Many have attributed American churches’ dwindling numbers to an “entitlement mentality,” saying that today’s Christians look to congregations to for a certain kind of fulfillment and leave when those needs aren’t being met.
But perhaps the trend is due to the very opposite—a servant mentality without a place to serve.
Christian women in particular likely resonate with this idea, given the number of educated and gifted women admitting that they feel underutilized at church or that they have to leave their leadership gifts outside. Though women tend to outnumber men in the pews, the leadership of our churches and ministries remains heavily male. As a researcher of Christian women and leadership, I’ve heard women say, “I feel invisible at church,” “There’s no room for me,” or “I feel useless.”
At Liberty University this week, speaker and author Christine Caine launched her new ministry initiative for working women, Propel. “We are hemorrhaging a generation of women,” she proclaimed during Monday’s convocation service. “Women are underutilized at church because their gifts are not recognized or respected…. So basically, some of these women can run Fortune 500 companies, but the most [they] can do at church is bake a casserole.”
In my case, even with seminary degrees and over a decade of teaching experience, I’ve struggled to get involved in church doing anything beyond nursery duty. My husband and I have moved nine times, and at each new church, when I offer up my theological background and teaching experience, it’s routinely ignored or turned down.
Yet, I know the other side of things, too. My pastoral students relate the demands of their schedules and the creeping burnout of trying to meet the needs of their congregation. They lament the anemic volunteerism and lack of involvement among their congregants, wishing the surge of volunteers around outreach activities at Thanksgiving and Christmas were spread throughout the year as well.
How do we reconcile these two divergent sides of the story? How is it that one side longs to volunteer, longs to be participate, while the other is overworked and in need of help to sustain the ministry of the church? One solution may be to provide more visible and easily navigable paths to involvement in the local church.
Thanks to a proliferation of Christian blogs, books, and conferences, today's evangelicals—women and men—are well-resourced and equipped. They are eager to channel their talents into ministry. Though many congregations offer training and direction in spiritual gifts, we need better follow-up to link members’ giftings with the work of the church. Without clear on-ramps to leadership, teaching, or other roles—or when those on-ramps pose problems for working members (off-hours training) or parents of young children (no childcare)—the church’s interested, willing servants fall through the cracks.
Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, has championed the role that all people have to play in the life of the church and called their meaningful participation a central task for pastors. “You are called to ‘equip God's people for works of ministry to build up the body of Christ’ (Eph. 4:10),” he wrote. “Yet, today, we have spectators, not equipped believers, and the body of Christ is weak and not built up.”
If it’s not clear to members how they can become involved, the burden rests on the pastors and staff to evaluate and pursue each potential volunteer—a difficult if not impossible task given their workload. In these settings, where pastors are too busy to appoint leaders to delegate tasks to, volunteerism remains stagnant, and they continue to burnout.
Though the issue of women in ministry involves theological, sociological, and cultural factors, it’s this cycle of pastor burnout-volunteer fallout-pastor burnout that’s partly responsible for the rejection women experience in the local church, especially in congregations that acknowledge and support the giftedness of women.
Some might consider women’s desire to take on roles beyond the children’s ministry as a form of entitlement mentality. Yet, this is our calling to the Christian life: to actively participate and serve in the work of the body. In Ephesians 4:11-16, we find a blueprint for ministry, indicating the genesis of leadership (the spiritual gifting of individual believers by the Holy Spirit), who it is that holds leadership positions in church-related institutions (the entire body of Christ), and the final purpose for leadership (the unity and maturation of the body, the bride, of Christ).
The ministry of the churches begins in the spiritual gifts, and the spiritual gifts are distributed by the Holy Spirit regardless of race, social class, or gender. All members of have a responsibility and a role to play in the ministry of the church. When we are not participating, our experience of the Christian life is truncated. Women’s desire to serve, to teach, and to lead, bubbles out of their spiritual giftedness, a giftedness given to them by God, for the purposes of ministry.
Far too many women are discouraged, not because they aren’t being “satisfied,” but because they aren’t able to use the gifts they know God has entrusted to them. Some misconstrue the rejection they receive at church, believing that God neither wants nor needs them. They start to wonder if perhaps they were mistaken in believing they had any gifts at all. (And that’s not even including the women upon whom is hasn’t even dawned that they spiritually gifted to lead or teach, who have not imagined they are equipped to serve, simply because no one has ever drawn it out of them, no one has stopped to notice.)
I want to see the ministry of God’s church thrive, and that can only be done when all members of the community of God are taking part in the work of ministry.