Thursday, February 12, 2015

three female ghosts that haunt the church

I will never forget the first time I met my pastor. Our family had been at the church for two years before a meeting with another staff member threw me into his path. The first words out of his mouth were, “Jen Wilkin. You’ve been hiding from me!” A giant grin on his face, he draped me in a friendly hug, and then proceeded to ask me about the people and things I cared about. He kept eye contact. He reflected back what I was saying. I was completely thrown off. I don’t remember what books were on his desk or what artwork hung on the walls, but I left his office that day with a critical piece of insight: this room is not haunted.

He was right—I had been hiding. Coming off several years of “part-time” ministry at our previous church, my husband, Jeff, and I were weary and in no hurry to know and be known by the staff at our new church. But as a woman with leadership background, I had other hesitations as well. Any woman in ministry can tell you that you never know when you’re walking into a haunted house.

If you’re a male staff member at a church, I ask you to consider a ghost story of sorts. I don’t think for a minute that you hate women. I know there are valid reasons to take a measured approach to how you interact with us in ministry settings. I absolutely want you to be wise, but I don’t want you to be haunted. Three female ghosts haunt most churches, and I want you to recognize them so you can banish them from yours.

These three ghosts glide into staff meetings where key decisions are made. They hover in classrooms where theology is taught. They linger in prayer rooms where the weakest among us give voice to hurt. They strike fear into the hearts of both men and women, and worse, they breathe fear into the interactions between them. Their every intent is to cripple the ability of men and women to minister to and with one another.

Though you may not always be aware these ghosts are hovering, the women you interact with in ministry frequently are. I hear ghost stories almost on a weekly basis in the e-mails I receive from blog readers.

The three female ghosts that haunt us are the Usurper, the Temptress, and the Child.

1. The Usurper

This ghost gains permission to haunt when women are seen as authority thieves. Men who have been taught that women are looking for a way to take what has been given to them are particularly susceptible to the fear this ghost can instill. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly a strong one:
  • You find her thoughts or opinions vaguely threatening, even when she chooses soft words to express them.
  • You speculate that her husband is probably a weak man (or that her singleness is due to her strong personality).
  • You feel low-level concern that if you give an inch she will take a mile.
  • You avoid including her in meetings where you think a strong female perspective might rock the boat or ruin the masculine vibe.
  • You perceive her education level, hair length, or career path as potential red flags that she might want to control you in some way.
  • Your conversations with her feel like sparring matches rather than mutually respectful dialogue. You hesitate to ask questions, and you tend to hear her questions as veiled challenges rather than honest inquiry.
  • You silently question if her comfort in conversing with men may be a sign of disregard for gender roles.

2. The Temptress

This ghost gains permission to haunt when a concern for avoiding temptation or being above reproach morphs into a fear of women as sexual predators. Sometimes this ghost takes up residence because of a public leader’s moral failure, either within the church or within the broader Christian subculture. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly an attractive one:
  • You go out of your way to ensure your behavior communicates nothing too emotionally approachable or empathetic for fear you’ll be misunderstood to be flirting.
  • You avoid prolonged eye contact.
  • You silently question whether her outfit was chosen to draw your attention to her figure.
  • You listen with heightened attention for innuendo in her words or gestures.
  • You bring your colleague or assistant to every meeting with her, even if the meeting setting leaves no room to be misconstrued.
  • You hesitate to offer physical contact of any kind, even (especially?) if she is in crisis.
  • You consciously limit the length of your interactions with her for fear she might think you overly familiar.
  • You feel compelled to include “safe” or formal phrasing in all your written and verbal interactions with her (“Tell your husband I said hello!” or “Many blessings on your ministry and family”).
  • You Cc a colleague (or her spouse) on all correspondence.
  • You silently question if her comfort in conversing with men may be a sign of sexual availability.

3. The Child

This ghost gains permission to haunt when women are seen as emotionally or intellectually weaker than men. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly a younger one:
  • You speak to her in simpler terms than you might use with a man of the same age.
  • Your vocal tone modulates into “pastor voice” when you address her.
  • In your responses to her, you tend to address her emotions rather than her thoughts.
  • You view meetings with her as times where you have much insight to offer her but little insight to gain from her. You take few notes, or none at all.
  • You dismiss her when she disagrees, because she “probably doesn’t see the big picture.”
  • You feel constrained to smile beatifically and wear a “listening face” during your interactions with her.
  • You direct her to resources less scholarly than those you might recommend to a man.

These three ghosts don’t just haunt men; they haunt women as well, shaping our choice of words, tone, dress, and demeanor. When fear governs our interactions, both genders drift into role-playing that subverts our ability to interact as equals. In the un-haunted church where love trumps fear, women are viewed (and view themselves) as allies rather than antagonists, sisters rather than seductresses, co-laborers rather than children.

