I’m often asked, “Why does the church need all-female spaces? Why not just have all ministry directed at both genders?” Sometimes what drives the question is a distaste for the stereotypical kinds of gatherings that can fall under the label of “women’s ministry.” Sometimes it’s just an inability to see any need for them.
Most of us know from personal experience that discussions are different when both genders are present. Studies show that when men and women gather for discussion, they contribute not only at different levels but in different ways. Sociolinguist Janet Holmes, for example, found that in classroom settings in particular, men dominate discussion time, a pattern that begins in grade school. Furthermore, Holmes has written: “Men’s talk tends to be more referential or informative, while women’s talk is more supportive and facilitative.”
Other research supports the idea that women sometimes stay silent in mixed-gender environments because they fear how their input will be received or perceived. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton School professor Adam Grant highlighted this phenomenon in a New York Times op-ed, noting the tendency of men to interrupt women when they speak in meetings. “Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive,” they wrote.
Now translate these findings into mixed-gender spaces in a conservative church environment, where a quiet and gentle female spirit is prized (albeit narrowly defined), and the dilemmas for women are obvious. By contrast, all-female spaces enable women to speak freely and to dialogue without fear of interruption or misperception. By freeing women up to contribute, these spaces enhance women’s opportunities to learn, share, and lead in the church.
Female students enjoy greater freedom to contribute in all-female environments without fear of judgment or interruption, but female teachers also enjoy greater freedom to teach. A female Bible teacher can explore themes that may be passed over or avoided by male teachers. A pastor once asked me how to talk about pain in childbearing (Gen. 3:16) when not all women experience motherhood. I pointed out that all women, whether they ever become mothers, understand the pain and blood associated with lifegiving because of their monthly menstrual cycle. He laughed and said he didn’t think he could tackle that from the pulpit. Perhaps he could have, but I don’t blame him for not wanting to. Women often receive teaching on certain Bible topics more easily from other women: infertility, polygamy, prostitution, adultery, abuse, and rape, to name just a handful. And women can teach these subjects with natural empathy for how they will be received by a female audience.
Women are more likely to share about personal issues in all-female spaces, which are often the first places a woman musters the courage to tell her hard story. In particular, women in abusive relationships will more likely disclose abuse to other women than to men or to a mixed group. Because of this, it is vital that women leaders be identified, equipped, and positioned to get women in crisis the help they need.
Because all-female spaces free up women to contribute, they remain a primary venue (and too often the only venue) for the identification and cultivation of female leaders in the church. When uneasiness exists in the church around male leaders interacting with female leaders, the organic leader-to-mentor relationships common in all-female spaces become critical. My own leadership gifts were first identified by a leader in a women’s Bible study when I was in my late 20s. It was not until some years later that male leaders saw and valued what I might contribute to the church outside women’s ministry. Pastors are increasingly focusing on identifying and training up female leaders, but all-female spaces will continue to serve as important on-ramps.
We need both mixed- and single-gender spaces for both men and women. But all-female spaces nurture women in particular in ways that mixed spaces don’t. Without them, churches risk amplifying the voices of one gender over the other. By giving women space, churches help ensure that their voices are heard and their contributions are valued. The benefits of such contributions aren’t reaped by women alone, of course, but by the entire body of Christ, as the work and blessing of ministry are shared across the full spectrum of those whom God has gifted and called.
Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher with a passion to see women become committed followers of Christ. She is the author of None Like Him.
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