Leaky pipes are best replaced

This article by Nay Dawson is essential reading for complementarians who believe that women are called to serve in Christ’s church too. This is not a post pushing for us to change our minds on what Scripture says about elders and about teaching. It is simply arguing that women are given gifts to use for the Gospel, building up the church and God’s glory. Further, it is arguing that for some women that will mean a commitment to full time Gospel service. We get that in some contexts because plenty of women have been sent to serve on the mission field overseas for years. 

Nay asks why it is that women who have been trained to use their gifts do not find their way into using them later on. And it’s not just about paid positions. She describes people having been given gifts, been allowed to use them and trained in order to develop them finding out later that they have become rusty in them. 

I want to reflect back two things here.  The first is to consider why traditionally secular “pipelines” prove leaky and why women have often been under or unrepresented in certain contexts.  It’s not a new or startling discovery. Often women are likely to find that another priority comes along. They get married and have children, they take time out to have a baby and perhaps to look after their young child through the early stages. They  then may want to return part time initially in order to continue to provide some childcare perhaps in conjunction with another family member or a paid child minder until school provision is available.

Two things happen. First of all, they find that  this career break puts their progression and development on hold so that they lose ground to others. Secondly, there is an assumption that more senior positions are not open to those working on part time or reduced hours contracts because they won’t be able to put in the necessary hours.

Now let’s put that back into church contexts. What has happened in the secular context is that a person is expected to fit into the culture and structures in place. If their life circumstances make that impossible, then their gifts, talents and calling remain unrecognised, unrealised and unused. This is to the detriment not just of the individual but of the organisation too.  

In church life we need to ask whether or not this happens too. Do we set our expectations about ministry around whether or not a person’s personal circumstances fit in with our own expectations.  If we decide who can be part of a ministry team based on their ability to attend specific meetings, if deacons and elders are defined in terms of their attendance at church leadership meetings that happen early on a Saturday morning or late on a weekday night, then we may well be excluding a whole host of people who have the gifts, the commitment and the calling.  Better to stop and ask people “what do you need in order to be able to flourish, to be fruitful and accountable).

But I think there is a second issue here. I think the problem is with the pipeline itself. It doesn’t just need repairing. It needs replacing.   Nay describes a ministry pipeline which starts with graduates being co-opted onto ministry training schemes. They often receive a small allowance and accommodation and a place on a training course. Their responsibilities will include providing practical help setting out chairs, stewarding etc and then in terms of “spiritual ministry” they get involved in youth and students work. 

What happens at the end of this? Well, for some the 1-2 years function as a gap year before going into their planned field of work. For others however the next step is theological training and then a curacy or assistant pastor’s position. 

This is important to notice for three reasons. First of all, because of expectations.  In response to Nay’s initial inquiries about this on twitter some people suggested that ministry training schemes might not lead to paid ministry but still are appreciated by some women for the preparation it gave them for serving God in the home, discipling their own children.  Now, if that has been their experience then that is a good thing. But it is worth noting that this isn’t really the intention or implicit expectation behind such schemes for most young men joining them. We need to openly acknowledge that young male graduates are encouraged to join such schemes because they are considered people to watch. They are being given the opportunity to test a calling.

Secondly, whilst some may have been blessed by the experience, it is worth asking whether or not such schemes really do provide helpful equipping overall for everyday life. I would suggest not. If they did then we would find a way for every church member to spend a year working or volunteering with the church. We don’t because we recognise that the best place to be equipped for everyday life as believers is in the context of everyday life whether that’s as a homemaker or out in the workplace.  Indeed Scripture makes it clear that everyday life is the right preparation. and test for vocational ministry as elders and deacons not vice-versa. Paul does not say “see how someone gets on leading student Bible studies and doing evangelistic talks then let them raise a family.” He says “if you think someone might be suitable for teaching and leading in the church, see how they are doing in their work and family context.”

Thirdly, and this links to what I’ve just said, I’m not convinced that the pipeline is the right one for identifying and calling Gospel workers, male or female.  I’ve mentioned before that such schemes are likely to identify middle class graduates with intellectual skills to the exclusion of working class people with evangelistic and pastoral gifts. Furthermore, such schemes keep those people out of the workplace at the very point when they are most likely to benefit and learn from doing a secular job, working with their hands and their minds. Finally when such schemes happen in large churches so that the ministry trainees are kept together as a cohort and where they are likely to specialise in a particular area such as student or youth work then they are going to miss out on the wider implications and experiences of church life that are crucial to ministry.  If my experience of church is youth and student ministry then what do I have to say to the widow, the drug addict, the couple whose marriage is under pressure, the asylum seeker? 

It is worth noting that there have been a few articles recently bemoaning the tendency to just explain Bible passages and not apply them leading to dull sermons (see here from my friend Steve Kneale). Well, there’s no surprise if we train up preachers and pastors with narrow life experience if they lack with the width of experience necessary to provide wholesome appetising application.

And now I want to come to my final reason as to why the pipeline is broken and needs replacing. The very fact that we compare the pipeline with secular career paths should tell us something.  Too often we think in terms of church and ministry in terms of careers and promotion. I start as a ministry trainee them as a student placement minister, then I get my assistantship and finally I become a pastor. Even becoming a pastor is a stepping stone to becoming senior pastor at a large church and being given a platform for a wider ministry with conference invites and book deals.  And if we sit and judge women for thinking about the pipeline in such terms then we are hypocrites if we fail to recognise that this is how the pipeline has been used and perceived by us men.  We need to recognise where the temptation is in our lives towards personal ambition and how the pipeline actively encourages that. 

So my response to Nay’s challenging article is that we need to stop talking about how to plug the leaks and instead rip up the broken pipes. We will do this by getting rid of the mindset and culture of careers and institutions and once again think of the church as the family of God where we are seeking to see every believer able to serve as God has called them.

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