In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Penny Freeman looks at the stresses of ministry for women leaders, and gives practical ways churches can better support them in the work they do. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
As a 20-something on staff with Young Life, my supervisor gave me a six-page form to fill out that asked me hard questions about life and ministry. The questions were frighteningly personal and, I feared, would expose me as a ministry fraud.
I waited until the last minute to hand it in, confident I was going to be fired. My big reveal? I didn’t have devotions every day. I struggled with depressing feelings. And God didn’t always make sense to me in moments that were hard or disappointing.
My wise supervisor sat me down, listened, and assured me my job and future with Young Life was secure, but she wanted to help me develop and grow. There was a sigh of relief when I found out I was safe under her care. Later that year, at a regional retreat for female staff, I found out that I was not alone. The sharing revealed:
- We all struggled to believe the gospel when hard events were happening in our lives.
- Ministry was rewarding but tended to create loneliness.
- Praying felt difficult to practice.
- We all often lost our tempers.
- We all struggled with “imposter syndrome” and wondered about leaving ministry for “secular” jobs.
- Most women had a counselor or “safe relationship”.
This was the important lesson learned for going forward in ministry: Ministry leaders needed a safe space to be honest about their hearts, their struggles, and their fears.
So, who shepherds the shepherdesses?
Women are working hard in many thriving churches and parachurch ministries as leaders, pastors’ wives, and other support staff, and we should care about their hearts and souls.
Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves.
As a female leader, I have been equipped for ministry by the multiple mentors and caregivers who have poured into my life over 40 years. Here are some simple ways people have discipled and shepherded me, enabling me to both function more productively and flourish in ministry.
- Ministry leaders need to practice self-care.
Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves. Moreover, most live on shoe-string budgets and rarely have the income to pay for things that might encourage their care. One concrete way to care for a woman in ministry would be to encourage regular time to herself.
Self-care for caretakers should not be optional. Burnout is a real thing. Invest in your female staff members and volunteers by providing movie passes, personal rest days where she can go away and reflect and rest, and any multiple ways she can step away from ministry to do something fun. Although these things may not seem very “spiritual” in nature, they help women gain and maintain a sense of health, enjoyment, and value for self and others.
- Ministry leaders need safe listeners.
Text or call your ministry leader routinely and ask her how you can pray for her. Some of my best supporters are folks I can simply text “PRAY” to, knowing they are safe enough that I don’t have to explain all the details; they know the details of my life well enough to pray.
Spend time to earn her trust and let her unburden her heart on her own terms. Safe listening sometimes means no advice, no judgment, and no well-intentioned prying questions for more information. Just listen and validate your friend’s experience (you can validate her experience without agreeing with everything she says). Finally, be a “vault” listener. What she says stays in the vault (never gets repeated). You are a trusted source of confidence.
Being a safe listener is the only way she will come to you with deeply personal struggles, especially ones involving her sexuality. She may have a husband who she discovers is looking at porn; she might be struggling with that herself. Sexual issues and ministry are an explosive combination! Too many struggles stay hidden until they blow up, for reasons of shame and fear of losing one’s job. Being a safe listener invites others to ask for help and communicates that you will stick with her for her good.
- Ministry leaders need hard conversations.
Our marriages, our kids, and our hearts are targets for the enemy. If ministry leaders fall hard, we potentially take a lot of folks down with us.
If you are a trusted friend, be willing to have hard conversations. Where is she tempted to compromise her biblical values or moral integrity? Is she living within her budget? Is she spending time on Facebook scrolling for old relationships because of marital disappointment? Is she gossiping on the phone about people who have hurt her or looking at websites she shouldn’t? Is she harboring bitterness about events she can’t resolve? Is she dealing with emotional or physical abuse in her relationships?
By all means ask these questions. And don’t be shocked if your ministry friend has far more in her life than you can shoulder; invite her to glean wisdom from others, and from professional counselors in your area. Help her with the cost if she needs it.
- Ministry leaders need encouragement.
Most women ministry leaders walk around with a secret critic in their heads that renders null-and-void any praise they receive. But when they are affirmed in their character, God’s gifting in them, or how their ministry makes a difference in your eyes, they feel encouraged.
Send her to a conference or seminar where she will be fed spiritually and emotionally. Remind her that her relationship with God is more significant than what she accomplishes. Tell her what you see God doing in her, that she is his daughter and reflects him more every day.
These, then, are some concrete ways to watch over the hearts of those women who bear the mantle of gospel ministry. We need to thoughtfully and proactively support these women as they continue assisting others in growth and sanctification.
