Moore, Ann Voskamp, or Jen Hatmaker does not mean that women are flourishing or that their gifts are being used in local churches.

The reality is that most women working for the Kingdom are working in isolation. Part of this stems from an emphasis on home and family as a significant part of a woman’s calling. As an eleven-year veteran of the “domestic industry,” I can assure you that home can be a very lonely place. But beyond this, women leaders are simply not networked the way men are. Men in ministry often develop professional ties during their undergrad and seminary years and maintain them through professional conferences. Most of the women leaders I know came into their calling, not through academia, but through their passion and gifting. They are paraprofessionals and lack the professional support and network of other leaders.

Thankfully, the digital age offers women more opportunities to work as a team; but online interaction is not enough. Our most effective efforts happen in community, growing out of our work in local churches. Women leaders need to be invited onto the team of the church; they need to be present at staff meetings, prayer times, and leadership retreats. Otherwise, they will continue to serve in isolation and only a certain type of woman—those gifted with communication and extroverted personalities—will gain visibility and influence.

I’m sure that some will question the significance of women’s contributions to the Church much the same way some question the significance of women’s contributions to professional sports. But given the rampant sexuality, substance abuse, and violence that’s part of the ethos of professional sports, I can’t help but believe that we’d all be better with a stronger female presence. For me at least, I’d rather see women contributing to what’s happening on the field than on the sidelines as sex objects.

If you are a pastor or a women’s ministry leader, remember this: Women make up over half the human population and over 60% of your congregation. As presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina says, “We are not a special interest group.” Ultimately this isn’t a question of representation or fairness; it is a question of organizational effectiveness. When women are free to flourish—whether on the tennis court or in the Church—everybody wins.

An Ounce of Persuasion

For those who don’t know, I co-host a weekly podcast with Erin Straza. Persuasion is an opportunity for us to explore cultural issues from a Christian perspective while offering a uniquely feminine twist. It’s true that good ideas aren’t gendered–as Dorothy L. Sayers put it in her essay  “Are Women Human?”

There are questions… on which the “woman’s point of view” has no value at all. In fact, it does not exist. no special knowledge is involved, and a woman’s opinion on literature or finance is valuable only as the judgment of an individual. I am occasionally desired by congenital imbeciles and the editors of magazines to say something about writing detective fiction “from the woman’s point of view.” To such demands, one can only say, “Go away and don’t be silly. You might as well ask what is the female angle on an equilateral triangle.”

But at the same time, it’s easy for women’s conversations to be relegated to certain topics like housekeeping, “women’s issues,” and fashion–all while a whole world of interesting ideas goes untapped.  We want Persuasion to show 1) that thinking Christian women can discuss something other than culturally “feminine” topics and 2) that female perspectives can add insight to conversations that are traditionally dominated by men.

For example, this week, Erin and I talk about funeral traditions and whether the shift toward viewing funerals as a “celebration of life” is a good thing or not. Erin suggests that celebrating a person’s life might be rooted in the Christian hope that Christ has overcome the sting of death, and I pushback by asking whether we’re simply denying the sting of death in the first place. If there’s no sting, where’s the triumph? It’s all good fun.

We don’t always get it right, and sometimes, after I re-listen to an episode, I want to a “do-over.” But all in all, we’re enjoying the process and think you’d enjoy listening along. You can find past episodes here at Christ and Pop Culture or you can follow along on Twitter at @PersuasionCAPC.


Confession and Community

Oliva Colman and David Tennant star as DS Ellie Miller and DI Alec Hardy in BBC America’s “Broadchurch”

“Take one sleepy seaside town in England, add a pinch of intrigue, stir in a brooding Scottish detective and his engaging local sergeant, and you’ve got the makings of Broadchurch, a British crime drama whose first series was, according to its millions of viewers, basically perfect…”

Last month, our family headed out of town for a week of vacation. We’re still figuring out how to do this “family vacation” thing out because neither my husband or I grew up with “family vacation” as an annual reality. Now, before my mother and mother-in-law private message me to take issue with this statement, let me clarify: Neither my husband or I grew up with a specific week built into our families’ calendars that guaranteed time away. We always took family trips; we went to visit relatives or went camping, but the idea that you could set aside an entire week at the beach to simply do nothing was not part of our experience.

This is so much outside our experience, in fact, that I didn’t realize that you actually have to book a house months, not weeks, in advance. So when we finally decided to plan a “family vacation,” we ended up shut out of the area we wanted to visit. Enter grandparents to the rescue. Given our predicament, my husband’s grandparents graciously allowed us to use their winter home to go on “family vacation.” So we packed up the kids and drove 900 miles to southeast Florida… in August. Like I said, we’re still learning the ins-and-outs of this “family vacation” thing.

Thankfully, there is one aspect of “family vacation” that we became experts at very quickly–the art of doing nothing. Sleeping late, lazy days, fast food, and lots of HGTV, board games, and beach reads. This year this included binge watching the second season of Broadchurch, a British crime drama that is just disturbing enough to be perfect. My husband and I had watched the previous season a couple months ago, so when I found season two at our county library, I threw caution (and late-fees to the wind) and packed it for vacation.

Now, when I say that we binge-watched those eight episodes, I mean exactly that. We have no defense, no excuse; we sat fixated for hours in front of the television; and each time, as the credits closed the episode, my husband and I would look at each other, neither wanting to be the one to suggest pushing play on the next episode, but both of us desperate to continue the story. So after two late (late) nights of watching TV well after the children were tucked in bed, I can officially tell you, “It was worth it.”

