When I first found out that I would be a part of a panel discussion about why women are leaving the church, I immediately was excited. Great! I love talking about issues that women uniquely face.  Then I started to think about the controversy this topic could create, and I got a little weak in the knees. And this is why.

I stayed in a church that undervalued women way too long. And talking on a panel discussion on this issue was going to stir the pot that had been left to cool on the back burner. My experience with this church was that there was a subtle, unspoken rule that a woman’s role was standing by her man. She could lead in children’s and women’s ministry,  she could sing in the choir and do administrative work, but a woman in general leadership of the church was just not going to happen. This was not preached from the pulpit, but gender hierarchy was embraced and practiced by the culture of the church.

Later, rather than sooner, I came to my senses and had the freedom and courage to find a church home that values women appropriately. The following is what I’ve learned happens as a progression in women’s hearts and heads faced with the problem of “value.”

  • Confusion: When a woman is gifted, talented, and predisposed toward teaching, speaking, and leading, she will become confused as to her place in a church that does not value women in these roles. If she’s new to church, she may think to herself, “That’s weird. The glass ceiling exists in church too?” But more times than not, she is not new to the church, she has been raised in the church- or one similar. If this is the case, she may not be as confused as she is resigned. She may have accepted her place as a reduced  member confined to gender specific roles.
  • Self Doubt: When a woman attends a church in which she feels her gifts and talents must be pigeon holed into gender-specific roles, she will begin to experience self doubt. She may feel passionate and driven toward specific functions and service within the church like teaching, decision making, mentoring, financial advising or preaching, but questions her motives, her ability, and her giftedness. She begins to question her calling.
  • Shame: Once a woman begins to doubt her calling, giftedness and skills, she will inevitably experience shame. This is a natural byproduct of the cognitive dissonance that she experiences between her personality and her church. Maybe she is a career gal, a respected leader or manager at work or school Monday through Friday, but shifts into neutral or reverse on Sundays. She can’t quite integrate her personality with her church’s standards, and she takes it personally. She feels “different”, like she’s on the “outside” of what a good Christian woman is supposed to be like. This is shame. Shame is the sinking feeling that there is just something wrong with her. If she wasn’t so “bossy” or so “head strong” or such a “feminist” then maybe they would accept her. There is something wrong, but it’s easier to believe that the wrong is inside of her, than to believe that there is something inherently wrong with the system.
  • Disempowerment: The Shame and Doubt the woman feels now eventually steals her power to be the strong, confident, purpose driven woman she was destined to be. She has lost hope that she will ever be accepted for who she really is. She feels powerless to do anything about it. Her powerlessness doesn’t just affect her, it affects the health of her family and the church overall. Her church misses out on the gifts and mission that only she can fulfill, because she has cut off from her God-given true identity.

This sad series of developments not only happens in churches, it happens in families and institutions where Control is valued over Freedom. Where Fear trumps Love.

In addition to asking the question “Why are Women Leaving Church”, we can also ask, “Why do Women Stay in Churches Where they are Undervalued?”

The answer may be in familiarity. The system is familiar, but disguised just enough that women are not consciously aware of how toxic it is. Pia Melody  (Author of Intimacy Factor and Facing Love Addiction) says,

“We attempt to heal the wound to our self esteem by trying to resolve the issue we were never powerful enough to solve as children: making an abandoning person love us.” In other words, women put themselves in impossible situations trying to make the impossible happen. Unconsciously they are saying to themselves, “If I can just get this church to recognize me as valuable, then I will prove to myself that I’m valuable.”

And that will never happen. You know the definition of insanity right?

The healthiest thing for a woman to do is to explore her value apart from Man’s value of her. She must find her worth and value within the context of a loving relationship with her Maker. If the system and culture she is in reinforces worthlessness and disempowerment, then finding some separation from that system is important for healing.  Self acceptance is the beginning of healing. Accepting the person that God has made her to be, and all the blunders that come along with being human is the first step in getting healthy. Once she is able to accept herself as valuable and gifted, she will be able to think and act like the spiritually confident female she is.

I’m not sure what that means for you who are reading this, or what opportunities await you. I don’t know if that means finding a new church home, or affecting change in the one you’re in. But I do know it means truth instead of confusion, confidence instead of self doubt, love instead of shame, and power instead of disempowerment. Are you feelin’ it? It’s possible, and it’s for you!

The church I attend now values women in all kinds of roles: women as pastors, women as board members, women as teachers. The church is not perfect, but the structure is set up to be a safe place for women to thrive in their God-given talents, whatever the role.  In churches like mine, where women are valued and serve the Body of Christ according to their giftedness, not culturally conditioned gender-roles, women will experience the freedom to explore their talents, and hone their skills in Kingdom service. What better place to be fully empowered to serve, than in God’s church?

Michelle is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Washington and Texas, and a Certified Professional Coach. Michelle is in private practice near Seattle,WA helping people realize personal significance, manage anxiety and achieve relational health. Michelle also hosts her own weekly show, “Relationship Coach Radio” on the Alive In Christ Network.

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