women, men & church: what hurts, what helps

cocreators of wholeness and hope

Two fridays ago The Refuge hosted our first “Beyond Seminary: Moving Theology into Practice” gathering. Our amazing friend and seminary professor Dr. Deborah Loyd facilitated and we were challenged, encouraged, inspired in all kinds of ways.

There were 25 of us there, 21 women and 4 men. Yep. That was a little hard for me but probably tells the real story. Oh, we have to figure out how to get these conversations more balanced! Real, lasting change will happen when both genders are equally committed to learning and change together. I am so grateful for the amazing men that were indeed there and do know some other male leaders who wanted to come but couldn’t make it. They embody the humility, honesty, and willingness-to-engage that is what the church desperately needs.

Deborah started with a solid foundation of the reality that our theology on gender in the church has been built on biblical interpretation through the eyes of patriarchy and seeing what we want to see as opposed to the bigger story of what’s really there. Then, we quickly moved into reality:

What is really happening in our real life experiences related to gender equality in the church?

What disempowers?

What are some best practices to move toward change?

I thought I’d just share a brief summary of what we came up with in these two major categories–what hurts, what helps. What disempowers, what empowers. What continues the deep divide between genders in the church, what heals it. 

Here’s what hurts and disempowers women (and ultimately men, too) in the church:

  • When women aren’t part of the decision-making, power bodies of the church (pastoral leadership, elder teams, guiding teams).
  • When men are seen as employees and are paid properly and women are seen as volunteers and expected to work for free.
  • When women’s contributions and faithful input aren’t acknowledged (so many behind-the-scenes things happen by women in the church but are often unthanked or women’s contributions aren’t valued as highly–men are seen as the ones who “make the plans” and women are the ones who “execute them.”)
  • The media messages about women, how we should look, think, act. (I’d add the messages about what it means to be a “good Christian woman” (or man) that is solidified through so many of the books, blog, bible studies available at Christian book stores).
  • Stereotypical retreats and the same-old-same-old men’s & women’s groups –men do certain things at their retreats and groups and women do others.
  • When boards and conference line-ups don’t reflect equality at all and are very imbalanced. Most are still mainly men with a few women sprinkled in.
  • A scarcity mentality among women–that there are only so many places at the table so we had better fight to keep our spot. This can create a competitiveness that is really sad and limiting.
  • When women are not given the titles of “pastor” when that’s what they are really doing.
  • Comments about our looks and gender (Oh, do I have some crazy stories about that!)
  • Many sermon examples, scriptures, stories, quotes tend to be male-focused.

What else disempowers?

It’s really easy to get stuck there, and even as I read these brainstorms through again, I had that icky-and-hopeless feeling creep in. These things are so engrained into our church systems that it is going to be hard work to shift it to a more healthy, balanced place. With the bad theology and generations of patriarchy embedded deeply into our psyche and practices, it won’t be an easy shift.

However, change is happening. And can happen. We will just have to intentionally apply ourselves to some new practices, men and women together.

Here are some tangible and practical “best practices” that can help us move toward greater equality in the church:

  • Friendship. This is a core practice that opens doors to equality. We’ve got to find ways to practice being true friends together.
  • Be intentional about inviting, including, empowering, and releasing women into all levels of leadership. It won’t drop out of the sky so needs to be clear and strong message–“we need you, we want you, and here’s how we can make this happen.
  • Pay properly and equally. Period. Figure it out.
  • Avoid gender-biased comments (on both sides) about looks, athleticism, feelings, and other stereotypical ways of viewing both sexes.
  • Create intentional and brave conversations about gender in our communities–places to share, evaluate, process, adopt new practices together.
  • Ask at every table of leadership: how can we make room, make this table more balanced, who’s missing?
  • Recognize the realities of childbearing and honor it completely. That means keeping positions open, building flexible schedules, re-thinking the plans for advancement in churches & ministries.
  • The older generation of both men and women mentoring, supporting, encouraging, calling-out the younger generation of female leaders. Not just women supporting women but men and women supporting men and women.
  • Consider how to support women practically and tangibly through seminary and then ministry related to childcare help, books, mentorship, and financial support.
  • Start naming the elephant in the room before certain meetings and planning sessions get started–“We know women haven’t had an equal voice in this before. How can we shift that dynamic in here right now so everyone is heard?
  • Conference organizers and local have a solid and clear list of female speakers to draw from and use them; intentionally work toward balance.
  • Men showing up for gender equality conversations as much as women do (I added this one).

