Ministries Among Today’s Women
By Naomi Gaede-Penner
Like other aspects of church life, ministries among women have become more diverse in recent years. What’s working? What are the obstacles? In this three-part special section, LEADERSHIP offers an overview of ministry options, focuses on one continuing challenge, and presents the story of one church that has revitalized its women’s ministry.
I thought planning women’s programs would be easier,” sighs the leader of women’s ministries as she sits down in the pastor’s office.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asks.
“Well, the women in our church are so different. There’s Barb, who runs her own company. We designed an evening Bible study for her and some others, but since she is away from her family all day, she’d be more interested in attending a couples’ Bible study with her husband.
“Then there is Mary, who is home with children all day, every day. She wants to get together with other mothers anytime, anywhere, as long as she can get a break from her kids.
“Beth has a part-time, home-based business and doesn’t know if she fits better with the career women’s breakfast or the mothers of preschoolers.
“Nancy is a single mother who works full-time, and childcare is always a concern. Plus, she doesn’t feel comfortable with any group in the church.
“Ellen is retired but works as a volunteer tutor – when she isn’t taking care of her mother. So she doesn’t have time to invest in a weekly program.”
“And don’t forget,” adds the pastor, “our single women can hardly be lumped together: Lois is a widow; Betty is 40 and never married; Christy is 22
“Our church isn’t large enough to have separate ministries for each of these women,” concludes the women’s leader. “So, how do we minister to them all?”
Given the opportunities, choices, and stresses of today’s woman, it’s no wonder churches have begun to approach women’s ministries creatively.
Tracking The Trends
A look at current social trends bears out the experience, of churches: today’s women are complex.
Studying these trends also provides information that can help churches design effective women’s ministries.
Consider just two trends that affect most church ministries:
1 Women working outside the home. In Megatrends 2000, John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene observe that “for the past two decades, U.S. women have taken two-thirds of the millions of new jobs created in the information era and will continue to do so well into the [next] millennium.” This work force includes approximately 56 percent of mothers with children under the age of 6, and 73 percent of mothers with children ages 6 to 17. By the year 2000, some predict that 90 percent of women between ages 16 and 65 will be working outside the home.
“A highly visible consequence for the church,” states Lyle E. Schaller in It’s a Different World, “is the shortage of volunteers in those churches that have traditionally depended on homemakers to fill volunteer roles and the decline in participation by younger women in the women’s organizations.”
Pat Wilson, director of adult ministries at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Englewood, Colorado, has felt the impact of this change. “Last year we had 450 women attend the annual mother-daughter tea. This year, we could find only two volunteers to plan it, so we had to cancel it.”
Because women working outside the home have less time to participate, they often opt to attend events that include family members rather than participate in activities strictly for women.
2 Women’s quest for content and spirituality. Sherry Stahly, coordinator of women’s ministries for the Rocky Mountain Conservative Baptist Association, dev3eloped a Needs Assessment Survey to identify churched women’s concerns. Initial results show an increased interest in spirituality. She comments, “The survey assesses needs in areas such as self-esteem, emotions, parenting skills, and relation-ships. The responses we’ve collected thus far show the greatest interest lies in personal spiritual growth.”
Pat Wilson verifies this: “I’m finding that whether the woman works outside or inside the home, she wants something challenging to ponder. She doesn’t want something ‘just for fun’ or entertainment; she wants programs that offer something meaningful.”
What Is Working?
What are we to do with these challenges and changes? Some churches continue with traditional sewing circles and bake sales, while others experiment, offering ministries such as video-style Bible studies in the marketplace. Some churches try a general-interest approach, inviting all women to quarterly Saturday brunches. Others slice the pie more thinly and attempt to promote programs and activities for specific women in a variety of situations.
A number of strategies transcending differences in church size, available resources, or types of women are working.
Remember your mothers. Women’s ministry leaders are nearly unanimous: mothers’ groups work. Some ministries target mothers of teens, employing a variety of formats in doing so. “Ours is mostly a support group,” says one leader. “We don’t have speakers, since our purpose is primarily relational. So far, we find it to be effective.”
Another says, “The mother of a teenager has very little discretionary time since she is often working outside the home or going to school or volunteering in ministry. Ministries for this stage of a woman’s life must have a strong purpose.”
“I need prayer for my kids and support for my-self,” said still another.
Mothers of Preschoolers (Mons), another ministry to mothers, intends “to provide a Christ-centered, caring ministry for mothers of preschoolers that develops friendships, creativity, and personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” When asked about the success of this international ministry, executive director Elisa Morgan says, “It works. It’s an outreach ministry that is practical and need oriented. We’ve identified ten needs of preschool mothers and created a program to match.”
In a typical bimonthly morning meeting, women socialize over coffee, complete a craft, hear a speaker, and meet in discussion groups. In addition, mops ministers to the children, not merely babysitting the preschoolers, but offering a Bible lesson as well.
Moms in Touch, a nationwide organization connected with Campus Crusade for Christ, offers an-other model of ministry to mothers. Their emphasis is spiritual: the weekly format includes ten minutes of prayer requests for children, followed by forty-five minutes of prayer.
“This is an intergenerational women’s group,” says Veanessa Bondar, who organized a group nearly two years ago at Centennial Community Church in Littleton, Colorado. “We have mothers of all ages, some praying for their adult children and others for their grandchildren.” Each week, during the school year, the mothers meet, using a different Bible verse to guide their prayers. Some weeks they might pray for their children’s early salvation, other weeks that they might grow in wisdom.
