Nineteen Percent? A Problem That May Already Have a Proven Solution

By Ken Fong 11-25-2013
Some conference organizers embrace the voices of women. Auremar/Shutterstock

A recent post by Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Lisa Sharon Harper, Only 19 Percent Are Women, brought to light how most major evangelical conferences are still reluctant to feature qualified women as plenary speakers. In a quick survey of 34 such conferences, women gave only 19 percent of the main addresses. To Harper and Wallis, the paucity of females on these influential platforms is a serious problem.

“So, it is not only a sociological problem, but a theological one — an ecclesial one — when more than half the church is excluded from upfront leadership, prophetic ministry, and public teaching. This denial repudiates the power of the gospel of reconciliation.

“The church writ large in the United States and the Western church more broadly continues to struggle with a history of under-representing women and people of color in leadership. These kinds of things don’t change overnight. And while acknowledging the problem is important, knowing it’s there doesn’t fix it.”

They briefly mention here that this problem extends beyond gender-representation; most of these same prominent evangelical conference line-ups are also bereft of women and men of color. 

Some of these organizers hold to the view of Scripture that prohibits women — no matter how qualified or spellbinding — from having authority over men. So unless they are convinced otherwise, their events will never feature female speakers. Even so, their reading of the Bible should compel them to offer more than the unchanging diet of influential — predominantly white — male pastors of gigantic wealthy churches. I’m not just talking about going after non-white male speakers. I’m also thinking of white male pastors who are doing significant kingdom work but who serve in off-the-radar, simple churches, many serving the overlooked, many who would challenge the suburban, homogeneous, achievement-based assumptions of the typical speakers and conferees.

But I also know that some organizers actually do embrace that God originally charged women and men to lead together. And they believe that Christ’s work on the cross has destroyed the curse that’s led to systemic patriarchy — however benevolent — that has kept far too many women from being restored to their rightful place as coheirs of God’s kingdom. In their local settings, they gratefully serve together with female leaders. However, when it comes to pulling together a platform for their group’s conference, they choose not to include females for fear of backlash or boycott from the more conservative speakers and invitees.

I know of one such women-affirming Christian ministry that has followed this pattern for decades now. Recently the board decided to stop appeasing the most conservative constituents. The ministry’s next annual conference will be a much broader, more inclusive picture of the Body of Christ that exists the other 51 weeks of the year. The organizers are prepared that a sizable percentage of their regulars may choose not to come, but they are praying that there will be those who come regardless, because they can see the longstanding ecumenical inequities and agree with at least the organization’s motives for bringing in a more representative line up of speakers, both in gender and theology. They’re hoping that many who’ve stayed away from this retreat because of its excluding of female speakers and ones who come from more progressive perspectives will make it their mission to support this board and fill those empty spots themselves. 

It might begin to turn the tide on this appalling lack of representation issue if more of us who are concerned choose not to go to conferences that clearly aren’t committed to moving things in a more inclusive direction. Even if we’ve been dying to hear a particular white male speaker address something that matters to Jesus and to us.

On the flip side, it might also help if we choose to attend conferences that go out of their way to identify and invite qualified women and people from diverse backgrounds to open up the word and the world. Even if we’ve never heard of most of these speakers or if they’ve yet to write a blog or a book, if the organizers believe that they have something worth highlighting and hearing, then let’s register and show up in droves. 

If you think this approach won’t work, take a look at the unprecedented ongoing popularity of the TED conferences.  People flock to these talks — in person and online — not because they’ve heard of the speakers (they haven’t), not because all the speakers are men (that would be so weird) or come from the same side of the tracks (that would be so boring).  No, it’s because they know that the conveners are committed to giving the platform to anyone who has something worth saying. 

TED only has two, sacred criteria for possible speakers. They must deliver their talk in a very compelling manner.  And they must do it in 18 minutes or fewer. Sort of sounds like preaching to me.

Ken Fong is the executive director of the Asian American Initiative at Fuller Theological Seminar and senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles.

Photo: Auremar/Shutterstock

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