These are just a few of the things that were shared in our gathering. What would best practices you add?

My prayer and hope is that more and more spaces & places would be created where women and men were working freely alongside each other as equals, friends, brothers & sisters, and co-creators of wholeness and hope.

God, help us find our way together.


A few other notes:

  • Please read my friend and Denver pastor Kevin Colon’s reflection from the morning on Creating Gender Respectful Environments. I had already written this post when I read his, but really his summary is much better and so encouraging.
  • I’ll be at Sentralized in Dallas this Thursday and Friday sharing the content I love from Down We Go and would love to see you if you are there.


Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Thanks, Kathy, for continuing to talk about this topic and the power topic (which go hand in hand.) I appreciate so much that you are always inviting others to make their voice heard, and in doing so, maybe we can shift the balance of the status quo to see some movement toward change. Yay!
    I was glad to be in that room for the conversation with Deborah and loved the best practices ideas that were brainstormed. And I was saddened that the space was not packed out and that there were not equal numbers of men there to take part. I’m glad we have our refuge space to offer such events and hope more folks will join us in talking about hard topics and working together. It’s the kind of low key scenario that could be done anywhere, though, with tables to sit around and friends to gather!

    • yes, it is so replicable! i hope more people create spaces & places for these kinds of conversations. so grateful to have such an awesome teammate like you and a community willing to engage and practice and try and talk about it openly. a gift.

  • Excellent list, Kathy. I don’t know how to put this into a list, but let me share with you just one small thing that happened to me that somehow spoke volumes about how tough it is to break through this invisible wall/ceiling. I had a new boss – he’d been in place as senior pastor for about a year. And we had had some good conversations, and some hard ones, too, but I felt we were working our way to a good partnership. Then one day, he said, sort of offhandedly, “I told my wife the other day that I was feeling a little lonely since we moved here. And she said to me, ‘You know what? You need a colleague, another man to work with you. Maybe it’s time to start a search for a youth pastor.'” Yes, he said that to me, his female associate pastor as we were having a pleasant conversation. I was speechless. “Am I NOT a colleague?” I wondered. “Do neither of them view me as such??” I’d been at the church for 8 years at that point and had proven myself capable and collegial at many points along the way. But somehow, I didn’t fit the bill. That was when I knew that most men over the age of 50, even when their minds are in full agreement with parity and equality, are not quite able to make the heart jump. And maybe, never will be. (Ironically, he hand-picked another woman for that job. Oh, well.)

    • thanks so much for sharing, diana. argh, argh, argh. and real real real. this is such a great example of the subtle undercurrent that exists. i always appreciate hearing from you.

  • Thank you Kathy,

    I hear the points you express well with the focus on the needs for woman when women have not been afforded the freedom to be part of the decision making and have paid employment, where women’s contributions are not acknowledged, there there is media pressure on women for be a certain way, about stereotyping, about competitiveness among women, with few women on boards, not given the title “pastor” with comments about your looks and gender and male focused sermons.

    Wow, that’s quite a list!

    I had a great conversation with someone recently which to me is an attractive side to feminism where she talked of normative frameworks denied women by philosophical frameworks. She claims that traditional paradigms operate only form the nomalised male body, suggesting a need to rethink about the female mind and body and it’s potential. She proposed that ancient Indian concepts of two poles of reality envisaged as make and female energies may offer the possibility of a search for alternative paradigms.

    So in an attempt to accommodate needs for both men and women in culture, have we normalised things as what fits for men and what doesn’t for women? This seems to me to be a core issue in addressing your concerns.

