More than 100 speakers and only four of them are women. This is not what the church looks like. #thenines2013
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) November 12, 2013
Oh boy. Not a fun situation for a conference trying to help churches.
So can local churches learn anything from this little exchange?
1. Diversity Matters
It’s time we embrace diversity—all kinds of diversity, including gender, race, culture, class, etc. It’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake, but there’s so much we can learn from different perspectives. The wider world is learning this lesson, albeit slowly, and the church needs to get on board. The church should have been leading. During the civil rights movement we were, but today the church is still one of the most segregated places in American society.
Local churches need to find ways to embrace diversity. Learn more about why diversity matters from Scott Williams and Trillia Newbell. We even took a lesson in diversity from 13th century hero Bar Sauma in our Church Communication Heroes ebook.
2. It’s Hard to Achieve
While only four women out of 110 speakers is a clear failure in gender diversity, it’s also clear the Leadership Network and Todd Rhoades, the folks behind The Nines, understand the importance of diversity (they just blogged about it Monday). Some of the talks at The Nines even cover it, this year and in the past. But the problem (and Rachel’s frustration) is that despite knowing it, the lack of diversity continues.
Todd says they invited more women but didn’t get a response. The intentions were good, but the results didn’t deliver. Sometimes we only see the result and it’s easy to assume a malicious intent. But achieving diversity is hard. Being diverse in the Midwest, where it’s 80% white, can be a challenge. It’s something you have to continually work at. Diversity doesn’t happen by accident.
Don’t expect your church to become diverse overnight. You have to work at it. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while for your results to match your intentions. And if you’re on the sidelines watching, be careful not to judge intent from the results. We could all use a little grace.
Full disclosure: Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. Our nonprofit parent, the Center for Church Communication, has had a number of women on our board of directors (yay!), but right now it’s mostly guys (doh). Our new ebook profiled diverse heroes—only five of the 15 were white men (yay!), but our recent Certification Lab was led by all guys (doh). We’re not perfect either.
3. It’s Hard to Talk About
Not only is diversity hard to achieve, but simply talking about it is hard. Some of the comments between Todd, Rachel and others who jumped in were becoming defensive, snide and in some cases rude. Defensive and even snide is understandable—it’s a tough conversation—but it’s not helpful. I think in some cases Todd was trying to be funny, but Rachel (and many others) saw it as patronizing. Social media invites the off-hand comment and being easily misunderstood, which only complicates a conversation like this.
Understanding and forward progress can only come with openness and grace. As you have these conversations in your church, be honest. Acknowledge the difficulty, pain and even embarrassment (no one likes to be accused of racism, sexism, etc.). Don’t let explanation become excuse or blame. Don’t be dismissive. Own your role and responsibility, even if it means embracing failure. Avoid accusations. Don’t confuse a failure in results with a poor intent. Be willing to work together for a better result. Don’t complain if you’re not willing to help.
These will be hard conversations for your church, so you need to approach them with special care.
4. It’s OK to Be Broken
Todd Rhoades and many others have complained that this conversation is “throwing the baby out with the bath” and a distraction. Maybe so. The Nines has a lot of great content and some of it is being overshadowed by this debate. Others in the #TheNines2013 conversation keep clamoring for unity.
Yes, unity is great. But it doesn’t mean we can’t voice problems and pain. These calls for unity can inadvertently send the message that hurting people need to get over it. Unity doesn’t happen because we yearn for it. It happens when we address these issues and can move forward together. Sometimes that’s messy.
People asked Martin Luther King Jr. to slow down for the sake of unity. Thankfully he didn’t listen. But when women complained that they weren’t represented in the March on Washington, they were told to be quiet for the sake of unity.
Sometimes we think brokenness and failure make us weak or undermine our message. But I think the reverse is true. Jesus showed us a path of humility. The church of all places needs to embrace our brokenness.
So be careful that you don’t push aside difficult discussion for the sake of unity. You need to have those hard discussions to arrive at unity. As history has shown us, sometimes that conflict needs to be public.
5. Let’s Pray
Over at Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog they posted a prayer for unity. Again, don’t let cries for unity push away the need for discussion.
But yes, we need to pray. Let’s pray that Todd and Rachel can shake hands over this and we can all learn and move forward from this conversation. Let your church come together for prayer and healing as you address diversity.
The conversation continues…
- ‘The Nines’ Explains Why So Few Women Are Among 100-Plus Speakers – Todd Rhoades is quoted and offers a more detailed explanation that didn’t make it on Twitter.
- On Being ‘Divisive’ – Rachel Held Evans blogs about the whole experience, expressing some of the frustrations of the minority in situations like this.
- Are Christian Conferences Sexist? ‘The Nines’ Prompts Reflection – A thorough counting of gender diversity at Christian conferences, which comes up with a total count of 805 total speakers, 159 of whom are female. That’s 19%.
- 101 Women Speakers – Rachel Held Evans has created a list of Christian women speakers.