Women Are Everywhere, But Not at the Top - Gordon Conwell

Women Are Everywhere, But Not at the Top



I taught a course this Spring, Women in World Christianity, where we unpacked the statement that global Christianity is a “women’s movement”. Historians have indicated that Christianity has always been majority female: women were the last at the cross, the first at tomb, and make up the majority of Christians today. The course investigated historical contributions of women to the development of Christianity worldwide while also delving into the realities women face today in their ministry contexts around the world. This summer I’m doing a directed study with a student on women in mission that expands on some of the course’s themes. We’re looking into the contributions of women as missionaries, advocates, and Christian educators in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s essentially a church history course that spotlights women in the center of the narrative where they have always been, not giving the flase impression that they were on the periphery.

This course is making me think a lot about the dynamics of women and mission organizations today. Hard data do not exist, but many people estimate that the American missionary movement today is roughly two-thirds female, most of whom are young single women (this figure is extrapolated from Dr. Dana Robert’s book, American Women in Mission in discussion of the 19th century American missionary movement). Many mission leaders today, however, recognize that while women make up the majority of workers on the ground, there is a tremendous lack of women in leadership. Women’s voices are also underrepresented in missiological thinking. The syllabi of missiology courses at seminaries largely include books written by men: Stephen Bevans, Roger Schroeder, David Bosch, Charles van Engen, Andrew Walls, Samuel Escobar, and Christopher Wright (to be fair, I did see a few mentions of Ruth Tucker and Cathy Ross in my cursory overview).

Where is the disconnect? Why has it become acceptable for women to do the work but not advance into leadership positions? Even among those who accept that Scripture allows for women in senior leadership positions in the church or mission organizations, one reason for this disconnect is because of gendered approaches to mentoring and discipleship, where male leaders feel uncomfortable spending one-on-one time with younger women – similar to principles of the “Billy Graham Rule” or the “Modesto Manifesto.” Billy Graham would not travel, meet, or eat alone with any women who was not his wife, Ruth, to avoid perceived sexual impropriety. One of many problems with this rule, above and beyond that Graham was a unique case under tremendous media scrutiny that most other leaders do not face, is that it completely cuts women off from people who can help them grow into leaders. A strict separation of sexes severely limits women’s access to obtaining the skills, knowledge, and experience necessary for leadership. It prohibits male leaders from acknowledging the talents of young women and identifying their potential.

I recently attended a webinar hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary on the legacy of the Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference and the centennial conferences held in 2010: Edinburgh, Tokyo, Cape Town, and Boston. Roughly 200 of the 1,200 official delegates at the 1910 meeting were women but they had to sit in the galley, not on the main floor with the men. These women were representatives of British and American women’s missionary agencies, which were influential, powerful, innovative, highly organized, and great at raising money and mobilizing people. One hundred years later, women were again underrepresented at the meetings, underscoring that almost all of the people who run these organizations are still men. With few exceptions (such as Rose Dowsett and Ruth Padilla DeBorst), these gatherings represented old boys’ clubs.  And, unlike in 1910, there are almost no women’s missionary agencies that provide outlets for female leadership and innovation.

I keep thinking about Cathy Ross’s question in Putting Names with Faces: Women’s Impact in Mission History: How different would missiology be if women were at the center? I’d like to extend the question the entire missionary movement itself: How different would all of mission be if women were recognized at being where they are and have been since the beginning of the modern Protestant missionary movement:  at the center? If women were not just the workers but also the decision-makers, how might the gospel flourish in new ways, overcoming obstacles and boundaries? Or, perhaps, is it time to resurrect the concept of the female missionary society: led, funded, staffed, prayed for, and created by women? Ross opines that mission would be more comforting, consoling, healing; more hospitable, relational; and more about sight, embrace, and flourishing. In a world full of division and brokenness, this sounds like a good way forward.