How do elders approach women in ministry in their congregations?

“Men are afraid of women. We’re often content to be at arms’ length from them.”

A prominent PCA pastor says it simply. His candid comments slice through the familiar rhetoric and hedging inherent in modern-day discussions of male-female relationships, compressing the ambiguity into a hard truth. Elders and sessions fear a feminist backlash from working with women. And some women mistrust the men ordained in leadership over them. The primeval clash of the sexes plays out in churches all over the nation in 21st-century America, reflecting sin patterns begun in the Garden.

But there is good news.

Many PCA churches are seeing the need to foster the relationship between sessions and women in ministry. Men are repenting of their passivity, and women are repenting of their manipulation. Both sides are finding new ways to communicate with one another. Best of all, they are seeking God’s direction in weaving their work together for His glory.

“Benign Neglect”

The unease between elders and women’s ministries is not always active. Instead, it can be a function of disconnection.

“While there are isolated examples of abuse in this relationship, usually it’s much more subtle,” said Jane Patete, women’s ministries coordinator for the PCA’s Christian Education and Publications (CE&P) Committee. “It’s benign neglect.”

Sometimes elders, wary of being perceived as overbearing, become consumed with the affairs of the church and abandon their responsibility to oversee the activities of the women’s ministry.

“Many men are reluctant to address issues because they don’t want to limit or put down women,” said Ligon Duncan, senior minister of First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Miss., and co-author of Women’s Ministry in the Local Church. “But if PCA sessions don’t cultivate godly, biblical womanhood in their congregation, then that job will be filled by someone else—likely the world.”

The PCA view of womanhood is complementarian, according to Duncan, meaning that God created men and women as co-image bearers, sharing fully in human dignity while possessing distinct gender roles

“In even the best male leadership, because of our culture, there’s an oppositional nature created by the feminist revolution,” said Duncan. “Some men fear working with women because they remember our history with the PCUSA—with women actively seeking to influence churches liberally.” And with men, it’s now apparent, offering little resistance.

“There was one pastor whose church had essentially written the women a blank check,” said Patete. “And when he began to try to biblically reverse that process he encountered resistance from the women. He called me to acknowledge that: ‘We have patronized and abdicated our leadership of women. Can you help me help our women?’”

Sessions turning a blind eye to their women’s ministries actually hurt them by denying them direction and protection, said Patete. This often manifests itself when a women’s ministry organizes a Bible study or speaker whose teachings are not in line with the doctrine of the church. The women are then criticized, and receive no protection from the session.

“Elders guard the doctrine of the church,” said Shari Thomas, wife of a PCA pastor and a member of the senior staff at Mission to North America (MNA), working with church-planting spouses. “If elders never work with me and challenge my thinking, it doesn’t honor me. But when they look closely at my work, it means they respect me enough to interact with me.”

One women’s ministry leader heard of an extreme example. “This wasn’t a PCA church, but I’ve heard examples of women’s groups studying theological books by non-Christians,” she said. “It sounds far-fetched, but I can see how it happens. I know myself well enough to know that I need oversight.”

A Broader Vision

“We teach women a biblical understanding of the church as well as a healthy understanding of the headship that God ordained,” says Patete. “Across the board, women’s ministries need to be and want to be part of the broader church vision.”

Sometimes, it’s a matter of educating sessions to see women’s ministries as integral to the church. “The women’s ministry touches so many others—children’s ministry, men’s ministry, discipleship,” said Patete. “A holistic view shows that women should be part of every part of the church—working with men to love and serve the church together.”

Women can stray off-course when they create a feminized version of the church, says one women’s ministry leader, acknowledging that elders can be complicit in the problem. “We don’t need the women’s ministry to go off with its own budget and auxiliary organization and become a ‘churchette.’ It’s my passion that elders would desire women’s ministry to function within the broader goals of the church.”

Pastor Chuck Betters of Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bear, Del., says, “Our church views church life as a marble cake. This means that all ministries intentionally look for ways to partner with other ministries in order to build God’s kingdom within the context of the vision of the church.”

