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Women in Leadership: Hearing Fears and Offering Thoughts

by the Inspiring Partnership in Ministry Task Force

In 2016 the General Board undertook to collect data and opinions from all EMC church leaderships regarding their views and practices pertaining to “women in leadership” in their local churches. Following this process there was an open discussion at the 2017 Conference Council meeting where the details of this survey were presented, and small discussion groups helped to formulate a plan for a process of healthy discussion regarding this topic. The second priority listed by these discussion groups was to: “Determine what fears people have regarding women in ministry and create forums for these fears to be expressed.”

Several months ago, the Inspiring Partnership in Ministry (IPiM) task force connected with a wide variety of people in our conference, who helped us identify many of these “fears.” The question was relatively simple: “What are your concerns surrounding the idea of unrestricted ministry for women? Both concerns stemming from possible removal of restrictions AND stemming from possibly not removing restrictions.” After choosing a representative sample of the “fears” that were expressed, we asked a variety of people to write short thoughts about these “fears.” The intent is to treat all “fears” as legitimate concerns and to simply reflect on them.

Throughout history uncertainty has always produced fears. In John 13-16 Jesus addresses his disciples at a time when they are facing significant uncertainty in their “new” faith journey. He is about to leave them, and they will have to do it on their own or so they think, and they are deeply troubled. In response Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God and believe also in me” (14:1). He is not trying to minimize the doubts and fears or criticizing his disciples for what they are feeling. Rather, he acknowledges their feelings and then challenges them to believe that their source of peace is different than they assume it to be. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (14:27).

We are often tempted to believe that we are experiencing peace when we have everything in neat and tidy boxes and we have things figured out and in place. We wonder if that type of peace is what Jesus refers to when he uses the words “as the world gives.” We wonder if, on the other hand, he might be saying that even when we have doubts and concerns and questions, and we are afraid because we do not have everything clearly defined, His peace is still very much available to us? These thoughts, added to those below, are offered in this confidence.

– Darren Plett, IPiM Co-Chair

If there are two perspectives that are biblically authoritative how do we move forward? How can that be resolved? How can we trust the Bible?

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been differing perspectives on the interpretation of the Scriptures on various matters. The Spirit has guided faithful followers of Christ toward consensus on the key truths of the faith, and these have been faithfully preserved and handed down through the centuries. Even our own conference Statement of Faith is a product of that heritage of continued examination of the Bible. We are indebted to the Spirit and to those who have gone before us.

But within this faithful stream of orthodox Christianity there are secondary issues where significant disagreement can remain. We recall things like Calvinism versus Arminianism, different modes of baptism, pacifism or just-war theory, the working of the Holy Spirit, etc. Committed Christians who hold to the authority of Scripture have found themselves differing on these matters. Yet it appears, because these are secondary issues, that there has been room in the Church for these differing viewpoints to co-exist. The need to find one agreed-upon resolution was not necessary for the integrity of the global Christian faith to continue.

The question of men and women in leadership in the Church can also be seen in this way. Differing perspectives and church practices have coexisted for a long time, including within traditions that hold to the complete authority of the Bible.

The question before us as a Conference is not in any way shaking the trust we all hold in the Bible. It is simply asking whether we see enough room in our Conference for both perspectives to be recognized.

– Ward Parkinson,
Pastor (Rosenort EMC, Man.)

I’m concerned that men and women will still like each other at the end of the process.

It is true that our liking for each other may be challenged as we continue this process, but is it not also true that when we offer grace and humility in our discussion, it will result in greater strength and unity? A much greater danger is not being open and humble about where we are at, because that will breed distrust and disrespect.

Being open to each other is a place of immense vulnerability, but out of that can emerge a greater appreciation and understanding of each other. A beautiful picture of the church is where men and women constantly seek to lift each other up, to trust and respect each other and embrace all that God has gifted and called us to.

This process of understanding each other can be healing and life-giving if we approach it in a humble, loving and respectful manner.

– Trudy Dueck,
Member, IPiM (The ConneXion, Arborg, Man.)

I fear that if we go one way we’ll lose our mission among some immigrant cultures and if we go the other way we’ll lose it among westernized Canadians.

