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