The religious community today is inundated with a gradual but steady increase in the visibility of women and the significance of the role they play in various forums within the religious arena. Regardless of one's theology, one must admit there is not a church in this country that could operate effectively without women. These women, who were once content to remain in the background, are moving into more prominent roles in the church.
There isn't an area of the religious world that is not having to rethink and redefine its position on these contemporary societal changes. While some struggle with women in the pulpit, none can deny the fact that women are successfully running major corporations, birthing businesses, serving as attorneys, and prosecuting and defending us in every other area of our world. These gifted females want to and should bring their giftings to the service of the Lord. Many will serve as coordinators or administrators, and many are gifted orators who have great ability to enlighten and develop us in the service of the Lord.
I shudder to think where most of us would be without the wit and wisdom of our female counterparts. As the world embraces women into leadership, the church--today more than ever--must be prepared to meet the needs of these women who face the same stress levels and emotional traumas of men who have traditionally manned such positions.
We must move away from women's conferences that focus on the lightweight subjects of beauty tips and shopping ideas to the weightier matters of financial portfolios, Christian stewardship and business ethics. We must undergird them, meet their needs spiritually and be prepared to allow these gifted women to contribute to the body of Christ as all Christians desire to do.
But pastors must address the contemporary needs of these women. In frustration, many of them are looking past the church to other entities to find the encouragement and mentoring the church ought to provide. I fear that contemporary talk shows and magazine-style TV programs may very well become the outlet that replaces our ability to influence these significant women in our contemporary society.
The virtuous woman referred to in Proverbs 31 is described as a woman of considerable influence and affluence. She is both the bread baker and the bread-winner in her home. She has tremendous relevance to those she loves and is sought after by the business community, the spiritual community and her family.
As I consider this ancient depiction of a virtuous woman in Scripture, and the level of her empowered ability, the question surfaces: Have women changed, or are we being forced to seek and recognize what God had in mind for women of faith for thousands of years?
Maybe the greater question that each pastor must examine centers on some soul-searching questions. Have we as leaders stopped seeking the virtuous woman? How can we regain her and serve her needs, allowing her both to serve and to be served in our churches? Can we benefit from her giftings, much like our secular institutions have been forced to acknowledge, or will we lag sadly behind and ignore the worth of women in our society and, more directly, in our churches?
If you are a part of that decreasing group that refuses to acknowledge women as preachers and teachers, grappling with theological issues and scriptures that have been sources of controversy for some time and will not soon be resolved by all of us, you may be forced to redefine your theology and seek further revelation. While there are statements Paul made that could be construed to disallow women from speaking or preaching, I question how we can say we literally believe that women should be silent in our churches while we let them sing a gospel that they cannot say.
We must find ways to meet the needs and face the challenges of those women who have contributed to and underwritten our ministry fields for years. We cannot continue to acknowledge women as missionaries and send them away to preach and teach but deny them the right to do that same task at home. These contradictions in our theology have caused many women to walk away from our churches and seek more contemporary institutions to meet their needs. We cannot allow this to happen--the church is the God-ordained place where human need meets divine supply.
We have added to our local women's ministry a program called The Christian Women Leadership Development Program. It is designed to assist our sisters with the spiritual reinforcement they need for the roles they play in the secular world and to extend our arms to their giftings in our church. I have learned that these women are facing the task of manning several battle stations. They are often both mothers and workers, leaders and thinkers, lovers and leaders, and the demand is quite challenging.
I have often been asked if these women are changing from the grassroots mammas we once knew, who only wanted to exchange recipes and discuss failed loves and past traumas. I tend to think they are not changing but growing; and as they grow, it is our assignment to grow with them or be left with the sad report that we grew apart from them.
We cannot allow ourselves to grow apart from them; they will be the next astronauts, the business leaders, the chemists and perhaps even the presidents of the 21st century. As they fill greater roles of influence, we must design programs that are born out of our contemporary understanding of trends and changes in our world. We must ask, "How can we better serve them?"
Don't be intimidated by this new breed of liberated (not liberal) women, though they are growing professionally and gaining heightened visibility even in our churches. It helps to understand that they are still women--caring, nurturing creatures who in spite of new roles have traditional concerns and needs. Their core love for children, need for romance, appreciation for home life and sisterhood remain intact. Many of them long for good men who are not intimidated by their development and are supportive of such.
Yes, they have traded in their homemade bread for pizza delivery, but that doesn't mean they do not love or care for their children and families. Their struggle is to better meet those old-fashioned needs in a vastly changing and highly escalated world. These women want more teaching in time management, stress relief, management skills and the impact that faith can have on their overall juggling of important issues from day to day.
In seeking to meet this growing need, I looked to the Word of God. I found quite a few strong examples from which we can help women today better pattern their lives. The Deborahs and Esthers of the Bible prove that women can affect a nation and lead armies without losing their godly perspectives. There are many "elect ladies" whose financial dexterity and professionalism affected the ministry of Christ, and He was comfortable with these women and the role they played.
I found that these women and many others provide good biblical templates for the growing role and heightened significance Christ placed on women. The woman at the well, who evangelized an entire city with her testimony of who Christ was, is further evidence that women from all walks of life can contribute and impact the church and the world.
Even the apostle Paul speaks of Lydia the businesswoman from Thyatira whose conversion strengthened him as he was able to minister to her and meet her needs in Christ. We cannot neglect an opportunity to minister to this up-and-coming generation of Lydias who are seeking answers about faith, finance and family.
I want to encourage you to extract from Scripture the many examples of women who throughout the ages have had more hats to wear than heads to wear them. They become a fresh and exciting catalyst for ministry to women of the 21st century.
In these examples there is strength for the pastor's wife as well as the female CPA. There are insights your church can share that will help to better serve and strengthen this growing delegation in our pews. The answer is in the Word, and we must show them how to find the mentoring they need rather than force them to forsake our Christian faith for non-Christian alternatives.
Here is the challenge for pastors: Meet with the women in your church--don't just send your wife--and ask them how your church can better serve the needs they face today. We men do better at meeting the needs of women when we simply ask them rather than to assume that we are getting an "A" in a class where we may be dangerously close to failing.
If we fail, it is more than a bad grade--it is failing a faction of our church that we dare not leave poorly discipled simply because we have traditionally not allowed them in the "good ole boys" club. Maybe we ought to open the club and let the ladies come in. If we do not, they may very well build their own.
T.D. Jakes is pastor of The Potter's House church in Dallas. This column is adapted with permission from his new book, God's Leading Ladies (Putnam), about releasing and supporting women in leadership roles.