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Men Sharing the Burden

Men sit on boards, but the women run the church." I received this lesson about gender roles in the church back in the 1950s, from the president of the women's association at my first pastoral assignment. Actually, that was the nicest way she put it. I later heard her say, "Men are all talk, while women do all the work around here." When I naively asked why the women, who constituted the majority of church members, were barely represented on the church council, she responded, "It's been like that since Adam and Eve, and I don't think it will change any time soon."

Her observations about gender roles were right. As a young man I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament, but our director of Christian education, a woman of far more experience and practical theological sense than I, was only "certified." Members assumed that the recognized leaders would be men, set apart as clergy or elected as lay-men to official boards that voted on policies and allocated resources.

Although women held less prestigious positions or none at all, they were not without clout. They remained essential to the strength of the congregation by raising most of the money and providing much of the "manpower" (as it was called) to keep everything running, including the Sunday school, choir, prayer groups and service societies. And they retained what one woman called a "velvet veto" over expenses and programs of which they did not approve.

The women of the church held an even more significant power. While the men worked on buildings and budgets, the women maintained an information exchange that picked up congregants' feelings. Our sometimes officious senior layman explained it most simply: "If you want to know the church policy or the budget, ask a layman; if you want to know how people feel about the budget or the policy, you'd better ask the ladies." Women maintained the congregational culture. Men could tell members what was required of them, but women gave members the feeling of belonging.up

My first informant's analysis of the division of power was on target, but her predictions for change fell short. The last generations revolution of gender roles in the family, workplace, media and elsewhere has hit the church as well. Churchmen have responded in different ways, from resistance to welcome, from denial of the past to discovery of themselves reborn in a new era. We men are shaped not only by personal differences but also by our ages, ethnic identities, economic fortunes, educational levels and denominational settings. By God's grace, however, individuals will break through social expectations.

At a recent Promise Keepers rally, I was surprised by the confession of an athletic-looking speaker: "I am grateful for the women's movement because it gave me back my identity as a creature of God. I was only a competitive jock until the women showed me the sin of male pride." As he expanded on his discoveries of his human vulnerability, the speaker was widely supported by the chorus of "OK," "Right on" and "Amen." That's dramatic change.

But in more intimate and perhaps more powerful ways, the participation of men in the church is shifting, as evident in the blossoming of men's small discussion groups. In these gender-exclusive "lock-er-room discussions," I have never heard any participant to lament men's loss of power from the inclusion of women on church boards and in policy decisions. Rather, I hear, "Thank God, there's more of us to carry the load."

In these personal discussions, I feel the labor of new birth that sometimes begins with explosive denial. Often men emotionally reject the "bad rap" they hear from some women--accusations of preoccupation with work and emotional insensitivity. Yet because of this challenge we men have begun, tentatively and self-consciously, to explore the meaning of existence beyond our experiences of success or failure, conquest or defeat. In these groups we share our journeys and feelings about relationships with our families (past and present), within and among ourselves. Something more than personal therapy is happening. While women are assuming more organizational leadership, men are exploring how they might help sustain congregational cultures. And we all are better for it.

April-May 1998up




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