Again, on conferences and statistics

Ian Paul, who I have never had the pleasure of meeting, but with whom I interact regularly online, posted some reflections occasioned by my blog post on his blog (I think it is better to describe it like that than as a ‘response’). I’m sorry to move back over here rather than responding directly there (not least because his blog is much more professional, much nicer-looking, and (I assume) much more widely read than mine), but this essay just got too long.

Before I start, I should say that I respect Ian greatly, that we agree on most subjects (although he belongs to one of those strange sects that sprinkle infants…), and have made common cause together before now. Specifically, given the topic under discussion, Ian has been a committed and effective campaigner for female leadership in the church, and has done much good as such, for which I honour him. If we disagree, it is en famille.

Ian’s first comment relates to a passing phrase I used ‘the Christian conference circuit’; I did not mean much by this, save that there are a certain number of (non-congregational) events in the UK to which a Christian speaker might be invited. It is not a closed shop; the ‘gatekeepers’ who invite people to various events are generally publicly identified and (in my – fairly extensive – experience) are always very proactive in seeking out potential new speakers. But, as with any area of life, there’s a learning curve; no-one goes straight to main stage. That was the extent of my reflection. I might blog again about this, as it seems to have touched a nerve with a few people, but for now I just want to stress that I really didn’t mean very much by it.

The nub of Ian’s argument turns on some thoughts on parenting. I commented that ‘the hard yards on this road come when, if you have family, your children are young, and it is generally harder for a mother than a father to accept invitations to be away from home,’ and located this ‘generally harder’ in sociology; Ian wants to locate it in biology, or possibly psychology, and so argue that mothers need/want to spend more time with their children, and so will choose, often enough to skew speaker stats, not to do those ‘hard yards’.

Now, I think my sociological argument is stronger than Ian’s biological/psychological one, but neither of us are experts there and we’re not going to solve that. So, for the sake of what follows, I will assume his point. Even with it, I suggest that (a) his conclusions do not follow and (b) even if they did there would be a gospel imperative to resist them.

I see at least three logical problems. The first is this: Ian’s argument is clearly a degree argument, not an absolute difference argument (a degree argument: women tend to be shorter than men; an absolute difference argument: men have more Y chromosomes than women). A degree argument, even if it applies well to two classes as a whole, may not apply to particular subsets of those two classes. So: female netball internationals in fact tend to be taller than men. Ian applies a general claim about women to the specific subset of female leaders without arguing that the transference is plausible. It seems to me that it is not: his claim is something like ‘in general, maternal instincts will lead women to value their families higher than their professional development’. For his argument to hold, Ian needs to demonstrate that female Christian leaders are not, on average, sufficiently invested in their God-given vocation to nullify this general gender gap he claims to see. (This would not, of course, be to claim that female leaders are less invested in their families than women in general, but that – properly, given their calling by God – they are generally more committed to their ministry than, on average, other women are to their jobs.)

Now, I don’t accept that there is a gender difference here, and my suspicion is that the reality, for female and male leaders, in church and without, is actually precisely the reverse. There is some evidence, for what such evidence is worth, that senior leaders in various fields are more, not less, invested in their families than less ‘successful’ people in those fields, and that holds true whether they are male or female. This chimes both with my experience of the senior people I know – in the church and in other fields – and with some Biblical material about the responsibilities of a Christian leader towards his/her children. Female or male, the leaders I respect most are (either single or) people who are deeply committed to, and invested in, their families, and they maintain that investment regardless of their travelling/speaking schedule. This reflection leads me to a second logical problem with Ian’s argument:

I claimed, which I stand by, that there is a sociological pressure precisely about being away from home. I could specify this at length anecdotally, but the general point is a societal expectation that mothers, specifically, are present at various events. Ian has moved this into a broader point about ‘investing time and energy in their children’, and has claimed that being away from home for a few days in antithetical to so doing. This claim is, I am afraid, just bizarre; local presence and personal investment are fundamentally different things. Being away from home ten days a year hardly compromises someone’s ability to be profoundly invested in their children! So Ian’s argument fails because his categories do not match.

Again, there is a reality check here. I did several years on team at Spring Harvest (we’ve not been for the last couple); the first year I went because I was pleased to be asked, &c., but by the third year, I enjoyed going, certainly, but I think that – if we are honest – we said yes for the sake of our children, who found it a brilliant week, and grew visibly in their faith through it. (One year I turned down the opportunity to give a keynote at a major academic conference to go, entirely for family reasons.) I don’t expect to be invited back there again (it seems as if that season has now passed for whatever reason), but if I was, we would agree at least as much for the girls as for anything I was going to get out of it. (And I should say that SH were – and I suppose are – really good with speakers’ children in a whole variety of ways, from cheap accommodation and registration to offers of baby-sitting in the evenings to invitations to be a part of team social events.) Of course, this one anecdote isn’t generalisable, but it does highlight the fact that Ian’s proposed disjunction between embracing speaking opportunities and being invested in family is at least not always real.

