Encouraging women in ministry

When I asked one of my female colleagues the question, “How do I encourage you in ministry?” her answer was: “By being normal”.

So as I think about how we can encourage women in ministry, the theme is “trying to be normal”. I want to consider how we can be ‘normal’ in our ministry teams, our Sunday services, our disciple-making and in our relationships, and I will share a bit of what that’s looked like in our own church context. 

Of course, normality is always a relative thing, so what you read below may not be particularly revolutionary. But hopefully it will provide some fuel for your own thinking and practice as we all seek to partner together in the ministry of the gospel. 

Normal ministry teams 

If you look at the greetings and commendations in Romans 16 it is clear that for the pretty capable apostle Paul, normal ministry was defined in large part by the ongoing partnership of others. His warm commendation of Phoebe (v. 1), his co-workers Priscilla and Aquila (v.3), and Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis who work very hard in the Lord (v. 12), is itself an example of how our ministry teams (not just our staff teams) should, as a matter of normality, seek out, include, and rejoice in the influence and contribution of godly women. Obvious, right?

But in my context, one of the key female voices I need to hear and listen to and be influenced by is a student minister who is only around on Sundays, and generously a few other moments throughout the week. She is a wise and godly woman whose ministry to our church and input to our team is of enormous value. Her role is to have her finger on the pulse of women’s discipleship in our church, which is a huge area of ministry. So how can I hear her advice and listen to her experiences when her time on site is limited during the week?

Well, this year one key way we’re seeking to address that is by moving our discipleship strategy meeting to a Sunday afternoon. We want her to know that we really can’t have that meeting without her and so will change how we do these meetings to make sure she’s there. And it’s not just about communicating that we want her in the meeting. It’s about the rest of the team actually wanting to hear her input and advice. It’s about actually valuing her input and knowing that her wise and godly reflections and observations and ideas aren’t just fodder for our own ideas, but actually influence and change how we do things and see things.   

I think it’s important for me to be influenced by the women on my teams and for them to know that I love ideas that aren’t my own, and am more than happy to do things in ways that I wouldn’t naturally do them because I trust their wisdom and experience. And for that to happen, one key aspect of a normal ministry team is making sure the right people—with the right character and convictions—are on the team in the first place so that you know you can trust their wisdom and ideas. 

When one of my key growth group leaders came for lunch to chat about how we do things I wanted her to know that I wasn’t just listening but that I wanted to actually think together about how we could change our growth group practices to be more effective and fruitful; that I’m willing to change and do things differently. My hope is that these key women on our teams will know they’re free to share their wisdom and ideas, encouragements and criticisms, and that they will be more committed to the ministry because of our shared ownership and input. 

I don’t want the women on my teams to feel unseen and unheard. On the contrary, I want to see them and hear them and be influenced by them.  And when it comes to godly women being seen and heard, I want that to be true for our normal Sunday services as well.  

Normal Sunday services

Early on in my current church, I had a number of conversations with people who drew a sharp line between ‘normal’ Christians and ‘professional’ Christians—the ministry types. They had the idea that it wasn’t the job of the ‘normal’ Christians to read the Bible, attend groups and read Christian books—that was the job of the ‘professionals’. 

Because some of these people weren’t in a regular small group or significant discipling relationship, we needed to make our Sunday services a place where we saw and heard from ‘normal’ Christians (and not just the ‘professionals’) about a life of growth and service and a hunger for God’s word. 

So as well as the regular things of leading in music, the ‘all in’ spot, the Bible readings and prayers, we also seek to give space to hear from ‘normal’ Christians, and particularly Christian women, about what we call ‘Moments of Everyday Discipleship’. 

We tend to find people on the prayer roster and ask them to spend three or four minutes before they pray sharing a ‘Moment of Everyday Discipleship’ from their own life—for example, a way they’ve been encouraged recently, something they’ve read in the Bible, a podcast they’re finding refreshing, a new way they’re praying for their own godliness, what they’re one-to-ones looks like, a book they’ve read and been challenged by and so on. 

In a complementarian church where the preaching and most of the leading and input from the front comes from male leadership, I’ve found it a source of great encouragement for people to regularly hear from women about the joys and challenges of everyday discipleship and how God’s word is being brought to bear on their lives. It’s been one of the most warmly received things we’ve done. And I think because it is normal people sharing about normal life with normal ideas for encouraging everyday discipleship, the cash value for people is high. Women have personally shared with me how this simple four-minute slot in our service has helped them resuscitate their devotional life, or changed the way they pray, or made them dwell on God’s word throughout the day.  

This wasn’t something that came about exclusively as a way to hear from and encourage women in day-to-day ministry, but it has certainly been one of the great benefits of it. And so, I guess we want to keep asking how we can take our normal everyday ministry structures and make a small change that can have a big impact and significantly encourage everyone, but maybe especially women, in ministry and the life of Christian discipleship.

Normal disciple-making

One of my hopes for our ‘Moments of Everyday Discipleship’ is for it to model what it looks like for women to be growing and making disciples, and to encourage and normalise it. Our whole church hears on a semi-regular basis about the daily Bible reading and the devotional life of women, the Christian podcasts that make up the commuting soundtrack of women, the regular one-one discipling relationships that we’re actively encouraging across the generations, and the Christian books that are stretching and shaping godly women. 

Let me touch on those last two things in particular. We’re convinced of the value of, life-on-life discipleship between women across the generations (Titus 2:3-5) and so as a team we’re regularly putting on the matchmaker hat. A lot of our teenage and young adult women are at the evening service, while the young mums, workers and retirees are typically at the morning service. We don’t think this is ideal for the important cross-generational growth of disciples and so we’re constantly (with varied success) pointing to the examples we celebrate up front and encouraging other women to be meeting together to read the Bible and prayerfully bring the gospel to bear on their lives. 

One of the great recent encouragements where we’ve start to see the culture take hold is where an older (but still young adult) woman joined our youth ministry team and the first question she asked is “Who out of the other female leaders can I be meeting with to read the Bible one-on-one?” 

One ministry that I love and can take no credit for whatsoever is a theology reading group begun by two women in particular that has, because of their warm encouragement, attracted a group of women to read theology together. My encouragement in this case has simply been to give two enthusiastic thumbs up to the women involved as they invite others to come and read books like Packer’s Knowing God, Carl Trueman’s biography on Luther, and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s book on identity. And the gift of these two women in particular, who both have PhDs, is to create a group that is totally non-threatening to young Christians and totally accessible to those who haven’t read much in the way of Christian books. 

Normal relationships

Let me finish by coming back to that conversation with my female colleague about “being normal”—because for all the formal ministries and church culture change that seeks to encourage women in ministry, she has reminded me and encouraged me that the most significant encouragement for her is normal relationships. And this includes things like the real encouragement given and received in the midst of the really normal, the normal conversations about our weeks, the normal invitation to be part of our family dinners, remembering to ask about the thing that have been stressful, the follow up text to say thanks for small way I saw you serving on Sunday, the shared laugh at ourselves, the team dinner at a restaurant with no agenda but simply food on the table. 

What I don’t do enough, but what I want to do, is publicly recognise and give thanks for my female co-worker in the gospel—just like Paul does in Romans 16. So I will take this moment to give thanks to and for my colleague—she works very hard in the Lord, and her partnership in the gospel is invaluable!  

This article is adapted from a seminar given at the 2018 Priscilla and Aquila conference on encouraging women in a variety of ministries.