Women in Ministry Series: Why Ministry Should Have a Feminine Feel

If I had to choose one word to describe Jenny Rae Armstrong, it would be: passionate. She is passionate about ministry and passionate about empowering women to find their God-given callings.

"Yes, but what have you done?"

I blinked at the young man interviewing me, schooling my expression as I gathered my thoughts. I had just finished describing the youth ministry my husband Aaron and I had run at the church he used to work at, the Campus Life clubs we had built when he was on staff with Youth for Christ.

Yes, it was Aaron’s name on the paycheck. But we had attended all the training events, seminars, and youth activities together. And I thought I had made it clear that I ran the junior high ministries, while Aaron was responsible for the high schoolers.

Apparently, my ministry experience was only valid if someone had kicked me some coin for my efforts, or I had at least done the job alone. Me, myself, and I. Facing down hordes of squirrely tweens on the rock-solid foundation of my personal awesomeness. None of those weak "working as a team" or "ministering together" platitudes, even if I had been putting in close to twenty hours a week. The moment my husband entered the conversation, I was demoted from "minister" to "helpmeet."

There was nothing to do but go home and whine at Aaron.

"I don’t understand men!" I wailed, sitting at the kitchen table while he chopped onions. "It’s like it’s all about status and being the one in charge."

"I keep telling you that," he shrugged, still chopping. "You don’t believe me, but I keep telling you."

"But it’s so stupid," I protested, swatting away a tear. "It’s arrogant!"

"Yep," he agreed.

I stewed as Aaron scraped the onions into the chili pot, gritting my teeth. I could play the achievement game if I needed to. I was smart, passionate, and well-connected. But the fact remained: I thought the game was misguided, and didn’t want to play.

Still, I tried for a while, throwing myself into ministry activities that would look good on my resume. I was careful to do them alone, or clearly establish my leadership, so my successes would be attributed to me.

I felt like a jerk, diluting my loving intentions with personal ambition, but I reminded myself that these were the hoops I needed to jump through to make headway in the male-dominated world of vocational ministry. Guys did this all the time, and didn’t seem to feel guilty about it.

While I did some good things and felt pride in my accomplishments, underneath, I was unhappy and frazzled. My true state of mind seeped through in my sleep. Over and over, I dreamt I was crossing a bridge in my community that had somehow become impossibly steep, climbing the slippery surface on my hands and knees, fingertips scrambling for purchase on the asphalt.

Years later, when my dream self finally made it to the other side, the familiar terrain was dark and threatening. The safe landmarks had vanished, and my friends, family and mentors were not where I expected to find them. I was alone, vulnerable, and under attack.

I woke up, literally and figuratively, and re-embraced what I had always known. Going it alone is stupid, and "performing" ministry is arrogant and sinful. But how could I move forward in ministry if I was laying down my bid for approval, accolades, and (most importantly) acceptance–acceptance as an equal who deserves to have her efforts taken seriously, not as a pretty prop to be patted on the head and sent off to play with the women and children?

Women called to vocational ministry walk a precarious line. I am not the first woman who has felt she had to stifle her feminine soul to make headway in a climate that values achievement and autonomy over relationships and collaboration, and I won’t be the last.

But what has really struck me is just how much the 21st century church, despite our insistence to the contrary, undervalues the volunteers, the lay leaders, the people who "help." Those roles that have, traditionally, been filled by women.

Now, I’m a staunch egalitarian. I don’t swallow the idea that men are called to lead, and women to function as their "support staff." But I was also raised as a missionary kid, and had a front-row seat to the full-throttle partnership missionary couples brought to their ministry.

Yes, it was usually the man’s name on the paycheck. But the women worked too, often at great cost. Until recently, it was not uncommon for mission agencies to require children to be sent to boarding school, freeing the women up for full-time service. It was/is a crappy policy. But those women? They got the job done, paycheck, title, status, or not.

So I get a little prickly when people criticize, belittle, or get affectionately patronizing about the contributions of the "helpers": the hyper-involved homeschooling moms, the "controlling" church matrons, the ministry wives who seem to live at the church. I mean, I’d like to see a church try to run without those powerhouse women, women who have dedicated their whole lives to the service of God and others.

I’ll see your hot-shot pastor and raise you my grandma. Roll your eyes at the decorating committee one more time, and I won’t be held responsible if you find darling elitist appliqués hot glued to your iPad.

Maybe, after the "women in ministry" controversy has blown over, we’ll discover what is truly subversive about female leadership, about the collaborative, relational systems women build and thrive in. Something about laying down your life to find it, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, considering others better than yourself, and the meek inheriting the earth.