Why Session-Women Relationships Matter

“Women should work with sessions the same way any other church ministry does,” said Susan Hunt, a consultant with the PCA’s Women in the Church and co-author with Ligon Duncan of Women’s Ministry in the Local Church. “This isn’t just a headship-submission issue; it’s a Christian education issue. Elders should oversee every ministry of the church in order to have a comprehensive, coordinated discipleship ministry.”

An elder agrees. “Women’s ministry in the church is extremely important,” said Bob Beasley, of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Asheville, N.C. “Their programs provide Bible study, discipleship, mercy ministry, fellowship, and more.”

He relates the story of the women’s ministry in a previous church he attended who rallied to care for a woman whose husband and son were killed in an accident. The women’s group provided emotional support, counsel, shepherding, and financial support, all under the oversight of the church’s session. “This was an example of a session and women in the church working well together to meet real needs in the congregation,” he said.

Another PCA church reached out to families in their area whose husbands had been deployed to Iraq. “The women in this church were well-loved and well-equipped by their session to do radical mercy ministry,” said one women’s ministry leader. “It was a beautiful picture of women’s ministry functioning as a sending ministry instead of a destination ministry.”

It’s especially important for women to receive support and counsel from their session as they step out into larger ministry commitments, according to Leanne Downing, director of “Streets of Hope” in Denver, Colo., and the wife of a PCA pastor. “More and more women are doing ministry, and they need the support and accountability of their elders.”

Downing’s ministry helps women transition out of the sex-for-sale trade. “Though only men are ordained in the PCA, women do much of the ministry in the church. Women are called into ministry just like men. There is a lot of biblical growth we can exercise in this area,” she said.

Downing has had positive experiences working with sessions in the Denver area. “I’m encouraged that we’re beginning to have conversations about this topic. It’s great when sessions value a woman’s ministry enough to make time to hear about it and pray with you.”

Building Trust

Regardless of the current relationship between sessions and women’s ministries in any given church, there are several strategic ways to improve communication and build trust within the body.

1. Spell out your church’s philosophy on women’s issues.

“If a church spells out its philosophy on women’s issues, it will eliminate much of the misunderstanding,” said Susan Hunt. “The PCA position on women applies to all churches, but it will not be expressed the same way in every church. So the big challenge is to learn what God’s Word says about women’s ministries, and then celebrate that. If a church neglects to take this step, it’s easy for it to begin to function pragmatically rather than theologically—which leads to confusion, distortion, and miscommunication. A lack of leadership creates a vacuum that people will try to fill on their own.”

2. Improve communication.

Communication is the number one area of needed improvement. “The relationship between the session and women is sometimes strained because there’s a lack of communication,” said Hunt. “Some women have expectations of elders that they haven’t communicated, so they feel undervalued in the process. It’s the same thing that can happen in marriage.”

The lack of communication is a two-way street. Many women do not appreciate the variety of issues elders deal with on a regular basis, or the time it takes to do so. “If there was something I wished the women in my church knew, it would be how much most elders care about the health of the church and the congregation,” said one elder. “And also the breadth and depth of issues we work through on a regular basis. It is time-consuming, and at times exhausting, to do the job well.”

How can elders and women do a better job of communicating? One idea is to create a session advisory council, comprised of lay men and women who attend portions of the session meetings and report on various ministries within the church. Another idea is to provide a liaison from the women’s ministry to the session. This liaison would report on activities, ask for prayer, and seek input on curriculum and events. In many churches, this would be the Christian Education chairperson.

“We could make far better use of what women have to offer than we currently do,” said one elder. “Sessions could seek out women’s opinions and include them in session meetings regularly.”

Women may also invite elders to women’s ministry events. “One elder became very excited after attending a women’s event at his church,” said Hunt. “He said, ‘It’s one thing to see these events mapped out on paper. But it’s a very different thing to see it in person.’”

Elders may also initiate informal conversation with women’s ministry leadership. “Wise elders periodically check in with their women’s ministry leaders just to say, ‘Let’s talk,’” said Hunt. “And, similarly, if women’s ministry leaders sense a restlessness in the women, they should seek out the session’s advice.”

3. Focus on building leadership families.

“Women’s ministry relationships with sessions will never be different than elders’ relationships with their wives,” said one women’s ministry leader. “There’s a direct correlation there.”