    What concerns me is the low turnout of men with what you say was hard for you Kathy. Why do you think that is? In my time aware from this blog I have been reflecting deeply on this. Firstly I would share a little about what is a common them in your blogs about privilege and power that men have. My empirical reality is that while I acknowledge that I am a powerful man, I often don’t feel that way and sometimes it is only once someone has pointed that out to me and I realise that. When this occured on one occasion, I mentioned that all I do is be aware of how God is at work and what my part to play is in it to which the response “that is what makes you powerful” came. My experience in churches has been that it has been commented that I have “powerful presence” or a “presence” at different times. Given that these comments have occurred on separate occasions, I acknowledge that reality whatever my feelings or perceptions are at any given time. Of course to those that are give much power comes much responsibility.

    Having said that, I know that when I am at my most powerful it is also at my most vulnerable moments and because of what God is doing that I choose to be involved with, not down to me being white, heterosexual and male. Therefore I would suggest that this power is freely available to everyone.

    The other side of this is that I receive and have been on the receiving end of false accusations many times in churches. This is overwhelming, has been wounding, has frequently not been recognised never mind addressed and has required on several occasions that I leave the congregation. I have learned through these experiences that in order to take care of myself (and therefore be free to care for others) has required that I keep my heart more guarded, am less vulnerable with people and to avoid some people or situations (for example being alone with a woman).

    I am passionate about addressing what is harmful and what helps men and women and in that light could I suggest that a balance be struck between concerns for both the needs of women and of men in order that you don’t experience such hardship with the gender imbalance in attendance at these important meetings about putting theology into practice. If that were to happen the perhaps it might be conducive to attracting more men and not doing that may be a factor in men staying away?

    If you were to do that then I would come! (if you pay my plane fare) *wink*.

      • I’m perfectly fine with difference. difference isn’t always a bad thing but never having any difference is. Aren’t you proud of co-pastoring at the Refuge with someone who see thing very differently to you with the cooperation between you both? Unless of course you are offended by what I write and would want to attribute that to being “patriarchal” or inappropriate in any way in which case thats a symptom of a problem.

        I thought one feminist approach of the Indian two poles of reality related to male and female energies that may offer an alternative paradigm to off that currently denied women, and addressing false accusations made to men may be helpful for man and women in church and may attract more men therefore not making things as hard for you. If you don’t welcome such input then that’s an issue.

        Please do be encouraged to continue to do what helps men and women in the church.

  • Some best practices I would suggest: 1) more focus around contemplative activism. The work of Phileena Heuertz and Christopher Heuertz at The Gravity Center in Nebraska is wonderful work and is two years in existence now. They have worked with the poor internationally for two decades and have seen that community is not enough to sustain any kind of good work in the world. They do a lot around silence, solitude, stillness, listening, pilgrimage, centering and reflection. This is not seen as very masculine and men need to awake up to a contemplative spirituality. 2) practices of vulnerability, forgiveness, humility, listening in community where we become neighbors and relocate to a particular place living in some sense of proximity to one another (that’s a popular one!) need to be practiced and men need to tone down concepts of mission and preaching which are often times disembodied concepts, geared toward control, ego and pride in the name of God. 3) I think we need to practice a sense of discernment around simplicity and what this looks like. 4) We need to stop seeing the church as a meeting or a building that we grow and become a part of a local community as the body of Christ in everyday life together. We need to reimagine the church as the people in a particular place. This would help the whole patriarchy thing dissolve as men and women work alongside each other in everyday life for the common good of a neighborhood. 5) we need to reimagine the church as being in relationship with the poor, seeing Christ in the poor, sharing meals with the poor, and practicing hospitality in our lives with the poor. 6) Men should read more books by women. 7) Men should have spiritual directors who are women 8) We need to value collaboration over competition.

    • What you say Mark about contemplative spirituality not being seen as “very masculine” is not my empirical reality or that of men I know.

      I’m in a lot of agreement with you with both community, contemplative spirituality, practicing forgiveness, humility discernment of simplicity church as people in everyday life with people of all walks of life. Competition isn’t necessarily a bad
      thing. Good spirited competition in combination with collaboration can achieve great things.

