“Affirmative Action” in the Church

Rachel Held Evans provided this great piece for Tony Jones recently. Here’s the gist of it: women don’t want to be invited to speak at events simply because it provides a woman’s voice. One woman does not represent all, and in our attempts to make sure women are heard, sometimes we make it sound that way. Let’s make sure that we have at least one woman on each committee just to make sure women are represented. Rachel has learned, though, that the most liberating and subversive thing she can do is just give her own voice, not trying to be representative of all women.

The question I brought up in the comments: how does affirmative action fit in? Is affirmative action the same thing as tokenism, encouraging this attitude of forcing women to speak and expecting them to represent all women? Or is it a necessary step in the right direction of making sure diverse voices are given space to speak?

Rachel replied at first with this story:

I was at a more progressive conference once in which a theological panel was made up of all guys (a woman was supposed to be part of the panel, but she was unable to attend at the last minute), and near the end of the discussion, during the Q&A time, a woman stood up and chastised the group for not including any women. In response, the men on the panel said, “Well, let’s invite a woman up!” and called a woman from the crowd. Now, the woman they picked was smart and delightful, but unlike most of the rest of the people on the panel, she had no formal theological training, so she wasn’t able to contribute the way the others did. That left a bad taste in my mouth. It felt like we were saying “any woman will do…we just need one up here to look like we’re diverse.”

That clearly is not helping the cause of adequate diversity in voices. All it is doing is putting unnecessary pressure on that poor unprepared woman as a token representative of 3-3.5 billion people.

So my general concluding thoughts on the topic, worked out with Rachel as well as Suzannah from The Smitten Word.

MennoNerds, for example, very deliberately tries to get a variety of voices. We will reject white North American men if we think they aren’t providing new content, although we don’t have strict quotas. I think that this stricter definition makes a lot of sense. Our purpose, at least on the website aggregation, is primarily to provide a great collection of content. Diversity is an important part of that.

The other side of the argument, used by my church for example, is that the best candidate should always get the job, even if the best candidate is another white man as most of the up-front leaders in my church are (interestingly, 2 out of 5 at the highest level are women, but most of the average attendees wouldn’t even know that). I can’t completely blame them for this approach. A church’s job is to provide the best spiritual growth to its parishioners in both the short term and the long term. If it is deemed that another white man can do that, isn’t it the church’s duty to hire them?

Rachel helped me distinguish here, though, as well. In the hypothetical situation I’m imagining, maybe we do think that by most other measures the white male candidate will do the slightly better job. But part of spiritual growth is engaging a variety of diverse voices; they aren’t separate conversations. It clearly isn’t going to be the only qualifier for who gets hired, but if somebody is on every other measure almost as good, that aspect of the diversity should make them the overall better candidate. Not because the church needs a token woman or token non-white, but because the church will benefit from having those voices present. And of course there is the long term investment that comes from showing the non-whites and women in the church that they can indeed speak up, encouraging more to seek the positions in the future. Hopefully by their generation we will no longer have to ask these questions because we will simply assume equality but in the meantime, I can’t help but feel like we need to be deliberate about seeking diversity in whose voices we make heard in our churches.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.