Last Thursday, our church had its usual booth set up at the giant campus-wide gathering of student organizations on the U of M Diag known as FestiFall. At our table, we hand out posters, magnets and other paraphernalia, but our primary goal is to meet interested students and let them know who we are, what we do, and that we’d love to know them. Students indicate their in small groups or other church community by putting their name and e-mail address on a sheet of paper. It’s generally a great time, but I have the feeling something very sad was happening beneath the surface.
That night, I was sent a spreadsheet of all the names and contact info for these students. I’m that guy who loves just sitting back and dreaming, strategizing, and visualizing the future demographics and structures of our church, so I gave the sheet some good thought time. Two numbers particularly stuck out to me: 114 and 22. We had 114 students indicate interest in small groups. If all these students got involved, we would almost certainly meet our goal of reaching 500 students through small groups this year.
That made me excited.
Here’s a number that made me less excited: 22 of them were men. (Give or take five guys, based on some more gender-ambiguous names). But the point remains the same:
80% of the college students coming on campus who openly desire church involvement are women.
Just think about the implications of that statistic for a moment. It deeply disturbs me for the following reasons:
1. It’s a logistical nightmare for our church. At New Life, staff longevity for women is considerably shorter than for men due to maternity turnover. This means that, at times, segments of our church have had to deal with a 2:1 male-to-female staff ratio and a 1:2 male-to-female student ratio. As a result, the female students in our church can have devastatingly fewer available mentors and examples to lead them, when they’re the ones who tend to most express a desire for mentorship (men tend to want to do things on their own, for better or worse).
We have a very discipleship-oriented church model, which demands a high staff-to-student ratio. We are looking to raise up revolutionary leaders and send them out into the world, not just plug people into ministries so they can be comfortable somewhere. We only have 4 years, so time is of the essence.
We choose an intensive, hands-on approach.
Because that seemed to be Jesus’ method for raising up revolutionary leaders.
As a result, it’s a challenge for our female staff to support the number of female student leaders in the way that we wish we could. And we don’t exactly have the luxury of hiring to meet our needs; we’re all missionaries. This means some female students may shy away from leadership, because they can see a leadership position as sacrificing their standing as someone to be led and cared for. Their perception is inaccurate but understandable. This kind of resistance, of course, only perpetuates the lack of female leadership.
2. It has difficult implications for the spiritual and emotional health of female leaders. This isn’t just a New Life Church issue. We’re handed this dynamic the first week of school because it pervades the culture. I’ve had more conversations than I care to count where female leaders in various ministries I’ve been involved in have described to me through tears their feelings of loneliness and not being cared for, because they give so much to the women they lead but don’t feel like they have anyone to invest deeply into them. This makes raising up female leaders a dangerous venture; the threat of burnout is so huge because full-time female ministers tend to be so rare and demand for female leadership is so great. At New Life, we desperately want all of our women to experience the fullness of God’s love and grace, so the last thing we’d want is for them to think that they need to work like crazy in order to be valuable to us. But if every woman on the FestiFall list comes to a small group, the groups will either be huge, or we’ll have to create more groups, potentially adding even more to the burden on our women leaders. I wonder if we ought to just turn some away.
3. It threatens future male leadership. As a male student leader on campus, this gender dynamic usually meant I was turning down requests for input and leadership from women in order to pursue relationships with men who seemed largely uninterested in being led. I’ve seen this dynamic in every close church community I’ve observed that fosters close male-female relationships. Every bone in my body wanted to take the easy route and have comfortable conversations with girls who were eager to be led, but I forced myself to instead pursue these seemingly indifferent younger men because I knew that it was the only way to restore balance. I cringe to think what would happen if our male leaders didn’t fight for this.
I wonder if God is doing this on purpose, to be honest. The over-abundance of women seeking to be led forces male church leaders to aggressively pursue younger men if they want male involvement and leadership in their church. It may be God giving grace to the men he’s chosen to raise up as future leaders, by forcing current men in leadership to pursue them and heal them from a past and a culture that has told them they aren’t worth pursuing much.
4. I fear for the future relationships of these women. The vast majority of them long to eventually have a husband who will lead them spiritually, spurring them toward greater devotion to Christ. And where are these men going to come from? Clearly not from FestiFall. If these men are raised up in our church, it’s not going to be because they came knocking on our door asking to get plugged into small groups. Apparently that’s a girl thing to thing to do.
I have a couple ideas on how to remedy all this mess, but they’re not easy at all. I’ll save that for next time.