Why are Women Leaving the Church?

On this LIVE edition Tony Marino and Pastors +Brian Whiteside, +Michael Duncan, and +Jeff Klick discuss “Discipleship: Why Women Leave the Church.” We team God’s Word with our latest book, “The Discipling Church.” Guest Panelists: +J.R. Miller (Dr. Joe Miller), +jason velotta, +Michelle Hollomon, and +Shawn Savage (Shawn & Caroline Savage).

Post-Show Notes

This is one of our best shows to date and following are a few thoughts that I wrote down while listening to all of our great panelists.

  1. Most of our discussion focused on how to respond to the Barna research that women are leaving the church.  Jeff and I both pointed out that we need to be wary of how we use these statistics as often they are misused or abused (see HERE for more on statistics).
  2. Regardless of how one views these stats, we need to remember the importance of treating each person as an individual NOT as a statistic.  Nothing bugs me more than pastors who get up on Sunday and preach a sermon in response to the latest survey.  Leaders… we are not preaching to surveys, we are preaching to people.  Our relationship with the congregation should feed our message, not a response to some meaningless statistic.  Preach to your people about your people.  And if you don’t know your congregation well enough to preach a message directly to them, you should not be preaching.
  3. Some women leave the church because they are not valued as leaders.  Church, we need to change. In the past, our congregations have been shaped more by the American culture of bias against women rather then by the revelation of God’s Word and the leading of His Spirit who has empowered women to lead.
  4. Women get burned out because too much of their perceived value is in how much stuff they can do for the church. As American society has changed, women have, for better or for worse, taken on more responsibilities outside the home. No longer do women “need” church as an outlet for their talents. So until the church learns to value women for who they are as human beings over what they can do, we will continue to lose them to the World.
  5. Women’s giftings are not fully valued, and often pastors expect them to do HIS ministry and not theirs.  
  6. Women are already empowered by the Spirit to do amazing things!  So women don’t need to be “allowed” or “empowered” by men.  What women need is recognition for what God is already doing in them and then they must be supported in their efforts to fulfill their calling. (NOTE: this is also why many men have left the church because they are marginalized simply because they do not have a “pastoral” gifting.)
  7. The church, as it is structured, values ministry more than the ministers.  I have seen it first hand where pastors run-over and burn-out people simply because he wants his “vision” to succeed.  True, eventually many great program are created, but often it is only at the expense of women, and men, who were brused, battered, and beaten along the way. Until we change the culture that says, “Wow, look how big that ministry is.” and become a church that says, “Wow, look how many great ministers there are.” we will continue to drive women away form church.
  8. Women are leaving the church because it is becoming less about a living-community and more about promoting pastors.  I know I wont make any friends here, but the entire movement to build “video venues” is an impersonal and dehumanizing effort to focus on building big churches rather than more relational churches.  Yes, video venues are successful because we live in a culture that is okay with looking at a TV screen, but the church is built for relationship with people; not pixels.
  9. The Living Word of Jesus Christ is the center of community, not the “Pastor” or his sermon. As long as the sermon is the focus of church, we will lose women.

Okay, I know I have stepped on some toes, but I welcome your push-back and input on anything you feel needs clarification.

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for other young leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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  • Bob Livey

    This is a great video and I love your comments. I am sure it will upset some folks, but it needs to be said.

  • http://twitter.com/RobertM19116447 Robert Miller

    The church needs to do more to reflect the Bible’s high view of women!

  • http://twitter.com/ToscaSac T

    I think Jason really pulled in right towards the end the biggest thing I think was missing. Yes we gather to worship God and it is supposed to be all about Him. That however has little nothing to do with gathering in a building on a Sunday. The lack of real engaging and deep relationships among church members is what is missing. It is not what is going on Sunday that is driving women or keeping them away. I realize living in California as I do that many people are isolated away from extended families or sometimes the first or only to get saved. So joining a church becomes their family but there is no connection to hold on to them in a crisis. Things like divorce keep women out of church and away from church friends. I have been in many churches and barely if at all missed when I have left. I know my story is about the season of faith I am in but I also realize others have experienced things that I have. If I had not grown up in church or if I did not have a hearts commitment to the family of God I could be way more hurt and distanced.

