Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are Women a People Group?

Social Stratification

One of the things I teach people when they go into a new culture is how to discover the community's social stratification: the "kinds" of people who live there. In whatever way local people slice it. Well, I guess your casual visitor or even a newcomer into a community will not usually have a deliberate strategy for pursuing the question - though maybe they ought to.

An anthropologist, though, or anyone who is hoping to set up an NGO or business or planting a church in a new place will usually recognize that they need to explore stratification. After all, you have to know who you are describing/reaching - or could. If certain people won't come, say, to your event, because =those= people are there, it helps to know; you'll adjust your goals, or change your approach.

You may need different strategies to find, connect with, or describe people depending on what group they belong to. Different history, behavior, values, and motivations keep people from pulling in the same direction, and we make a lot of extra trouble for ourselves if we fail to take the resulting obstacles seriously.

Bringing It Home

So, when we designed our online ethnography training course a year or so ago, I had to come up with some questions to help people get a handle on all that. After providing some teaching on the topic, I asked them to describe the most meaningful subgroups in their hometown, or maybe (since I'm teaching Christians) their church. When it's hometown, they often fall back on socio-economic factors, or maybe race/language. But what about with a smaller group, like a church? How does social stratification play out there?

Most everybody can tell me who the "people groups" (relatively speaking) in their high school were, but people can't always put their finger on what they might be in the church context.

All but the smallest churches have some kind of structured social stratification, usually by age, gender, marital status. We may have kids, and youth, and young marrieds, and young singles, and families, and old folks.

Some of the groupings are less formal, but recognized: the serious and the nominal. The tithers and the slackers (just kidding). We may have the people who like hymns and the people who want to sing the newer stuff, and the people who don't want to sing at all.

Last week I was talking to a missions pastor who, like me, is on sabbatical, and wondering how to develop integrating strategies to reach two big types of people she sees in her church: you might call them the activists and the contemplatives; the ones focused on reaching out in Jesus' name and the ones focused on walking with Jesus. (Why are those two separate? How long can we keep them separate and prosper?)

Sometimes the formal structures create "people groups," and sometimes they reflect them, but I wonder how often they do neither.

Women's Ministry

One of the most common approaches I see churches using in order to care for and develop the people in their congregations is to set up "women's groups" and "men's groups." Or at least women's groups. (Many churches have fewer numbers of men, at any rate men who are willing to be involved in their churches very much.)

It's not hard to figure out where the official boundaries of belonging are for a women's ministry. If you're a woman, it's for you; if you're not, it ain't. Yet... what fascinates me is how these things work out in practice. Some of the women who come to the women's group consider it a lifeline, exactly what they needed. Perhaps they are open enough that anything would work, but maybe these groups work for them because being a Christian woman - or a certain kind of Christian woman - is pretty central to their sense of who they are.

But for those who come, or who like these groups, there are just as many who don't. Huge numbers of the female people in the church look at the women's group and say, "That's not for me."

My theory, what I think happens, is that churches and Christian leaders try to find a common denominator for what it mean to be a Christian woman and come up with something that most of the actual women in a church look at and can't identify with. It's not what they need. I don't think we could just wipe the slate clean and find a new common denominator; I think for most women, there simply isn't one; there's no level of sameness there. There's a level of identification - as a man in a novel I read recently said, in all seriousness, 'All women is brothers.' But no level of sameness. So a women's group built around a culturally acceptable stereotype is as close as we can get.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of the stuff designed for Christian women works for a lot of Christian women. Just not most, and certainly not all. Most Christian women don't find the most meaningful parts of who they are reflected in and addressed by those ministries: "Christian women" is not a meaningful group to them.

By the way, I do think women may function as "a people group" in other societies, particular those that are more conservative and traditional. And certain women see themselves as a people group in any society. But many do not.


Is there anything we can do to respond to this in order to better serve the needs of the individuals/cultures the Christian women's stuff fails to recognize?

Adding another step of specificity may help. A single/married stratification often exists. Mothers are a tribe unto themselves, in many cases. Many is the woman whose "young moms/mums" group did, in fact, prove to be a lifeline. Our church is just launching a local expression of a national ministry called YoungLives, a spin-off from the youth ministry Young Life but just serving teenaged moms. I think it's a great idea. When Meg and I were young our mother joined a group called "mothers of multiples" (twins/triplets) that tapped into the homogeneous unit principle. (Oops, sorry to through a missiological term at you, but it fits, yes?)

I'd love to sit down and talk to some of the women in leadership of the "women's ministry" at my church. But I hesitate. After all, they are probably doing the best that they can and have a vested interest in the status quo; I'm afraid I might end up saying something hurtful or offensive. (And of course that's one of those things good Christian women are not supposed to do if I read that unwritten rulebook correctly!) On the other hand, these women have a good bit of cultural savvy too, and I think they wrestle with these same issues.

At any rate, we've got a women's brunch scheduled for this Saturday. The leaders are really hoping to attract and reach out to a more diverse crowd. Here's a good sign: 90 women (from our church of 300 or so people) have signed up. That's about twice as many as attend the two midweek women's groups at church. I've agreed to bring a fruit salad (yummy, but not the kind of thing that makes an appearance at the men's breakfast, perhaps!). I'll also be a "table hostess" to facilitate interaction. Am curious to see how it will all unfold.

Sameness v. Diversity

In the end, I'm not sure I want to be an active part of the solution. While I can cross the invisible barriers pretty easily - getting young moms, grandmothers, and others to talk to me as someone who "gets" them - I don't want to just hang out with women. I would miss men too much; I do better in a diverse group than one that seems (to me) to have a false unity.

What about you? Do you find your gender defining enough to require gender-specific grouping helpful or necessary? And if so, does what you find "work"? Why or why not?


Dean Smith said...

Hmm. The silence is deafening. My church has a great men's group -- 10-20 men each time. The talk there reaches some pretty deep emotional depths and the support foe every-day living is tangible. One thing I'll say for Evergreen Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: We really, truly care for one another. Jennie attends a women's group at another UU church that she has been going to for many years. She most likes the multi-generational aspect of it, older folks helping younger folks along.

I think that what makes each of these groups work is that they are 'of the people' rather than something being imposed from above by the church.

Marti said...

So, "freed" from the evangelical Christian tradition, how much do you think your church is still characterized by stereotypes about gender? Do you think having men's groups, women's groups, is necessary? Do you think there are many people in the UU churches that are turned off by such groups because of the gender exclusiveness? Or, do they succeed in reducing barriers between people so they can more easily listen to and learn from each other?

Dean Smith said...

So many questions!

I think UU's (which may also be Christian, BTW) are less stereotypical about gender than Christian churches. However there remain things that men would prefer to discuss among men and vice versa. We are different, really. Viva la difference. I don't think anyone is 'turned off' by gender exclusiveness. Rather I think they are supportive of their opposite gender for having such a supportive group. There is no competition here. It is all supportive. The critical component is honesty. That plus as much present reality as possible.

Marti said...

I think I can agree with "we =are= different, really," though we are more alike than we are different. But then, when you divide the world in half like that and look at that half, what unites it? Maybe a stickier question. I mean, how are we (men, or women) alike? The things that all men, or all women, have in common, seem so few.