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Entangled: Gender and Ministry

magazinesLast weekend my family and I had a rare opportunity to spend a weekend in the mountain-side town of Canmore, Alberta.  Along with breathtaking views and fine cuisine, Canmore also boasts a well-stocked yarn store.   As knitting is one of my wife’s main hobbies, this yarn store was a ‘must-visit’ before returning to Calgary.

We entered the shop and my wife began to wade through the countless balls of yarn that spanned the walls. My son and I perched ourselves in the two bucket seats located near the front of the store.  As we sat in those chairs, I looked over at the stack of magazines set upon the nearby coffee-table.  I was taken aback at the titles that I saw before me.  One would assume that a shop dedicated to knitting would display magazines of that ilk.  This is akin to expecting that a car dealership would display various automobile related reading materials.  Yet this place was different.  The magazines that were before me were ‘Men’s Journal’, ‘Esquire’, “Men’s Health’, and ‘Outdoor Living.  There was a clear theme to these magazines – and it wasn’t knitting.

At first I was impressed by this.  Obviously the owners of the shop had done some work in identifying the demographic of individuals who sit in these chairs.  It’s quite innovative, really.  This shop had decided not simply to focus on the needs of their clients, but also on the needs of those who would be accompanying their clients.  It conveyed the message that this yarn shop was welcoming to all people.

But then another thought entered my mind.  Was this an innovative means of addressing the needs/wants of men within the shop, or was this actually an instance of gender stereotyping?  After all, being a guy doesn’t preclude me from being interested in knitting, does it?  What is more, for the owners to conclude that as a male I have no knowledge of what it means to ‘knit’ or ‘purl’ and can’t tell the difference between a circular and double-pointed needles, isn’t that highly insensitive and ultimately offensive?

As I pondered this I found myself getting a little angry.  Who do these owners think they are to judge me this way?  After all, I have knitted.  While in seminary, three of us (all males) decided to knit some tuques for our respective girlfriend, fiancée and spouse.  Yes, we knit while we watched action movies, and no, none of our projects actually fit the head of our loved one, but that’s not the point.   The point is it cannot be assumed that I have no interest in knitting simply because I am male.

legogirlAfter all we don’t stand for the reverse.  Just recently an old Lego advertisement made its way around Facebook and other social media sites.  This advertisement made its viral rounds because of the gender neutrality of the image and text.  While the advertisement displayed a girl playing with the popular toy, never once was the product marketed as a ‘girl’s toy’.  The image is distinctly lacking of the pinks and purples that define much of the products aimed at young girls.  In this, the advertisement made it clear that Lego was a toy for all children regardless of their gender. (Read a great article about this here)

How drastically things have changed in terms of gender marketing.

In all honesty, I am not sure if I think that this yarn shop’s actions amounts to innovative service or gender stereotyping, but this whole experience got me thinking about the ministries of the church.  Do we define ministries based on one’s gender?  If so, is this appropriate?  Men are often funneled into a ‘men’s breakfast’ or a ‘men’s group’ and women into the ‘Ladies Guild’, ‘Altar Guild’, or ‘ACW’.  Yet in a day when The Scouts dropped their gender distinctions, and it is deemed unacceptable to have a ‘men only’ gym, should we continue to define one’s role and function in the church by his or her gender?  Should a church, built upon the declaration that ‘in Christ there is neither male nor female’, have such gender-based distinctions?  Think about it, we don’t expect the men’s group to care for the flowers in the church and the women to look after mowing the lawn; nor have I ever seen a man asked to join the Altar Guild.  Instead, typical expectations of one’s activity in the church are often more stereotypical: The men look after the grounds keeping, the women look after tidying up the church.

Is this responsible ministry, or gender stereotyping?

Sure, an argument can easily be made that such male/female distinctions is about ministering to the unique needs of each gender.  Yet that doesn’t actually get us off the hook.  If we argue that differences in roles and expectations began as a response to the different needs and interests of each gender, at what point does this actually become the perpetuation of gender-based stereotypes?

The fact is, our society is growing tired of gender based distinctions.  More and more people are rallying against these false and insulting judgments that attempt to define behaviour by on one’s gender.  This dynamic should be reflected in the church, not just in its proclamation, but also in the practical ways in which it exercises its ministry.  We are called to embody a truth which sees the radical dismantling of such distinctions, and by doing so, calls people to the freedom found in Christ. After all, if our identity in the church is based on Christ’s grace and love, shouldn’t the ministries of the church be based on the same thing?

What do you think, does gender-based groups in the church amount to sensitive ministry or offensive stereotyping?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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9 Responses to Entangled: Gender and Ministry

  1. The church needs to look at elements such as the Altar Guild, normally all female , or the servers organizations , in most cases largely male or dare I say it ? The clergy still highly male . Thankfully the latter is changing . As is the servers organizations . But the church should look at an push ti inclusivity in all parts of the church ‘s ministry .
    The days of an male dominated church is gone . If the church wants to survive we need to include all persons at every level. Otherwise we are retreating to an archic model that doesn’t stand modern times.