Penny Freeman talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: How Can Women in Ministry Guard Against Burnout? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
24 May 2018
In this video, Penny Freeman shares her life experience of 40 years in ministry, identifying what drains her life and what gives her life. You can read more of Penny’s thoughts in her blog, “Caring for the Shepherdesses: What Women Leaders Need.” You can also read the Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine here where Penny’s article first appeared.
17 May 2018
In the Church, men and women are brothers and sisters in Christ. This means we can relate to one another as friends by sharing life together and helping one another run the race of faith. To learn more about biblical friendship, read Aimee Byrd’s blog, “Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder her Capability for Friendship?” You can also read our latest harvestusa magazine, “Women, Sexuality, and the Church,” here.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Aimee Byrd, in light of the #MeToo movement, explores the tensions that exist in friendships between men and women, and then argues that the gospel radically transforms these relationships. When the gospel is lived out, friendships between men and women won’t fall into the abuse that the #MeToo movement rightly exposes, resulting in true intimacy and respect. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When we think about sin’s impact on sexuality, we usually think of things like pornography, broken marriages, rape, sex trafficking, and other abuses. But one category that we often neglect to recognize regarding sin’s impact on sexuality is the gift of friendship. When we over-sexualize men and women made in the image of God, we are unable to view one another holistically and fellowship platonically. And this has been a historical problem, even in the church.
Women Incapable of Friendship
I don’t know of anyone in our contemporary culture that would say women are incapable of the virtue of friendship. In fact, sociological studies reveal that men open up more about themselves when a woman is involved in the dialogue.¹ But ancient philosophers did not believe that women had the moral capacity for what they held as the highest virtue of communion — friendship. Echoing the same mindset taught by Cicero, Aristotle, and Plato in their treatises on friendship, even Augustine joined in this reductive thinking about a woman’s nature. One of our greatest theologians in church history, “although he knew that well-educated and cultured women existed,” and respected his own mother’s wisdom, wrote, “’If God had wanted Adam to have a partner in scintillating conversation he would have created another man.’”² While this kind of statement is a shock to our modern sensibilities, we can still be reductive about virtuous friendship between the sexes.
Men Incapable of Friendship with Women
Almost thirty years ago Billy Crystal uttered a line in the infamous movie When Harry Met Sally that still haunts us today: “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” As the character Harry seemed to represent every man, and Sally, every woman, consumers lost sight of the fact that this is just a movie. Now the tables have turned, and instead of a woman’s nature being incapable of attaining relational moral perfection in friendship, it is the man who lacks virtue. Sally, representing all women, argues against this assertion. She sadly concludes that she really could have used a friend, as Harry is the only person she knew in New York.
It’s such a strong scene because in that argument and conclusion, women’s value, worth, and contribution are at stake. Man reduces woman to her capability of gratifying his uncontrollable sexual urges. But man is also reduced to his supposed animalistic impulses, even to the point where he cannot be a friend to someone in need.
Men and Women Can’t Even be Acquaintances
Under the good intentions of upholding purity and faithful marriages, the common teaching in evangelical circles is that men and women shouldn’t even share a meal, a car ride, or a text message without a chaperone. Considering that a number of prominent preachers have fallen into sexual immorality, wrecking their marriages, their ministry, and the faith of some of their followers, taking steps such as these seems prudent.
Many leaders and laity have since followed this example with the same godly intentions. Christian leaders should certainly model sexual integrity to us. But we need to see it displayed with mature spirituality and godly friendship, not with suspicion and fear. I’ve been in conversations with men afraid to give a woman a ride to the hospital, to share an elevator, or to send an email about work. Is this the message the church really wants to send about our design for communion—that women are threats to a man’s purity and that we are incapable of serving as an acquaintance in ordinary life, much less being an actual friend? Yes, take precautions, be accountable, examine your heart, but I wonder if our design and life as new creations in Christ can show us a better way?
A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy 5:2).
Does a Woman’s Sexuality Hinder Her Capability of Friendship?
Since there will be no marrying and no sexual intercourse in eternity, we know that God’s plan for human sexuality is not ultimately expressed in the sexual intimacy of the bedroom. A greater understanding of what we are created for, who we are in Christ, and where we are headed will help shape the way we relate to one another. A woman’s sexuality should not be a barrier to friendship, but it should call men to treat her with all purity, like he would a sister or a mother (1 Timothy. 5:2). Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
Created for Holy Communion
Christians, we were created for the high calling of joyful communion with the Triune God and one another. We get to participate in the Father’s great love for the Son, through his Spirit. God has revealed himself to us in the Son so that he can make friends with us. Is this what we represent in the way we relate to others? Does the world see us exemplifying God’s love for mankind in Christ? Do we treat one another as men and women made in the image of God? If the church cannot model virtuous friendship between the sexes, why would the world take us seriously when we say we are being sanctified even now as we look to our glorification as brothers and sisters serving together in the new heavens and the new earth?
