In a university setting, students are often asked a seemingly innocent question: “What are your plans for the future?” Although it sounds like small talk, the question can be quite difficult to answer. To answer this question, we must have a vision of possibilities for the future. A vision for future employment is necessary for any field, including those desiring an active role in ministry. Local congregations ought to consider how they are helping others develop a vision for ministry. Lack of ministry vision affects all ages and both genders; however, emerging male leaders often have more role models, mentors, and opportunities than females.
As a part of my dissertation research at Fuller Theological Seminary, I surveyed the sophomore class of a mainstream Church of Christ university. Dr. Elizabeth Loutrell Glanville (Fuller Theological Seminary) found in her own research that most people will gravitate toward same-gender examples. I presumed that the same would hold true for my sample when I asked them which gender provided the greatest encouragement to grow spiritually before college. Among Church of Christ students, 83.3 percent of male students chose a male spiritual example. This was expected. However, the response of female students was unexpected. Only 51.1 percent chose a female spiritual example, and 42.9 percent chose a male spiritual example. Of the remaining students, 2.6 percent of women stated that they did not have an example at all that encourages their spiritual growth. Results like this almost raise more questions than they answer, but they deserve reflection.
The path toward vision development is easiest when there are people who are opening doors and showing potential areas of ministry and involvement. Development is boosted when someone helps the developing leader identify his or her gifts. Often this takes place when an active church member or leader takes the time to mentor. However, women are overlooked when it comes to mentoring, and therefore face several challenges when it comes to vision development.
First, a woman may never have seen another woman in ministry. It is hard to imagine what you have never seen, and even harder to figure out how to get there when you do not have a path. in the book, Spiritual Mentoring, James M. Houston reflects that a tree planted in a clearing of an old forest has a better chance of growth than one that has been planted alone in a field (p. 10). He discusses how young trees are able to root more successfully when they follow pathways made by older trees, and he uses this to show the importance of mentoring. While it is certainly not impossible for a woman to put down roots in a ministry of which she has not seen an example, lack of modeling puts the female mentee at a disadvantage. Church leaders and active members have an opportunity to help her see the possibilities for her own ministry.
Second, if others have not allowed her to participate in active leadership roles or opened doors for her, she may not have had many opportunities for ministry exploration or mentoring. Churches need to take an honest look at their leadership development efforts. The critical question that must be asked is, “Who are we missing?” Even though there is an existing leadership development effort, it may not be touching all who need it. Many times young women will leave our churches without an understanding of their gifting or enough experience to use it confidently.
Third, she may struggle to put into words what is in her heart. Often when a woman cannot give a detailed answer about her ministry plans it leads to silence. This silence could be perceived as apathy, disengagement, or aimlessness. Church leaders must see this as an opportunity to mentor, to help her articulate her desire for ministry and her dream. When she cannot imagine the specifics, mentors can give her opportunities to explore her gifting and talents.
Helping women requires churches to become aware of their needs and struggles in the area of vision development. Keeping our eyes open for those who appear to be willing to learn and to engage in ministry is the first step. Then beginning an intentional engagement with them to help them develop is the next. The challenges facing our churches are too great, and our role in our communities is too important for us not to take development of all willing and able members seriously. Female members in the church have much to offer, but without role models and clear pathways to service, we may, at the least, frustrate these sisters and unintentionally send them away to places where they may flourish spiritually. Seeking to develop both genders to fulfill their mission in Christ should be one of the primary concerns of local congregations.
Anessa is currently serving as an Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. She is a graduate of Harding University (B.A. in Psychology), Harding School of Theology (M.A. and M.Div.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (certificate), and Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.). As a speaker and writer, her specialty is female spiritual development and textual studies. She is passionate about helping women discover their gifts. Anessa is married to Tim and they have three high school/college-age children.