Last week, a controversy erupted over Twitter when it came to light that a prominent evangelical conference with 110 speakers only had four women on stage.
Journalist Jonathan Merritt did a quick informal study and discovered that out of 34 prominent evangelical conferences, only 19 percent of speakers at plenary sessions were women.
This is a problem.
As a white male evangelical and a black female evangelical who spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, events, and college campuses, we know from experience this is a problem.
Conference spaces have become one of the primary discipleship spaces for evangelicals. These are the spaces where evangelicals go to learn all that it means to be a follower of Jesus.
What does it communicate, then, to those who would seek to follow Jesus when the majority of voices, perspectives, illustrations, jokes, and frameworks are delivered to the entire church body by men? Does it communicate that voices of men are universal while women are only capable of communicating to other women (or children)? Does it communicate that women are not created with the capacity or call to lead?
Not all evangelicals believe that women shouldn’t lead. We certainly don’t. One reason that women are underrepresented at these conferences is because many of these groups believe — theologically — that women should not have a public role. These groups should say that publicly and be held accountable for it.
How does the exclusion of more than half the church from upfront leadership distort the image of God for the whole body? Genesis 1:26-27 tells us: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female God created them.”
In the same breath, God creates humanity, both male and female, in God’s image and then gives them both dominion — the charge to lead. Thus, Galatians 3:28 was adopted as a core liturgy in first century church baptismal services. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In this baptismal statement the early church proclaimed that all three of these distinctions — race, class, and gender — are fundamentally about power differentials and the ability to exercise leadership and are overcome in the new community called the body of Christ.
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 underrepresenting 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.
It’s important that our institutions create habits and practices that keep us accountable to ensure that we don’t (whether intentional or not) exclude portions of the body of Christ. At Sojourners, there are a few things that we do to try and hold ourselves accountable.
- We have instituted a Diversity Taskforce. This group is comprised of staff from across the organization who ensure that we keep in mind issues of diversity within our organization and in our public work.
- We have the conversation. When we plan an event or a press conference we openly talk about racial and gender diversity (as well as other forms of diversity) of those who have a public role. If we notice that we aren’t diverse, we ask why and what we can do to change that for the event itself or for future initiatives.
- We push ourselves to expand our definition of “leader.” Organizational leadership in the U.S. church has been predominantly male, so when we look for leaders, we tend to find those who look like traditional leadership. But new voices are able to arise when we look beyond organizational hierarchies. When those new voices are given the place and the platform, they are able to demonstrate their leadership in ways that more of the church recognizes.
- We seek to affirm and cultivate women’s capacity to lead by mentoring and promoting women into positions of organizational leadership. Women make up nearly 40 percent of our board and more than 50 percent of our Senior Leadership Team.
- We promote the voices and ideas of women in our magazine. In 2013, 55 percent of our articles were by women.
But it’s not just a problem “out there.” It remains a challenge for Sojourners, and we all can do better.
These suggestions aren’t magic bullets that will suddenly reverse generations of underrepresentation at best and exclusion at worst. But we do hope they are a start. And we invite our brothers and sisters (okay, let’s be honest, it’s mostly brothers right now that are planning these conferences) into figuring this out with us.
The status quo is not acceptable. It is not acceptable socially, nor is it acceptable under the baptism of believers in Christ. The steps to change it won’t always be easy and they will require sacrifice. But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Want to stand with Jim, Lisa, and the other leaders working for diversity in the body of Christ? Sign on here.
Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing for Sojourners and the author of two books.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His latest book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.