  2. What I see in the community is genders don’t know how to be the gender God created them. Men that don’t know how to be men that God has called them to be but end up like little boys and never really take on the role of manhood and the same goes for the women. God has set up roles for men and women in the church and in the family so that those places may be run optimally according to gifts god have specially designed for men and women. We have a whole generation trying to find themselves
    when God in his word has spelled it clearly out but we don’t want to hear it. You said “society is growing tired of gender based distinctions” ,just look at the sorry state of society,that attitude is working great. We have a generation of gender confusion amongst our children and parents not knowing whats required of them by God and society .God made us different physically and mentally for a reason ,so that we fit the rolls he created us for . You can cut your lawn with a pair of scissors and get the job done but it is not optimal or the is the purpose that they were created for. I am not saying there are some jobs in the church that can be done by men and women but not all jobs.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Hi Tony. Thanks for your comments. Indeed, the whole notion of gender – as it is related in scripture – is a fascinating topic. There is a curious dynamic where statements that seem to be promote a limited understanding of the men and women’s roles actually speak to the opposite. Interesting examples abound, like the prominent role of strong faithful women in the Old Testament, to David (the man after God’s own heart) that was more a poet than a warrior. Also, the whole notion of man as the head of the family is based on Christ being the head of the church – a headship that demands overthrowing the power dynamic by the way of self-sacrifice and the call to radical love. The notion of the powerful man who is in charge and never cries is clearly an unbiblical portrayal of manhood.

    I agree that that there is a general gender-confusion in this world – but I would argue that it isn’t based on moving away from biblical standards, but on highly problematic and ultimately damaging distinctions made in the culture. The confusion comes from boys being made to feel ‘not man enough’ because they enjoy dancing and poetry, and girls being made to feel ‘not girly enough’ if they choose to play with cars instead of Barbies. After all, where in the Bible does it mention that woman have a genetic predisposition to like the colour pink?

    Ultimately, abandoning these distinctions in the church, I believe, is only to the benefit of the Church body and its ministry.

  4. At a previous Anglican church that I worshipped at, the women did just as much grounds keeping as the men and there was a man in the altar guild.

    I had an experience at a Presbyterian Church, where I attended a function. The men arrived and found seats. The women headed for the kitchen and set out coffee and treats. At this point, I at least expected the men to get up and fetch their coffee and choice of treat, but no. The women were fluttering around the room serving the men. I felt like I had hit a time warp.

  5. I think we need to be careful about calling inherited traditions “biblical”. Speaking directly to your retail experience, Kyle, it occurs to me that one of the first references to sewing I learned about was the disciples mending their nets. Cooking? Jesus grilling fish for breakfast. We’ve inherited some things from Christian tradition, and others from “Leave it to Beaver”. It’s important to consider the difference.

    Meanwhile, you raise some great questions about ACW and parish men’s groups. While there is certainly value to groups that build relationships based on shared experience, it’s also true that exclusive groups are, well, exclusive.

  6. Kyle Norman

    Jesse, you are very good at describing what I am trying to say, but with a lot more clarity! Well done.

  7. Overall I think there is a happy medium with regards to men’s and women’s groups within the church. I do not think that servers and altar guild are the places for these groups.

    Having participated in men’s groups (pre-transition) and some women’s groups (post-transition) I do see the value in them given, as Jesse mentioned, shared experiences. At the same time there is a very real danger that the groups will reinforce stereotypes and traditions that we have developed in both churches and society at large. Another question would be how do those groups adjust when people are present who do not conform to the stereotypes? Are stay at home fathers teased or accepted in men’s groups? Are women who are in more ‘traditional’ men’s roles accepted in women’s groups? The list goes on from there.

    There is a lot of food for thought in these discussions. They also challenge us to look at our preconceptions and how they impact our relationships with others.

  8. In our Church, we have Males on Alter guild, female servers and our last Rector was female before she became semi retired and her husband took over

    • I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, especially the role of men’s groups in churches. My church has no formal mens group and, while I think there is a need for men to gather to talk about how they experience their faith, I’m a little ambivilent about what I see as models. A lot of these, admittedly, come out of a very different context, but there are authors whose committment to ‘biblical masculinity’ displays a rather hefty bias to their conception of masculinity (usually quite traditional, verging on macho) over the biblical element. Like Kyle, I wonder if we have to assume that real manhood rests in one’s interest in outdoors, sports or such. I also question whether Jesus would fit that mold either. I know that I don’t particularly well fit that stereotype and, yet, I just don’t worry about my masculinity.

      I’m still wrestling with this, of course, but, ultimately, I’m less worried about the masculinity issue and more concerned about how to live a life of faith. That means that Jesus is still the guide for that. I’m still not more enlightened about how to engage men into a life of faith, but I still feel, in my gut, the answer goes back to the same answer any Christian of whatever gender goes back to- back to life of faith and an encounter with Jesus.

      Peace,
      Phil

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  • At a previous Anglican church that I worshipped at, the women did just as much grounds keeping as the men and there was a man in the altar guild. I had an experience at a Presbyterian Church, where I attended a function. The men arrived and found seats. The women headed for the kitchen and set out coffee and treats. At this point, I at least expected the men to get up and fetch their coffee and choice of treat, but no. The women were fluttering around the room serving the men. I felt like I had hit a time warp.