What’s Wrong with Women’s Ministries: A Response to Sarah Bessey

I’m not very adept at using language about modern technologies, and probably couldn’t tell a meme from a mime. But can a link go viral on someone’s Facebook page? I don’t know . . . but something like that (however one would define that) seemed to happen last week, when one of my Facebook friends posted to another a link to Sarah Bessey’s article, “Why We Don’t Need ‘Women’s’ Ministires.” In a matter of days, many of my friends were reposting the link, sending it to others with the comment “You should read this!” People were responding here and there about how much the article spoke to their own condition. At least one said reposting on her page seemed “risky,” but she was going to do it anyway. I agreed with the risk, and responded privately to another person about what the article said to me.

Something Bessey wrote must have struck a chord with folks who wouldn’t normally be turning to churchleaders.com for guidance. The protracted comments section at the end of her article suggests she pricked at something in lots of people, who responded enthusiastically in positive—and negative—ways.

The basic premise of her article seems this: women’s ministries have, for too long, focused on superficial matters, like decorating cupcakes and scrapbooking. She writes that in women’s ministries, “We’re choking on cutesy things and crafty bits, safe lady topics, and if one more person says that modest is hottest with a straight face, I may throw up.” Bessey argues women are in search of “deep spirituality,” and what they get too often in women’s ministries are dumbed-down decorating tips and the space to complain about housework and their spouses. Her suggestion? “Please stop treating women’s ministry like a Safe Club for the Little Ladies to Play Church.”

I’d like to sit down with all my friends who re-posted and ask them what resonated with them in Bessey’s article. Some who re-posted the link claimed, on their Facebook pages, that the women’s ministries they attend were different than what she characterized: that the women’s ministries at their church offer the hard-core, deeply spiritual ministry Bessey longs for when she writes “Let’s be a community of women, gathered together to live more whole-heartedly, to sharpen, challenge, love, and inspire one another to then scatter back out to our worlds bearing the mandate to be women that love.” And I think that’s great—I’d like to find that same kind of community among women at church.

Problem is, I’ve never felt comfortable at any of the women’s ministry groups at any of the churches I’ve attended. Yes, I can make such a global statement, because I can still remember sitting in a sewing circle at age 12, as part of our Mennonite church’s Loyal Workers (a ministry group for girls), and telling the leaders I thought we should be more proactive, foregoing that year’s Christmas taffy pull to visit the elderly in our community. The leaders weren’t happy, and my mom got a call later that evening from Mrs. Kraus, complaining about my insubordination. God bless mom; she told Mrs. Kraus there wasn’t anything wrong with what I’d said.

Anyhow.

While I envy the close sisterhood I see emerging from my church’s women’s ministry on Thursday morning, I’ve felt alienated from that group as well, by virtue of its meeting on Thursday morning, which naturally excludes women who work. Although I’m fairly sure my church’s ministry team doesn’t intend this message, what the meeting time has spoken to me over the years is this: women who work are not invited into this community; or, even, godly women don’t work outside the home. (Let me repeat: I know this isn’t necessarily the message intended by my church. It’s just what I’ve received.) And I know my church has made glancing efforts to have a women’s group meet in the evenings, but not with the same energy that has been given the Thursday morning group.Sure, some of the women’s ministries events are on the weekends, when I could probably come. But these events seem to be the same as those Bessey describes: the “soft” gatherings for tea and crafts and such that wouldn’t engage me quite like open conversations about spirituality, theology, current events—the discussions that are apparently happening on Thursday mornings.

And actually, I think I’ve found a community that (to quote Bessey again) “gathers together to live more whole-heartedly, to sharpen, challenge, love, and inspire one another to then scatter back out to our worlds bearing the mandate to be women that love.” My book group, meeting once a month, has become a rich gathering for me, where I can hear women’s stories in an unprogrammed way, connecting with them over the books we read and our lives’ experiences. (Having several beach retreats, where we eat and sleep and watch TV and walk on the beach and laugh has been helpful in forging that community, too.) I’ve also found community with my colleagues at work, all of whom minister in different ways to students and to each other; when we meet, I feel sharpened, challenged, and inspired as well.

So I wonder whether having women’s ministries that are programmed to the hilt are the best approach to creating the community Bessey seeks? Do women need the crafting tables, the women’s teas, the women’s Bible studies “with pink or flowers on the cover”? (And, analogously, does the church need men’s ministries, where brothers go hunting together and have meat and do other presumably manly things?) Is there a way to draw together people into community despite their different places in life—to include those who work, those who stay home, those who are single, those who are not mothers and those who are? And finally, I wonder why Bessey spoke so deeply to many of my friends (Facebook and otherwise). If we’re all seeking something different than what’s been offered us in most women’s ministry programs, how do we create that which we seek? And if we’re certain that our ministry programs are far different than what Bessey describes, how can we make sure to include those who have always felt left on the outside, looking in?