Change, whether it is theological or ministry strategy in nature, brings with it a sense of tension. As we respond, we feel compelled to get it “right”; that is, we don’t want to violate Scripture, embarrass God, and lose credibility or an opportunity for strategic ministry. As we consider how best to partner with women in ministry within the context of our conference, that same fear grips us. Anytime that we minister beyond a homogeneous social group, we will face different assumptions…as did Peter in the book of Acts.

Creating a unified church among diverse people is an ambitious project, but one alternative is not to reach out at all, and that result in the greatest loss of mission. As a fear-based response, we tend to see only polarized possibilities-either “yes” and God is on our side or “no” and God is on our side. Perhaps we ought to think about a third way—a both/and rather than either/or. Whether food, clothing, social habits or theological practices, cultural groups or sub-cultures will be diverse. Not all of our churches need to look, feel and smell the same; but perhaps we can “tolerate” each other out of a love for Christ and a shared mission. Responding with fear is seldom a good thing; responding in faith is a way of giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Faith to believe that God will be glorified among those who see things differently; faith to believe that differences will not hinder and may even enhance our ministry efforts.

– Abe Bergen,
EMC Moderator when IPiM Process started (Kleefeld EMC, Man.)

I fear that in an egalitarian view of church, women will take over and men will fade into the background more and more.

This is a real fear and it needs to be addressed, but it is not true only of egalitarian churches. There are people in both egalitarian and complementarian churches expressing this concern. It seems that, increasingly, church work is being done by women, and men have less involvement for everything from cleaning the toilets to leading small groups.

It isn’t clear if there’s any actual link between women becoming more involved and men less, as this is a long-standing issue in church life, but in our minds they may seem connected.

The goal of egalitarians is for churches to recognize the gifts of women equally with those of men as they believe the God intended and the Bible demonstrates in the Early Church. However, sometimes egalitarians express impatience and frustration in that process. A result is that men may feel like they’re under attack and for some the easiest solution is to withdraw.

It is not at all the intention of egalitarians for women to take over or for men to withdraw. The intention is to affirm all of us to work side by side, in submission to God and each other, and alert and alive to the Holy Spirit. We all need to be fully engaged in the kingdom with confidence that we are valued, needed and able to serve within our gifts and our calling and as He enables.

– Erica Fehr,
Co-Chair, IPiM (Kleefeld EMC, Man.)

I fear that in a complementarian view of church, gifted women will not be able to serve and we will miss out on what God is doing.

Sadly, it is true that in some churches where a version of “complementarianism” is held, women are restricted in ways that are not biblical. I believe that a close examination of the typical texts used for the complementarian argument reveal that restriction is not the intent of the writer or the Spirit of the Word. The intent of scripture is accountability, responsibility and different but equal roles for men and women, while recognizing and heralding the gifts and service of women in the church.

There are many churches who hold to a biblical complementarianism who highly value the roles and ministries of women and allow women to serve in almost all areas of the church. Yet, they maintain their conviction that scriptures teach that God has asked that certain men be the leaders; not because of value, abilities or even giftedness, but simply because of the roles they believe God has assigned to male and female.

Speaking to those who fear that gifted women will be sidelined, I would suggest that the intention and principle behind these churches and this view is not to restrict women. Churches that have male-only ministerial need to also work hard to affirm and include women as they are gifted in other areas. These churches should urge men to take up the responsibility, not privilege, of giving spiritual leadership knowing that God will hold them accountable. This teaching should never be about power or dominance, but rather about complementing one-another and cheering each other on as male and female to the glory of God!

– Abe Berg,
Pastor (Straffordville EMC, Ont.)

How can we work as a conference in unity when there is such diversity? How can we walk through this process and come to a point without losing people?

We need to be clear that unity does not mean “sameness.” Unity means being able to hold on to each other despite our differences. Unity means we are joined in a harmonious whole. A family unit has unity even if the members are different from one another. Families necessarily consist of people who are different from one another in age, personality, interests and gender. Families hold together because the relationships go much deeper than just being the same. There is relational safety in belonging to each other and knowing we are significant to one another despite our differences.

