Adventures in Gender and Polity: Elder Advisory Councils

Posted on June 15, 2017


I frequently get into trouble when I wade into the fraught waters of church and gender and start theorizing a little bit.  But I can’t help it. I love theories, I love knotty problems, and (it seems) I don’t always mind a bit of trouble here and there.  So here goes a little experiment.

I’m always looking for ways to square my (very) soft complementarian convictions with continued testimony from women I know about their frustrating experience in church, particularly from those who have strong leadership gifts.  By now it’s not a secret that church cultures marginalize women, particularly those with gifts like leadership or teaching (traditionally viewed as masculine gifts) in ways that are unhelpful and often discouraging.  The immensity of this failure wounds the entire body of Christ.  So the question is on the table: if one retains what seem to be proper gender distinctions relative to church leadership (office of pastor and elder restricted to men), how does one then also build a church culture which maximally values and amplifies the voices of women so that God’s vision for the church is fulfilled?

A particular area where women report frustration in churches is in leadership development and the direction of the church.  Women frequently report feeling like their voices are not heard, their leadership and teaching gifts go undeveloped, and key decisions are made at the elder/pastor level without their input.  So an idea I’m spitballing is something I might call an Elder Advisory Council. (Note: I’m assuming an ‘elder board/pastor’ church government here since that’s the form I’m most familiar with in the Free Church, as well as what seems best to me personally.) (Further note: this idea seems novel to me mostly because I haven’t heard of it tried before.  It may be very common, so if it is, bear with me.)

An Elder Advisory Council would be a separate apparatus to a standard elder board.  Comprised of women in the church, this council would meet regularly to review and comment on leadership directives coming from the elder board, which the elders would then be obliged, as much as is prudent, to integrate into their decisions.  The idea is that the relationship between elder board and Council would mimic the self-sacrificing ideal between husband and wife in Ephesians 5.

How this works in practice could be flexible.  Such a Council could meet separately, reviewing the decisions of church elders and looking for places they, as women, want to speak into.  The Council chair could attend elder meetings as a non-voting member.  Or the entire council (probably no larger than 5-6 people) could attend elder meetings as non-voting members, but otherwise discuss and debate fully.  Since I’m not sure how this would best work in practice, the format is a fluid part of my idea.  The main point is that such a Council would be integrated fully into decision-making structures in some way.  The further point is that such a Council would speak into the ‘red meat’ of church leadership, and not be relegated to traditionally feminine spheres of oversight like the nursery or pot-luck coordination.

The truly novel innovation here would be an addition to the church by-laws which stipulates a recourse to a third-party mediator if the Council’s input is regularly ignored (I’m thinking here of a district chairperson within a denomination; non-denoms would need to get creative in terms of oversight- probably another local pastor or a chaplain service.)  However it looks, the goal is to build in a mechanism which prevents disempowerment of such a Council as a true advisory and leadership body within a church. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The benefits of such a Council would seem to be many.  Women with leadership and wisdom gifts would have a role to develop towards with a real, tangible stake in church governance that is not a nursery coordinator or secretary.  This Council could act as a leadership incubator and advocacy voice for other gifted women.  Elder boards would benefit from integrating fresh viewpoints and practicing self-sacrifice. The entire church would witness Ephesians 5 in action as one part of the Body subordinates itself for the greater flourishing of another.  The watching world would see the power of Christ to heal and unite God’s people across seemingly intractable divides.  The list can surely go on.

Some are primarily convinced from the Biblical text to affirm female pastors and elders.  But I have a hunch that others arrive at the position secondarily through the text, and primarily through a combination of received cultural values and experiences of dysfunction in more traditional churches or ministries- even ones in which there is no outright abuse.  A structure like an Elder Advisory Council could model self-sacrificial gender dynamics via church governance, better empower Christian sisters to grow into thriving disciples, and mitigate a common issue with traditional role distinctions related to pastors and elders.  If any churches try this or have tried this specific idea, I’d be interested to know about their experiences.




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