Editor’s note: This is the second post in a four-part series. Take a look at part one before diving into the content below!
“To be honest, I don’t know any women like me…”
It’s a lament I hear often when I ask career-minded Christian women to introduce me to faithful women in their network. This feeling of isolation isn’t limited to professional women — ask any stay-at-home mom how lonely her days can be and you’ll get an earful — but Christian women pursuing professional careers feel it profoundly. And often, the place they feel most isolated is at church.
Through Denver Institute’s Women & Vocation Initiative, I’ve seen the powerful role churches play in shaping women’s understanding of their gifts, callings, and role in the world. And while I genuinely believe most Christian leaders want to see the women in their congregations thrive, most are unaware of the underlying dynamics that shape how women approach their work.
Consider the examples of three women I met with this spring:
- An accountant confided she’d like to learn from the experiences of successful businessmen in her congregation, but fears their wives would look askance at a younger woman interacting with their husbands.
- A journalist worried that her career path doesn’t fit the model most evident at her church. She explained, “It’s not that our congregation opposes women pursuing careers, but the most visible leaders in our community have wives who are home full-time. I don’t see examples of women like me.”
- A small business owner felt guilty for using her entrepreneurial gifts. “I’m a more attentive, engaged mom when I have projects outside our home. I tried turning off this entrepreneurial energy God gave me, but it left me depressed. I feel like my friends judge me because I’d rather meet with a client than go to MOPS.”
Brothers (and sisters) in church leadership, the culture you foster in your congregations will help, or hinder, women as they steward their God-given gifts. This is not a peripheral issue we can outsource to women’s ministry—it flows from the church’s core beliefs about work and calling.
In that spirit, here are three principles to help you empower women who work–in the office, the home, and the world.
1. Teach a broad view of work.
If we’re serious about equipping the entire body of Christ, we need a theological framework that helps women navigate vocational decisions at any age or stage of life.
Scripture does not present a dichotomy between work inside or outside the home. Rather, it shows men and women co-laboring to meet the financial needs of their families and communities. Proverbs 31, a model of godly productivity for both genders, shows a woman engaged in commerce and childcare—an inspiring (and exhausting) example for women with entrepreneurial and leadership gifts.
Pastors, push yourselves to share examples of women’s diverse roles in Scripture and modern life. Ask yourself: “Do the illustrations I use referring to women primarily revolve around marriage, family, and relationships? When was the last time I highlighted the positive influence of career women in a sermon?” Remind your people of the significant role women’s gifts and leadership play in Scripture:
“The Bible…repeatedly draws women into the action as unflinching heroines of the faith, stalwart kingdom builders, and valiant rescuers of the royal line of Christ,” writes author Carolyn Custis James. “Filled with heart-stopping drama, Job-like wrestlings with God, and accounts of bold courage that changed the world, suddenly these ancient texts link women of a bygone era with women of the twenty-first century with an earthy richness and fresh relevance that raises the bar for what we might do in our day.” (Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women)
How can you cast a broader vision of what God might do through the women of your church?
2. Expand conversations about gender beyond roles in church leadership or marriage.
Conversations about gender roles can be exhausting, especially when they get bogged down in the complementarian versus egalitarian debate. As a result, the conversation rarely evolves beyond these specific roles.
At Denver Institute, we intentionally use phrases like, “helping women fully steward their gifts across the scope of their lives” to expand the conversation. Focus on stewardship—helping women make strategic decisions regarding their unique opportunities, gifts and constraints—rather than ask them to fit an existing mold. By broadening the conversation, you encourage vocational imagination and embolden women to follow the Lord, wherever He might lead.
3. Recognize that culture shapes women’s perspectives as powerfully as Scripture.
What preconceptions do the women of your church have about gender roles that may not be in line with biblical teaching? In her book Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality, Nancy Pearcey illustrates how historical trends, rather than biblical principles, narrowed women’s roles:
“In pre-industrial societies, most work was done on the family farm or in home industries, where husband and wife worked side by side. Women were involved in economically productive labor, while men were far more involved in raising and educating children than most are today. What changed all this was the Industrial Revolution. It took work out of the home—and that seemingly simple change dramatically altered gender roles. The result was greatly constricted roles for both men and women—which in turn led to narrower definitions of masculinity and femininity.”
What a contrast to the women who worked as merchants, artisans, civil servants, or nurses that we see in Scripture. When we spiritualize historical trends, we start to see the distorted thinking about gender roles so prominent in evangelicalism in the middle of the last century. For example, theologian Donald Gray Barnhouse’s book The Bible Way envisioned the ideal Christian woman’s life revolving around that of her husband’s. Instead of laboring together for the good of their family and community, a woman’s gifts were secondary to her husband’s, “The Christian wife is happiest when the interests of her entire life are those of her husband: his work, his problems,” he wrote. “While he is fighting the battles of life at his job, she will be supporting him in spirit while she works at home…. [Because she is the] center of the home, he is strengthened to go on in the work that God has given him to do. That’s her highest service to the Lord.”
While much has changed since the 1950’s, a faint residue of this distortion remains. As one of our 5280 Fellows observed, “In my faith community, we rarely talk about women seeking God’s broader calling for their lives. It feels like my friends and I view our purpose and passion as secondary to our husbands’ callings.”
A word of caution: How women think about work varies according to age, spiritual background, ethnicity, and class. A 60-year-0ld white woman raised in a Christian home will likely have different career expectations than a millennial who came to faith in college, or a black woman who didn’t have the luxury of pursuing work that felt like a “calling.” Like many areas of congregational life, making time to learn the life experiences and needs of your people will increase the effectiveness of your programming.
Pastors, we are in a powerful cultural moment regarding women’s rights and roles in the world. What an opportunity to share life-giving inspiration for women to steward their gifts. If you’re wondering how to get started, try one of the practical suggestions below:
- Observe the culture of your church: Where are women most visible? What spoken, or unspoken, expectations shape gender roles in marriage, leadership, and in the way men and women should behave? Does preaching intentionally reference men and women in a balanced way?
- Take a group of women out for coffee: Gather 2 or 3 women in similar roles or life stages (career women, stay-at-home moms, etc.) ask a few questions, and LISTEN. What influences shaped their expectations for marriage, family, or the role work would play in their lives? Based on the culture at your church, what would the “ideal” Christian woman’s life look like? What do they wish church leaders knew about their work?
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This post was published June 4, 2018
Joanna serves as Denver Institute’s Director of Public Engagement, hosts the Faith & Work Podcast, and oversees the Women & Vocation Initiative. Prior to coming to the Institute, Joanna worked in global telecom, nonprofit consulting, and campus ministry with Cru. She served as associate faculty at Denver Seminary and as a sewing instructor at Fancy Tiger Crafts. A third-generation Coloradan, Joanna appreciates both the state’s innovative culture and its cowboy roots. She has an MA in Social Entrepreneurship from Bakke Graduate University and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also completed a certificate of Women in Leadership through Cornell University.
She is a contributor to the multi-author book, Women & Work: Bearing God’s Image and Joining in His Mission through our Work (B&H Publishing, Spring 2023).