Surely Jesus models this church for us in how he relates to the role-challenging boldness of Mary of Bethany, the fragrant alabaster offering of a repentant seductress, the childlike faith of a woman with an issue of blood. We might have advised him to err on the side of caution with these women. Yet even when women appeared to fit a clear stereotype, he responded without fear. If we consistently err on the side of caution, it’s worth noting that we consistently err.

Do some women usurp authority? Yes. Do some seduce? Yes. Do some lack emotional or intellectual maturity? Yes. And so do some men. But we must move from a paradigm of wariness to one of trust, trading the labels of usurper, temptress, child for those of ally, sister, co-laborer. Only then will men and women share the burden and privilege of ministry as they were intended.

My most recent meeting with my pastor stands out in my memory as well. He’s often taken the time to speak affirming words about my ministry or gifting. On this occasion, he spoke words I needed to hear more than I realized: “Jen, I’m not afraid of you.” Offered not as a challenge or a reprimand, but as a firm and empathetic assurance. Those are the words that invite women in the church to flourish. Those are the words that put ghosts to flight. 


  1. The Usurper can haunt a marriage, too. When I read that portion of your post, I thought, "wow--that is my experience, only not at church." I've walked a long road to learn not to believe what I see about myself through his eyes, that I'm not an enemy to be thwarted or potential enemy to be appeased. My spouse's experience of being raised by his mother taught him to view women in this way. Thankfully, when I question who I am or struggle with vague feelings of condemnation (that Satan lays on God's children no matter what, and then my feelings can be exacerbated through my marriage relationship), I can look to God's Word for assurance of how God sees me.

    1. I agree with you. I have seen this often in Christian communities - this idea that a woman has no right to speak up in disagreement with her husband. I wrote this a while back:

    2. Virginia! That manifesto is absolutely fantastic. I found myself saying, "AMEN" all the way through it, from the first line to the last. What a blessing. I'll be pointing people to it again and again, I'm sure. Blessings to you sister.

  2. This article was so timely! Thank you for putting words to what I've observed at my church but haven't been able to put my finger on! This is so helpful as I pray and take action.

  3. Hello! I stumbled upon this article and it was really timely. My husband and I recently experienced these obstacles (Ghost 1,3) first hand in a very hurtful, devastating way. Do you have any advice for communicating as a woman in these situations?

    1. Hi! I might, but I'd want to know a bit more about where you're coming from. If you'd like, you can email me at Thanks for reading! Jen

    2. Hi Jen, I would love to hear your advice as well for communicating as a woman in these situations!

    3. If your husband is displaying the pattern of coercive control which is the key characteristic of domestic abuse, I would recommend you visit A Cry For Justice.

      Ps Jeff Crippen and myself co-lead the blog. We are trying to awaken the evangelical church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst.

      At that blog the definition of domestic abuse is as follows:
      Abuse is fundamentally a mentality. It is a mindset of entitlement. The abuser sees himself* as entitled. He is the center of the world, and he demands that his victim make him the center of her world. His goal is power and control over others. For him, power and control are his natural right, and he feels quite justified in using whatever means are necessary to obtain that power and control. The abuser is not hampered in these efforts by the pangs of a healthy conscience and indeed often lacks a conscience.

      While this mentality of power and control often expresses itself in various forms of physical abuse, it just as frequently employs tactics of verbal, emotional, financial, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. Thus, an abuser may never actually lay a hand on his wife and yet be very actively terrorizing her in incredibly damaging ways.

      Abuse in any of its forms destroys the victim's person. Abuse, in the end, is murder.

      * Sometimes the genders are reversed.

  4. Thank you Jen for your insight into women in ministry and women in general in the church. This is so true. I have worked with my Pastor for 25 years and he has grown in his insight of women. But even when I give a report to the large group of Elders, it is clear they do not know how to respond to me. This piece is so needed to be read by men and women alike. Thank you for being gospel centered and not role centered in this. Keep these coming!!

  5. Hi, Jen--
    You are right re: the ideal way for us to relate as brothers and sisters in Christ, as co-laborers for the Gospel.
    Unfortunately, in this broken, sinful world (and church), we still need to have a certain caution/rightful interaction with members of either sex, actually. Unfortunately, ever since the Fall of man into sin, there has a been a tension in relationships.that doesn't allow us to completely trust everyone (including ourselves) not to sin! Jesus did not commit himself unto men because He knew what was in men--our hearts being deceitful and wicked.
    Our culture is not one of restraint or discretion, but we Christians are called to that. It would be a shame to err on the side of trust, as nice as that sounds, when the stakes are high - our marriages, our families, and Christ's name!
    I do appreciate your article--it was thought provoking and encouraging to have the right perspective towards our brothers and sisters!
    In Him,

    1. You know, every time someone writes an article pleading with God's people to treat each other with familial tenderness and affection, this objection comes up -- the "ideal world" objection. I've written on this topic myself and I got a few similar responses. I wonder if we would apply this in any other context. Something like:

      "You are right that the ideal way for husbands and wives to relate is with trust and openness. Unfortunately, in this broken, sinful world, we still need to have a certain caution. It would be a shame to err on the side of trust when the stakes are high. This is why I read my husband's emails, but don't tell him (or installed a tracing device on his car, or listen in on his phone conversations, or have veto power over his secretary, or whatever)."

