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Shepherding a Woman's Heart
A New Model for Effective Ministry to Women
By Beverly White Hislop, Ann Scherich
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 Beverly White Hislop
All rights reserved.
The Focus of Shepherding Women
I sat across the lunch table from a former key staff member of a well-known Christian ministry. We briefly exchanged stories and then Carol (not her real name) said, "Bev, tell me the truth. Do you see any hope in the church?"
"Hope?" I asked.
After my husband, a committed church leader, walked out on our twenty-year marriage for a younger woman, I was devastated. I wish I could tell you someone from the church expressed care, understanding, or support. But instead, everyone avoided me—no one called or even came to pray with me.
After meeting with our pastor, I realized that even he did not understand how much pain I was in. All he said was to make sure I studied the Bible and prayed every day.
Frankly, I wish I could have studied the Bible every day, but the pain and shock of it all hurt so deeply there were days I thought I wouldn't be able to catch my next breath, let alone concentrate enough to read or study. I could only pray three words, "Help me, Jesus!"
The most humiliating day of my life was the day I finally walked into my doctor's office to ask for an AIDS test. Even though I had remained pure before and during my marriage, when I found my husband was a sex addict, I knew I was at risk. It took me weeks to gather the courage to go. As I approached the receptionist, I looked around, felt my face grow hot, then whispered, "I came for an AIDS test." I felt so alone and so ashamed.
Bev, do you ever see the church becoming a place where people understand pain like this and express care to people in my situation?
Frankly, I rarely go to church any more. The pain is too great.
Is this a unique story? I wish it were.
Usually I am a defender of the church. I believe it is Christ's bride, His body on earth. Having been a pastor's wife for many years, I know it is more difficult to bring about change on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. It is also easier to criticize what the church is not doing than it is to jump in and contribute to the solution.
But on that winter day in February, I heard Carol's pain. I had heard it too many times before. And I had no words of defense to offer.
Each school term I hear students of all ages express similar pain. Women often tell me that my seminary classroom is the first place they have found where they could admit their source of pain and feel accepted and understood.
I have discovered that once students hear the story of a woman who has experienced the pain of abortion, divorce, or domestic violence they begin to feel a new level of compassion. Once students feel compassion, they open their hearts for an increased awareness of the issue causing the pain. This deeper understanding of the pain motivates students to acquire shepherding skills. This progression has become predictable.
Often in our desire to resist sin, we can miss seeing a real person behind a past sin. Even when we know domestic violence is wrong, we can transfer our doubts about the "real story" behind the scenes onto the victim. Then we find it hard to feel compassion or express care. We are still in the judging stage, wondering if she "deserves" our intervention. The very ones she had hoped would understand and offer care only multiply the enormous pain and self-doubt she already feels. She is again marginalized and further immobilized.
We look at our full slate of Bible studies and women's ministry programs and wonder why women like Carol do not feel accepted or why they are not involved. Our beautifully decorated Christmas Luncheons and Spring Teas are not pulling her in. Our busy pastors may meet with her. She may even attend Sunday services. But we sense that we are not really connecting with her. We are not really meeting her where she is. What do we do for her? Where does she fit?
Just as a paramedic first looks at the source of the bleeding, we should focus first on the injury. A patient who is bleeding profusely cannot receive instruction on how the accident might have been prevented. What the patient needs at that point is emergency care from someone who understands what is needed to stop the bleeding and what are the "normal" symptoms of his specific injury. Once the initial source of bleeding is discovered and addressed, then more long-term and even preventive instruction can be received from the patient's established health care provider.
Too often the body of Christ starts with preventive instruction, then long-term directives. The woman is told to memorize Scripture or pray more. This is valuable and needful instruction, but it is not timely when the patient is bleeding emotionally, panic-stricken, or confused. In essence, women are often told, "Just get over it! Stop the tears and just move on. This isn't that bad."
Effective Pastoral Care to Women Reverses the Usual Order of Procedure
My friend Carol needed someone to be present with her in her pain. She needed someone who could encourage her to cry even when she was afraid she might not stop crying. She needed someone who understood that feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, and bargaining are all part of the grief process. She needed someone safe encouraging her to express her feelings of betrayal and injustice.
It is healthy to feel the pain. Crying is cathartic. It is an essential step toward healing.
Once the patient is given emotional CPR, she is watched carefully for stabilizing responses and treated accordingly. Our first concern in giving directive instructions should be her emotional state. Once she is in a safe place and stabilized emotionally, she can think more clearly.