As a Conference, we can ensure that we maintain unity with one another by expressing a commitment to our relationship and to our sense of belonging together even when, and especially when, we have a differing viewpoint.

Inviting more than one perspective can strengthen our unity. Let’s commit to sticking together even if we have more than one viewpoint. When we see that both are invited to the table, there doesn’t have to be a sense that our togetherness is threatened.

– Andrea Dyck,
IPiM member (Steinbach EMC, Man.)

Sometimes we trivialize people’s genuine concerns by labeling them fears

I have been a fearful man. As a father doing his duty I took my young children camping. But then I would lie awake at night in my tent, swallowing my fright, sure that a menagerie of bears, skunks and rats was tearing apart our campsite looking for my children. The next morning when the sun was shining, I could talk all tough and strong again.

In these pages we have looked at some of the fears we have about doing a study together on the topic of women in ministry. But you may be like me and your response is, “I don’t have fears. I’m just concerned. This is not an emotional reaction I am having here. It’s a serious rational criticism.” If I have a genuine concern about something, I don’t like it when others try to help me address my fears.

But I also need to admit that the line between rational concerns and emotional fears is zig zag, and I am not always sure when I am zagging. Sometimes I hide my fears by claiming to have concerns. Sometimes I also trivialize people’s genuine concerns by labeling them fears.

But perhaps we don’t need to sort out which are concerns and which are fears. We all have both and none of us quite knows where is the line. To both concerns and fears Christ said, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Which exactly is the church that can lay claim to this promise? Can the EMC lay claim to this in the midst of our discussions?

The church that Jesus assures here is the church that makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Trinity, teaching them to obey everything Christ commanded.

Notice what Christ does not say. He does not say, “I will be with the church that safely avoids conflict.” Not, “I will be with the church that makes no mistakes.” Not “I will be with the church that already knows all the answers without struggle, debate, backtracking, repentance, and more struggle.”

Christ promises to be with the church that is going now into the world seeking to be faithful to the best of its Spirit-fueled ability. This trek into the world will yet present us with question and dilemmas we cannot now imagine. It always has.

Whatever position we may hold, this dilemma we now face is a question that came up in mission. Had we stayed in Jerusalem this would have never come up. What we know as we go across the earth is that in the life, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension of this Christ, we find a life worth all the millennia-long waging, struggle, coming to resolve, and struggle again that the church has lived.

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. ’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will bring me home.

– Layton Friesen,
EMC Conference Pastor (Fort Garry, Man.)

I’m concerned with the process. It needs to be healthy, not divisive or insulting to those we disagree with.

First of all—I am too. The health of the process depends on how we all individually and collectively approach it. We will receive the best outcome when all of us actively participate. I believe that the goal behind the process is to try to not only hear the words spoken and written, but to ensure that all of us feel heard, understood and above all valued and respected.

In order to realistically consider a “two-viewed system” we must approach the process in the way that Colossians 3:12-15 outlines: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful” (NLT).

I earnestly hope and pray to see our conference unified and working together in the peace that can only come from our love of Christ—above our differences.

– Emily Wiebe,
Pastor’s wife and lab tech (New Life Christian Fellowship, Stevenson, Ont.)

What Now?

The pastoral leadership of our churches is now going to be studying this question for the next while. We will be reading and sifting two different perspectives on this. We want to know the answer to two basic questions: first, what is the Bible’s message on this question? Second, while we debate that question, what kind of clarity and unity do we need in order to keep on making disciples together? Our pastoral leadership will be directly responsible for this study, but all of us are welcome to get involved. Read widely, speak with your leaders, follow the EMC discussion and constantly remind each other to stay focused on making Christ’s main concern our main concern.

Some of us have fears, some of us have concerns, but let’s be honest: the true happiness and well-being of the church in the midst of dilemmas like this finally rest on Christ’s parting promise, not our success is solving vexing disagreements. Pray for us all. Pray that we will see into Scripture to a depth that we have never seen before.

Pray that we will love and forgive each other in ways that go beyond our human ability. Pray that we will together come to clarity about how we are to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them.

– Layton Friesen

Darren Plett and Erica Fehr are Co-Chairs of the Inspiring Partnership in Ministry Task Force.

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