  • http://twitter.com/Lyn_Smith Lyn Smith

    Joe, this is so good! I could write several paragraphs in
    response but there are two things I especially like. One is that women no
    longer “need” the church as an outlet for our gifts and talents
    because we are much more warmly welcomed other places. The world and other
    ministries don’t assign us to the kitchen, the nursery or the choir. They allow
    us to do what God created us to do. It’s unfortunate for the church that we can
    live out our purpose more fully in other places than the church. The other
    point I like is that we don’t need to be allowed or empowered by men. God has
    already allowed and empowered us. We have the great commission and the fullness
    of the Holy Spirit. We’re good to go. I do want to add that all godly
    relationships involve respect and mutual submission in the Spirit of Christ.
    There is no room for hostility and rebellion, which I have seen in frustrated
    women. We simply need to do what God calls us to do, wherever He takes us. I
    personally would love to see women able to do more in the church but I’m not
    going to allow that desire to foster ungodly attitudes and behaviors.

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Lyn, you bring up some nuance to my comments that I had not considered. If you write up something longer… let me know and we can do another guest post sister!

      • http://twitter.com/Lyn_Smith Lyn Smith

        You got it! Such a great topic …

  • http://twitter.com/PaulaPitzler Paula Pitzler

    Many thanks to Michelle Holloman for speaking for women who have left the church. Her understanding of the pain that women have suffered within the confines of Church was a great addition to the discussion. Thanks for speaking up and using your voice Michelle!
    Joe, thank you for giving this discussion further reach. While I do not agree with all of the conclusions I am glad that this discussion is taking place.

  • Vivian Ruth Sawyer

    Thank you so much, Joe, for taking this topic on. So many want to avoid it. I thought your Post-Show Notes were excellent, too — and that’s why I was a little disappointed when I actually sat down and watched the video — because the same constructive tone didn’t seem to dominate the video as much as it does in your Post-Show Notes.

    Just for example: when we are told by Barna that 11% of women have left the church in the last 20 years, is the best response really, “They’re just too sensitive!” or “People want a feel-good church, and when the going gets rough, they cut out!”? Granted, I’m doing a quick-and-dirty paraphrase, a trifle exaggerated for affect, but when people are struggling with a sense of invalidation, disenfranchisement, or being overlooked or not respected, I’m not sure suggesting that they are too sensitive or too undisciplined is the Christlike response. Perhaps when we hear that any group is leaving the church, we should respond graciously: “We care about your feelings. We want you to know that you count, you are important to us. We are sorry that you’ve been hurt. We need to improve.” Shouldn’t that be our first response? Because let’s face it: in the instance of Barna’s research, we don’t know any precise details about why females have left the church, so to assume immediately that it’s because those leaving are too sensitive or too superficial in their faith is only to shift the blame off the church and right back on the wounded parties. Does this help? Are we here to pat ourselves on the back and cast blame on those disaffected, or are we here to learn and improve?

    One thing I’d like to challenge the video participants to do, especially those from the United States, is to take the research statements and the the individual comments about them, and, just for the purposes of interest, substitute “African-Americans” for “women” and see how individual responses sound in that context. Not only that, but where the Barna research uses words like “females” or “women,” (which, to carry out the analogy, would be rendered “African-Americans” if we turned the topic to race relations in an out of church), translate the responses in parallel fashion, which would be to use the words “black,” (barely acceptable in professional circles), or “colored people,” (no longer acceptable) or “Negroes,” (no longer acceptable) or. . .well, I don’t even want to write the equivalent of “gals,” because I can’t think of a term that anyone would not be horrified to write or utter.