Now that would be an achievement.

About Today’s Blogger

jenny-rae-thompsonJenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes about women’s issues for Christian publications. She and her husband are currently working together to create a youth curriculum for Christians for Biblical Equality. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog (http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com) and say hi, and add her on Facebook (jennyraearmstrong) and Twitter (@jennyrarmstrong).

About the Women in Ministry Series

The Women in Ministry Series is a collection of guest posts that aims to:

  • Provide an alternative to the women in ministry debates by telling the stories of women in ministry.
  • Encourage women to explore their God-given callings.

You can stay updated on the latest post each week bysigning up for the weekly e-mail list. (You also get a free E-book!)

Comment Policy: Everyone is welcome to leave a comment. However, this series takes for granted that women are called by God into every facet of ministry. This is not the place to debate that point and such comments will be removed.Women have been told “no” in far too many places. This is one place that is committed to saying “yes.” For more about the comment policy or submitting your own story, read here.

Next Week’s Blogger: Kimberly Majeski

20 thoughts on “Women in Ministry Series: Why Ministry Should Have a Feminine Feel

  1. Pingback: Have We Become Ministry Snobs? | Jenny Rae Armstrong

  2. Melissa

    I want to stand and applaud! AMEN! My prayers are that all that you closed with will happen for the church. I am a year out of my 7 years in full time ministry and still recovering–because even though I got a paycheck, even though I at times stifled my feminine soul…I wasn’t seen. Thank you for the reminder that I am not alone.

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      Thanks Melissa! So sorry you didn’t feel seen. :-( I think the issues rising from the differences in male and female leadership styles are still so new that it’s going to take a while to iron them out. It’s still “a man’s world”–how do we thrive in it without sacrificing those wonderful, traditionally “feminine” qualities?

  3. Jen

    Holla! This was awesome. Can’t find my fave line, but it might be powerhouse women, because yeah! But also, “going it alone is stupid.” And also, demoted to helpmeet. What is with this system? And how long? Anyway. I like you, and this piece. You go on with your bad self. Oh, and I’d love to see any curriculum you write.

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      Thanks so much! I’m not sure exactly when the curriculum will be out, but (shameless self-promotion) if you follow my blog, you’ll know as soon as it is!

      I like you too. This comment made my day. 😀

  4. Hannah Thomas

    Maybe I’m taking it the wrong way Katie, but lol I don’t think that was the point of her article was it? It wasn’t to me anyway.

    The strong point I see is that women are in leadership roles now, but for some reason people don’t wish to label it that. To some its ‘unbiblical’ or what have you. Its kind of silly. I mean it is what it is. They can still restrict their ‘pastor’ roles, but women are in leadership now whether they have the guts to admit or not NOW! Its hypocritical, and prideful to me personally for these churches to act the way to do on this issue.

    My Aunt and Uncle were missionaries, and technically YES he was the ‘missionary’ on paper. He would be the first to admit that her leadership and contributions helped make it successful. To him – she was a woman in leadership as well. They were SBC type of missionary, and all my cousins were born in different countries. (kind of neat!) He has passed away, and was long since retired prior to the ‘graciously submitting’ clause came into doctrine. He floored our family when he mentioned if some of the junk that is present today was occurring back then? He would have changed denominations. That man in leadership happened to see her for what she was, and out of love refused to allow her contribution to be diminished. Talk about LOVE the right way!

    The credit should be a given – just as it is for the man. Not in a prideful type of way, but for what it is. Reality. If people can’t give credit where it is due? What does that say…

    (Great Job Jenny!) sorry to hijack! Bee in the bonnet and all that jazz!

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      I love the bee in your bonnet! 😀 And I love what your uncle said. I think that in all reality, women always HAVE been a driving force in many ministry initiatives, and in many cases had more freedom and acknowledgement in the past than they do nowadays, with the backlash against second-wave feminism. In the golden age of missions, women outnumbered men on the field 2-1. We tend to overlook realities like that. And don’t even get me started on female pastors who are called “directors” to avoid controversy. It’s like serving real wine and calling it grape juice to avoid offending tee-totallers. Not only dishonoring, but dishonest.

  5. Amy Young

    I’ve been church bell hopping with a friend here in China and have been reminded how much deeper and wider the church and the work of the body is. AND how very much it was built on the back of women. Been thinking of writing about that for Ed, but it’s still percolating. Thanks Jenny! Loved this piece!

