Training Women to use their Gifts
Linda Allcock was invited onto Premier Radio in London to discuss women’s ministry from a complementarian perspective. We asked her to jot her thoughts down to help churches think about what Biblical women’s ministry can look like in our churches.
The question of how to train and encourage women to use their gifts in church is a hot topic at the moment. Before my interview on Woman to Woman on Premier, I did some reading up on the subject and I discovered that the debate has actually raged on for years.
I read a book published in 19921 which began: “why another book on women’s ministry? That is not an unreasonable question since we are in danger of being swamped by literature on the subject… (due to) the arguments of contemporary feminism.” Another written in the 1950s2 had a similar premise – since the rise of feminism women’s roles in the church have been the subject of much debate.
So it’s likely my interview on this subject was not the first, nor will it be the last!
Is progress being made? The radio presenter interviewing me had no problem with the idea of women being senior pastors, and was from a church where men and women were indistinguishable in their roles. I was acutely aware that this view was replicated amongst many listeners.
I personally am much happier with the conservative evangelical church’s slow progress in evaluating how women can best use their gifts in line with scripture, than the fast-paced change which has been mistaken for progress in many churches.
Although we had clearly different opinions of what we were training women for, the presenter was really humble, and genuinely wanted to hear my point of view – a huge answer to prayer. The questions the presenter asked were insightful: what are the obstacles to women using their gifts; and what are the steps a woman can take to start to use her gifts?
I’m wary of adding another piece of literature to what was already a swamp in 1992! So I offer this reflection of my experience out of a desire for genuine progress to be made in encouraging women to use their gifts in line with scripture to build up the local church. This is not an exhaustive review of what we could be doing, rather a conversation between two women from different backgrounds, wanting women to grow in using their gifts. I’ll be honest, some of it is what I wish I’d said, rather than an exact account!
We discussed the first question off air and I was grateful to the presenter for not pushing it on air as it was quite painful to untangle…
What are the obstacles to women using their gifts?
Firstly I wanted to clarify what the obstacles weren't.
a) Jesus is not the obstacle
He was so counter cultural in the way he treated and involved women in his ministry, and it would be good for church leaders to share his heart in wanting to involve women in the ministry of the church.
b) God’s word is not the obstacle
God has created us equal but different, with different roles. I am from a family where women ruled and when I became a Christian the Bible’s view seemed archaic. But I have learned over time that God’s design is beautiful, and submitting myself to the roles he has given to women has been a joy. There are a few things God has not called women to do, but if we’re honest most of the men in our church are not called to do them either. It seems a shame that the debate focusses on these, rather than the countless things God has called and gifted women to do!
Having given the politician's 'evade the question' answer, I felt compelled to offer a few obstacles...
i) Self Esteem
This is a major obstacle for women. Kristie Anyabwile3 tells a brilliant story of a time when she asked an older woman, Mama Gracie, to mentor her. Mama Gracie declined, saying she had her grandkids keeping her busy, and work. Kristie was devastated. Years later, Mama Gracie wrote her a letter of explanation and apology: "I wasn’t too busy for you. I was scared because I didn’t think I could do what you were asking of me."
Leaders must genuinely want women to use their gifts and that will take careful encouragement. I wanted to call this article ‘all the things I should have said…!’ By nature women – maybe all of us (?) – are down on ourselves. After the interview I felt really down. I was so encouraged when both my husband and my father-in-law told me they had listened to Woman to Woman as it aired (now that is humility!) and thought that I had done well. Their example epitomises how we can encourage women to use their gifts. We cannot ask women then simply tick the ‘oh well at least I asked’ box when they decline. Women, and I suspect men too, need careful encouragement to use their gifts.
The church’s tradition of how Bible passages are applied may be an obstacle.
Bishop Rod Thomas (whose daughter I am training up in our church!) expresses this well4:
“In the last year or two, churches like ours are trying to work out ‘are we over-applying our complementarian thinking?’ For example, in our church we don’t have women leading services. What does it mean to lead a service? Are they actually bringing teaching? Probably not. So does having a woman bring instruction about the service apply here? We are trying to ask those questions. If we are going to do different well, we need to do equal well.”
My experience of ministry amongst young women in The Globe Church is that they feel a massive disconnect between what they are taught at school that women can do, and their experience in church. In some respects such disconnect is thoroughly biblical, but if they feel women are not represented at all, we are in danger of haemorrhaging a generation of women.
Don’t hear me wrong, when The Globe Church began we had a woman join us who was clearly gifted musically. Upon discovering that she would never be able to become a Pastor in our church she left. It was painful for us, but formative as it reaffirmed to us that God was building our church his way, and his way is never the way of compromise, however tempting it seems at the time.
A year later, through a sermon series on 1 Corinthians, God really taught us that men and women must be active in using our gifts and so we are now carefully raising women up to pray, write, teach in appropriate contexts from all sorts of platforms.
iii) Appropriate Platforms
Another obstacle to women developing their teaching gifts is a lack of appropriate platforms from which women can teach.
Too often the gap between what a woman is doing in her local church and what she could be doing upfront in a women’s conference is too wide to span. No one wants to take a risk by inviting a little known inexperienced woman speaker to a women’s conference. I bridged that gap when a friend took a risk on me. She was ill and asked me to stand in for her speaking at a conference. I loved it, no one else hated it and from there invitations flowed to speak at other events.
