Patsy Clairmont walks on stage with a long string of rubber bands. Holding the elastic array at arm's length, she cries out, "Warning, warning, hormonal woman ahead.
"Often, my emotions cause me to have stretch marks," explains Clairmont, the bestselling author of God Uses Cracked Pots (Focus on the Family, 1991). "They pull me this way and that way." The audience of 5,000 laughing women roars in approval.
It's the women's turn. In scenes reminiscent of the Promise Keepers (PK) men's movement, women are coming together across the United States. Last year, about 197,000 women attended 15 conferences organized by Women of Faith. This year, Women of Faith's leadership is projecting double that total for 29 conferences under the theme Bring Back the Joy.
Other groups have taken advantage of the surging attendance at women's conferences. Aspiring Women, Focus on the Family (Renewing the Heart), and Time Out have scheduled events for women throughout 1998. In all, about 600,000 women are expected to attend these gatherings in 1998, compared to the 683,000 men who attended PK stadium events in 1997 (not counting Stand in the Gap, PK's October gathering on the Mall in Washington, D.C.). Typically, the women's events start on Friday and run all day Saturday, with admission fees ranging from $25 to $60.
Although they were inspired by Promise Keepers, these women's conferences have different goals and a different ethos. For PK, men are encouraged to "stand in the gap" with God for the benefit of home, country, and church. They do this by pledging to keep seven promises that apply biblical principles of righteousness, especially with regard to their commitments to their wives and children.
In contrast, a primary goal of many of the women's conferences is to give women a time out from their harried schedules and to extend comfort and companionship. Clairmont, who for years agonized over agoraphobia, a chronic fear of public spaces, says, "I think the main struggle of women today is loneliness." She says contemporary life's frenzied pace presents women with emotional challenges that few have faced before. "I use rubber bands to show how women's emotions work. I've learned not to mind an emotional day."
FILLING A NICHE: The burgeoning women's conferences are taking place in the context of millions of PK-influenced husbands and fathers taking a greater interest in home life.
Women of Faith and Aspiring Women, two of the largest conference series, were started by men inspired by PK weekends, which are a combination of revival meeting and spiritual pep rally.
Mike Hyatt, founding partner of Aspiring Women conferences, attended a PK meeting in 1993. "I went to a PK meeting and thought, Why isn't there something like this for women?" says Hyatt, a Christian publishing veteran, currently associate publisher of Thomas Nelson in Nashville. New Life Clinics cofounder Stephen Arterburn says of the Women of Faith conferences, "I really believe that the idea was a gift from God." Initially, Arterburn met with Lisa Harper, director of Renewing the Heart conferences, to learn how they organized their meetings.
Arterburn says, "The clinics always did conferences dealing with problems, and the response was underwhelming." He says they revised the conference focus "to see how many more people we could reach by celebrating what is good about life." Women of Faith recruited top female Christian speakers and musicians. They put a spotlight on encouragement, sharing sorrows and joys from their own lives. The changes struck a chord. In 1996, 38,000 flocked to its Joyful Journey conferences, and in 1997, 197,000 women attended.
Unlike PK, the women's conferences rarely focus on confession, repentance, and recommitment. "I felt women had had enough guilt and needed more encouragement," says Aspiring Women's Hyatt. "Women tend to be hyper-responsible in our society and culture. The message needs to be different for women." From Hyatt's perspective, the principal needs of women include overcoming a poor self-image, coping with marital problems, and guidance in financial matters.
Aspiring Women and Women of Faith, both for-profit organizations, have partnered with some of the evangelical movement's largest organizations.
At the conferences, products and services are available through display booths. Hyatt is up-front about whom Aspiring Women is trying to reach, saying, "We're going after the type of person [who] goes into a Christian bookstore." At Women of Faith events, New Life and their Remuda clinics (which specialize in eating disorders) are on hand to provide information about their counseling services. Much of the merchandise available at a local Christian bookstore is on hand, including women's study Bibles, apparel, and magazines (including CT's sister publication TODAY'S CHRISTIAN WOMAN, which has a marketing agreement with Women of Faith). And many of the speakers hold book signings.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS: Despite the influence of Promise Keepers, the focus of these women's conferences has much in common with secular self-improvement and motivational seminars: Disorders are the order of the day, and victimhood almost always precedes victory. Most speakers describe the defining moment in their own lives as an experience of intense adversity testing their Christian faith.
The life story of Sheila Walsh, a Women of Faith speaker, is one example. In the early 1990s, Walsh, then cohost of Pat Robertson's 700 Club, was one of the country's most familiar and beloved Christian celebrities. But in 1992 she stepped down from the program and later received inpatient treatment at a psychiatric hospital. Since then, she has been divorced, remarried, and now has a one-year-old child. Walsh, author of Honestly, says of her spiritual journey, "I felt that I buried my face in the mane of the Lion of Judah."
