The End of Gender-Segregated Ministries?

Adam J. Copeland recently transitioned from serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hallock, MN to serving as mission developer of  the ELCA affiliated Project F-M, which is a new “faith community for young adults and the young at heart” in Fargo-Morehead area.  He recently blogged about the limitations of gender-segregated groups, suggesting:

Gender-segregated groups seem very old school — glass ceilings are being broken left and right, though we still have a long way to go. While it once may have been true that police officers were male and nurses were female, that is no longer the case (and thank God!). Men are often primary caregivers for children, and gender-segregated workplaces are increasingly rare. The world is moving towards a less rigid view of gender and sexuality, breaking down stereotypes and claiming a new freedom that one’s gender is neither one’s destiny nor the primary determining factor in who they are. Why would the church promote anything else?

Gender-segregated groups can promote sexism — now I say “can” not “always do,” but in my experience I find that many guy groups easily fall into accepting groups for sexity quips. Some such quips are demeaning to women, and others crack on guys who do their fair share of housework or who prefer baking to fishing. We have to fight these annoyances enough in other settings and the church should not add to the fray.

Gender-segregated groups may be extra-tricky for GLBTQ folks — This is just a more specific outcome of the previous critiques. I do know one Presbyterian church at which the guys group is made of up a significant number of gay men, but mostly I see gendered groups as tending to uphold heterosexist norms and assumptions. And, of course, gender-based groups may be particularly challenging for a transitioning transgendered person (assuming the group isn’t fully welcoming — I suppose the opposite could be true if it was fully welcoming. That’d be great!).

Gender-segregated groups prefer gender-sameness over common values — at a recent workshop I was reminded that when we meet new people, we first search for commonalities and then probe for differences. I suppose gendered groups do this too, using the sameness of gender for the basis of relationship. But, this seems odd to me. What about, instead, groups organized by neighborhoods, or hobbies, or family structure, or interests? I much rather gather with friends who share my love for books than guys who share a love for beer and burping.

So What?

Church groups are changing.  Many congregations have already made a transition in adult Christian education/formation by moving from “Sunday school” classes held on Sunday morning to small/growth groups held at a variety of times and locations.  The move away from gender-segregated groups has not happened as quickly.  I suspect the primary causes for the slow shift are generational and denominational.  Since older age groups tend to be overrepresented in mainline denominations both in number and power and have long histories with such groups, many congregations are unlikely to give serious consideration to ending ongoing gender-segregated ministries.  And, since denominations continue to provide the framework for these groups, including study resources, churches with strong denominational ties are likely to embrace these denominationally branded options.

In my experience, there is limited interest in gender-segregated groups among those in their twenties and thirties.  This limited interest is apparent by the underrepresentation of the age cohort on the membership roles and in attendance at gender-segregated group gatherings.  In effect, the groups function as age-and-gender-segregated  ministries.

  • Does your local congregation have one or more gender-segregated groups?  If so, are the vast majority of participants fifty years of age or better?
  • Copeland offers the following conclusion: “same gendered groups just strike me as an overly simplistic and out-dated model of church association.” Do you think that the era of gender-segregated church groups is drawing to a close? Why or why not?

Comments

  1. I used to think gender specific groups were dinosaurs. Now I think there is still room for them if they expand access and opportunity for those gathering. I know some women who will not share their thought in groups with men because of prior abuse by men. I’m sure the converse is true. At the same time, I think we should look to what works in the models for men’s groups and women’s groups to create new groups of men and women together – most likely gathered around mission and service.

  2. Maria Janice says:

    I definitely disagree with the previous commenter. In all due respect, I attend a Church where we initially used to have a mixed small group, and then as it grew someone decided to separate into women only and men only. I have hated it ever since, for more reasons than the fact that I am now the only single woman in the “womens’” part of the small group, and every other fear associated with not having an opportunity to hear an alternative perspective (my real friends – based on common interest – were three of the men in the group), and the tendency towards substituting Bibilical truth for emotionalism and ‘silliness’ which naturally follows when large groups of women tend to meet. I don’t know whether it is the historical objectification of women coupled with traditional methods of teaching Christianity, or something else, but I am honestly beyond exhausted by the implications that Proverbs 31 and Ephesians 5:22 are the only verses specifically written for women in the Bible. The ENTIRE Bible is for women, but once you have segregated groups, it does tend to typecast and create stereotyping which almost always ends up in a Titus 2 model of reaching us. Men tend to preach from a more diverse perspective I suppose because they have the benefit of being able to relate to strong Biblical leaders like Joshua, David, Abraham and Noah… whereas few women lead a segregated group and tell each other that the Goliaths of loneliness, handling money, workplace and career issues, leadership and other arenas traditionally seen as “mens’” turf can be defeated as effectively and applicably by women as they can by men. Whether for fear or a lack of self-confidence or generations of segregation, I always find women-only groups a bit shallow, pretentious, and I definitely hold them at least partly responsible for keeping single women in the Church that way. I understand that there may be women (or men or QLGBT persons) who have been abused sexually or otherwise present in small groups, and that for whatever reason those people may want a more intimate setting in which to discuss those issues, and I agree that they should have a sensitive, qualified, empathetic environment in which to do so; but that can be handled in specific groups, as well as through specific programs which deal with healing, wholeness etc as well as private counselling with the Pastor. I just don’t think that ALL the other women (or men or QLGBT persons) in the Church should be forced to miss out on the awesome benefits which could be reported from experiencing a rich fellowship of cross-generational, cross-gender, multi-cultural proportions due to this. I personally hate, hate, hate gender-segregated groups. I am in my mid-twenties, and in this generation it is old-fashioned and irrelevant to continue to advocate for gender-segregated groups. I am also black. I wouldn’t want to be asked to only fellowship with African-Americans because one sister or other had a bad incident with racism 14 years prior and didn’t feel comfortable sharing with Caucasian members of the Church. We wouldn’t accept that kind of reasoning based on race or any other differentiating characteristic, why do we accept it for gender?

  3. MB and Maria, I appreciate your replies. I have stopped creating new gender specific groups as a general practice. The primary exception are concurrent monthly coffee and conversation groups for men and women each led by a pastor that attract a crowd comprised almost exclusively of retirees. Even in these groups, none would exclude anyone who wished to attend.

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