New research shows women can make a difference.

30 January, 2014 — 15 Comments

I read an article last week in which I saw parallels with the church context so thought I would write about the same topic. The article by Olga Kahzan in The Atlantic is titled: “The Easiest Possible Way to Increase Female Speakers at Conferences.” The quick summary is: having just one woman on the organizing committee for a conference greatly increases the likelihood of women appearing at the front of the room.


The contribution of women is a topic that concerns me because I am part of a Christian ‘movement’ that struggles with this: the New Zealand Baptist Church. This also appears to be a widespread problem for the church in general. Three points come to mind and I outline them below.

The article research uses science and technology conferences as an example – fields where women are underrepresented as speakers at conferences. This has negative effects on their career prospects in competitive academic fields, meaning less women are climbing to the top of their scientific disciplines, which also means fewer role models for young women and girls.

In terms of organising conferences:

…including at least one woman among the conveners increased the proportion of female speakers by 72 percent compared with symposia convened by men alone.

1. The church is [seen as] a male-dominated patriarchy that oppresses women.

My own doctoral research has shown some people outside the church, who have never been part of it, think the church is something oppressive: a negative patriarchy of powerful men using religion to control people. They think these men don’t want to let go of this power and use God as a vehicle for retaining it.

You may be thinking:

My church isn’t like that!

But what would the opposite look like – is your church community like that?

2. This is important to me because I am a Christian egalitarian.

I don’t expect everyone reading this to share my theological position, but if you’re a complementarian instead, I hope you will see that there is still an issue here to engage with. (If you have never thought of yourself as either egalitarian or complementarian when it comes to your Christian faith, the links give a short introduction in wikipedia to those positions.)

I believe the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. If someone can teach: let them teach. If someone can lead, let them lead. If someone can bake banana cakes with lemon icing, let them bake them!

3. I can do something about improving the church contexts I find myself in.

A couple of months ago I was invited to speak on a panel of four people at a day-long seminar where the panel interacted after each of the main speakers. When the panel was first invited onto the stage the organiser introduced the four men, one being me. The last panelist, a man in his 60’s, was introduced as “the token female”, because they had tried to find a female in Christchurch city to sit on the panel but with no success. In the article above, Kahzan mentions a suggestion from her colleague Rebecca Rosen:

One way men could help improve this situation is to refuse to speak on all-male panels.

There are other things I can do, such as asking that the annual Baptist gathering has at least one [theologically trained, pastorally experienced, Baptist-movement-connected] woman in the inner-circle of the organising group. If this research is true, this would be one way of increasing the contribution and input of women in our Baptist gatherings. I will get in touch with the movement leaders today. Perhaps there is something you can do in your context.

Change is happening slowly

In the twenty years I have been immersed in the NZ Baptist world, I have noticed some slow changes, for example, our theological college (Carey Baptist College) now has some full-time women lecturers – there were none when I was a student in 2000.

Point one above is important and needs considering, or more generally; how people outside the church perceive the church needs to be considered important, because this affects the church’s communication, and therefore the church’s mission.

Perceptions can change, and I’m sure they will be better by the time half of the pastors in NZ Baptist churches are women. And when NZ Baptist leadership is diverse, not just gender, but age and culturally. And once other more global changes occur, such as the Catholic Church ordaining women priests.

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  • Daphne

    thanks Mike am looking forward to more egalitarian modelling

  • not a wild hera

    This is excellent and helpful, Mike. Thank you.

    I agree that many parts of the church a) miss out on talent in their midst by not fostering women’s full participation and b) seem like total dark-age loonies to the rest of the community if women are second-class citizens.

    Rachel Held Evans recently produced a huge list of Christian women speakers so that conference organisers and others could have access to a range of voices. Her article and list (based in the US) are here:

    In response, I started a New Zealand list on my blog. I started with 17 Christian women speakers who I had heard personally and would recommend, and called for other people to do the same. We’ve got 50-something on the list now, and I’d love people to go and add more from their own circles.

    Yes, men, please refuse to participate in male-only line-ups! I am frequently the only female in the room, and it’s appalling and unnecessary.

    • Hi Thalia. I’ve just added a name to your list of NZ Christian women speakers… That’s a great idea, and an excellent resource to link to this blog post.
      In my engagement with Baptist Leaders about this (as I said I would in my post), I have also passed on this link of yours…

      • not a wild hera

        Thanks, Mike! It’s very good to be in this together :)

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  • sarah Smith

    Great thoughts Mike! We really do need men to help elevate the status of women, cause men take other men more seriously than they do women. This topic reminded me of the number of times I’ve been directly or underhandedly belittled, or overlooked, in churches cause I’m female. I even had a gentleman interrupt my befriending of a visiting father and son after a night service once, saying ‘Are you avoiding household chores by hanging round here?’. I think he was concerned that I was possibly ‘flirting’ and that my hubby was at home babysitting our new born babe (which was clearly my job).

