Pursuing Partnership Series, Part 6: Limping through Mixed Messages

Pursuing Partnership Series: Men & Women in Ministry

Part 6: Limping through Mixed Messages

By Eva Burkholder, Christar-Asst Member Care Dir, and Wendy Wilson, Women’s Development Track-Exec Dir

Editor’s Note: Eva Burkholder and Wendy Wilson both have worked in cross cultural as well as US  church ministry. They consider here the mixed messages, tensions and confusion for women in ministry.

I (Eva) grew up in a missionary home, with mixed messages regarding women. At home I saw my parent’s version of the “husband head of the house and submissive wife” model, yet my mother took a lead role in the Bible translation. In the mission, women never delivered sermons or became directors, but they shared from the platform, taught linguistics and ran departments. Feminism and the women’s rights movement were frowned upon but my father required his daughters to have a fall-back career and encouraged girls in rural villages to be educated. Despite the fact that women all around me were highly educated, pioneers, translators, and independent thinkers, the roles of wife and mother (which I love but find don’t express all of who I am) were held as the highest expression of spiritual womanhood, even as they served in other crucial roles.

I (Wendy) grew up in a loving, but unreligious home, where my parents lived out the 50s prosperity model for husband bread-winner and wife at home, but encouraged me to follow wherever my interests and abilities led me. When I became a believer and embraced a local church fellowship, I began to hear ideas about the roles of men and women that were puzzling to me. However, I just wanted to obey Jesus, so I accepted this new paradigm. I heard “Go after God full-tilt!” but wrestled with how to do that genuinely as a woman with leadership tendencies who knew her place. Still, wonderful things were happening as I grew in my faith, so I held those male/female tensions internally until God began to untangle them years later.

While Wendy has a few years on Eva, both of us have served as career missionaries during much of our adult lives, as well as in local church ministry in the U.S.. Eva grew up in a missionary family to boot. We are women to whom God chose to entrust and develop leadership and strategic thinking gifts. But it took a while to recognize what God was doing, both for us and those around us. Over these years we’ve begun to understand more of what we have navigated in the evangelical tradition we both embrace. We love its devotion to Jesus and His Great Commission and we want to serve God with abandon and obedience to His Word and His Spirit!

But we, like other sisters and brothers, have also begun to better understand where tradition and culture have perhaps guided our practice more than a robust theology of men and women in the body of Christ and in the image of God. We are beginning to recognize mostly unintended confusion and hesitation in fully offering those gifts, and the push/pull dynamic that it creates. We want to help identify and unravel mixed messages about who women and men are, and how God intends us to walk out our faith as part of His Body. By taking a closer look at our inconsistencies in practice, we can diffuse the tension it creates for our staff, and also release some powerful Kingdom resources that may be lurking in the shadows of uncertainty.

When we each became cross-cultural workers ourselves in different missions and in different parts of the world, the mixed messages continued. Women weren’t considered for certain roles—or at least given the title if they did the work—but they played an active role in evangelism, church planting and strategizing. And they also led team worship, fellowship, children and other women. It seemed that the specifics of what women were and were not allowed to do—and especially how that actually looked—varied among churches, missions, and cultures. And so it continues today. Even though women are respected and valued in most North American Christian organizations, could it be that this disconnect is still entrenched in a way that causes the Body of Christ to limp?

Jennifer Hoines, president of Therapy Clinics International, is a missionary who offers her skills as a physical therapist to expose others to the beauty of the gospel.  Her description of what happens to a body when it is partially paralyzed, led only by the half its parts, paints an alarming picture to consider:

“What happens when a person experiences a stroke? The answer depends upon the part and side of the brain affected. Commonly, a person will suffer from paralysis to one side of the body, causing difficulty or the inability to perform daily activities such as dressing, eating, and walking. Some people lose the ability to speak or the ability to understand what is being spoken to them. Daily tasks we perform without thinking, like brushing our teeth, become difficult to impossible as some lose the ability to identify common objects or put together the steps to complete a task. Some people will experience extremes of emotions, fear, and anxiety, resulting in responding more cautiously than a situation requires. Others will move around with reckless abandon, unaware that they are hurting themselves as they slam their affected side into objects, not realizing it is part of their body. Following a stroke, the body no longer functions as it was created to, the person isn’t operating at full capacity, and the effects and implications extend beyond the person and their family.” 

As we give ourselves to taking the gospel to the world, let’s be sure we are not functioning in a self-paralyzed condition, but at full and healthy capacity as the Body of Christ!  We need men and women both to fully bring their vision and giftedness to our task.

Questions for reflection:

What are some of the mixed messages you have received about women in your organization?

What does your organization, host culture and/or agency communicate about women?

Of all the topics your agency prioritizes, where does the engagement of women fall?