Though women comprise half the church, this percentage does not get reflected in church leadership or participation in church conferences. Not even close.
But don't misunderstand—just because women are not asked to participate at these events as much does not mean God is not working through the leadership of women. In my work as a researcher of female Christian leaders, I speak with women every day serving at every level of leadership all around the world.
God is working through Christian women, and we're missing it.
This week, Leadership Network hosted The Nines, an online conference where 100-plus Christian leaders addressed "what's working and what's not working" in Christian churches. During the event, blogger Rachel Held Evans tweeted to question the lineup and point out that only a few of the 100 speakers were women. What's been described as a "Twitter communication meltdown" quickly ensued, culminating in the event's producer, Todd Rhoades, calling Evans "the new Mark Driscoll." At the end of the day, Rhoades apologized—not for the Twitter exchange or for the lack of female speakers, but for the "diversions" during the day.
Later, Rhoades defended the line-up, stating that theme of this year's event required the bulk of speakers to be senior pastors, who are often male. Yet, 22 of the male speakers were not senior pastors, but staff pastors, campus pastors, or parachurch organizational leaders—positions widely open to women. Rhoades also mentioned that other women had been asked to participate, but declined the invitation.
It's difficult to imagine that the paltry percentage of female speakers could be exclusively attributed to declined invitations. Even so, as one commenter on Jonathan Merritt's blog noted, the conference organizers could have simply said, "We cannot go forward." To really understand "what is and isn't working" in the local churches, they could have then asked themselves, "What can we do to ensure that the voices of women and minorities are accurately represented?"
Beyond the question of why this underrepresentation continues to occur, we must also ask the greater question of what we're missing when we exclude women (and minorities, for that matter), a move that is theologically and strategically flawed.
A failure to proportionately and adequately represent women is a failure to steward the giftedness of half the individuals in our midst. The spiritual gifts are not gendered. The genesis of leadership is grounded in the spiritual gifts, which are freely given by God without respect to gender, race, or social class. When we don't showcase enough women's gifts and voices within the body, we fail to steward the corporate giftedness entrusted to us. Like the unfaithful servant, we bury the one talent entrusted to us. How would the church account for a similar stewardship of financial resources, that half of the resources were burned away?
By excluding and underrepresenting women and minorities, we alienate the bulk of the world's population, the masses who do not fit the white, male, upper-middle class demographic. We alienate minorities when there are no people of color because as try as we may, white people will not understand the challenges of minorities and to pretend we do is disingenuous. We alienate women because try as they may, men cannot fully understand the challenges women face. Moreover, the few women who are present are often at the highest level of leadership, a level most cannot relate to. The myth that no women can lead has been replaced by the myth that only exceptional women can lead, and the rest are left wondering, "What can God do through my life?"
The goal of examining "what is and isn't working" is, presumably, to improve the efficacy of local churches in attracting and retaining members. Ironically, what "isn't working" is the exclusionary practices that minimize the importance of what God can achieve through the life of a woman.
The Christian church around the world now suffers from brain drain, as talented and gifted women are leaving the local church—and for some, ministry work altogether—because they have not been allowed ample opportunities to utilize and steward their giftedness.
Want to people to get excited about church? Show them leaders not unlike themselves. Want people to be moved to action? Give them an incarnational vision of what God can accomplish through their lives.