Thoughts on Dealing with Friction in the Church

mKlHzpaI love the word “kerfluffle.”

It’s an underused but interesting word, meaning “row or disturbance.” For me kerfluffle is sort of a hard word to say. Go ahead, try it out loud. See? In a way, it audibly represents the difficulties we often experience during conflict.

Two days ago, a bit of a kerfluffle erupted in the twitterverse, involving author/blogger Rachel Held Evans and Todd Rhoades, organizer of “The Nines,” a popular online church leadership conference backed by Leadership Network.

It began with Evans pointing out, on twitter, that of the 110 speakers featured at “The Nines,” only 4 were women.

Stop right there. 4 out of 110 is flat out ridiculous. It’s shameful. If you ever doubt that today’s version of Christendom bears Tertullian’s fingerprints, let this serve as a stark reminder. We’ve got to do better! Surely a conference with this kind of stature could field a speaking roster that is greater than 3.6% women?!?

But then the kerfluffle got worse as the tweeting continued. Take a look at Rachel Held Evans’ storify rendering here. For me the worst of the lot came from Rhoades, when he tweeted this:

“A female leader adds new perspective on important female specific topics such as pregnancy, abortion, and marriage.”

Huh? What’s going on here? Is this a joke? I mean, it’s difficult to read tone online, and when you’re dealing with twitter’s 140 character limit, it’s even tougher. But what does Rhoades mean? And does he really think this? In her storify retelling, Evans calls Rhoades’ tone  “patronizing.” I’m tempted to call it ignorant at best, sexist at worst.

But maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Yesterday, in this piece on CT, Rhoades defended the conference, blaming topic choice and an above average decline rate from female invitees for the lack of women on the roster. He wrote:

“We don’t pick speakers based on quotas, but we realize the importance. We’ve tried to do better, we need to do better, but we also don’t want to be misrepresented [as being against women leaders].”

If that’s the goal, there’s clearly work to be done.

Yesterday, I read this post, from Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service. Following the online kerfluffle, Merritt did an informal online survey of the major Christian leadership conferences, looking at plenary speaker gender proportions. The result? Only 159 out of 805 plenary speakers at the top 34 major Christian leadership conferences were women. Merritt writes:

“By my count, that’s around 19% female speaker representation at these major Christian conferences–presumably better than it was even a few years ago, but still lower than it should be. While I don’t think we can conclude that the Christian conference industry is downright sexist, we can say that most conferences have some serious work to do if they want their stage to look anything like the 21st century church.”


And this brings us to yesterday’s blog post from Evans. It’s perhaps my favorite piece she’s ever written. In the post, she laments how she’s experienced being slapped with the label “divisive” when she attempts to call the church to greater inclusiveness for women. In the post, she calls the church to become a place where we can have a frank, honest and, yes, public debate about these things:

“Maybe friction isn’t a sign of decay, but of growth. The world is certainly watching. But this doesn’t mean we hide our dirty laundry, slap on mechanical smiles, and gloss over all the injustices and abuses, conflicts and disagreements, diversity and denominationalism present within the Church;  it means we expose them. It means we talk about them boldly and with integrity, with passion and with love. I suspect that talking about our differences is better for our witness than supressing them, and I’m sure that exposing corruption and abuse is better for our witness than hiding them.”

In our marriage, Amy and I don’t fight much. Praise the Lord for that! But when we do, in most cases we are not opposed to arguing in front of our kids. Why? Because at the end of the day, we’d rather teach them to fight fair and well, as opposed to not fighting at all. We want to give them good models for dealing with conflict instead of teaching them that it doesn’t exist.

That’s what we need in the church. How great would it be if the world saw us wrestle honestly and fairly with issues like these, as opposed to sweeping them under the rug? What if the world saw us debate with grace and truth?

In fact, what if we showed the world how to thoughtfully and peacefully handle a kerfluffle?

One response to “Thoughts on Dealing with Friction in the Church”

  1. Caroline Reid says :

    I like your closing question, Rob! It reminds me of questions I’ve had about that startling fact (4 of 110). Without a fuller picture, a context, it’s hard to know how to interpret this one fact. Why did the women speakers invited, refuse? Is there something about the traditional conference format that ceases to draw women? Does a person (man OR woman) HAVE to be a lead pastor in order to have something valuable to say about leadership?
    Rather than (over?)react to this single fact, we within the Church would, I believe, do well to be asking more questions and doing more listening. After all, a kerfuffle occurs only when there are two parties….er…kerfuffling. A “one party kerfuffle” is, um, a hissy fit? 🙂

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