I am looking forward to a day retreat this week in the heart of the Lancashire countryside. The North West Baptist Association has invited women ministers together, to reflect in peaceful surroundings on common issues and challenges, and to give one another support.
Inevitably, there are many issues common to both men and women in ministry, but there are some experiences that find voice and solidarity more easily in the company of other women, and I am grateful for such a space in which to explore them.
Times have changed in the 18 years since I left college for my first pastorate. Back then I was the only woman minister in my Association, one of only two in the area, and there were those who were keen to impress upon me my inferior status.
Ecumenically I had no female colleagues, and I had to travel out of the area to see my probationary senior friend, as they were then called. It seemed important at the time to have a woman minister as my senior friend, simply because I knew no women locally in ministry with whom I could check out my perspectives and experiences and explore what it might mean to be myself in a model of ministry shaped largely by men.
When I moved to the North West in 1994, I began to stumble across more women colleagues, and there was an encouraging number at this gathering last year. The North West is not such a difficult place to settle women as some parts of the country. However, we are still a long way from being a representative group in relation to our constituent churches. The membership of Baptist Union of Great Britain churches is two-thirds female, yet fewer than 10 percent of accredited ministers are female.
Overwhelmingly our churches are led by men. But what worries me is the seeming lack of prospects for change. At the moment our ministerial recognition committees are not exactly being crushed in the stampede of women coming to test their call to ministry.
Theoretically our structures are open to women candidates, yet only a handful present themselves for interview each year.
I don’t think we can say that God is simply not calling women into ministry, not without analyzing what forms and comes to constitute a sense of call in a person’s life.
For most of us, whatever our vocation, a call comes not through writing on a wall or a heavenly voice, but out of the raw material of relationships and experiences and our reflection upon them in the context in which we find ourselves.
Many gifted women find themselves in a context which offers no role models to provoke the question, “What if I were called to do that too?” Many find themselves channeled by their churches into other activities, rather than being challenged to try out or develop confidence in potential “ministry.”
Many find themselves in churches that are at best ambivalent about the leadership of women. A recent study showed that around a third of Baptist ministers don’t believe a woman should be in a position of leadership in relation to a man. Another third are unwilling to come down one way or the other. The likelihood of a woman in a church with such a minister having her gifts identified and encouraged, and her confidence developed, is not very high.
Recognition in ministry is not something it is easy to push for against the discourse all around you. A vocation often seems to feel better coaxed out of a person, recognized and nurtured by others. It can go against the grain for many of us to be placed in a position of having to push for the call we feel drawn to explore and set free in our lives.
And so we don’t.
We can add to that a traditional model and expectation of ministry as isolated perpetual availability, which sacrifices family life and relationships, as if that’s an inevitable cost of the call.
Many women find themselves doubting their ability to deliver at the same time as investing in the people they care for, the friendships that would sustain them, and the expectations of a normal home.
I believe this is an important issue for both genders, but more women seem to articulate this as a factor in their inhibition about ministry, or about applying for ambitious posts once in ministry. Their work, however vocational, is not the only measure of their identity or the fullness of their lives.
I wonder whether there is a role here for Associations to work on this issue. Women are still under-represented in the structures and committees of our Union.
Surely the Association is the place for talent-spotting? The place where talented women can be spotted and invited to get involved, given opportunities to learn skills and grow confident in them.
There are good women out there who don’t even know what they are capable of, who need to be empowered, brought on in the local context, in order to nurture dreams of what more they could dare in God’s name.
Jo Harding is minister of Cheadle Hume Baptist Church in Cheshire, England. This column appeared previously in The Baptist Times.