Debates about the role of women within the church have likely persisted since Christ first esteemed the work of His female followers. As more churches embrace an egalitarian approach to women in leadership, the PCA remains committed to a complementarian view, affirming that men and women are created equally in God’s image but designed for different roles.
PCA women serve Christ and His church in innumerable ways, though that looks very different from church to church. Throughout the denomination there are as many expressions of women’s ministry as there are churches. Some recruit paid staff to organize the work of women within the church, while others rely on volunteers. Some are highly structured along the lines of Bible study, evangelism, mercy ministry, and prayer. Others organize around a simple pattern of women’s circles that meet monthly for study, encouragement, and prayer.
Regardless of the size or structure of a particular women’s ministry, key characteristics can enhance its effectiveness so that women’s ministry consistently builds into healthy, thriving churches.
Identifying Purpose and Mission
Karen Hodge, women’s ministry coordinator for the Committee on Discipleship Ministries (CDM), is passionate about equipping women to think biblically about God’s purpose for women and His church. Hodge oversees seven women’s ministry trainers; collectively, they’ve built a robust training curriculum that has been used in churches for more than 20 years.
Too often, Hodge notes, ministry efforts fall into the idolatry of tradition. While it’s easy to continue hosting a program because “we’ve always done it this way,” it takes purpose to look closely at some of our sacred cows and evaluate why we’re perpetuating them.
The goal of women’s ministry should be to have a healthy church, not a stellar mission and vision for a program.
According to Hodge, the goal of women’s ministry should be to have a healthy church, not a stellar mission and vision for a program. In the trainings she has helped develop, Hodge sees two essential criteria for building fruitful ministry — that it be Word-based and relationally driven.
Paula Miles, women’s ministry director at Clemson Presbyterian Church in South Carolina, also serves as a CDM women’s ministry trainer. Miles echoes the importance of holding in tension the content of women’s ministry (doctrinally sound and biblically based) and the relational context in which it occurs.
“If we only have content, then it’s going to feel very academic,” says Miles. “If we only have relationships without truth, we will become anemic and lifeless.”
Hodge emphasizes the importance of developing a mission statement to keep efforts on track. She recommends comparing it with the church’s mission statement, which is usually on the front page of its website.
“If women’s leaders have already written a ministry mission statement,” says Hodge, “I put it side by side and ask, how does this statement align with their church leadership’s mission statement? Do you have the same purpose or use similar language?”
Maintaining Focus in Women’s Ministry
Meaghan May is working to create a women’s ministry at King’s Cross Church in Ashburn, Virginia, a church plant led by her husband, Paul. From the beginning, women’s ministry has been a priority and has included access to leadership training.
May highlighted an approach to ministry that can derail women’s efforts — the “I’ve got an idea, let’s do it!” approach. She emphasizes instead the need for women to view ministry efforts through both an indicative (what we know about who God is and who we are) and imperative (what, then, must I be doing?) lens in order to live out our calling. Developing this broader understanding creates guardrails against being swayed by novelty and innovation.
Learning about how the indicative and imperative work together gives women a broader biblical framework for growing in relationship with God and being transformed by grace through dependence upon Him. “If we focus on either one without the other, we’ll be in trouble,” says May.
“What were we made for?” asks May. “In the first chapter of the drama of redemption, God created His image bearers to be known, to be loved, to be in community, and [to be] in relationship with God. All of these were fractured in the Fall.”
May characterizes women’s ministry as providing both the context and content for healing these fractures and for gospel transformation to occur. Context, she notes, involves meeting women where they are. Scripture clearly provides the content. And while the approach may look different in each women’s ministry, focusing on context and content allows for agility as we serve and live for God’s glory.
When Miles assumed the women’s ministry leadership position at Clemson, a structure of monthly circles was already in place. These involved Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and service to the church. And the women are growing there.
What the groups are called is far less important than what is happening in them, Miles says. What matters most is that the activity within the circles is tied to the church’s overall philosophy of ministry and discipleship of women.
Identifying and Training Leaders
So how are churches to discern who is qualified to disciple the women in their pews? While Scripture is clear about what is required of men called to leadership, the details are fuzzy when it comes to teaching, training, and equipping fellow women. Here again, it can be easy for women’s ministry to fall into familiar traps.