Effective pastoral care to women focuses first on the emotional pain and how women process emotional pain. Then it gives attention to the issues that cause women pain. A shepherd would know that Carol needed to feel the pain before she was ready to think about the next step of her life. A shepherd responds with compassion. She skillfully dispenses pastoral care that is timely and appropriate. Finally, effective pastoral care continues to move toward the goal of bringing this woman to a place of health. The caregiver understands that this will take time and multiple resources. She coaches the woman toward making decisions that lead to health and maturity. A shepherd knows when to refer to professionals while offering the pastoral care needed on the journey to recovery.
A Shepherd of Women Will Stop the Bleeding Before She Gives the Vitamins
"Bev, do you ever see the church becoming a place where people understand pain like this and express care to people in my situation?"
Yes, yes, yes, Carol. I do see hope in the church! I too dream of the church's becoming a place where people understand pain like yours and express care to people in your situation. Certainly a new focus, a new model of ministering to women is needed.
One such model identifies women who are available to come alongside women in pain. These potential Shepherds of Women have
experienced emotional pain,
gained understanding of the issue(s) causing them pain,
modeled the four Titus 2 characteristics, and
been approved by the pastoral staff.
A resource list is compiled of women willing to be identified as Shepherds of Women to come alongside women in pain. Pastoral staff and other church leaders then use this list as the need arises.
A new model of women's ministry focuses on Shepherds of Women as central to providing truly effective ministry to the broad scope of the needs of women. The focus is on the women themselves, more than on popular programs or events. Bible studies and events certainly are part of the model but only as their purpose clearly ministers to a defined people group. The purpose in ministering to each people group is unequivocally to lead women to the Living Water, Jesus Christ. But some women can only receive sips of water from a teaspoon. In our eagerness to quench thirsts, we sometimes use a fire hose.
This book is written in the hope that we can contribute to the solution rather than to criticize what the church is not doing. We are the church, Christ's body.
Carol, as a member of Christ's body, I apologize to you and the many women like you who have experienced incredible pain, marginalization, and loss from the church because we have not reached out to you in your pain with understanding and compassion. I am so sorry! May you find it in your heart to forgive us. I know the Good Shepherd would wish more for His body. Oh, forgive us, Lord! Show us a new way. Show us the way of a shepherd.
Men and women, I invite you to explore with me the elements needed to shift our focus so that we can begin to change this tide, one woman at a time. Perhaps the next Carol who comes through our church door will feel the awareness, understanding, compassion, and skillful shepherding that Jesus would have given. Then this book will have served its purpose.CHAPTER 2
The Need for Shepherds of Women
Casandra returned home from college to work on some personal issues. She was a very capable, friendly young woman who knew the Lord personally and had attended church for several years. Casandra admitted that all her life she had been working to become the boy her dad so wanted but did not have. That desire led her into sinful actions, and she now had a strong desire to change her lifestyle.
Casandra's counselor pointed out that she lacked a sense of what it meant to be a woman "on the inside." Casandra needed to spend time with a "feminine" woman to discover the essence of her own gender. I agreed to meet regularly with Casandra to restructure the foundation of her own gender. During those months, Casandra continued to see her counselor to work through some deeper issues. Each week Casandra would talk with me about her discoveries and struggles. She worked hard to process what her counselor led her to discover, integrating it into the gender foundation she was building.
Casandra's story increases our awareness of the need for women to shepherd women. First we will look at nine reasons women are the best candidates to shepherd women. Then we will look at how shepherding and counseling work together.
Why Women Are the Best Candidates to Shepherd Women
1. Women best model godly femininity.
Casandra needed a woman to help her sort out the gender messages in her life. This need is increasing in a culture that often blurs the lines or demands gender rights or superiority. Although a man may be able to clearly define femininity, who could better model godly gender characteristics of a woman than a woman? Women need to know what godliness looks like in a feminine body. Similarly, Scripture gives a paint-by-number picture of a godly woman in texts such as Titus 2. But women in each culture, time zone, and family system must fill in the color. "Women are mirrors for our femaleness our whole life long.... Women always need other women to come alongside and speak their language: the language of the heart and of feelings. We shape each other's attitudes and self-definitions as we converse and from each other we learn what it means to be female."
Feminine perspective balances the masculine perspective that is most often heard in our public church services or from our fathers. Feminine perspective enables a woman to apply biblical passages strategically. Women shepherds reflect that perspective in "the language of the heart and of feelings," in a medium that is best understood and translated in the particulars of a woman's daily life. She models godly femininity.