    The churches I’ve belonged to in the past, have never asked me what area I’d like to be involved in, they’ve said things like ‘Would you like to join the flower-arranging roster?’ or “Could we add your name to the morning tea roster?’. As I am more of an ideas and relational person than a tactile and task-orientated person, this has frequently been frustrating. I am female but that doesn’t mean I want to arrange flowers or have a talent for it! The church seems to be way behind the culture in terms of seeing that some women have an equal ability for teaching or big picture thinking or problem-solving. I am usually taken more seriously in the outside world than I am in the church. I often find more authentic community out on my morning walks and at the sidelines of my son’s soccer games, than I do in church too.

    Sad that a community that claims to follow Jesus teaching seems to keep missing the basics, as far as His acceptance of women and recognition of their individual giftings is concerned. Good on you for highlighting this pitfall!

    P.S. As far as Baptist speakers are concerned, there are a lot of female Kids Ministry leaders who are theologically trained now that could be added to the list of possibilities.

    • Hi Sarah, and thanks for sharing some of your experiences!

      I think people like us will always struggle in church communities that have strong ‘complementarian’ views, and I suspect the younger people are, the more happy they will be with ‘egalitarian’ views because of their experiences outside the church. I also think that in the future we will see churches become more egalitarian in a similar way that some of the more conservative churches in New Zealand have relaxed their practice when it comes to women in the church, for example, I grew up in an Open Brethren church, and when I was a kid (30 years ago) some women wore head-scaves to Sunday church services. Today when I occasionally visit that same church there are no head-scaves in sight and women lead worship from the front. This church still has a complementarian view, but I’m looking forward to see how things evolve in another 30 years!

      If you have some specific names of female Children’s Ministry Leaders who would be good to add to Thalia’s list of women speakers – please add them! (over on her site: )

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  • David Auty

    Despite the gains you mention at Carey (and probably/anecdotally with Associate, Youth, Community, Co-, Children/Family and other “not the main leader” Pastors – all exceptionally important and influential roles I might add), sadly, as far as I can tell at least, NZ Baptist Churches are not making progress when it comes to the number of women serving as Senior/Lead/Sole-charge Pastors in our churches. Back around 2010 I did a tally where I needed to use the fingers on two hands for the number of churches with a female Pastor taking the lead (I think the number was six). Today I can tally up with two fingers and they’re both in Auckland (have I missed anyone?).

    I find it interesting (just to be topical) that, despite our rhetoric and stated values as a denomination, we have more Pastors who would consider conducting SSM than we have female Pastors in the lead role – how ironic!

    • Hi Dave!
      I think your tally of women NZ Baptist pastors is correct, which means as a movement, in this area things are getting worse – not even staying the same. I can think of 3 women who used to be NZ Baptist pastors who have recently become leaders in other denominations possibly because they have more opportunities to lead than in the Baptist movement (I have a blog post brewing on this…).

      I also think you’re probably right that there would be more NZ Baptist pastors who would consider conducting SSM than there are female NZ Baptist pastors – can you unpack the irony for me – do you mean SSM and women leadership are two issues involving sociological change but SSM is embraced more than women leadership, and that is ironic?

      • David Auty

        What I’m refering to is our current denominational statements/ position on both issues (yes we’re still in discussion regarding SSM but there is a status quo that exists). On reflection, comparing the number of women in senior leadership with the number of Pastors open to SSM is a stretch (ie. not same parameters) so “irony” is not the right word.

        I find it sad that we state categorically that women are called to all levels of leadership (I seem to recall a significant statement made at Assembly in 2000 along these lines), however despite this there has been very little uptake in our churches when it comes to senior leadership. NZBMS and Carey have made some progress (bravo) but BU and our churches are seriously lagging behind. We seem to have given it lip-service and moved on to other debates…

        • Thanks for unpacking that Dave.
          I wonder if there’s a bit of following values rather than rhetoric – things are talked about and agreed, but at the end of the day, if a church culture/understanding/worldview doesn’t value women in leadership then there won’t be women leading in that church.

          • David Auty

            Yes. I think that is exactly what is happening. That’s why it’s important that the issue stays live and large in our minds until our collective values align with our collective statements. If we pause and don’t keep questioning then the status quo will prevail and then (as now) we have an integrity issue.