Six Practices for Christian Organizations in the #MeToo Age

June 6, 2018

In this #WheatonExperts post, Dr. Amy Reynolds shares six practices to create healthier power dynamics within organizations.

Amy Reynolds Head ShotAssociate Professor of Sociology Dr. Amy Reynolds researches religion and public life, moral understandings of the economy, and gender inequality. Alongside Gordon College Provost Janel Curry, she spent several years collecting data for the Women in Leadership National Survey (WILNS). Reynolds and Curry studied 14 Christian nonprofits and academic institutions that had positive climates for women and men working together. In this post, Reynolds explores how the lessons learned via the WILNS research can guide evangelical organizations seeking to address the implications of the #MeToo movement for their communities.

To move forward, Christians first must recognize that these cases of sexual misconduct and abuse are about power and gendered power—more than they are about sexual sin.

Scholars and practitioners working in the area of domestic violence often use the Power and Control Wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Prevention Project, which understands sexual, physical, emotional, and other forms of violence as issues of control and power. Making positive change in light of #MeToo and #ChurchToo requires an examination of power dynamics within organizations.

Here are six simple practices evangelical organizations should implement to create healthier power dynamics and healthier environments for women.

  1. Hold leaders accountable.
    Boards must take seriously the role that they play in that accountability. In some of the cases of abuse that have come to light, too much power was invested in the central leaders. In our research, Dr. Curry and I found several cases of senior leaders who had also intentionally chosen to divest some of their power, creating executive leadership teams and choosing to work more collaboratively as they led the organization.
  2. Increase the number of female leaders.
    Ensure that you have female leaders serving on your boards and executive teams – ideally in significant numbers. In our research on nonprofits, we found that almost a quarter of all evangelical nonprofits had no women serving on their boards; only 8 percent had women serving in equal numbers to men. While women are not the only victims of abuse within Christian settings, there is often a gendered component to the abuse. Having a more gender balanced team can increase professionalism, provide a stronger diversity of role models, and raise awareness about gender dynamics for those in leadership. 
  3. Demand professionalism and respect from staff and employees to one another.
    Help men and women develop professional working relationships with one another. In our research, we find that this is more typically a difficulty for men than women—in part due to the fact that men serving in evangelical organizations may have little experience of strong professional relationships with women. For example, men sometimes restrict their professional interactions with female colleagues because of a fear of women’s sexuality.  However, this can often isolate women in organizations and restrict their access to important networks and resources.
  4. Recognize that mistakes will happen.
    I have spoken with male leaders who wanted to support women, but wondered if they should restrict mentoring of women to avoid the potential mistakes and scandal. Because we live in a culture—and participate in faith communities—where women’s dignity has not been fully respected, the reality is that a majority of men will make sexist comments or act in sexist ways at some point. Successful organizations address this. In one organization, for example, a male colleague mentioned talking with HR when he had unintentionally made a disrespectful comment toward a female colleague. The organization created a safe environment for his female colleague to report it, for him to acknowledge the mistake and be held accountable, and in this case, to move forward. 
  5. Be clear about what restrictions women face within your organization.
    We found that a majority of organizations lack clarity about what roles women can hold. For example, many churches fail to communicate clearly whether women may serve as elders, simply stating they follow 1 Timothy (or sometimes more vaguely, the Bible.) If elders, pastors, teachers, directors, or presidents must be male, the organization should state this restriction; if all positions are open to men and women, this should also be clearly noted. Women often face backlash in stepping outside of the roles perceived as appropriate; ethnographic work by Creegan and Pohl and Ingersoll find that women who have leadership roles in academic institutions, seminaries, and churches that do not provide this clarity often struggle and face insecurity.
  6. Provide more education about abuse.
    This is imperative for Christian seminaries, denominational training, and educational institutions. Research among the Religion and Violence Research Team at University of New Brunswick finds that most religious leaders are not educated to deal with domestic violence and abuse towards women, and leaders are not prepared to help women who experience abuse. Some of the abusive practices of leaders towards employees or students or congregants can be similar to interpersonal violence in family situations; knowing more about abuse can help leaders recognize abuse suffered inside or outside the organization. 

While these steps can help Christian organizations address the abuse of power, we should also be asking what it means to fully empower women and men within our organizations and within the body of Christ. The answers to these questions will differ among complementarian and egalitarian organizations in significant ways. Organizations should be thinking about the theological value for having women and men serve together, and about their reasons for pursuing diversity and inclusion. The goal should be not only to prevent abuse, but also to shape a positive vision for the gendered relationships that we ultimately want to see in our communities.