Christian men and women are co-laborers in the gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ, both given the same, affectionate “one another” exhortations in Scripture that teach us how to relate.
The world should look to the church and see a household of fellowship between siblings in Christ that overflows into the way we relate to everyone.
What does that look like on this side of the resurrection, as we all still struggle with idolatrous tendencies, sexual brokenness, and over-sexualized messages regarding men and women? Scripture tells us, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Romans 12: 9-10, CSB).
To love our brothers and sisters well, we are called to be wise at separating good from evil. We pursue godly relationships and we warn against sin. This means we will have to be honest in self-evaluation regarding our own maturity and emotions and open to the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ, as honesty is achieved in community. We are God’s own possession, so we are to “abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
Here are some common areas we miss in self-evaluation:
Confusing attraction with sexual temptation.
Let’s not fool ourselves by saying we will never be attracted to anyone but our spouses. What do you do when you discover you are attracted to someone? We are to offer every part of ourselves—body, mind, and soul—to God. It’s easy to misread appropriate feelings that could be a godly attraction and reduce our feelings to romantic or sexual attraction since we hear so many over-sexualized messages. Let’s learn to recognize the difference and properly handle them so that we don’t miss out on the proper affection we could experience as brothers and sisters.
Assuming we won’t be tempted.
Self-evaluation will also help us recognize when we are weak in this distinction or with a particular person. Perhaps we perceive a weakness in someone else. In this case, we should not put ourselves in situations that would feed a temptation to sin or cause anyone to stumble. This is when proactive measures are called for, such as seeking accountability from someone we trust and establishing clear boundaries. If we understand the sin within our own hearts, we should exercise proper discretion, never assuming that we couldn’t be tempted.
Expecting marriage to fulfill all of our relational needs.
Looking to a spouse to fulfill all of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs puts an unbearable burden on one person. This unhealthy dynamic can contribute to temptation that leads to affairs. When a wife or husband can’t measure up to these expectations, it is easy to romanticize a quality in someone else that we see lacking in our spouse.
Not valuing a spouse’s insight.
If you are married, it is dishonoring to your spouse to pursue a friendship with anyone he or she feels uncomfortable about. Also, our spouses often have insight into a situation where we may have a blind spot. Are you open with your spouse about your interactions and friendships with the opposite sex? Do your friends promote your marriage? A spouse may notice that someone has harmful intentions or manipulative ways. I have shared advice with my husband when I thought a woman had more romantic intentions in her friendship with him. He didn’t notice that until I pointed it out. My husband has given me insight about some of my friends being competitive with me in a destructive manner. We should always give heed to our spouse’s wisdom.
What is God calling us to in friendship? He is calling us to image the love he has for us in Christ. He is calling us to look at one another holistically, because along with our bodies, we have minds, souls, and emotions that matter. He is calling us to uphold distinction between the sexes, without reduction. He is calling us to growth, maturity, and a love for obedience that is greater than our fears. He is calling us to wisdom and discernment, not blanket extra-biblical rules that stereotype and hinder growth. He is calling us to a biblical understanding of purity that rightly orients all of our affections to God, as a proper response to understanding that by the help of his Spirit our purity is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ in grateful offering (Rom. 11:36). He is calling us to promote one another’s holiness and to condemn sin.
We do this by being a friend, because friendship is something you do. Friends pursue a common mission, and the church is the ambassador of the gospel in the great commission God has given us. These relationships with our brothers and sisters in the faith will benefit us as we are sent out into the world to be good neighbors to all creation.
¹For example, see Dee Brestin, The Friendships of Women (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1988), 16.
²Translated by Henry Chadwick, St. Augustine, Confessions (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), in Chadwick’s Introduction, xviii. Quoted from St. Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis.
Watch Ellen Dykas discuss this topic further in the accompanying video: Can Men and Women Be Friends? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
The Church is active in helping men who struggle sexually, but for too long it has failed to see that women are struggling just as much as men do. Dave talks about key steps the church can make to change this, and be the support Christian women need. And read Karen Hodge’s blog on the importance of women’s ministry in the church here. And you can read the entire magazine online here.
