Straddling the Great Divide

Straddling the Great Divide
By Susan Yates

Anyone trying to minister to women today recognizes their increasing segmentation. A recent article in Newsweek, headlined “Mommy vs. Mommy,” stated, “The tension between mothers is building as they increasingly choose divergent paths: going to work, or staying home to care for their kids.”

Today, more women than ever are working full- or part-time. According to Time, 68 percent of women with children under 18 are in the work force, in contrast to 28 percent of women with children in 1960. In addition, more women are single parents. Time also states that more than half the poor families in the United States are headed by single women.

In short, life situations vary dramatically.

This fragmentation has been felt in the church, where it often erupts into disagreements over “family” issues: working outside the home versus staying home, home schools versus Christian schools versus public schools, and whether family-life education belongs in the schools.

The church, finding itself in the middle of this complicated situation, is faced with an incredible challenge: how to minister effectively to women with differing needs and sometimes opposing views. Is it possible for one church to have a balanced ministry to stay-at-home moms and working women, to home schoolers and PTA officers, to grandmothers and single parents? How does the church develop a workable, spiritually enriching ministry with such a diverse group?

As I’ve worked with women and observed other contemporary women’s ministries, I’ve noticed that a three-point philosophy of ministry undergirds churches that effectively meet the diverse needs of the women of the nineties.

Develop a clear parish purpose

To begin with, congregations that minister effectively to women define their church’s purpose succinctly.

For example, the stated purpose of Briarwood Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama, is “To reach Birmingham, to reach the world.” Their focus is threefold: evangelism, discipleship, and mission.

At Elmbrook Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the purpose statement simply says, “We exist to glorify God.”

Ten years ago, our church adopted this goal: “To make Christ King in our lives and in the lives of others.”

Not only is the overall purpose of such churches stated succinctly, it also contains specifics. For example, as a part of “making Christ King in our lives and in the lives of others,” our church wants every member to:

1. Have assurance of a genuine, joyous relationship with Jesus Christ, be filled with his Holy Spirit, and maintain the disciplines of daily personal Bible study, prayer, and regular weekly worship.

2. Experience warm family life, where Christ is the King and center of family relationships, whether that be in a nuclear family or among Christian brothers and sisters in the church.

3. Enjoy the friendship and support of a small group of Christian friends who meet regularly for sharing, study, and prayer.

4. Be able to express clearly reasons for being a Christian and the essentials of the Gospel, so that each may speak effectively for Christ.

5. Employ time, gifts, and resources for Christ’s service, with each person finding a specific area to minister in.

With a succinct and specific parish purpose, a women’s ministry can be successfully planned. When the purpose of women’s ministry coincides with the purpose of the entire church, the women’s ministry stands a much better chance of effectively reaching women over the long run.

In addition, a clear church purpose hands the women’s ministry leaders a specific goal. For us, each of the above goals is to be true for each woman – no matter what her life situation. We don’t have to argue the destination, although we do have to figure out which specific roads various women can take to get there.

Identify needs rather than push programs

September arrives, and churches gear up for the fall schedule. At the yearly planning meeting, several women gather in the church parlor to brainstorm.

“We could have a series on different religions and why Christianity is the real truth,” suggests one.

“What about a fashion show luncheon to raise money for our overseas missionaries?” chimes in another.

“No, I think a study on women of the Bible would be better,” adds a third.

Discussion continues with several other suggestions and a plea for someone to organize the events.

Sound familiar? Such discussions produce good ideas, but many produce frustration. Most do not produce a ministry with life-changing effects, because the planning focuses on good programs rather than the needs of people.

A Bible study on different religions may be worthwhile if women need to learn that Christ is indeed the way. But what if most of the women are new believers? For them, a study to ground them in the faith might be more appropriate.

So the next step in effective ministry is to study a list of parishioners and consider what particular needs they have. In our church, we think through different categories of women in our congregation according to levels of faith (nonbelievers, new believers, those discipling others) and seasons of life (young mothers, single parents, career women, widows). We list names under each.

Each church’s listings will be unique, but with a list before us, we can begin to assess needs.

Answering several questions helps determine needs, and because needs change, the questions need to be asked each year.

