When I first moved to Niddrie Community Church almost 10 years ago, I spent the first six months or so getting to know who was in the congregation (it was very small). I wanted to find out who was who and who was good at what. I quickly discovered that some of the women in the church felt somewhat marginalised and disenfranchised. It appeared that they had been left to take a back seat in the life and ministry of the church and in the local community they were trying to reach with the gospel. They were on the usual rotas: tea, coffee, and the flowers, but that was about it.
As I began to get to know the community of Niddrie, it became very clear to me very early on that we needed to hire a community worker, and it needed to be a woman. At that time, the complementarians weren’t as loud in the UK evangelical scene as they are now, so it was a bit of a risk to make one of my first hires a woman. I had read many articles and blogs from pastors and church planters talking about growing their leadership teams. Very, very few of them talked about hiring a woman in the early stages of their ministry. Even those that did tended to leave it as one of their later appointments and, even then, only if the money came in. I have seen many a planters development plans, and often women are just not in them. They will talk about hiring a youth worker, or an executive pastor, or a worship leader before they would even consider a woman.
At 20schemes, we insist that all of our church planters make sure they are employing a mature woman from the off as they embark on their church planting and/or revitalisation venture. Here are some of my reasons why.
1. Women make up a large proportion of the communities we are trying to reach
In fact, lone parents make up approximately one-quarter of all families living in Scotland in 2016. Unsurprisingly, nine out of ten of these lone parents are women. In the poorest communities in Scotland, 52% of all the residents are women. That is a lot of vulnerable women with multifaceted pastoral problems (over half of them suffer from a long-term health problem or a disability).
2. Women in our communities often face multiple issues which complicate discipleship
So, for instance, millions of women across the UK have admitted to illegally taking prescription drugs during the past year, and even more have used street drugs in the same period. Tragically, 45% of women in the UK have experienced at least one incident of inter-personal violence in their lifetime. Statistics also reveal that a staggering 54% of all UK rapes are committed by a woman’s current or former partner, and half of all rapes are committed by men who once claimed to love them.
Many of these vulnerable and needy women with complex physical, psychological, and spiritual problems are in our congregations and are in our communities. They crave love, attention, and require a lot of time as we counsel and disciple them in the Word. Because their emotional needs are often so great, it’s simply not wise or prudent for a man to invest serious amounts of time into their lives.
3. A majority of pastors are much more likely to fail morally when they get deeply involved in counselling needy women
Whilst that is a broad generalisation, a survey of the 15 men who have preceded me at Niddrie revealed that one in three of them were removed for offences of sexual immorality. 100% of these men ran into difficulties though intense counselling with the opposite sex. Sadly, our church leaders are not immune to sexual sin, and many pastors have fallen in this area with a church member they have been counselling or with somebody they have been evangelising. Counselling and evangelising vulnerable women in the schemes (a large proportion of whom have been sexually abused) is a minefield. Any form of tenderness or a willingness to listen from a male is almost always misunderstood sexually (this is true the other way around as well). A man who listens to them is a very powerful aphrodisiac. Temptation can be, for some, very hard to resist. They aren’t used to men listening to their problems. They are used to men being the problem.
4. Women should only disciple women
We realise that there are many ways pastors can counsel members of their congregation safely, but we would suggest having a gifted, trained, and mature woman would be one of the most helpful. In many churches, this type of thing is left to the pastor’s wife or maybe the wife of an elder. Almost invariably, this is not because of giftedness but is due to the position her husband holds within the fellowship. It is fine if she is trained, but can be immensely damaging if she is not. Regardless, the point remains that in crisis situations (a daily occurrence here) a mature, godly woman can continue the relationship on into deeper, long-lasting friendship in a way a pastor cannot and should not. When we talk of discipleship, we do not mean the odd monthly pastoral meeting but the intense, daily walk with God as women do life together.
But, what place for men then?
5. We need godly men to teach women to train godly women
Of course, women need the influence of godly men in their lives. The church is to be led by men after all. That much is clear from Scripture. These men have responsibility to teach the whole congregation sound doctrine and to model godliness as per Titus 2. But, they have a responsibility to teach women too. These are Paul’s instructions to Titus.
“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3–5)
Everything we do at Niddrie is overseen by the elders and has the approval of the whole congregation. It is not that we are not involved in the life of women in our church, because clearly we are. Women can see us teach and model godliness in the home and as we preach the Word and lead the meetings. We still counsel couples and single women in certain situations. If with a couple, it is with my wife. If with a single woman, it can be with my wife or it can be with one of our women’s workers or a friend she trusts. Also, our women’s pastoral worker reports to the elders regularly so that we can pray intelligently for those with specific needs and difficulties. But, at the heart of it all, we, as the male leaders, are ensuring that our women’s pastoral workers are being supported and trained to do their job well.
Now, we realise some feel that, by equipping women to pastor and train other women, we are not fulfilling the distinctive male only role of pastor as we should. Some feel that we are confusing people by having women in pastoral positions within the church. When we say that our women’s worker ‘pastors’ our women, we don't mean that she is a pastor, rather, she assists the pastors by providing day-to-day pastoral care to our women. I am often asked by other pastors how we can trust what is being taught and said if we are not present. A few things to say here.
We trust our women because, as with the male leaders, we trained them well in the doctrines of the church before we released them into ministry. In fact, it is remarkably offensive to suggest that by giving women responsibility at this level we are opening the church up to serious error. Far more men have led churches astray than women.
The church is not confused but is, instead, built up as women, and men, are involved in ‘one anothering’. The pastor is not seen as the only one who is qualified to minister among the flock he shepherds. That is a good thing, as one man cannot adequately take on this role. Even with a small church and multiple elders we would struggle under the weight of pastoral issues in our congregation.
Women are encouraged that they have a serious part to play in the kingdom of God and that they are not just bystanders or there to cook the meals.
The local church needs women’s workers. Most of the women living in our poorest communities are suffering without the hope of the gospel. They have not heard the good news that can set them truly free from their burdens. Women on schemes need more than women parachuting in to be another worker in their life, perpetuating dependency. They need women who will do life with them every single day of their lives. The harvest is great, the workers are few, and women are being left on the shelf. They shouldn’t be. Employing more women for ministry should be our highest priority.
Miriam McConnell (Women's Worker, Niddrie)
Miriam McConnell 20schemes Events Coordinator and Women’s Worker.
“Although I didn’t grow up in a scheme church, being a part of one has been really amazing. I’ve learnt so much about myself, God, and people, and I believe I’ve grown a lot through this experience.
I have a real heart for women who are involved in ministry and who often feel isolated and lonely. I also love spending time with women in the scheme and getting the opportunity to explain the gospel to them.
My role involves discipling/mentoring women in the church, as well as all the female gospel workers and church planters wives. I speak regularly to each one, make visits to them, and along with Sharon Dickens (Director of Women’s Ministry at 20schemes) run a monthly training day for them.
Please pray that I would have wisdom from above as I spend time with various ladies who have a variety of struggles and needs. Pray also that my own time with the Lord would be a daily priority for me.
We seek to recruit women willing to commit to move into the schemes for two years as part of a church-planting team in order to develop discipleship relationships with women there. Could that be you?