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Karen Hodge shares her perspective, gained from many years of personal and professional experience, that women’s ministry is vitally needed in the church. And that vital need for women’s ministry is even more important today, as gender distinctions are being erased. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
For many years our church hosted regional gatherings for church planters to encourage and equip them as they began their work. It was always my joy at these events to feed them as well. Several years ago, over a slice of Chicago deep-dish pizza, I listened to a young pastor tell me about the church he intended to plant. It would be relational and organic. There would primarily be small groups and absolutely no programs. He said he did not see the relevance of men’s or women’s ministry.
I asked him about his family. He told me all about his wife and three daughters. At this moment it probably would have been nice if I had informed this church planter that I was a church planter’s wife of 27 years as well as the Coordinator of Women’s Ministry for our denomination (PCA) because I am pretty sure he thought I was just the pizza lady. I then asked him, besides his wife, who would train his daughters about what it means to be a woman. He said the pulpit ministry and their teaching at home should be enough. I said maybe so, but I had recently reflected as my daughter got married that it took all kinds of women in the church to help Anna Grace understand who God was and who He was calling her to be as a woman.
One of the books of the Bible that captivated my heart as a young church planter’s wife was the book of Titus. Paul encouraged Titus that in order to plant a healthy church he should instruct the older men to train the younger men and the older women to train the younger women. These older and younger people lived together in Crete. Paul said of the Cretans, “(they) are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). It was a worldly and evil place. “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16). There was a fundamental disconnect between what they professed to believe and the way they lived their lives.
Crete sounded a lot like South Florida where we were planting a church. God was bringing so many women who did not know Christ to our fellowship. I knew programs were not the answer, but I found myself in a living room full of women. So I went scrambling for answers; I was eager to know the strategy.
The strategy is in the text: we are not called to necessarily start a stellar women’s ministry but rather to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). To “teach what is good and so train the young women” (Titus 2:3-4). Older women (chronologically or spiritually speaking) are to train the younger women what sound doctrine has to do with all of life, including parenting, relationships, their marriages, and their personal character.
The word “train” means to show, unpack or demonstrate. This command implies proximity. You can’t show someone something unless you are near them. It is a call for life-on-life discipleship. The word “sound” means healthy or hygienic. I knew that the air I was breathing in South Florida all around me was polluted with unhygienic worldly thinking. So, Paul was telling me that sound doctrine was just what my heart and the hearts of the women around me needed. Sound doctrine makes sin-sick people healthy. Sound doctrine yields sound living, sound homes, and sound churches.
So why was I trying to persuade the pizza pastor that there needed to be some provision for gender-specific discipleship in his church and for his daughters? I believe gender distinctness was God’s very good plan.
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….
So, God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”
(Genesis 1:26-27; 31).
In God’s design, both maleness and femaleness are necessary to image God. Maleness and femaleness are also essential to fulfill humanity’s purpose, to be fruitful and multiply and spread God’s glory to the ends of the earth. And it takes maleness and femaleness to be one flesh. “Therefore, man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And yet maleness and femaleness image God regardless of marital status. In all of these dimensions, we see equality of being and yet a necessary diversity of function. Maleness and femaleness, no matter how hard we try to delete it or separate it from each other, remains inseparable. United as one, men and women are used by God to display the gospel story together.
I believe women’s ministry begins when a young woman is born: teaching, training, and showing her through our words and deeds what it means to be a woman who follows Christ in our sexually-chaotic age.
Furthermore, women are products of our theology. What we think about God and His Word profoundly shapes all our actions, attitudes, and thoughts. Because the Fall has distorted maleness and femaleness, I believe it is essential to train women to be keen theologians, showing them the hope of the gospel in light of the fact that all of us are sexually broken and teaching them to think biblically about all of God’s Word, including the implications of their gender.
I believe women’s ministry begins when a young woman is born: teaching, training, and showing her through our words and deeds what it means to be a woman who follows Christ in our sexually-chaotic age. We must be zealous in encouraging and equipping her to have a sound doctrine concerning her sexuality. While avoiding gender stereotypes, we must encourage her to fulfill her God-given calling as a woman. In a culture where gender is aggressively deconstructed, seen as being unnecessary for who we are as persons, we must come alongside her in the highs and lows of life and help her to delight in her femaleness as part of God’s good design. I believe it takes more than a mother to do this; it will need a community, the Body of Christ.
Fast forward to last year. I got a call from the pizza pastor. He planted a great church that had grown rapidly, but so had the issues his congregation was facing, especially those of the women. His women had begun to gather together and were looking for guidance and direction. He wondered if I would be willing to come and help the women begin to think biblically about womanhood, to encourage them both with sound doctrine and to not lose heart in this unhygienic world. I responded that I was delighted to come, and I even offered to bring the pizza.