Walsh says the Women of Faith movement is "like a community of broken people." She adds, "The purpose of opening a wound is for healing, but you need to open a wound first. It's only through facing what's true that people can be healed." Since her recovery, Walsh has found herself in demand as a conference speaker.
"A lot of the Joyful Journey experience reminds me of the story of The Wizard of Oz," says Walsh. "The lion found courage, but he couldn't have done so by himself, not one of them could have. It was because they went together that they could do it."
Another major ingredient in the new movement asks women to move beyond overcoming past adversity to grasping future opportunity. Thelma Wells, author of Bumblebees Fly Anyway (Kendall-Hunt, 1997), tells of her struggles with racism, physical assaults, and emotional abuse. Wells, an African American, says she wears a bumblebee brooch on her shoulder as a constant reminder that the bumblebee flies in spite of its shape. She says Christian women should "defy the odds" just as bumblebees do. Wells develops several themes in her messages, including "the power of choice" and "in Christ you can be the best you can be."
Also, Wells points women toward Scripture. She recalls an e-mail message from a woman who complained of verbal abuse by her pastor. The woman found the strength to confront the minister in part because of her study of Psalm 27.
Despite much emphasis on women's problems, conference leaders use humor to lighten the mood of the meetings. Speeches are peppered with references to mammograms and estrogen pills. Barbara Johnson, who has sold more than 2 million books, says she offers comments "about dieting, middle age, motherhood, husbands, wrinkles, love—all those hot spots in a woman's life that would kill us if we let them get us down."
Laughter and joy are the main courses in a menu spiced with what Eastern College scholar Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen calls "gynecological humor." "I suspect they're trying to send a message to men: Girls just want to have fun," says Van Leeuwen.
Women come away from conferences feeling replenished and hopeful. Walsh found a note on her seat at a San Antonio conference from a woman whose husband has been abusive, saying, "Thank you for the hope I got last night."
The conferences also are designed to envelop the women attendees with a sense of intimacy and community. "When they see 20,000 other women, they realize emotionally that they are not alone," Renewing the Heart's Harper says.
One byproduct of the conferences has been a renewed interest in mentoring programs for women (See "Mentoring and Modeling Great Aspirations," bottom). "We have an eight-week training course for mentors, and I can hardly keep mentors trained to meet the need," says Patti Pierce, president of Women at the Well of Menlo Park, California. "There's not a lot of nurturing in relationships anymore. We have to create them."
THE DEATH OF SISTERHOOD: As American social structures have changed, women have found themselves without the traditional networks for nurture and support that had been available to women of past generations.
Pat Clary, president and founder of Pasadena, California-based Women's Ministries Institute, which has developed women's studies programs for Christian schools, says today's Christian women experience more isolation and loneliness. "They're removed from their family," Clary says. "They can't get to know their neighbors. It's difficult to establish relationships if they're in a fast-paced lifestyle." Harper says, "It's not like 50 years ago when they could go and chat with a neighbor over a cup of coffee. Not connecting is an urgent issue for them."
A woman's place at home, at work, or at church continues to evolve. As women juggle their roles of mother, wife, and employee, more are confused and disoriented. In 1993, researcher Miriam Neff surveyed 1,000 evangelical women and found that fewer than four in ten full-time working women with children felt affirmed by their pastor or by church members for their decision to work.
"The church is meeting the needs of women in more traditional roles," says Women at the Well's Pierce. "Women who are trying to balance marriage, family, and work have very little time to go to the traditional program in the church."
Christian women in the work force today do not have as much time to attend church as their counterparts a generation or two ago. Some congregations now have evening Bible studies for women and have adjusted. But weekend gatherings such as the Joyful Journey conferences provide a welcome break from everyday chores, combined with spiritual nourishment.
AVOIDING AGENDAS? Few issues are as hotly debated by evangelicals as the issue of wifely submission to husbands and its implications for women in leadership positions. However, the Joyful Journey and Aspiring Women conferences do not take an explicit stand on whether the Bible prohibits women in church leadership.
Women of Faith's Arterburn says, "We don't have a political or spiritual agenda. Women who come respond to the truth presented with grace. As a result, women are more motivated to grow in their relationship with the Lord."
Researcher Neff says, "Women are in very different places on these issues. If they talked more about these issues they would attract a lot of criticism, and there wouldn't be as big a group gathering." Yet, Concerned Women for America (CWA), the nation's largest women's organization, which frequently takes stands on public-policy issues, remains supportive of the women's conferences. "It appears that these conferences are endorsing traditional family values, and CWA applauds their efforts," says Carmen Pate, president of the organization.