2. Generally, women process pain differently from men.
Women seem to have a greater need to talk through their experience, to feel the emotions of the experience again as they talk. They need to tell their story—get it all out—before they can begin to take steps toward healing. Often men want 1-2-3 steps to healing without desiring to re-experience the pain through "telling." Men usually put their feelings on hold until they put their thoughts on the table. This is often the reason many women feel a lack of healing after hearing a male church leader's advice to read the Bible more, or pray more, or "try harder to love him." The most important step for women has been bypassed.
A study by Broverman and her associates examined traits characteristically associated with masculinity and femininity. A group of practicing therapists was asked to identify characteristics that best described a healthy adult man, a healthy adult woman, and a healthy adult. The lists of characteristics for the healthy adult male and healthy adult were closely aligned. However, the correlation was lower between the healthy adult woman and the healthy adult. If a woman earned a high rating as a healthy woman, she could not simultaneously earn a high rating as a healthy adult. If she earned a high rating as a healthy adult, she could not also receive a high rating as a healthy woman. She could not be both a healthy adult and a healthy woman. Some used this study to validate the idea that the standard of mental health was masculine in nature. Counselors were led to counsel women toward a healthy male model and away from a healthy female model.
Often we can find this same tendency in pastoral care. Instead, women should be cared for within the framework of a healthy adult female profile. Certainly one important aspect of this framework is understanding that women process pain differently than men.
3. Women understand women.
Much of the emotional pain women experience is related to being created as life-bearers and life-nurturers. The physiological seasons of a woman's life, along with her many relational and professional roles in life, generate painful issues. "There are times when being a woman just plain hurts. At any age from puberty to menopause, menses can be the source of extreme discomfort." Of the 42 million women in this country who suffer from these symptoms, some "3.5 million have symptoms so severe that they are unable to function for one to two days each month.... When estrogen and progesterone levels drop, so do ... drive, ambition and mood." These hormonal variants are best understood by women.
And who can better relate to the emotional and physical impact of abortion, PMS, childbirth, or menopause than a woman? "We are different [from men] anatomically, hormonally, socially, sexually, psychologically and emotionally." Peter acknowledged this difference when he instructed husbands to "treat [your wives] with respect as the weaker partners" (1 Peter 3:7). A woman's monthly cycle, childbearing season, and, later, menopause bring a biologically "weaker" aspect to a woman's life. A woman feels emotionally weaker during times of hormonal changes. These clearly impact and even create emotional pain best understood by a woman. When a woman feels understood, she is more likely to share her pain and thus begin a journey of healing.
4. Most women have natural shepherding abilities as nurturers.
Many of the skills needed to shepherd women are essentially nurturing skills. "Women proceed from a different frame of reference than men. They work first from a position of concerned involvement and caring.... Their frame of reference includes sensitivity unique to them ... and includes deepened empathy [the ability to comprehend another's experience].... Girls and women focus on care."
As God's choice life-bearers, women have been given the inherent skills needed to bring a person from babyhood to adulthood emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. These skills are transferable to shepherding a woman from a place of emotional and spiritual pain and illness to a place of health. Even women who have diminished nurturing skills because of painful pasts find something within that responds to re-parenting or training. "A woman ... tends to value giving something of herself to nourish relationships and deepen attachments. Her focus is ... more on entering a relational network ... involvement and attachment and invitation belong more clearly to feminine identity." Certainly these abilities are essential for effective shepherding.
5. Women shepherding women may reduce the risk of emotional or physical adultery between male pastors and women parishioners.
The statistics on this malady in our churches continue to escalate. Many times the beginnings of an unhealthy relationship occur when women are emotionally vulnerable. "Particularly in situations of sexual abuse, for example, the problem in pastoral response is not too little empathy but too much indiscriminate empathy by an uninformed pastoral caregiver that surfaces long-repressed feelings that overwhelm rather than help the person in need."
A woman experiencing emotional trauma or pain is a woman who is emotionally vulnerable. A woman in pain may wrongly interpret words and touch intended to offer solace. Her past grid may influence her to interpret expressions of tenderness by a male as a sexual advance. Ruth Senter concludes: "Male associations are more likely to be safe territory for us if we feel content with our own husband. The minute I begin to feel my husband is not enough for me, I set myself up for inappropriate involvement with someone else."
Excerpted from Shepherding a Woman's Heart by Beverly White Hislop, Ann Scherich. Copyright © 2003 Beverly White Hislop. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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