You can watch David White talk some more about helping women in the accompanying video: How Can Church Leaders Help Women Who Struggle Sexually? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
In this video, Ellen talks about Jessica Harris’ blog, “My Problem Wasn’t Amish Romance Novels.” Many people think women do not have intense struggles with hard-core porn, but Jessica writes about her struggle and what women need to battle—and win—over addictive pornography struggles. You can read Jessica’s blog here. And you can read the entire Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine on Women, Sexuality, and the Church here.
02 May 2018
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Jessica Harris shares her personal story of pornography addiction, a struggle that still too many think is only a man’s problem. Because pornography addiction is seen as primarily a male issue, the Church isn’t helping women who continue to struggle in silence and shame. Jessica shows how the Church can change this broken perspective. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When I first felt God calling me to share my story, my answer was no.
I had spent my entire high school career struggling with pornography addiction. In college, I was caught looking at porn after logging in on a school computer, but they concluded it couldn’t be me. “Women just don’t have this problem.”
My struggle escalated to the point where I sent nude photos to a stranger online. This was back in 2003 before sexting was in vogue. Seventeen years old, from my dorm room on a Christian college campus, I, a newly-converted Christian who had grown up in the church, became someone else’s pornography. To me, that was all my life was worth.
A year later, I finally told somebody about my struggle with porn. I confessed to the Student Life staff at the second Bible college I was attending. They began to work with me intensively, and after nearly two years of a long, hard fight, I found freedom.
In my mind, freedom meant I didn’t have to think about it anymore. The past was behind me. No one ever had to know this was part of my story.
When I realized God might want me to share it, I resisted. I tried to find anything else to do with my life. I told Him He could send me to China. He could call me to some jungle somewhere.
Anything but this.
But I felt a bit like Jonah getting tossed around in life’s boat. There wasn’t peace. Everything I tried to do wasn’t working. So, angrily, I created my website and shared my story of porn addiction and shame. I wondered if God hated me and that’s why He was making me do this. It felt like a permanent form of branding and punishment. Now, the one thing I never wanted anyone to know was the first thing anyone would know about me. I was going to be “that girl who watched porn.”
I was convinced I was alone—the only woman in the world who had managed to become addicted to porn.
Now, the one thing I never wanted anyone to know was the first thing anyone would know about me. I was going to be “that girl who watched porn.”
Then, the emails started coming in. A year after starting my site, a large Christian conference asked me to lead a workshop for women on the topic of lust. When women realized this workshop wasn’t going to be your typical “Proverbs 31, and True Beauty is on the Inside” workshop, they started planning to skip theirs and come to mine instead.
Every seat was filled. Women stood along the back. Women even sat on the floor at the front of the room. God moved mightily in that workshop. At the end, I watched the small groups as women shared their struggles with each other and prayed together. God was setting women free.
I walked out of the room and had what I call my Esther moment. It was as if God said to me, “You can have what you want. You can do whatever you would like. No one really knows you, so you could keep silent and move on with your plans, or you could be part of this.”
That day I decided I was all in, having no idea what that might mean. I knew women were struggling, lost, and hurting, and I knew how they could get help. How could I leave them? How could I just walk away and pretend they weren’t there?
I moved forward more publicly, telling my story, trying to write for various magazines, and reaching out to churches. The response was often, “We don’t need that kind of stuff for our women. Our women don’t struggle with that.” It quickly became clear that the biggest enemy I was going to face wasn’t pornography itself, but an old script and layer upon layer of shame.
There’s a script we have when it comes to things like sexual struggles and pornography. It goes something like this:
Men are visual, so men struggle with pornography. Women are emotional, so women struggle with Amish romance novels. Men are the eyes. Women are the heart. Men get Fight Club with resources and accountability groups. Women get tea parties with talk about dating and “protecting your heart.”
And that leaves thousands of visual women who struggle with pornography with nowhere to turn. They need Fight Club, but when they knock on the door, they’re met with disapproving glances or a belittling of their struggle.
When I stand on a stage and say, “My name is Jessica, and I was addicted to pornography,” I have to clarify exactly what I mean. People try to change my story to fit the script. They either water down what I mean by “addicted” or what I mean by “pornography.” They assume, at the very most, I was compulsively into soft-core pornography.
