Further Thoughts on the Shape of Women's Ministry

This week, Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today published a piece that examines the shape of women's ministry in the white evangelical church. The article comes in the wake of the controversy surrounding popular speaker and author Jen Hatmaker's public support of gay marriage. In response to her new position, LifeWay will no longer sell Hatmaker's books and products.

While I don't agree with Hatmaker's position, I also don't think folks are necessarily seeing the big picture. Hatmaker is not one individual who suddenly and unexpectedly went rogue. She represents the larger shape of evangelical women's ministry that is very often detached from the established Church. Erin Straza and I tackled this question in a recent Persuasion podcast in which we argue that much of women's spiritual formation has been outsourced to the marketplace. We shouldn't be surprised when it's shaped by influences other than the Church. 

Kate's article at CT taps several leaders in ministry and tries to set the larger frame for what's happening, particularly among white evangelical women. For example, while most pastors have probably never heard of Hatmaker, she has a FB following larger than John Piper, Tim Keller, or Gary Chapman. Kate reached out to me for her article and I asked her if I could publish more of our email exchange here:

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Kate: What do you see as some of the pros and cons of having so much momentum around women’s ministry at a national level? 

Hannah: Positively, I think we need to recognize that the Spirit of God is at work. Because the digital age has changed how ideas spread, women (who have historically existed in the margins of theological conversation) have an opportunity to add to the conversation without ever leaving their desks. In the past, a lack of infrastructure would have held them back; but today, women who are gifted to teach, lead, or encourage have opportunity to actualize these gifts in a public way.

The advantage, of course, is that the Church at large can benefit from these gifted women. They become a channel of the Holy Spirit’s power and blessing as they fulfill their calling for the good of the Church and the glory of God. One practical affect is that new topics come up for discussion and application—topics that male leaders simply wouldn’t know to address or can’t address.  Female leaders are also uniquely positioned to apply the teachings of the Church to the needs of half her members.

On the other hand, because so many female spiritual leaders are operating in parachurch contexts, their ministries have the potential to lose the doctrinal and structural accountability that the established Church provides. The digital age may free women from the gendered constraints of traditional ministry, but this means that they also have the potential to become free agents.

Consider how few female evangelical leaders are visibly attached to an institution such as a church, seminary, or non-profit that did not grow up around their personality. Name a male leader like Rick Warren and you immediately think of Saddleback Church. Say Beth Moore or Ann Voskamp or Jen Hatmaker and most of us will draw a blank about which local church these women affiliate with. This is not to say that they aren't connected, but their local church isn't a visible or central a component to their public ministry.

Being distanced from ecclesiastical institutions also means women’s ministry inadvertently becomes shaped by market forces. Nationally known female spiritual leaders are by-and-large entrepreneurs and most often, out of necessity. Because women struggle to find space in the established Church, they end up creating their own institutions, whether as collectives or around themselves. The latter is both fed by and feeds evangelical celebrity culture.

This entrepreneurial dynamic also affects the shape and philosophy of women’s ministry, even if only inadvertently. When a woman has to create her own position and then maintain that position apart from the contribution (both financial and spiritual) of a larger institution, her target demographic can disproportionately affect the shape of her ministry. This is true of many entrepreneurial endeavors, not simply women’s ministry; but if the majority of female leaders are operating in the marketplace (as opposed to the institutional Church), women’s ministry as a whole can reach a point of critical mass where an audience-centric philosophy creates wider expectations about style, topics, and content.

Practically speaking, this broader culture locks both leaders and followers into a matrix built on audience consumption of the personal spirituality of the celebrity. The “product” is not robust spiritual formation so much as spirituality mediated through the experience and passions of the tribal leader. Of course, not all nationally known female leaders and ministries operate this way, but building “tribe” is a significant emphasis for many.

Kate: Also, the tweet from you that stood out most to me was about how female leaders don’t need to “show their work” theologically. Could you expand on that? What is the role you see theology playing? And why shouldn’t we be tempted to write off these women as overly inspirational or shallow? Hannah: I believe that market forces are unduly shaping women’s ministry. And part of what the market wants is simple, practical spirituality. In a robust learning environment, a teacher works to create a curriculum and syllabus that suits the needs (not the wants) of the learner.  But teachers operating in the marketplace must always consider what the market can bear. They themselves aren’t necessarily a-theological (although some may be), but they may feel a tension to craft their teaching in a way that minimizes theological book work in favor of inspiration, lifestyle advice, or practical mission.

The problem is that if lay women don’t see their teachers modeling theological investigation or healthy engagement with the Scripture, they won’t be able to develop these abilities themselves. They won’t even know they need to develop them.  It’s like learning to cook from a recipe that calls for pre-packaged ingredients like “cake mix” vs. a recipe that calls for flour, sugar, dry milk, baking soda, and salt. The shortcuts may seem helpful at the moment, but have we really learned to cook? Have we grown in our spiritual understanding?

I do not believe that all female leaders must have an M.Div. or theology degree to teach or lead. I don't have one myself. But we do need to raise the expectation for what passes for spiritual formation. In an article in the Washington Post last year, Karen E. Yates reflects on the last two decades of women’s involvement in Christian publishing and notes that “women today are publishing at an incredible rate without the title of pastor, without a seminary degree and without a traditional pulpit.”

If nothing else, this should get our attention. Not because women aren’t capable of the higher thinking associated with formal teaching ministry, but because of the very real possibility that half the Church is being trained in mission by people with a limited number of tools in their toolkits. As a woman, this also concerns me because a haphazard approach to theology could reinforce prejudices against women teachers. In some ways, we have to be better and more faithful than our male counterparts in order to overcome entrenched biases.

This doesn’t mean we should write off women leaders as uneducated, un-theological, or shallow. You do not gain the following necessary to be a nationally known leader without a great deal of gifting, self-education, and hard work. What women leaders often are, however, is isolated. Isolated from the very Church they are seeking to build. If Paul is correct that the Church is “the pillar and ground of truth,” the way forward is not to shame female leaders for using their gifts without theological credentials. The way forward is for the Church to identify and support gifted women, partnering with them via theological training and commissioned ministry positions.

If you don’t want women breaking down the doors, simply open them for them.