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      Oh gosh–the stories of what Christian women are doing in China are flat-out amazing! It’s so encouraging to hear about how God is moving there. My favorite ever women in ministry stories seem to be coming from Asia nowadays. I’m looking forward to seeing what you write, when you’re done percolating! :-)

  6. Herm

    Jenny Rae Armstrong, you cute little thing you ?!!! Really, just joking. Really!!!

    I really, really love your passion in this moment and am so very happy for those who get to grow from it daily.

    There are many thoughts you have tickled in my heart and mind from this your rant for undeniably deserved recognition.

    In no particular order:

    The most valued and life sustaining contributing component of any body is the heart.

    Males are placed in front because they can be better sacrificed for we as man intelligently recognize that we can’t afford for the more valued females of our body of man to be lost. What is first seen by a foe is the more vulnerable and smarts would place our males there to shield our females. That is why we more often instinctively hide our females and children while sending out our males to foreign lands in time of war. It only takes one relatively immature male to seed our population but it takes many healthy females nine months to give birth and then to maturely commit to raising those newborns into their own constructive productivity (well past 14 years of dedicated nurturing contribution) for the body of man not to die.

    The image we are in as man is a God who is male and female.

    The most necessary contributors in obedience to God’s will are most often anonymous and invisible. How many contributing all along the way to the necessary nurture and protection of you today can you name? Only one contributor missing would have significantly changed your life. Our Father and Brother (the more obvious and vulnerable personas of our one God of one heart and one mind) can name every one with their exact contributions to you and Him indelibly recorded in the book.

    Those were just some random thoughts I felt compelled to vulnerably share.

    Please, keep on sharing with all your heart and with all your mind as honestly and passionately as you have with us. You are most certainly an effectual and influential treasure deserving much more recognition than you will ever receive from us as man, sorry. Love you!!!

  7. Diana Trautwein

    You gotta know that I love this, Jenny. I was a woman in leadership long before I went to seminary and got paid to do some of the very same things I had been doing as a volunteer. (also a bunch of other stuff which would not have happened without seminary and ordination). And I’m sad to say that by the time I was a paid pastor, it became important to me that my pay was equitable – and sometimes it was not. It is the only way in which leadership is recognized in this culture – and that includes the church culture. I am in complete agreement that the unique gifts brought to leadership and ministry by women – because they are female!! – need to be acknowledged and appreciated. We work better together – that’s the design and that’s the point. Thanks for this.

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      Thanks Diana! Really, I don’t think it’s sad to say you were concerned about equitable pay–I think it’s wrong for women to be paid inequitably (as they often are), and I think that it IS important to call people to just behavior. The issues involved in advocating for fair treatment while carrying your cross is a blog post that has been dancing around in my mind for quite a while now–I hope to get it out of my brain and into print before too long! But yes–remaining humble, gracious and Christ-focused while making headway in a system where you feel so much opposition is a collosal balancing act.

  8. Melody Harrison Hanson

    Fantastic Jenny! I was prepared to disagree with you because of the “feminine feel language” but I wholeheartedly agree that humility is more like Jesus than all the rest of it — power, titles, authority ….

    That said, my mother was one of those “unpaid/no benefits but expected to work” missionary executive’s wives and I have to say how wrong it is, fundamentally to expect women to work without pay. It’s not humility it is taking advantage of women.

    I’d love to hear you say more about this:

    “after the “women in ministry” controversy has blown over, we’ll discover what is truly subversive about female leadership, about the collaborative, relational systems women build and thrive in. Something about laying down your life to find it, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, considering others better than yourself, and the meek inheriting the earth.”

    1. Jenny Rae Armstrong

      I totally agree with you re. humility vs. taking advantage of women. This post was pretty one-sided–I wanted to focus on the way we view the work (and often devalue) the work women actually do.

      Regarding the last paragraph, women tend to build systems that are more collaborative, relational, and egalitarian. It’s a stereotype, of course, and a gross generality, but also generally true. This is playing out in the secular workforce–as women become more and more of a force, businesses become less hierarchical, more flexible, and seek thoughts, opinions, and ideas from of a much larger pool of workers. If I remember correctly, businesses run be women fared significantly better than businesses run by men during the collapse a couple years back–the fact that they paid more attention to what people on the “bottom rungs” were saying, and that they valued security over risk for potential gain, has been cited as one of the primary reasons. These are postive attributes that female leadership can bring to the church, too, balancing out systems that are often (secretly) overly concerned with hierarchies and performance.

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