While there are one or two elements that might be uncomfortable for Christians, Broadchurch delves into the human experience in ways I don’t often see in pop culture. Life, death, truth, our need for community–it’s all there in one small English village by the sea. If you’ve seen the series, you’ll know what I mean. And if you’ve seen it, you might appreciate this piece I wrote recently for Christ and Pop Culture about how Broadchurch season 2 shows the importance of confession of sin. And this–the importance of confession–is a profoundly Christian idea. We must confess our sin in order to be reconciled to God and each other. Proof is not enough; evidence is not enough. The wrongdoer must own his wrongdoing and speak the truth about it. Without such confession, our relationships break down and we end up isolated from God and each other.

From the piece:

Within the Church, the term “confession” has two usages. The first refers to the affirmation of a specific doctrine: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…”  So begins the Apostle’s Creed, one of the oldest and most foundational of Christian confessions. With such statements, we are able to create distinct communities based in a shared reality. Creeds and confessions don’t define reality, though. Instead, they form the bonds and boundaries of communities: If we have nothing else, at least we know the truth about these things.

Christians also use the word “confession” in a more familiar way: We confess our sins. Whether this happens within the confessional booth, an accountability group, or in the dock, when we confess our sins, we speak the truth about our actions. But often we mistake the confession of sin as an individual act. At its heart, confession—whether of faith or of a lack of faith—is about building community.

Evangelicals, who have traditionally emphasized the individual believer’s immediate relationship with God, tend to focus on the personal benefit of confession; “unconfessed sin,” as the thinking goes, will hinder your fellowship with God and strip you of your own sense of personal peace. Consequently, we’re encouraged to bring our sin into the light so that it won’t have a hold on us anymore. We’re also told that such transparency will allow others to be transparent with their own failings.

What we don’t always recognize, however, is that the confession of sin also serves a purpose similar to that of the confession of faith: It creates and maintains the bonds of community. When we confess the creeds, we speak together about the nature of God and his world. When we confess our sins, we align ourselves with a shared reality about what is right and what is wrong. We align ourselves with the truth that the community holds in common…  Without shared truth, community is impossible.

One other note, there are some spoilers in the full piece so be warned–go binge watch season 1 and season 2 first.

The Whole Truth

To the Christian Woman Who Just Discovered Her Husband’s Affair:


Stop for just this moment and breathe. Feel the air enter your nostrils, flow into your lungs, and exit again. Feel your heart beat; hear the sound of your pulse in your ears. Feel the weight of your body. This is life.

But, this life, it won’t ever be the same. Because what you fear is true. It is true. You’ve spent the last hour, day, week trying to come up with a different explanation, to find a way for what you know to be true to be something other than it is. A mistake. An error. A misunderstanding.

But it is not. It is true and from this point forward there will only ever be Before and After. Not Before and After his choice, but Before you knew and After you knew. Before the weight that is now crushing down on your shoulders. Before the vacuum that is consuming you from the inside out. Before your dreams and hopes were suddenly and irrevocably snuffed out.


Stop and breathe. Feel the air enter your nostrils, flow into your lungs, and exit again. Do not think. Simply feel your heart beat; hear the sound of your pulse in your ears. Feel the weight of your body. This is life. And there will be an After.

But you must know the Whole Truth. You must discover a few more things, no matter how impossible it feels. No matter how scared you are, no matter how tempted you are to ignore it. No matter how much you want to preserve Before, you must know the truth.

The truth is that this is not your fault.

This is not your fault.

This is not your fault.

This is not your fault.

Your husband did not make this choice because you weren’t pretty enough, available enough, submissive enough, talkative enough, quiet enough, sporty enough, or smart enough. He did not make this choice because you’ve spent the last five years pregnant or breastfeeding. He did not make this choice because you’ve been in the throes of hot flashes or because your skin hangs in wrinkles around your neck and bags under your eyes. He did not make this choice because you were not enough.

He made this choice because he was not enough.

And to survive—to make it to After—you must know this: He was never enough. He was never enough to fulfill your dreams. He was never enough to silence your self-doubt and insecurity. He was never enough to love you perfectly. He was never enough to be faithful.

At this point, if grace is at work—and I pray that it is—he knows this, too. If grace is at work, he knows how inadequate he is and how miserably he has failed. If grace is at work, he feels the weight crushing down on his shoulders. He feels the vacuum consuming him from the inside out. He knows that your shared dreams have been suddenly and irrevocably snuffed out. If grace is at work, he knows the truth.

And if grace is at work, you will know it, too.

Today you learned that your husband is not enough; but soon, you will learn that there is One who is enough. You will learn that there is One who can bring beauty from ashes. You will learn that there is One who can breathe life into death. You will learn that there is One who will carry you to After.

I promise you, if grace is at work, you will learn the Whole Truth.

You will learn it hour by hour, day by day, week by week. You will learn it as you care for your children, as you feed them and bathe them and do homework with them, even as your soul feels like it is dying. You will learn it as the body of Christ, as your brother and sisters and mothers and fathers, surround you with grace and fill you with patience and hope. You will learn it in the midst of the divorce, when the two-who-are-one are split in half, broken and bloodied. You will learn it in the midst of the reconciliation, when the proud are humbled and the unthinkable is forgiven. You will learn it in the nights of silent tears, when joy and pain are so confused that you can’t tell them apart.

But you will learn. You will learn the Whole Truth. And when you do, you will be able to move into After. You will breathe. You will fill your nostrils and the air will flow into your lungs and out again. Your heart will beat. Your body will stand tall.

And you will live after all.