Leadership positions often default to the most outgoing or charismatic women within a church. In other cases, the woman in charge of specific ministry activities is the one who has always done it. Perhaps more often than not, leadership positions are assigned to any willing volunteer. Again, each of these strategies is fraught with potential hazards.
Janet LaRocque, who serves as director of finance in addition to women’s ministry leadership at Naperville Presbyterian Church in Illinois, lists several qualifications she believes to be essential.
“It’s more than simply feeling equipped. It’s important that a woman feel called to serve the church,” says LaRocque. She also emphasizes the need for women’s ministry leaders to have a healthy prayer life and be welcoming, transparent, vulnerable, and humble. LaRocque also notes the importance for ministry leaders to be outward focused, actively seeking women who don’t feel connected to the church. In addition, she suggests that one of the best ways to prepare future leaders is to invite them to serve alongside other women.
1,000 women from 35 states and 15 countries participated in Women’s Leadership Training last year.
Susan Tyner echoed the importance of partnering with women to prepare them for leadership. Before its more formal women’s ministry began, Trinity Presbyterian Church (Fort Worth, Texas) leadership took nominations for women to serve on a Bible study committee. After getting session approval, specific women were asked to lead the new ministry team, which oversees the women’s Bible studies and retreats and develops strategies for meeting ministry goals. This committee was structured so that women would rotate into and out of leadership positions, ensuring that no individual remained in charge for too long.
This approach helps keep ministry efforts fresh, says Tyner. In addition, it helps encourage leaders to think about who might eventually replace them. For those hoping to take on future committee leadership positions, Tyner says she encourages women to get involved at the subcommittee level and learn through serving alongside others.
Cultivating Relationships Between Male and Female Leaders
Creigh Brown, women’s ministry director at Christ Community Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, Florida, highlights the importance of cultivating healthy relationships between male and female leaders within the church. In particular, Brown emphasizes that women in leadership positions should be inclined to have respect for and submit to the session.
Beyond these attributes, however, Brown sees the need for women to communicate effectively with male leadership. For example, there may be times when women’s leaders believe it’s necessary to advocate on behalf of a woman within the congregation. Having gracious and respectful relationships between male and female leaders allows for these kinds of interactions to proceed in healthy, life-giving ways.
Supporting the Work of Women
Unfortunately, women’s ministry sometimes takes on a life of its own and is disconnected from the church’s overall mission. However, notes Brown, when church leadership takes a hands-off approach to the work of its women, problems are likely to occur.
Hodge acknowledges the importance of session members knowing what’s going on in the hearts of the women in the church — beginning with knowing the women by name.
“I have seen women flourish as they have been encouraged and equipped to serve Christ and His church by their male leadership,” says Hodge. She also emphasizes the importance of respectful, truthful, loving communication coming from women’s ministry leaders directed toward their pastor and elders.
Hodge also points out that timing can be critical. We don’t want to raise new issues with the pastor five minutes before he has to preach a sermon, she explains.
At Christ Community, women’s ministry leaders are intentional about fostering relationships with male leadership. Session members are invited to come and pray over women’s ministry events. Brown sees value in creating opportunities for session members to communicate to women that “we are here for you, we support you, and we believe this is good work you are doing.”
“As we submit to our leadership, it’s important to have a relationship,” says Brown. “It’s important for us to know we are known. We need to know from our session that they see, know, and care: ‘These are our shepherds. They do care. They pray for us.’”
Revitalizing Women’s Ministry
Over time, women’s ministries may flourish or flounder. As women’s ministry leaders take a closer look at their efforts and perhaps recognize they don’t align with their church leadership’s overall vision, what happens next?
One of the results of the pandemic is that most of our churches’ strategies and programs have gone out the window, says Hodge, thus creating an opportunity to rethink everything.
Hodge advises focusing on several cornerstones necessary for ministry revitalization: prayer, the centrality of the Word, cultivating biblical community, and creating on-ramps for women to engage.
“Every healthy church is always asking the question, ‘Are there areas where we need to continue to grow?’” says Hodge.
“The answer is always a resounding yes!”
CDM’s resources and training materials for women’s ministry are available at pcacdm.org/ministries/womens-ministry.