      As the same time I am exhausted (literally) with trying to keep up with
      the number of things expected of men in the interests of affirming women and women in leadership that I am literally becoming numb to any suggestion of what men need to do. I do this in order to
      look after my own needs. If I am not caring for myself, I don’t have the
      energy needed to care for others.

      Surely this is reciprocal, if women are affirming to men, then it frees up men to be affirming to women and vice versa?

      Does that make any sense?

  • In my context, contemplative spirituality is not embraced by many men, especially pastors and people who run traditional churches. Jesus never taught competition, in my context men seem to be so influenced by sports, Christian athletes, the NFL, action movies of violence, aggression, womanizing, domination and control. This goes on unconsciously with us men and we partake of these cultural liturgies without questioning the whole thing. And I am from the Northwest in the state of Washington where the Seahawks dominated the NFL last year and won the Superbowl. There is so much energy in Seattle around the Seahawks and all the Christian athletes on the team playing football in the name of God. And I see people with so much more energy for the NFL than for their own interior growth. And this kind of masculinity is played out in many men in Washington where our spirituality is given very little thought, time, reflection or practice. A lot of our energy goes into things like the Seahawks beating another team, winning the Superbowl again, making more money, getting more converts to intellectual ideas about God, growing a North American model of church, teaching our sons never to cry and show honesty and vulnerability in life. Pretty sad. Sometimes I am ashamed in be a man in North America, but I can’t change who I am. I am sad to hear when men say they are becoming numb to the things expected of men in affirming women. What is expected of all of us is love and vulnerability. In my context, this has not been taught to men by the church and men are devalued for showing vulnerability, weakness, pain, uncertainty and fear. And this is destroying our world. Maybe it is different in different parts of the world or different states, but this has been my experience and it is very difficult for me to bear a Christianity of male domination in our North American context. Men need to get over their addiction to control and power learning how to live in reconciled relationship with women, the earth, the poor while dismantling North American masculine identities taught us by our disfunctional fathers, pastors, politicians and celebrities.

    • That’s a shame with what you say about contemplative spirituality not being embraced by many men in your context. Why do you think that is? Is it a cultural thing. I’m in Scotland, I hear similar things being said form an American I have skied with who talks of much of the culture in the US being about domination of and not being in harmony with nature. Perhaps this shines a light for me on why there is so much feminist push back against that? It tend not to happen quite so much over here.

      I perform stand up comedy form time to time and I was asking one of the other acts, what it was like for her (partly down to the conversations here) of being in a male dominated environment and had she encountered any sexism. For here there was little issue with that saying that we have “moved on” form that kind of thing.

      Of course that’s not to minimise anyone’s experience or the hardship they are going through if that is different and the need for that to be addressed!

      I hear what you say about the energy for the NFL rather than God. I guess it’s true for all of us that it can be a temptation to do what is pleasing to the senses and go of track, sometimes without even being aware of it and to be ever watchful of that?

      I hear what you say about the sadness you feel for me becoming numb, However it really has been needed for my own self-preservation. I hear what you say is your expereince in your context, but that doesn’t automatically make that true for all men. I hope you can appreciate that retribution towards men for things that other men have done is every bit of exercising dominance over someone as what you say men are doing in your context?

      I’m not intentionally staring any argument. I would like it if we were all friends. I guess I (literally) am tired of being treated as a threat by people for something that I didn’t have and choice over and didn’t ask for with being male, heterosexual, and white with sometimes wounding comments which are every bit as abusive as the abuse I am being falsely accused of.

      What I hope for is that we can have this appreciation of ourselves in our uniqueness as men and women and be affirming to each other where at the moment there are times when there is difficulty and wounding. I hear the responsibility on men for this. If women can take ownership too then it seems to me that we are some way to being on the right track with this.

      Also if we focus primarily on the perfect love in God rather than power, perhaps all these issues with power will work out? I recall Jung saying, “Where love rules, there is no will to power, and
      where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the

      Thanks for sharing Mark, it’s given me some insight into what might be differences in context between why is going on here in Scotland and the north american culture which may enable me to engage more fruitfully.

    • thanks, mark. we track in so many different ways…the heurtz’ came and shared at the denver faith and justice conference last year…contemplative action is one of the church’s best hopes…


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