The Common Good

Holy Angst: Holding Up a Mirror to Ourselves

Editor’s Note: A national study of women in leadership among evangelical nonprofit organizations has been launched by Gordon College. The advisory board for the study is co-led by Emily Nielsen Jones of the Imago Dei Fund and D. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College. This essay is adapted from an interview with Emily Nielsen Jones about why this study matters which can be read in its entirety at http://www.gordon.edu/womeninleadership/interview.

Where do our policies and practices run counter to our larger humanitarian goals?

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I grew up in an evangelical setting, and have been very familiar with gender role ideology that affirms women’s human equality yet still circumscribes women to a “role” at the margins of decision-making. Nonetheless, I was always inspired by the culturally radical way Christ treated and honored women as well as Paul's proclamation in Galatians that in Christ, there is no distinction between slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile. So at this stage in my life, I have become increasingly aware of, and distressed by, how some religious-based ideas are contributing to the dangerous mix of cultural ideas, norms, and humanitarian problems that continue to wreak havoc on the bodies and souls of girls and women around the world. That’s primarily why our foundation, Imago Dei Fund, began using a “gender-lens” to guide our decisions.

As a result, we have become more intentional and deliberate about asking questions regarding implicit and explicit gender policies both within an organization and out in the field. These are questions such as:

  • What ideas, if any, around gender guide and shape your work in the world?
  • Does your organization have any explicit policies around gender that limit what women can or cannot do within your organization and out in the field?
  • How have you been working (or not) to promote gender balance within your organization?

Basically, what we’ve started to find is that many evangelical organizations, even those doing great work for girls and women in the world, have some sort of hidden or “de facto” institutional practices that either explicitly or implicitly (or both) keep women from serving in leadership roles or advancing above a certain level in the organization. Yet by simply asking these questions, we have discovered that many organizations do in fact want to be more gender-balanced and realize that this is central to preserving their Christian witness in our world, but for a variety of reasons this just has not been a priority. That’s when we began to find our philanthropic “niche” in the world: we strive to encourage organizations to work a little bit harder to connect the dots between their faith-based ideas around gender, their institutional practices, subculture, and their humanitarian goals of working to create a more just and equitable world for girls and women.

So in what I hope was “holy angst,” our original idea was to create some type of "gender scorecard" to help all the stakeholders of faith-based charities/nonprofits (staff, board members, clients, potential donors) look at their own internal policies to see where there are gaps or inconsistencies in order to set goals for how to make tangible incremental steps toward greater gender-balance.

But the idea meandered around for a year or so and evolved into more of a “gender landscape” study to get a broad snapshot of where evangelical social services and charities stood with respect to gender balance. The idea would have remained just a good idea if it were not for a very engaging and fruitful conversation over dinner with Gordon’s President D. Michael Lindsay and his wife Rebecca, which led to the idea of the study launched with Gordon’s Provost Janel Curry and the new Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gordon.

My simple hope for this study is that it would fuel the positive gender winds of change blowing in our world today and that it will serve as a collective mirror to help Christian stake-holders see where positive change is happening in our organizations as well as where obstacles persist. Awareness of “what is” is an important part of the process of change, of “what could be.”

That is the basic purpose of the study: to step back and see how we measure up as a faith-based sector with regard to the larger social goal of working toward gender parity within all of our organizations and workplaces. Sometimes simply seeing what is with one’s eyes wide open can be a catalyst for seeing what can be.

We hope to put a spotlight on a set of best practices that are working in the field, so as to make incremental steps toward more gender-balanced organizations. We also hope the study will give validation to people working within their organizations and stakeholders who are influenced by these organizations to keep on asking the good questions. We’re holding up a mirror to where our organizations might have blind spots or are falling short of the ideal of full human equality of men and women as co-image bearers of God. As Jesus once said, those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Emily Nielsen Jones is co-founder and president of the Imago Dei Fund.  She is a donor-activist who ispassionate and engaged at the nexus of faith, gender, and development and working to mobilize our faith traditions to more fully and unambiguously embrace gender equality.

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