How I’ve tried to encourage women in ministry

In ministry, I’ve had opportunity to work alongside a number of women in the context of church staff teams—among others, two in particular: Pip Russell for 12 years at Christ Church St Ives, and now Deb Earnshaw at Naremburn Cammeray.

I want to talk here about how I’ve tried to encourage women in those kinds of ministry staff contexts; some of those specifics may not reflect your situation, but hopefully there’ll be some principles that are useful across the board.

Have the right attitude

The first, and biggest, thing I want to suggest is that encouraging women in ministry is attitudinal not merely practical or theological. That is, it’s not just learning a whole bunch of tips and tricks; nor is it just a matter of knowing what the Scriptures teach about men and women, the nature of the church as a body with many parts provided by God for the common good and the nature of various word ministries.

Theology is not enough in and of itself, if by theology we simply mean having the right answer on the page. In another article on the ACR, Jane Tooher highlighted that sometimes people say they’re doing complementarianism, when really they’re doing separatism—which is basically when we have single-sex ministries, where women’s ministry functions totally separately from ministry to and among men, rather than in partnership and without any creativity. Sadly, that is something that I I’ve observed often.

So one of the things I’ve tried to do is to cultivate in my heart a particular set of attitudes and affections to the women in ministry alongside whom I’ve worked. Think of how Paul talks about his co-workers—female and male—in Romans 16. It’s one of those places where Paul puts some flesh on the bones of his theology. Whatever we conclude about passages like 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 11 or 14, it has to include room for the Romans 16 kind of attitude.

So for example, let me show how I’ve tried to apply that in my relationships, especially with two of the key women I’ve worked alongside on staff teams, Pip and Deb. I ought to view these women as sisters in the Lord who:

  • as much as I have, have given their lives over to the ministry of the gospel
  • have set aside, as I have, several years for serious theological study as well as gone through many years of practical ministry experience in order to prepare themselves
  • have been observed publicly for many years, just as I have been, to assess their godliness and theological maturity
  • are called to persevere, just as I am, through suffering and setback and pastoral challenges
  • are charged, just as I am, with conducting themselves in a manner that is above reproach, and that sets an example for believers of a godly and quiet life
  • are charged, just as I am, with exercising a ministry of prayer and the word of God
  • and therefore, because of all these things and more, ought to be for me a great source of joy in the Lord, and of encouragement and thanksgiving to God

Do you see how it’s not just theology there, but attitudes and affections?

I hope that for female co-workers to be regarded in such a manner—genuinely from the heart, both in private and in public—will itself go a long way to me encouraging them in their ministry.

For those of us who work formally alongside women in staff teams, or in lay leadership, to encourage them in their ministry won’t be in any way a burden, but will actually be something that we long to do—for their sake, for the sake of God’s people, and ultimately for the glory of God.

Once the theology and attitudes are all in place in our hearts, there’s a bunch of specific things that I’ve tried to do to encourage women in ministry. Here’s a few of them.

1.  Make their work a joy by minimising discouragements.

As a negative example, I’ve realised that, unwittingly, I had discouraged women in ministry by not being as disciplined with my diary as I ought to be. The other day, I was trying to meet with two women from church about some women’s Bible Study groups; let’s call them Martha and Mary. Martha had a commitment that went through to 11:30 and so I suggested the three of us meet then. About 10.30 that morning, Martha was in the office for her first commitment, and I mentioned to Deb that the two of us were going to meet with Mary at 11.30, at which point Deb told me she and Mary had a meeting booked for 11.30. Without a great deal of thought, I suggested that Martha, Mary and I meet at 11:30, and then Deb and Mary could meet after we had done that.

Now because Deb is gracious and godly, and because on this particular day she didn’t have anything on for a few hours, she kindly said that would be fine. But as we de-briefed together later that day, Deb helped me to see that there’s often quite a big difference between what her diary can look like in any given week and what my diary can look like. Because most weeks I need to prepare sermons and things like that, I normally have a few big blocks of time each week chunked out of my diary for Bible teaching prep.Deb doesn’t need those big blocks of time to prepare a sermon, and often her diary is much more full of scheduled commitments that all affect and depend on other people. It makes sense that I can just shift things around by 15 minutes here or there and it doesn’t feel like it makes a very big difference, but it may not be very considerate of me to do that to Deb.

That sort of thing can easily happen to Deb four or five times in a week. It’s not that I’ve set out to discourage Deb, but I haven’t shown the same respect for her diary that I should. I need to learn to minimise those kinds of discouragements.

As a positive example, as Deb and I were reflecting on the past year, she said something she’s appreciated has been that as a staff team we’ve avoided moments of coarse humour. I think we can easily dismiss this by calling it blokey humour, or if we were cricketers we would probably call it banter, but a lot of the time, it’s just coarse humour. Deb told me how acutely uncomfortable, and therefore discouraging, it can be for female staff members to hear this kind of talk from their male co-workers.

As men, we need to be rid of that kind of thing entirely—not only for the sake of the women we’re trying to encourage in ministry, but for the sake of the gospel and our own godliness (Eph 5:4).

So if you work alongside women on a staff team, go back to your church, and ask them some questions:

  • Do you feel like you are genuinely valued and treated as a co-worker in the ministry of the gospel?
  • Are there things I do, or that we do, which help express that?
  • Are there things I do, or that we do, even without meaning to, that can get in the way of that and be discouraging to you?

2. Make deliberate effort to communicate regularly and openly in different modes

I try to meet with all our staff individually once a fortnight and we normally start with a walk around the block. Walking alongside next to each other talking about what’s been happening is just a slightly different mode of communication; it surfaces different issues—generally things that can be a bit more personal—before we sit down and speak about specific ministry things that are going on.

3. Be humble enough to ask for input, and then use it

Be humble enough to ask for input from the women around you and be humble enough to listen to that input. Then be humble enough to change what you do and to tell the women around you how and why their input was valuable, so that they grow in their boldness to keep giving it to you.

There’s been a few times times at Naremburn/Cammeray where I’ve had a plan of attack about how to deal with something, and Deb’s given me some insight to show that something else would be more effective and I’ve changed course. I’m newer to the church, but Deb’s got a great knowledge of the people and the culture. I’d be a fool not to consider carefully what she has told me. I’ve tried to always go back and express to her my gratitude for that; I want her to be more bold as time goes on to tell me if I’m about to do something foolish.

At Christ Church, Pip gave input to a lot of my sermons. For a long time we had desks next to each other and it made it so easy to turn around and have a five-minute desk conversation.Pip would often have wonderful input on how to teach or apply a particular passage, not just for women but also for men. Sometimes I’d make it clear in a sermon where an idea came from; other times I would just say stuff without explaining it to people, but Pip always knew, because she’d hear her words coming out of my mouth. I think that was one of the ways I encouraged her.

Aspirations and reality?

Some of this is perhaps aspirational more than reality. Preparing this material has helped me to think not only about what I actually try to do, but also what I should try to do, or what I would like to try and do more. By no means do I get this stuff right all of the time, but it’s my sincere hope and prayer to continue to encourage the women around me in ministry.  I hope that’s your hope and prayer as well, that together we might all continue to spur each other on to the vital work of ministry, for the good of God’s church and to his eternal glory.

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