That’s not the case. I was never into soft-core pornography. Instead, I spent hours, every day, watching hard-core pornography: the same type of porn men are known for watching and worse. Mine is not a story of a young girl entrenched in romance novels. It’s a story of a young woman having her identity completely warped and lost to years of compulsive, daily, hard-core pornography use.
Sharing that story, whether from a stage, on my site, or through my book, Beggar’s Daughter, has never been easy. I still get emails questioning my experience or what might be wrong with me. After all, the email will say, “This is a man’s problem.”
The advantage is now, I know my story is not unique. In fact, it is far from it. The script we’re using is old and needs to change, because the script itself is causing shame. The script itself is leaving women feeling trapped and hopeless.
How do we change that script?
- Use the word “and” – When you address issues around sexuality, know that sexual struggles do not respect genders. Men and women can struggle with pornography. Men and women should be able to find hope, healing, and grace in your community.
- Train women to help— Equip women in your midst to be able to minister to women in this area. Women’s ministry isn’t all homemaking tips and studies on Proverbs 31. Equip and encourage your teams to tackle harder issues with truth and grace.
- Stop worrying about “causing” problems— Many ministry leaders are concerned that discussing these issues will introduce sin into their circles. In the years since I published my book, I’ve not once had someone say, “I wish you hadn’t written this. It made my problem worse.” When we talk about issues in the light of God’s redemptive grace, people find hope and freedom.
Discussing an issue, no matter how hard, in relation to the Gospel and grace will always bring light, not darkness. Mentioning that women struggle with pornography doesn’t take women captive; it sets them free. It opens up the door for them to come forward, confess, and find hope and healing.
As the body of Christ, that should be our mission. We should welcome His redemptive work in each other’s lives, regardless of what He is redeeming us from.
It might be an overused saying, but if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If your church or ministry isn’t speaking out about these issues, then your silence is trapping women in shame. Don’t withhold grace from the women in your midst. We need to get rid of the script that destroys a woman’s identity and, instead, speak the truth and invite grace to redeem our identities and be a part of every woman’s story.
Ellen Dykas discusses this topic further in the accompanying video: What If I’m a Woman Who Struggles with Pornography? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
In the lead article in our Spring 2018 harvestusa magazine, Ellen Dykas discusses three blind spots the Church has about women and their sexuality. What the Church doesn’t see, or what it chooses to ignore seeing, hurts women in their walk with Christ. Watch as Ellen raises these important issues, and then go read her article on what the Church needs to do here.
26 Apr 2018
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, Ellen Dykas discusses three blind spots the Church has about women and their sexuality. One, they do struggle with porn and lust like men; two, wives are not necessarily the ones not wanting sex with their husband; and three, women are hesitant to go to church leadership for help on these and other issues. Ellen goes on to show how the Church can change the way its leadership sees women and their call to live with sexual integrity. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
Crunch! My little Civic didn’t stand a chance when the larger SUV swerved into my lane. Even though I passed it slowly, a few seconds in the driver’s blind spot racked up hundreds of dollars of damage to my car.
Blind spots are dangerous when you’re driving. We have blind spots in our lives and relationships, also. When we don’t acknowledge that we have them, the results can be devastating. Relationships in our jobs, friendships, families, and even in the church are impacted when we fail to see what we can’t or don’t want to see.
I want to address three blind spots I have seen over the past eleven years of my ministry here at Harvest USA, three areas where the church has repeatedly failed women in their sexuality. There are others, but these three are the ones I consistently see when I talk to women who struggle with sexual issues. When churches recognize these three blind spots, they will be better equipped to understand and help women.
Blind spot # 1: Women don’t struggle with sexual sin and lust like men do
A few years ago at a Harvest USA fundraising banquet, I found myself defending my full-time position as Women’s Ministry Director. The conversation went like this:
Well-meaning man: “You’re full time? Are there that many wives who have Christian husbands looking at porn?”
Me: “Well, yes; not only do wives reach out for help, but Christian women who are struggling with things like pornography and casual sex do as well.”
Well-meaning man: “Really? I never thought women struggled with that stuff!”
It wasn’t the first time I had to defend my job. Women have felt invisible in the church. When it comes to sexuality, most of the attention has gone to men. So, when a woman looks for help, no one is there for her because we rarely acknowledge women’s sexual struggles.
Darcy¹ came to me for help because she couldn’t stop hooking up with men. She’d sought out more men than she could remember, and her face and voice communicated shame and pain as she gave me her diagnosis, “Ellen, I guess I’m just more like a man.”
She needed help understanding that lust and sexually-sinful behaviors are gender neutral.
