Support for ministry – from both peers and experienced mentors – is essential for those who wish to thrive. Whether you are a chaplain, pastor, minister of music, youth director, or minister by any other name, you can make use of your place and experience to organize more peer support for women in ministry. It is easy to wish that someone might take the lead. But as South African poet, June Jordan put it: we are the ones we have been waiting for.
I hope the following suggestions will spark your imagination for how to build the support you and your sisters in ministry need.
- Make connections with friends. If you’re a minister serving in an isolated area, you can start by reaching out to gather your friends through the usual channels. Pick up the phone. Email a friend. Connect on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Take the direct message approach. Invite a friend to meet with you over coffee or lunch. Tell them about your longing for support in your work. Ask what they hope for. Then make sure you listen to what your friend in ministry tells you. Your strategy has begun.
- Leverage Your Position. If you hold a position in any religious organization then think about how to leverage it for the good of other women in ministry. Here’s one approach that has worked in Tennessee in the past. The TN Cooperative Baptist Fellowship provided a very small stipend to three women in different regions of the state. Every month each woman gathered other women in her area for a meal. Having a key person who’s paid a small amount of money for their time and who is already committed to the cause is key to making this strategy work. Two other keys to making it work included keeping the mealtimes simple and open. Meeting on a monthly basis, people simply want to catch up, share stories, and laugh (or cry) together. Additionally, it also helps to have some kind of structure or deepening question to take people beyond the simple “hi-how-are-you?” level of engagement. Here are a few examples of deepening questions I used recently: what kind of risks in ministry do you feel called to take right now? What kind of support do you need to take that risk? What area of your ministry could use a creative boost at the moment?
- Retreat Annually. Another model of support is one successfully maintained in both Georgia and North Carolina: an annual retreat anchors the support network of women in ministry. This approach works in these two states because they also have an organization or board of women who keep activities and communication going between retreats and alongside other gatherings (like state CBF meetings). Both of these states also present annual awards, scholarships, and recognition that help people with a sense of belonging to the group throughout the year and also attracts ministers and students from across the state.
- Hire Someone. Yet another model is the one in which an existing organization – for instance, a state CBF – hires a woman and one aspect of her job responsibility is to support and offer resources to women in ministry. Sometimes these women also organize events and provide communications to network and connect women in ministry. This is also proven to be successful at times past or present in Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina.
- Organize a Conference. Sometimes events of interest emerge as the most effective connecting point for women in ministry. Preaching conferences, spiritual retreats, and educational events are labor-intensive. The do not necessarily provide the lasting or ongoing connection that some women crave. However, they can provide a good space to meet, network and lay groundwork for more lasting structures of support. In Texas, this approach has been successful in bringing together women from a wide geographical area.
- Network Ecumenically. In some places, the only way to sustain a gathering of women serving the church and other ministry settings is to reach out for support across denominational lines. Women in ministry across every denomination face similar needs for support. They often experience isolation, particularly in rural areas. Video chat and social media are important for keeping women connected with friends over great distances, being able to meet face to face is a tremendous encouragement.
- Go to School. Yet another successful form of support for women in ministry has been the school related group. A number of seminaries like Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and colleges like Carson-Newman University have formed support networks for women called to ministry and their allies. The key to making these work seem to be having school staff, faculty, and/or a community minister who are able and willing to be a steady presence as a sponsor. Sponsors can make space for students to gather and lead the ever-changing group of students. Sponsors can also help to stabilize structure the support from the school as well as nurturing the budding calls to ministry of younger women.
Bringing it All Together
Currently in middle Tennessee, we are taking an approach that draws on the best of all of these elements. The gathering is called Scholastica, named for the sister of St. Benedict, who began an order of women called to serve God in the fifth century. Scholastica is ecumenical in its make up. We gather monthly during the fall and spring semesters (September through April) for lunch and conversation on Fridays. Most months we focus on conversation, networking, and relationship building, accompanied by a good meal. We help make the conversations go beyond the surface by providing a provocative idea or several deepening questions.
Once each semester, Scholastica sponsors a keynote speaker who comes to address a particular topic focused on women in ministry. Scholastica is cosponsored by three organizations: Central Tennessee, Tennessee CBF, and Scarritt Bennett Center where the group meets monthly. We draw in women from a wide variety of denominations and locations around middle Tennessee. Some of the participants in Scholastica are students at Central Tennessee and Vanderbilt Divinity School. Others are seasoned ministers and women exploring a call to ministry.
The pathways to support women in ministry and contribute to their thriving are numerous. Perhaps it is time for you to lead. Are you the one you have been waiting for?