    I know how this comes off to some of you: some of you are rolling your eyes at the “politically correct” tone of what I’m writing. I’m sympathetic to your reaction, but here’s the thing: because the church MUST be “politically incorrect” in a number of our stances on the issues of the day, does it not make sense to make every effort to use vocabulary that IS politically correct? Why should we care about that? We should care because if we can use politically correct vocabulary without compromising our moral standards, we thereby help the world to hear to the substance of what we say, rather than being distracted by the archaic and — to many — bigoted fashion in which we say it. Do we need to sound like Don Imus? Or could the church look and sound like people who want to be on the front edge of liberality in terms of receiving and loving people, since we must in many other areas stay rooted in convictions that are considered “conservative” by the unchurched?

    Finally, I wonder if it wouldn’t make sense when dealing with topics such as these for the panel itself to be constituted more equitably. Take, again, the race analogy: If we were discussing a study that dealt with issues of international or racial diversity and sensitivity in the church, would the best panel for discussion consist of 85% white men, or would our intuition tell us that we should change the panel composition for this issue? And, I’ll as your forgiveness in advance for this, but when the church consists of at least 50% women and a large percent of non-Caucasians to begin with, why would ANY panel on ANY topic consist of 85% white men? Again, I know this will sound like a preoccupation with racial and gender quotas, and intolerably “liberal” for many evangelical Christians. But at least in this case, Barna’s very premise was based on women reacting differently to a certain environment, was it not? So if one really wanted to learn what that is like from inside the minds and hearts of the objects of the treatment, would it not make sense for the panel to be more balanced in terms of gender makeup? I thought Michelle and Caroline did a laudable job of clarifying, politely, issues that carry a lot of pain and heartache for many of us. It probably would have been fairer to them, and to the topic, if a larger percentage of women had been included in the first place. I’m also very impressed with the upbeat and evenhanded comments on this blog from the women contributors. It takes a lot of spiritual and general maturity to take what the much of the church doles out to women with such good humor and equanimity.

    This is just a superficial dusting of things that are much deeper, but to summarize, I think these measures could make a big difference in continuing to discuss this issue:

    1) We should give people the benefit of the doubt: if they say they’ve been treated abominably, we should trust that they have been, and not question the integrity of their woundedness.

    2) We should make every attempt to learn to express ourselves with vocabulary and terminology that the secular world would consider updated, so that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot with outdated colloquialisms, at the same time we’re trying to take the high road in other verbal self-assertions.

    3) In terms of the leaders invited to participate on various topics, we should include more individuals who can speak to the topic from inside experience — which is not to say that we want the panel to dwell on anecdotal accounts, but that a demographically representative panel implies true listening to those who might have personal insight into why a particular group has left the church.

    The last thing I’ll contribute is to point out that several panelists assumed that the instances that cause women to leave the church are between and among lay people. In fact, often the problems stem from egregious misbehavior on the part of clergy — misbehavior that the institutional system of accountability is either inadequate to address, or shows no interest in addressing. This is tragic, but alarmingly common. Until we gain an appetite for reaching out to those who’ve been victimized, for listening to them carefullly, and subsequently, for upsetting the apple cart by confronting people with whom we are in friendly, brotherly relationships (intentional use of the masculine adjective), smart, educated, and talented women with great gifts to contribute will continue to leave.

    Some will find meaningful work elsewhere, and I’m thankful to God to be one of those. Some will flounder.

    In any case, I again want to convey my appreciation to Joe and the entire panel for the willingness to tackle this issue. I hope we haven’t heard the last of it. Deep thanks to all.

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller


      First let me say that I am honored you would take the time to share so much of your thinking on my blog. There are a lot of forums for these discussions out there and everyone’s time is limited so thank you for giving me the honor of hosting your ideas on More Than Cake.

      The show obviously has its limitations… it is just 1 hour with a small cast of people. We do not pretend to have all the answers nor are we so arrogant as to think our views represent every possible perspective. The gender makeup of our panel is not the biggest issue though, because no matter how diverse we are, we could never reflect all possible demographics. So instead, our goal is to gather a group of intelligent, well-spoken, compassionate, Jesus-loving panelists who will inspire everyone listening to engage in these important issues.