This anecdote also takes me to a third logical problem with Ian’s argument, which is a generalisation of the second: for it to work, he needs to assume a zero-sum game between taking speaking opportunities and caring for the family – but no-one’s life is so binary, surely? A church leader can give time to external speaking out of time she would have otherwise given to the church, not out of family time, and so her care for her family need not be lessened in any way by her external speaking commitments. Again, to give a personal example, if I wanted more time for external speaking without compromising my family life (or my proper professional commitment to my employer), I could: withdraw from a denominational committee; step down from local church leadership; end my involvement in a couple of local ecumenical initiatives; stop writing for one or more of half-a-dozen organisations; cease to be a trustee of a charity or four; stop blogging; step off a journal editorial board or three; … That’s my list; I suppose everyone else has one similar – and, while we all do – Ian’s claim that someone would need to lessen her commitment to her family in order to take on speaking engagements must be just false.

So, even granted his premise, I do not think Ian’s argument works, or that his conclusion follows. Let me, however, assume that it did. Suppose that it was the case that gifted women were being prevented from exercising and developing their teaching gifts because of a proper concern for their family. I suggest that we should still resist that, and do whatever we can to minimise and eradicate the problem, for gospel reasons.

The question of paying a pastor is one that has occasionally exercised Baptist churches: why do it, given that we hold to a plurality of eldership and so on? The answer given, always, is that the ministry of the Word matters profoundly to the life of the church, and so relieving the one primarily gifted and tasked with the ministry of the Word from the normal duties and cares of life – particularly from the need to earn a living – was the right thing to do for the sake of the gospel. Biblical arguments to defend such a conclusion are not hard to find, and – unsurprisingly – were developed at length by various Baptists. The point seems to me straightforwardly transferrable: if God has gifted a woman to teach, and she is being prevented from full exercise of that ministry by family responsibility, there is a gospel duty on the church to find ways to relieve that responsibility so that she may build up the church through the exercise of her gift. I suggest therefore that, even if Ian is right in every argument, that is still not a reason to accept the situation he describes; rather we should work against it in the name of the gospel.

* * *

Ian ends with some interesting, but undeveloped, suggestions about gendered ways of teaching. Again, let me grant the basic premise, that women and men teach in different ways, for the sake of the argument. This still does not entail any conclusion about who should speak at conferences until we have specified what the differences are. If we discovered that men were generally more adept at ‘set-piece’ type oratory, whereas women were generally better at workshop-style teaching, then we might properly expect a gender imbalance in different contexts (given the preponderance of seminar-style input at the bigger conferences, we would expect a significant majority of female speakers in the overall numbers: Ian suggests platform oratory is male; even if it is, the statistics we collected through Project 3:28 covered all the seminars and workshops at the various conferences, not just the main platforms; there are many more people involved at seminar/workshop level, and most of them are still male.). If however we discovered that the difference was only to do with style – perhaps the use of narrative, or empathy, or humour – we might think that this was actually good reason to press for gender balance in every context, so that a full range of teaching styles could be experienced everywhere.


  1. Ian Paul
    Jan 9, 2015

    Steve, this is really interesting. Could I repost on my now blog, then offer a response?

  2. Bev Murrill
    Jan 9, 2015

    I hadn’t read Ian’s responses, but I would like to reiterate that the only reason men are considered to be better at rhetorical speaking and women at workshop genre speaking is only because these are the opportunities generally given to them from the early stages of their training and development.

    If this were truly the case, we would see that the vast majority of actors would be male because rhetoric is their bent, however this is not the case. Women and men over many years have been considered outstanding actors, performers and orators… but again, a far smaller percentage of opportunities are given to women.

    As soon as you generalise, you immediately diminish. History does not tell the exploits of great women because historians have tended to be … men. That doesn’t mean that women have not been great leaders and warriors, despite the fact that their stories are not told.

    Once you’ve decided that women are ‘generally’ not geared for oratory, you will not look for or give opportunities tor women to be orators… If you choose to believe that either men or women could preach from the main platform, you will begin to help both genders develop as preachers for whatever platform.

    One of the disappointments for me of the stats referred to here are that if we were talking main platform speakers the differences would be much greater… and that’s just not right.

  3. Ken Cochran
    Jan 9, 2015

    I was following the argument until you said “if God has gifted a woman to teach, and she is being prevented from full exercise of that ministry by family responsibility, there is a gospel duty on the church to find ways to relieve that responsibility so that she may build up the church through the exercise of her gift.” Now if we suggested that were true for a male leader – that the church should relieve him of family duties so he could focus on the church – I think there would be an outcry. Yes we can relieve people from temporal cares (e.g. jobs) to care for the church (and we should do this first) but to relieve people of family responsibilities to focus on the church would undermine their leadership. A person who is not looking after their family should not be looking after the church.

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