In Between Two Worlds, John Stott charges preachers to address controversial topics: “Christian people are crying out for guidance...Shall we abandon them to swim in these deep waters alone? This is the way of the coward.”
If the recent GC2 Summit Responding to Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Violence said anything, it was this: Church, we will no longer walk in the way of the coward. We will not abandon our people to navigate these waters alone.
Still, the church’s question in this season of lament is the same one the prophet Jeremiah asked of God in his: How?
How, God, can we right these wrongs? How can we do better?
As a woman in church leadership and a survivor of sexual assault, I’d like to suggest six next steps for ministry leaders who desire to humbly engage with these questions. These are by no means comprehensive—others will have crucial expertise and wisdom to offer.
Nonetheless, may these steps encourage us all as we seek to answer our hows.
1 – Learn from women—purposefully.
After hearing complaints about their male-dominated structures and strategies, the elders at Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City spent time meeting with groups of female church members, asking questions like: What has been hurtful? Where have we overlooked you? What do you long for?
Sarah Davidson, one of the women involved, described the experience as safe and powerful: “The elders didn’t counsel or coddle. They humbly listened, affirmed, and apologized.”
As a result, the church strategically hired more female staff, launched a women’s ministry, changed female titles from “directors” to “ministers,” and invited women to lead on stage.
To Leaders: with a posture of humility and repentance, spend 2019 listening to and learning from women. Ask them what is it like to bewomen in your ministry, and make meaningful changes.
Furthermore, evaluate your own formation. Are there diverse female leaders, theologians, and authors informing your spiritual life? If not, you are neglecting profound personal training. And let’s be honest—you are missing out on some of the best writing and thinking out there.
2 – Denounce sexual crime and sexism from the pulpit.
In the aforementioned book, Stott also wrote, “The neutrality of the pulpit is impossible.“
Leaders, be brave and loud. Denounce sexual violence and misogyny. Speak against the evils of sexual crime and sexism, unrelentingly. Preach boldly against macro and micro-aggressions. Condemn touching without consent, flippant jokes, and sexist language.
Follow Jeremiah’s example and speak up on behalf of those who suffer. Lament publicly for the victims of sexual assault. Lament communally for the global oppression and victimization of women and children.
Be forthright from the pulpit.
3 – Take a sober-minded look at the visible and invisible power structures in your organization.
Can we just show our cards for a second? The evangelical church needs to have a come-to-Jesus-moment about who is at our leadership tables, our schools, our conference stages, about our pay structures, about the titles we give women, and about the genders that make up each role on our teams.
Let’s look candidly at our leadership configurations and balance what is currently unbalanced. In fact, may we all be humble enough to invite trusted leaders from outside our organizations to confront any biased systems.
Continue to encourage leadership engagement between men and women. Skilled leaders should be able to put healthy accountability measures in place so that men and women can meet one-on-one and work together freely. When our policies leave women out of leadership conversations, decisions, and opportunities, we perpetuate vicious cycles of sexism.
Lastly, let’s not be naïve. There are principalities and powers at work trying to destroy the reconciling work of the gospel. May we never allow unchallenged, oppressive, evil power structures to thrive.
Friends, let’s open our eyes and fight the good fight of faith.
4 – Include women in every sphere of leadership.
Leaders (and I am typing this as fervently as one can possibly type on a laptop), if you are not equipping, empowering, and celebrating women and their gifts, you are not simply ignoring half your ministry; you are mismanaging the whole.
Today is the day to invite qualified women into every arena of leadership—including eldership and preaching. When you do this, you prophetically declare a redemptive biblical hermeneutic, a clearer picture of the nature of God, and the imago Dei of both women and men.
Now, a word for those whose biblical hermeneutic does not permit women to preach to men or serve as elders—there are faithful ways you can make strides for women without compromising your theological convictions.
Here are just a few ideas:
- Invite qualified women to lead trainings for your elders
- Ask women to participate meaningfully in your elder meetings
- Invite women to preach under the authority of your elders
- Invite women onstage during your sermon to exposit part of that morning’s text
- Include women on a sermon feedback team
- Include women in all equipping events
All of us, yes, all of us, can do better at taking intentional steps that honor and serve women.
5 – Put best practices and protective policies in place—immediately.
Develop fastidious, law-abiding policies that protect women and children. Send clear, responsive messages that sexual abuse/crime will not be tolerated. Involve police, attorneys, and protective services. Remind your staff (especially those that work with children and adolescents) that they are protectors of God’s flock.
6 – Create a culture of safe disclosure.
Establish spaces of compassionate listening and healing. Offer support groups, meetings with licensed therapists, and safe story-telling circles. If you are a survivor, consider sharing your own story. And of course, when anyone discloses abuse to you, do not silence or shame them. Protect them by acting on the disclosure.
Leaders, as we swim these waters and continue to ask our hows, may we all lead with humility, wholeness, integrity, and love—for God’s glory, for the advancement of the gospel, and for the sake of the beloved bride of Christ.
Aubrey Sampson is the author of The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament (NavPress, 2019) and Overcomer: Breaking Down the Walls of Shame and Rebuilding Your Soul (Zondervan, 2015). Aubrey and her husband Kevin are church planters in the Chicago area, where she serves on the preaching team and as the pastor of equipping and discipleship. Aubrey is a Wheaton College graduate student and a regular contributor to Propel Women.