Women being underrepresented in the leadership of the contemporary Church is not exactly new. However, in my lifetime it does seem that women having leadership in the church has become more common. True, as any church pastor can tell you, women have always held power in the church for women, particularly older women, seem to do most of the organizing and grunt work that enables church fellowship–this is a type of power. But when I think of church leadership, I am thinking directly about the leadership of theological reflection, church messaging, and setting the priorities of church witness and social justice engagement and in these areas it has always been more of a struggle for women to be granted leadership roles.
One of the things that I learned during the World Council of Churches (WCC) General Assembly in Busan was that the contemporary global Christian church still struggles greatly to include the leadership of women, particularly theologically trained women. The work of the WCC is guided for the seven to eight years between assemblies by the Central Committee, which is comprised of delegates to the General Assembly. While the WCC strives for a 50%-50% quota of women and men on the Central Committee this has not been achieved. Why? Because, despite the aims of quotas, the Central Committee make up must reflect the make-up of delegates at the most recent General Assembly. Delegates to the General Assembly are nominated and sent as delegates by the member churches of the WCC. Women made up only 37% of the total delegates at the Busan Assembly, this means that only 37% of the Central Committee governing the WCC for the next seven years could be women. While the nominating committee did present a slate to be elected to the WCC Central Committee that was 37% women, the majority of those women seemed to be youths. While developing the leadership skills of young women is vitally important, it seems to me that counting youth in the overall all gender balance is one way to dismiss the theological leadership of women in the global church.
How can women become more represented in the global leadership of the churches? It is up to individual member churches/denominations of the WCC (there are 345) to design their own delegation to the WCC, the diversity of delegates will be reflected in the leadership elected to the central committee. Lay persons, youth, indigenous people, and persons with disability are also underrepresented in the church delegations to General Assembly, and thus on the Central Committee engaging in global church leadership. This means that the churches need to be more inclusive not only of women, but of lay persons, youths, indigenous persons, and persons with disability when selecting their delegations to the assemblies. The WCC asks churches to send delegations that reflect the diversity quotas of the WCC, but the quota seem to be just a suggestion.–I have to say that the delegation to the Busan Assembly from the United Church of Christ, in the USA, of which I was a member, did meet the diversity goals of the WCC. The UCC sent one ordained man, a lay member/female youth, and two ordained women one of who is also a woman with disability to Busan as delegates impacting the percentages which leadership coming out of the Assembly had to reflect.
The Assembly in Busan is now complete. The Central Committee which has to be carefully, and very politically, balanced as to church family, denomination, region, gender, ordained/lay, youth, indigenous, and persons with disability has been elected to serve until the next General Assembly. The numbers are not as balanced as desired, but General Assembly Delegates we were told that the slate was as balanced as possible. There was an effort to create the most balance, while still reflecting the demographics of the delegation of the assembly. I have to recognize that one of the Orthodox Bishops gave up his spot on the Central Committee so as to include a female youth representative; I wish others on the slate had followed suit to allow for more balance. The Church itself is a work in progress, still striving to show the world that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one on Christ” (Galatians 3:28). So let’s be honest, in creating a committee to guide the ecumenical body of the global church…38% female representation in the leadership of the church is not enough; less than 5% indigenous representation in church leadership is not enough; 2% persons with disability representatives in church leadership is not enough! We have work to do, yet, to meet even the New Testament’s expectation of the church!