Why did Darcy think that? Because in her church circles, she only heard that men had problems with lust. Yes, there was something wrong with Darcy, but it wasn’t that her sexuality was more like a man’s. She needed help understanding that lust and sexually-sinful behaviors are gender neutral! Idolatrous and lonely, selfish hearts don’t belong to one gender.
I see two reasons that contribute to this blind spot. One has to do with how men perceive women. Men do tend to have stronger sex drives as a result of their biology. And since men are overwhelmingly in church leadership, they know their own issues but somehow think that women are radically different than them. The standard script is: women are drawn to relationships; men to sex. You mean women have libidos? Why does the church have this blind spot when current statistics on porn use show that 60% of females ages 18-30 acknowledge that they look at porn at least monthly?
Secondly, I have noticed that women contribute to this blind spot, too. We don’t talk much about sexual issues (at Bible studies, retreats, etc.). If men are ignoring our struggles, we are complicit in not speaking up. It’s what I call the ABC mentality: A, men don’t think women have these struggles; B, women aren’t speaking about them; therefore C, churches don’t devote resources and ministries to women in this area.
Pardon me, but I have to yell: THIS IS A DANGEROUS BLIND SPOT! It’s leaving Christian women to struggle alone in silence and shame! I have taught on sexuality to women from all over the United States and several countries, and their testimony is consistent: we are struggling, we don’t hear the church talking about this as a women’s issue, and we don’t know where to get help!
How can churches eliminate this blind spot?
First off, recall that Jesus had no problem coming alongside women who struggled sexually. From the “sinner” who most likely was a prostitute (Luke 7:36-50) to the Samaritan woman who had multiple husbands (John 4:5-26), to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus did not ignore women. Jesus engaged these women as who they are: sexual sinners who need forgiveness and truth woven in with compassion.
Here’s how we can follow the example of Jesus:
- Pastors and women’s ministry leaders, teach a full-orbed biblical sexuality. God gifted women with their sexuality for his glory. Even though the Fall has marred its beauty, Jesus came to forgive and transform sexual sinners, women as well as men! When you speak or preach, utilize illustrations and testimonies that highlight how the gospel gives hope, courage, and holiness for women who are bound up in sexual sin. Perhaps do a sermon series or Sunday school class on the three passages listed above, explaining how we can follow Christ’s example to protect and extend grace to women.
- Take the courageous initiative to weave sexual topics into ongoing discipleship ministries, and equip women to come alongside each other. Our workbook, Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual and Relational Brokenness, was written for this purpose and has a companion E-Book Leader’s Guide. Also, our website has loads of free articles and blog posts on sexuality that can give you ideas for rich discussion topics.
Blind spot # 2: The primary sexual issue in Christian marriage is that husbands want sex more than wives
The first blind spot leads to another erroneous belief that married women, in particular, do not care about or lose interest in sex. Wives are often told and counseled that this is why their husbands are looking at porn or have gone outside the marriage for sexual encounters.
The reality is far different. More Christian marriages than we realize have sexually-unengaged husbands. Peek into my ministry world:
- A woman’s husband has not initiated sex, or responded to her initiation, in over two years. She described herself as a woman with a strong longing for sexual intimacy.
- A pastor’s wife who hadn’t had sex in 10 years with her husband said, “I guess life just got busy with his ministry, and we got out of the habit.”
- Finally, there is a young wife who wants sex more frequently than her husband. There’s no sexual sin going on; she just has a stronger sex drive!
Of course, there are many reasons for these stories. And yes, some wives are less than enthusiastic about sex with their husbands. I have met many wives who do not enjoy sex and even disdain it. But if you look a bit closer you’ll see reasons that are important to know.
I see this more all the time: wives who feel like nothing more than an object for their husband’s sexual pleasure.
Past sexual trauma will influence a woman’s view of her husband and her own body. Sex that is not physically pleasurable, like rarely experiencing orgasm, will impact a woman’s desire. A full life of working and being a mom leads to exhaustion. Who has the energy? And, I see this more all the time; wives who feel like nothing more than an object for their husband’s sexual pleasure.
Now, hear me on this point. I’ve already said that women have battles with sexual sin too, including pornography, fantasy, lust, compulsive masturbation, and adultery. And like men, they bring the residue of past sin or current struggles into the marriage. So do NOT hear me playing a blame game on men here.
But in the age of the internet, one stark reality is that far too many Christian men are more than dabbling with a little porn here and there. It should not surprise us, given the degree to which the internet is embedded in our daily life, and the ease with which pornography can be accessed, that Christian men are viewing pornography in greater and greater numbers (with the use of porn among youth and younger men being far higher). As one study concluded, “Men of all ages and stages, but especially married men, are coming to pastors for help with pornography struggles.”