      I'm sure you would agree that such a wife, in her efforts to "hedge her bets" with a sinful husband, was actually CULTIVATING distrust, deceit, and enmity with her husband. Sure, she might eventually "catch" him in an indiscretion, but even if that were the case, her actions would be actively contributing to the kind of environment where immorality flourishes -- one of secrecy, where the two are closed off from one another. In a similar way, when we refuse to trust that GOD is powerful to keep our relationships pure and the church holy, and try to hedge our bets by keeping one another at a distance, we are CULTIVATING suspicion, objectification, disdain, secrecy, and enmity -- which are the most fertile ground for immorality that I can possibly imagine.

    2. Laura, such a great insight. Thank you for reminding me that true gems can show up in the comments. Let's both keep thinking and writing. Jen

    3. Cultivating bitter fruit...the very things we are trying to denounce in an effort to heal within the church community so that we can go out into the world. Thank you and Amen! My sisters, as I continue to heal with the balm of Gilead and stop the infection from raging. God bless you both for bringing this to light. Troubled but not distressed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed 2 Corinthians 4:9

  6. Your post made me weep. It helped me understand what has happened. My new pastor brought ghost 1 into our congregation. After loving the congregation for 20 years, I was the favorite staff member. 4 months ago, he had made me so miserable resigned. I still go the church as I love the people, but I still feel haunted. I need healing.

  7. Wow. Thanks, Jen. Well put. Really well put.

  8. Hello, I'm single, 35, and leadership-minded. I do not currently attend a church unless I'm going with someone, although the church has been my home and family, and I still feel a deep connection there. Church makes me break out in hives, actually. It makes me feel like I'm an outsider, an aberration, a reject. Your post helped bring some grace to this sense. Perhaps those pastors who don't know what to do with me aren't talking to me, but to one of the ghosts.

  9. Mrs. Wilken,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. I read it the other day over at TGC, and I couldn't agree more (Especially concerning the temptress, but your other observations are valid as well). I do a decent amount of ministry alongside women, and I have long-since noticed an unhealthy atmospheric change. We have been so frightened by the threat of infidelity, and the lure of pornography, that we are essentially teaching men to be afraid of women (Or at least suspicious of them). There is a difference between a sister in Christ and a seductress. Perhaps, it isn't a fear of femininity, but that we taught men to be afraid of themselves.

  10. Jen,

    I just commented on some crazy old thing you posted on Crosswalk, but I just have to tell you - thank you for being. Thank you for using your gifts to equip the church, namely women in the church, to encourage us to be intellectually honest as we approach scripture, to have accurate theology, to put in the hard work associated with knowing the Word deeply and intimately, and to be humble before the Lord as he teaches us, but BOLD in our commitment to Him. As 27-year-old Bible teacher to high school girls who are really turned off by the emotionalism and "cheese" that sometimes accompanies women teachers and Bible study authors, you have been a breath of fresh air. Thank you so, SO much. It was only today that I put two-and-two together and realized you attend the Village with Matt Chandler - which makes SO much sense now. I adore that church and Matt's teaching and have used his sermons for my class before, and now I am going to use one of your articles (obviously giving credit!) because you explain the concept of "weaker vessel" SO well and to-the-point and in the context of the time. I am so excited to be able to point to a church across the country with biblical teaching and strong female leaders like you who are following God's calling to be a learner and teacher of the Word. So, again, THANK YOU.

  11. wow
    Men would not have these fears if women did not behave this way ( and vice versa for any assumptions women have about men)
    instead of trying to educate and teach men, how about focus on teaching women?!! Women also act in wrong ways- stop lumping all men into one box you want to break stereotypes yet you have created stereotypes for men....

    also it is not only what men are taught ( women have a natural tendency to usurp-which they do if you had a unemotional reading of the bible) but based on their past experiences...

    look around you everywhere women are trying to usurp men- men will only change their response if women change theirs...
    let the men focus on the men and you focus on teaching women to stop usurping

  12. So very insightful. So very helpful. Now, if men (especially those of the "complementarian" stripe) would read, reflect, and repent.

  13. Having experienced what it feels like to be branded as a "strong woman" I so appreciate your thoughtful, fair, and tender insight. May the ghosts flee and let the gender gap close...for His glory.