Offer meat-and-potatoes spirituality. Leaders of women’s ministries continue to see Bible studies flourishing. “Although Bible studies build relation-ships and provide opportunities for caring, that’s not the only reason they work,” says Janie Miller, a women’s ministry leader. “Women want content and application, and a Bible study accomplishes both purposes.”
Another lay leader tells about the dual focus of their Bible studies: “Our women’s Bible study is a winner because, among other reasons, we offer con-currently a Bible lesson for the preschool children. The women can do something for themselves without feeling guilty about leaving their children.”
A multi-track structure also works. “Our Women’s Break-Away Bible Studies meet many needs,” says Lee McDowell, women’s ministry director at Mission Hills Baptist Church in Littleton, Colorado. On Thursday mornings they gather for worship and devotion, but then women can choose to attend any of the four elective Bible studies.
Topical studies can also be effective. One church tried to reach working women by offering, during a weeknight, a four-week seminar on “The Christian Woman and Her Finances.” Since more than half the women attending worked outside the home, they considered the program a success.
Integrate. “Although many tend to think of women’s ministries as activities only for women, we’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm about our groups designed for both men and women, and partly because they meet women’s needs,” says Pat Wilson. “Our koinonia groups include men and women, singles, retired persons, homemakers, and women working outside the home.” These groups of twelve to seventeen people mix Bible study and fellowship.
“In fact,” Pat adds, “we have a number of divorced women who find they fit best in these groups. Having come from troubled marriages, they like being with healthy families.”
An integrated group works at another church where nearly all the adult Sunday school classes are organized according to stages of marriage or family. “Our class is the exception,” says one participant. “We bill it as ‘The Challengers.’ It’s a collect-all for people who don’t seem to fit the other categories. This is where the women come whose husbands don’t attend church. They’re joined by single and divorced women, along with some married couples.”
Help women evangelize women. Whether church women are at home or in the marketplace, many are extending their hands to unchurched women. It is not uncommon to find that in ministries to mothers of preschoolers, one-third of the women who attend are unchurched.
“This ministry to mothers becomes a natural way to get women through the church doors. It meets their needs, and I feel comfortable inviting my neighbor,” says one young mother.
Women’s sports is another evangelistic ministry. “It’s not threatening to invite my non-Christian friend to join our women’s softball team,” says another woman. “Besides, softball is fun, although it’s not the usual way I think about evangelism.”
Another church uses its annual women’s Christmas Candlelight Dinner to help women reach other women. The dinner is held off the church site, at the community college, for instance. A beautifully deco-rated room creates a festive spirit for a carefully planned program that includes music, an evangelistic speaker, and a presentation on local missions.
Last year, a leader from an inner-city women’s ministry spoke, and the participants were extended an opportunity to contribute to the inner-city pro-gram. One corner of the room contained handicrafts made by women in the church. The craftswomen kept 90 percent of the sales price, and the remaining 10 percent went toward underwriting the evening.
“We’ve done this for six years, and last year our tickets were sold out the first Sunday they were offered,” says the women’s ministry leader. “Not only is this a success with our church’s women, but about one-third of the women attending are guests, who learn about our women’s ministry.”
The women’s ministries of Galilee Baptist Church in Denver have extended into the marketplace. Every week, in four downtown offices, women gather with brown-bag lunches to view a thirty-minute video that addresses from a biblical perspective, such needs as self-esteem, friendship, and stress. (See accompanying article.)
The leaders, who come from different churches and denominations, are trained at Galilee to conduct a discussion following the viewing.
“After one year,” Denise Farrar comments, “one hundred different women have attended, about 50 percent of whom are non-Christian.”
Options For Smaller Churches
Church size obviously affects what a church can realistically accomplish. While a larger church may have more money and volunteers, the diversity of women and their consequent needs may be greater.
“There are more places for women to get lost or hide in a large church,” says a woman from a smaller church. “Our church may be smaller, but the women are more homogeneous, and we know their individual needs.”
A couple of strategies have been used effectively in small-church women’s ministry:
Specialize. “In a small church, we don’t want to try to hit all needs and reach none well,” says one director of women’s ministries. To avoid that, churches often select one or two specific groups – mothers of preschoolers, women working outside the home, women in a retirement center – and target their outreach to them.
Cross generational lines. “In many small churches, the dynamics of congregational life naturally tend to bring people together in repeated face-to-face contacts across generational lines,” says Lyle Schaller.
Clint Seibel, pastor of Belleview Acres Mennonite Brethren Church in Littleton, Colorado, supports Schaller’s observation: “In our small church, people can be run to death by participating in too many church programs.” Women’s activities can easily be seen as just one more program that takes time out of a busy schedule. “So we try to meet needs in the Friendship Groups,” Seibel continues, “which are small, intergenerational groups that include a mix of young and old families, singles, men, and women.”
Diane, a young working mother in the congregation, agrees, but qualifies her agreement by affirming the need for programs that help bond the church women: “Our Secret Sisters pulls women together – the older with the younger, those working inside and those working outside the home. At the beginning of each year, each woman draws the name of another women. Once a month she anonymously sends a card, gives a baked item or small gift, and prays for her secret sister.”
Through this program, the women become increasingly close to one another, while having many of their other needs met through the integrated Friendship Groups.
Having the willingness to try something, giving it enough time to gain momentum, and then evaluating its strengths and weaknesses may be keys to making women’s ministries work. “We just haven’t given up,” says one ministry leader.
In one way or another, women’s ministries find they must work to keep up with the American woman, who is no longer found in one place. Among the cacophony of change and challenge, however, bright sparks of enthusiasm and quiet inner growth are found as churches find creative ways to minister to women.
This article “Ministries Among Today’s Women” written by Naomi Gaede-Penner is excerpted from Leadership the 1991 winter quarter edition.