When training women in The Globe Church, I try to create platforms in smaller contexts for women to practise speaking. Then I bridge the gap by taking women to conferences to do a short talk/seminar alongside me as the main speaker. Ironically there is a real shortage of upfront women Bible teachers, largely because the gap is too wide for less experienced women to bridge.
iv) Lack of Training
As early as 1992, Derek Prime wrote:
"We have tended to overlook women’s teaching gifts. This is to our shame and to the church’s great loss. Numerous opportunities exist for women to teach and preach in women’s meetings… this is frequently neglected and underrated. Seldom however do we encourage and train women to teach and to train others in this (Titus 2:3-5) way. That needs to be done, even as it is done for men."
The process of teaching the Bible is gender neutral, it is the contexts in which we use them that differ. I am grateful to Johnny Prime and Charles Dobbie who taught me Bible handling skills through a local church based course. I am thrilled that we run a similar course at The Globe Church for men and women alike. As churches we should be encouraging men and women to learn how to teach the Bible and train others to do so if we want to properly apply Paul’s instructions in Titus 2.
A lack of connection with other like-minded women can also be an obstacle. We need to make an effort to network if we want to grow in our gifts. So attend conferences, learn from other women and look at it being done well.
I have a couple of role models, women I watched doing a good job of what I felt I was gifted to do. Watching and learning from afar still falls within the remit of the Titus 2 model of older women teaching younger women. As does reading biographies of Christian women – of which we have no shortage thanks to Clare Heath-Whyte’s excellent books.5
This was my biggest obstacle. God in his wisdom did not give me opportunities to teach upfront until my forties. Aged 22 I knew the Bible and could arrogantly tell people what they needed to hear.
But now I know the darkness, it has been my closest friend. And that has transformed the way I teach. I always take people to the cross. The place they can find forgiveness rather than being crushed by feelings of guilt. Rather than teaching ‘you should’, I want people to receive grace, that through the Holy Spirit they find the strength to get up and try again.
The second question the presenter asked was live on air. She prefaced it with, "we have seven minutes, let’s make them count." Well I can tell you, that made any sensible thoughts fly right out of my head! By the grace of God, her intonation – a kind of unspoken "how do I move up the ladder?" – was striking and I felt I had to address that first, which bought me a bit of thinking time.
If I was a woman who thought I had a gift for public speaking, what should be my next steps?
Remember our gifts are for others
Firstly we must understand that God gives gifts “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up”6. Gifts are not given to us for our own personal advancement.
Use your gifts now
Martin Lloyd-Jones famously answered a woman who came to him with a similar question. He said something like: "you have five kids. Great. There’s your congregation, off you go!" Rather than taking steps to develop our gifts, we should be using them in the contexts God has given to build up others. Usually this will be in one-to-one Bible teaching which I would argue is the most effective way to teach the Bible. He may also give you opportunities in Bible study groups, in your family, and with non-Christian friends.
Seek out an older Christian woman to mentor you
When Paul tells Titus what to look for in a leader7 there is surprisingly little about gifts. He is much more concerned with character, godliness and the way the leader is in his home with his wife and children. If we want to grow, these are the areas we should be focusing on. Meeting with an older woman is the best and most biblical8 way to do this.
Don’t despise the distractions
As I look back, the distractions, the things I felt were getting in the way of me developing my teaching gift, like depression, like three small children, like friend’s marriages dissolving, like needing to earn some money – these were exactly what I needed to develop my teaching gift.
Now, when I speak, I understand what it’s like to never have time even for a loo-break let alone a quiet time. I have seen the brutal reality of marital break-up. I get why many women have to work even if they would rather be at home caring for their own children. I have counselled a friend through domestic violence, and helped another recovering from addiction. These distractions are the very things that resonate most closely with your hearers.
I was distracted whilst writing a chapter of a book I’m working on, by my friend going through chemotherapy. I was waiting for her to call so I could go in and be with her. I felt a bit frustrated to be so torn when I had wanted to focus on doing a good job of the chapter. What actually happened was that the backdrop of her treatment brought the truths in the Bible alive. Reading the Bible from your study is nothing like really suffering and seeing the person of Jesus literally walk off the page and minister in the specific darkness you are navigating.
Fan into flame your gift
Having said all of this, I am aware that Paul instructs Timothy to "fan into flame the gift of God."9 It is not wrong to want to use the gifts God has given you, and to get better at using them, provided you are doing this to build others up not to push yourself forward, and to glorify God not yourself. You could talk to your church leadership about the possibility of doing a Bible handling skills course. If you have a gift of writing, the way to improve is to practise – why not write letters of encouragement to a missionary overseas, or email them?
I remember a very formative sermon for me by FIEC Pastoral Ministries Director Johnny Prime from the book of Acts, “Get on with doing what disciples should do.” It is easy to be distracted by the question of gifts, when disciples should be sharing the amazing news about Jesus with others.
God does not have a plan for your life that bypasses that important life goal! Don’t pursue developing your gift, pursue glorifying God by telling others about him. That is what helps us to grow gifts that point to God alone, glorifying him not me, calling people to follow him not me.
1. Derek Prime, Women in the Church.
2. Rose Marie Miller, From Fear to Freedom.
3. Ed. Gloria Furman and Kathleen Nielson, Word-Filled Women’s Ministry, Chapter 7.
4. A Woman's Place on premierchristianity.com.
5. Clare Heath-Whyte, Old Wives Tales, First Wives Club and For Richer, For Poorer.
6. Ephesians 4:12
7. Titus 1:5-9
8. Titus 2:3-5
9. 2 Timothy 1:6