When a husband trains himself to be aroused and satisfied sexually by images or other types of pornography, his ability to be aroused by his wife often diminishes. Real life—and real bodies— pale against the photoshopped, fantasy stories the internet sells. Porn-induced erectile dysfunction is now a thing.
And when porn doesn’t reduce a husband’s interest in having sex with his wife, it can become the coach for what he wants sexually from his wife. The result is wives who feel manipulated and used.
Pastor, when you hear of a marriage problem involving sex, dig for the reasons why.
- Do not accept pornography usage as being either a “small porn problem,” or “just what men do.” Regardless of how often a husband views it, pornography teaches a way of life and relating that is so terribly damaging. Do not say to a wife of a husband who is involved with porn that she should “have more sex,” so that he won’t look at it. I’ve heard so many tragic stories from wives who were counseled this way.
- It is time to offer marriage classes that have discussions on sex. There is a lot of confusion about sex among God’s people. I’ve been asked many questions from Christian married women like, does anything go in marriage as long as it’s mutual? What do I do if my husband wants to do things I’m uncomfortable with? Is it ok if we watch pornography together before we are intimate? I masturbate secretly because I rarely orgasm with my husband…is that ok?
- Be proactive with pre-marriage couples. The best time to catch problems that will likely destroy a marriage is before the wedding. Pre-marriage counseling must include a frank and honest discussion of sexual history, current sexual sin struggles, as well as a clear emphasis on God’s beautifully good design for husbands and wives to serve and love each other selflessly in their sexual relationship.
Blind spot # 3: Women should have no problems talking to pastoral leadership when they are struggling with a sexual issue
There is a sad and tragic reality that I have seen in working with women. Most women do not feel safe going to pastoral leadership to talk about sexual struggles.
A forty-year-old woman came to me for help after two decades of promiscuity. She ran a highly successful business: an escort service which offered sex for money. At age 19, she had been an active member in her church, singing on the worship team, and living a life of sexual integrity. What happened?
She had a secret: she had feelings for girls. She was scared and confused but finally mustered the courage to seek help from her pastor. She explained that she’d never pursued any romantic or physical experiences with girls but needed help.
His response? “We don’t have anything for you here and, it’s best you step down from the worship team.” She did step down—and out of that church and found acceptance in the LGBT community, which became her home for twenty years.
I’ve sat with too many women who have shared stories that have made me ache with tears; others have infuriated me. Single women who have been counseled like this, ‘If you’d just find yourself a husband then you wouldn’t have these kinds of issues.’ Wives who have been told to submit to their husbands in the bedroom, even when that submission meant feeling degraded and used. Wives have been diagnosed as paranoid, because they suspected their well-known and respected-by-the-church husband of infidelity.
Experiences like these teach women to keep their struggles hidden and silent. They live with shame for feeling like a failure in their life or marriage, and they are desperate to talk to someone who understands and is safe.
Women with this history transfer their fear and distrust of men to male leadership in the church. Far too many men in leadership do not recognize this as a substantial issue for women.
And there’s the sober reality of sexual abuse survivors who are in your church. It has become common knowledge, backed by numerous studies, showing that 20% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. This trauma is devastating, and while survivors respond to their abuse in unique ways, it is not uncommon for many women to fear men and authority. Far too many men in church leadership do not recognize this as a substantial issue for women. It’s a glaring blind spot.
Here are a few ways church leaders can cultivate an atmosphere of safety and grace for women sexual strugglers and wives.
- Examine your beliefs about women and sexuality, and discuss this article with women you respect. Ask them: where do you see my blind spots? What do I need to learn?
- Offer anonymous surveys to the women in your church to learn from them about what their reality is regarding sexual struggles and sin.
- Work to make your church grow into a place where women have a voice and will be protected, defended, and helped if their husbands are unrepentant. Raise up and train women leaders to whom the women in the church can go for help. This would greatly encourage women to address their fears of talking to pastors and leaders.
Paul’s pastoral benediction to the Thessalonians, a church obviously struggling with sexual sin, was this, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
Brothers and sisters, our God’s peace has been entrusted to us as his ambassadors. It is our calling to extend Christ’s shalom, or human flourishing, to women and their sexuality. Will you engage it? Will you consider implementing changes to the way you teach, preach and disciple your people? Your women? I hope you will and will pray to that end.
Ellen Dykas is the Women’s Ministry Director of Harvest USA. To reach her with questions or advice about her article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
¹All names have been changed.