Bill Caldwell’s experience lines up with that observation. “We’re a small church,” said Caldwell, an elder at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in McKinney, Texas. “So there are many husband-wife teams serving as elders and women’s ministry leaders. It enhances the informal communication process in the church.”

The PCA, through CE&P and Women in the Church (WIC), offers yearly General Assembly programs that are aimed at harnessing this natural dynamic. “At the last General Assembly, we offered women’s programs that were aimed at building leadership families,” said Jane Patete. “Specifically, we provided training for the wives of pastors and leaders.”

“When my husband and I moved to Denver to plant our church, it was a very isolating time for me,” said Downing. “My husband had the session and presbytery as support, but there was no natural support for spouses. I’m excited at the possibility of the PCA doing more for wives of men in leadership.”

4. Create a “Comfort Her” ministry.

One of the biggest struggles individual women face as they work with sessions in their church is fearing approaching the session alone.

“While statistics vary, between 33 and 50 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse,” said Shari Thomas. “So women can be fearful, and rightly so, about coming before a group of men [the session] by themselves. Our church is actively addressing this issue.”

Sessions can make small changes—soliciting women’s advice on how to set up the room differently or input on how to offer compassionate non-verbal communication, for example.

“Unfortunately, we can’t assume that women feel safe at church,” said Hunt. “And churches can’t become safe unless elders and women’s leaders work together.”

One ministry that addresses this need is called “Comfort Her.” Women in crisis are paired up with a women’s ministry leader to go before the session together to receive advice, counsel, and prayer.

“This prevents caves of isolation,” said Jane Patete. “Women are paired with older, godly women for the benefit of counseling and support.”

The ministry also has a side benefit. “Women in crisis can use women’s ministry leadership as an escape, and they can project their marital issues onto the session,” said one women’s ministry leader. “Having the session working in partnership with the women’s ministry in these cases can be beneficial for both parties.”

Looking Ahead

“Women’s ministry can be one of the greatest gifts to the church,” said Patete. “As the session stewards the gifts of women, they in turn reach out to others to extend Christ’s love.”

Women’s ministries are not merely window dressing, but are about “substantive things,” according to Hunt. “We want to help disciple women, aid women in crisis, serve those in need, and help our church act justly and love mercy.”

One woman in leadership had a pleasant surprise in filling a church staff position. “I was warned that [church staff] might be a difficult place to serve,” said Donna Dobbs, director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Miss. “But what I learned was quite different. I found that godly male leadership is sacrificial, protective, and honest, and that in that context women’s ministry can flourish.”

Though the PCA has much room for growth in the relationship between sessions and women’s ministries, it is sought out as an authority on the subject.

“Unlike our culture, we have not had the major gender wars in the PCA that some denominations have had,” said Susan Hunt, who often speaks to other denominations about gender issues. “We have many gifted, bright, educated women who haven’t rebelled—and I think this is because they have been discipled to understand the theology and apologetic for biblical womanhood.”

But both men and women must enter into dialogue to continue healing the tension in this relationship. “When men humble themselves and say, ‘We need your input,’ that releases tremendous potential for kingdom work,” said Thomas. “But also, we women, as redeemed sinners, must admit that we tend to be manipulative. We have to be willing to say that we’re going to struggle. It will be a battle, but it’s so worth it.”

Such openness is needed, according to Ligon Duncan. “Some men want to avoid this subject because it’s a can of worms,” he said. “But women can create a climate of collaboration by saying to their elders, ‘We want leadership from you.’ That can set up a dynamic where no one is defensive.”

The collaboration goes both ways, adds Thomas. “Collaboration is needed between all the ministries of the church. The men’s ministry needs the elders’ counsel just like the women’s ministry does. And the elders need the insight that non-ordained men and women bring.”

The process will take time. “I would encourage women not to be utterly crushed if the church lets them down,” said Duncan. “We haven’t done the best job in this area, and so we need to prayerfully wait on the Lord, as in all areas of growth, being patient and not embittered.

“The church needs women who will embark on the grand and glorious adventure of knowing and serving God,” said Duncan. “And they need the prayers of their pastors and elders as they do so.”

Melissa Morgan is the news editor of byFaith.