However, Christians for Biblical Equality founder Catherine Kroeger believes that women's conferences should do more. "Domestic violence is the premier health problem for women," Kroeger says. "I'm concerned that when we have a humongous problem in our midst, we are denying it." For Ruth Haley Barton, author of Equal to the Task: Men and Women in Partnership (InterVarsity Press, 1998), greater attention should be placed on practical concerns, such as developing better communication skills. "There are whole new sets of skills and disciplines that we need to work with," she says. "Men and women have different communication styles. How might we transform our world if men and women deeply honored each other as equal reflections of God's image?"
WHERE'S THE ACTIVISM? The new women's movement stands in contrast to historic women's movements. Christian women led the way in fighting slavery and championing temperance and women's suffrage. "Any big movement of people can have social and political effects, whether intended or not," says Miriam Adeney, a professor at Seattle Pacific University and at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. "I wonder, however, if these conferences are really facing the hard issues of corporate community life," she says. "Is there anything comparable to the realism of Christian women that spawned the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) a century and a half ago?"
The WCTU, led by Frances Willard, had 2 million members worldwide a century ago. Willard made a decision to focus on political means, such as women's right to vote, in order to achieve anti-alcohol goals. She persuaded many Christian women to support women's suffrage as a "weapon of protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink." WCTU also helped start kindergartens, enact child labor laws, and establish the first daycare centers for the children of working women in the 1870s.
In the fight against slavery, Christian women formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. They made worship services with hymns and prayers an important feature of their work. Members spoke to more than 40,000 people.
Researchers are studying the shift in political and social activism among evangelical women during the past 100 years. Historian Margaret Bendroth, director of the Women and Twentieth Century Protestantism project financed by Pew Charitable Trusts, says that because there are "more options open to women today," few of them may "want to run a missionary society." The women's conferences could potentially be harnessed for tremendous social change. The litany for the opening ceremony of the World Conference of Women in 1895 challenged Christian women to honor their forerunners. "For the women who have gone before us … for their vision of the wrong of all distinction because of color, creed, or sex, their righteous anger against all oppression of the weak and exploitation of the helpless. … We praise thee, O God."
LASTING IMPACT: What will be the lasting impact of these women's conferences? Some leaders believe the women's conferences could have an enduring role not only in meeting specific needs of women, but also in energizing and equipping women for ministry.
Last year, Karen Paparelli, a wife and mother of three young children, attended a women's conference, which she calls "the catalyst that set me sailing." Within weeks of the conference, she says, "God pulled me out of the church and put me into the world." She organized the local March for Jesus event and has been writing a newspaper column from a Christian perspective.
"Women's ministries can really be dynamic for evangelizing and nurturing younger women," says H. B. London, vice president of pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family. "It has the potential of being a great area of evangelism for the local church."
Campus Crusade for Christ, through its organization Women Today International, is equipping women who attend the Women of Faith conferences to evangelize their neighborhoods.
After the conference, a Women Today International staff member is linked with a women's ministry leader to help her train women in evangelism. Time Out conferences are in the process of creating a four-week curriculum for churches to use in discipling women who make a first-time commitment to the Lord at their conferences. Of the new women's conferences, only Time Out has plans to offer leadership training to Christian women.
Perhaps the greatest potential of the conferences will be in encouraging and strengthening women in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Debbie Nixon of San Diego learned she had breast cancer just before she went to a women's gathering in Anaheim, California, last September. The conference, Nixon says, "reminded me of God and that I wasn't alone going through this. That was what I needed to hear."
Mentoring and Modeling
Great Aspirations"You older women of Christ, there is a generation of women out there longing to walk beside you," Southern Baptist author and speaker Esther Burroughs said at the inaugural Aspiring Women conference in February. "Mentoring is not about cloning, but about helping women become like Jesus."
Burroughs, 61, defines mentoring as "sharing the seeds of God's impact in your life journey" with younger women.
Women mentoring one another is becoming a significant ministry goal among the leaders of the women's spiritual-development conferences.
In February, about 2,000 women gathered at Calvary Church in Dallas for the first Aspiring Women conference. Organizers billed the conference as "an opportunity for you and your friends to get away from the demands of home, family, and work to a place where you can sit at the feet of Jesus."
Burroughs and others are concerned about the separation of families and the lack of contact between generations. "We no longer have the luxury of being raised by an extended family," Burroughs writes in A Garden Path to Mentoring: Planting Your Life in Another and Releasing the Fragrance of Christ (New Hope, 1997).
Burroughs told CT she believes that "the Lord is looking for women to get out of the church" and into the world for ministry. She hopes to encourage women to "become all that God wants them to be."
Generation X is looking for "an authentic, live, show-me, love-me, walk-with-me, and guide-me person," according to Burroughs. Some women in their twenties who visit church have no clue where or how to buy a Bible. But they want to know because they see peers underlining or highlighting words of Scripture.
"The women of the nineties are saying, we want mentors," says Aspire magazine editor Jeanette Thomason. "I think this partly explains the rise of the [women's] conferences. Women are seeking relationships with other women to find their own way as Christians."
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