      So here is my offer to you Vivian. I talked with my producer and we wanted to invite you to join in as a panelist for a future discussion on this topic. Are you interested? Let us know. We would be more than happy to have you share your ideas with our radio and internet audience.

      You can call or email the main office and talk to our producers to get something planned by visiting us at http://www.christiandiscipleshipministries.com/tv/

      If you want more details, you can always contact me as well.

      We would be pleased to have you join the conversation sister!

      • Vivian Ruth Sawyer

        I would be more than happy to participate as a panelist on this topic, Joe — although I’m more in ministry preparation (writing a book this year and starting an M.Div. next year) than in active public ministry right now. But if y’all think I would be a “fit” in spite of my ministry being temporary behind-the-scenes, I’m delighted to contribute, pending schedule coordination. I’ll visit the site. In the meantime, if you foresee the topic being addressed again, just let me know. Thank you for your response.

        • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

          Everyone on the panel has a different background, so your status in ministry is not that important. I hope we can book you to join the panel. Blessings!

          • Vivian Ruth Sawyer

            Great! Just let me know when you’ll be revisiting the topic. Happy Advent!

    • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

      Great timing, this article from the Harvard Business Review came across my news feed today, “Stop Asking Women Why They Haven’t Gotten Ahead” – http://bit.ly/Sjz5P5

      The interesting part, is that their study addresses your concern about too many men on the panel. When asked why women don’t get ahead, this CEO was stunned at row radically different the answers were from men and women. According to the article;

      “”I never would have believed such a difference in analysis if I hadn’t just witnessed it. The men blamed the system, the women are blaming themselves!”

      He had suddenly understood that women are not always the best or only source to understanding the causes of gender imbalances — nor designing solutions to eradicate them. This would be a useful lesson for many leaders — male and female — around the world to understand. It is time to recognize that it is the people currently in power who are the ones best able to understand and adapt their systems.”

      Interesting conclusion huh?

      • Vivian Ruth Sawyer

        Sure, yes — except that some of the panelists seemed not to be blaming the system, but blaming the women leaving the church. I think a couple of them said, in essence, “Isn’t it just that women are too sensitive?” or “Some people leave when faith gets difficult.” That isn’t blaming the system, is it? That sounds more like blaming the women. But perhaps a deeper distinction between male business leaders and male church leaders today MIGHT be that male business leaders have finally reached the point where they actually want women involved in leadership: they see it as an ingredient in greater profitability and success in the marketplace. Church men as a group are really divided about whether it’s desirable to have women involved at a high level: many just want us to be silent and do menial labor. Once that was the attitude of men in business, too, but they have adapted faster than men in church.

        I wish the church weren’t so often the last to arrive at more enlightened attitudes. That was the case during the abolition movement, too — the church, by and large, was interested in protecting the status quo, and few were on the side of the angels. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit knows how to move the church! He’s been in that business a very long time! :-)

        • http://www.MoreThanCake.org/ J.R. Miller

          hmmm… I am sorry it came across that way as I am confident any of our panelists would regret giving that impression.

          That being said, there are MANY reasons women are leaving church. I think it is a BOTH / AND answer. Our culture emphasizes feelings as the final guide to action and many women (and men for that matter) allow their feelings to lead them. I don’t tink that invalidates anything else our panelists said about the church needing systemic change.

  • judy

    pretty well sums it up…as a woman I am looking for fellowship of real people who care about each other and the Lord. Period.

  • judy

    and…have left the congregational institution…submission to men makes them into sinners…they need the strength of women speaking and standing up to them or the power goes to their heads…sorry, but this is from 30 years of experience…No one should have power…Jesus commanded this, Paul said “not that we have dominion over you”…so why do men think they have dominion over anyone, men or women? Seeing a majority of men trying to figure this out is sad…you will never take responsibility for the leaving of women…but there are just too many men in charge today…

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