Which women compose the largest group in the church? Are they mainly young wives, single, elderly, or a combination of traits?

Where are they spiritually? Have most of these women made a commitment to Christ? Are they discipling others? Are they mostly seekers, or stale believers? What is the clearest spiritual need at present? An emphasis on evangelism? Training in personal Bible study? A vision for local outreach?

What other needs stand out? Do they know each other, or are they a segmented body? Are they quarreling? Is there a large group of single parents struggling alone?

What logistical challenges need to be faced? Do we have enough space for childcare? Do the majority of our women work full-time, thus ruling out daytime meetings?

At Briarwood Presbyterian, the largest concentration of women is between 30 and 40 years old. Most are mothers of young children, who don’t work outside the home full-time. The church quickly developed ministries for them.

Staff member Cathy Scheely, however, noticed that new women members between 40 and 50 years old didn’t have a group in which to be assimilated. Clearly they needed a small group.

Cathy contacted a friend in this age range who, in turn, developed an exciting fellowship called “Life in the Middle of an Emotional Sandwich.” It appeals especially to women whose children have left or are about to leave home.

Elmbrook Church discovered the majority of its women work at least part-time outside the home. To meet a wide range of needs and accommodate different schedules, the church has a Monday-night session geared to the working woman: “Life after Work.” Tuesday mornings, “Mom’s and More” draws primarily mothers of young children. On Thursday, “Morning Break,” a Bible study, attracts women with school-aged children.

Recently Laurie Katz, director of Elmbrook’s women’s ministries, observed that working women are more likely to commit to short-term programs. In response to conversations with working mothers, for example, she recently completed a four-week Sunday school class on priorities. It was short term, and it also appealed to these women because it left them evenings with their families.

Programs often spring up when women recognize a need and are encouraged to meet it. Trish Thomas and Pat Dresser, two divorced women in our parish, both have children and work at demanding, fulltime jobs. Nonetheless they wanted to reach out to divorced or widowed parents, and do so in the context of the church. With the encouragement of church leaders, they organized “Singles Now,” a weekly study that provides encouragement and friendship for single adults.

Maintain a sense of flexibility

Needs change, and effective ministries learn to flex. When my husband and I first came to The Falls Church, most members of our congregation were over the age of 50. There were few young families with children. Today we have approximately 225 children under the age of 5 in our parish. Our changing demographics has necessitated many program changes.

Flexibility means being willing to kill an ineffective program. (And that’s easier to do when, as above, needs determine our program, and people see that structures are dispensable.)

For many years our women’s group was called “The Women of Falls Church.” It was organized with a constitution and by-laws describing the officers, their jobs, and yearly functions. That form of ministry, however, became a burden and increasingly ineffective, to the point that no one wanted to run for president. The organization had outlived its usefulness. So we prayed and waited for God to lead in the development of a new ministry to women.

In time, women came forward with ideas for ministries to meet needs of specific groups of women. We set aside the old constitution and officer job descriptions and organized ourselves anew. Several times yearly the women hold a meeting to consider needs, and we encourage one another to take on ministries each finds interesting. For the past two years, we’ve had a thriving ministry reaching out to many different women.

This method is working well for us. Next year different needs may indicate a different structure is needed. If so, we’ll make the changes.

Just because structures and methods are replaceable doesn’t mean we’re insensitive to tradition. Indeed, our church is steeped in tradition: it was established in 1732, and George Washington served on an early building committee. But tradition should not undermine effective ministry.
Flexibility also means we encourage a diversity of programs, which stimulates people to get involved. One group of women may be called to minister to unwed inner-city women. Other women may feel more inclined to reach the wives of top-level executives.

One stay-at-home mother I know has a sewing group. One day each week, she invites neighborhood women to bring their sewing and gather around her kitchen table to visit while they sew. She has developed a quiet ministry among these women.

Another woman, who works on Capitol Hill, has begun a fellowship luncheon for other believers who work at Congress.

Yes, we can minister to all kinds of women – if we know our purpose, identify the needs, and remain flexible in meeting them.

This article “Straddling The Great Divide” by Susan Yates was excerpted from Leadership 1991 Winter Quarter