Monday, May 02, 2011

Where The Men Aren't




Recently, I've started to examine gender dynamics inside my Meeting. As I began I started from the premise that every religious gathering reflects the particulars of the larger world outside it. I've contemplated many of these, but I haven't examined one specific facet of this in much detail until recently. In participation, active membership, and consistent attendance, women significantly outnumber men. In the Young Adult Friend group which I help organize, the most consistently involved members are female. Men often seem reluctant to take the plunge, nervously circling and re-circling the outskirts, hanging back, anxiously sailing around the perifery. Male participation is often minimal and short-lived. There is no in-between here. The few who do come to stay often become fixtures of the group, but they are always in the minority.

As I began my research, websites with specific strategies to attract male membership often had to be taken with a grain of salt. Their tone towards the gender imbalance present in houses of worship was heavily colored with male privilege. Often implied was the belief that religious gatherings as they existed were feminizing, almost contagiously so. Why would any man want to inhabit those spaces? In contradiction, the feminist part of myself believes that, socialization aside, masculine and feminine expression really isn't all that dissimilar. But I also have to also concede how many men still fear being somehow less masculine in any small way, regardless of how isolating and damaging that concept may be to me.

The consensus opinion of most of my sources looked something like the passage to follow, though one can, of course, ignore the obvious dig at feminist theory. I should add here that I only considered Christian or at least historically Christian groups within my analysis, since their traditions are most familiar to me. Much of the politics, policy, and opinions of the source below I find deplorable and offensive, but in this regard, what is mentioned here has proven to be helpful.

Church is not a women’s thing—it’s a men’s thing! It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it? After all, a man and His male disciples founded Christianity, most of its major saints and heroes were men, men penned all of the New Testament books, all of the popes were men, all of the Catholic priests are men, and 95 percent of the senior pastors in America are men. Feminists have been telling us for years that the church is male dominated and patriarchal. Are they right?

Male pastors come and go, but faithful women provide a matriarchal continuity in our congregations. Women are the devoted ones who build their lives around their commitments to Christ and His church. Women are more likely to teach and volunteer in church and are the greatest participants in Christian culture. The sad reality in many churches today is this: the only man who actually practices his faith is the pastor.


I'm a member of a faith group (Quaker) who deliberately abolished the role of the clergy. Individual members and regular attenders are supposed to step in and fill that role themselves. So I would argue in this regard that most decisions made in my own Meeting are made by women. Women historically have placed more of an importance and emphasis on attendance and upon doing the work within at a church or other religious gathering. Reasons are many and they also reflect the outside world. Unable to rise up the ladder within their day jobs, women instead transferred their ambitions to where they worshiped. A generation of young women, many highly educated, often affluent, usually white, have been socialized to be super achievers. Sacrificing their very selves for the sake of some coveted, altruistic, desired ends, this attitude makes its way into Meetings, churches, or other houses of worship. On First Day (Sunday) and beyond it I'm able to see evidence of matriarchal society, both in its impressive strengths and in its glaring weaknesses.

To some extent, I could make the very same observations about the whole of Quaker culture. DC's unique makeup only intensifies the existing trend. Cities in general skew slightly more female than male. Washington contains many more women than men. Female residents in search of a male relationship partner know this all too well. But even when I lived elsewhere, I found evidence of same, though not as prominent. Reasons are many and at least some of them are discussed here.

Although males have not completely abandoned the church, manly men...have all but disappeared. Tough, earthy, working guys rarely come to church. High achievers, alpha males, risk takers, and visionaries are in short supply. Fun-lovers and adventurers are also underrepresented in church. These rough-and-tumble men don’t fit in with the quiet, introspective gentlemen who populate the church today. The truth is, most men in the pews grew up in church. Many of these lifers come not because they desire to be transformed by Christ but because they enjoy participating in comforting rituals that have changed little since their childhood. There are also millions of men who attend services under duress, dragged by a mother, wife, or girlfriend. Today’s churchgoing man is humble, tidy, dutiful, and above all, nice.


I take no small liberty with certain sections. Attending religious services out of habit is as true for women as for men. I have known friends raised in church who attend worship only in times of intense crisis and self-doubt, since the routine is familiar and comfortable. As is true for many, I completely rejected religion in my teens, then re-embraced it later in life, in part, because it reminded me of fond childhood rituals. But my faith certainly runs deeper than that. Speaking for myself here, I wasn't just going through the motions. This article seems to imply that the faith of most men is mealy and unsubstantial. I would argue that men need faith now more than ever, but that the culprit goes beyond the gender binary or even traditional gender roles. And any discomfort with female-dominated spaces and a matriarchal system is only part of the greater issue.

Quakerism may not be the most ideal faith for those not inclined to introspection. The very nature of silent worship demands inward contemplation, not immediate action. As far as spiritual disciplines are concerned, that might as well be the one we most highly emphasize. Decisions made and opinions voiced are supposed to "season", as the phrase goes, before being expressed. But neither is this a faith for the meek by the meek. Though Friends tend to shy away from direct confrontation, conflicts can and do bubble to the surface. They sometimes take different forms like passive-aggression. And I note as well that sometimes the most impulsive and hot-heated Friends I've known are not male.

It is still, nonetheless, my belief that a little introspection goes a long way. Any person with privilege is often inclined to act rashly and in ways that are abrasive and disrespectful. Because such people possess more agency and power than others, their decisions rarely go unchallenged. And, if we are speaking of men alone, I don't think that embracing wisdom and self-restraint are necessarily un-masculine. Nothing could be more manly, if by manly we mean essentially human. If encouraging men to attend worship should take any set form, it will not be one which gives license to perpetuate an unequal balance of power. In faith groups which do retain a clergy, there is still a gender gap evident, but cracking that glass ceiling is another post for another time. And a very complicated one, at that.

Yet, being that we still do not live in a post-gender world, certain accommodations and changes must be made to attract and retain male membership. I don't think a band-aid approach will work, be it one ideologically conservative or liberal. The source I've extensively mentioned above believes that a "man-first" approach works best, which only reinforces these same gender roles and distinctions that are the silent torment of many. It accuses feminists of blatant hypocrisy, misrepresenting its criticisms of concentrated patriarchal influence as some desire to feminize even the spaces which ought to be rightly reserved, in their opinion, for men.

In contrast, I encourage men to take part in religious gatherings, not as some form of punishment, and not even as some exercise in privilege denial. Rather, I'd hope they'd observe that female-dominated spaces possess positive characteristics and severe limitations to the same degree as with those which are male-dominated. I myself don't think that one model is especially superior to the other, but I do think each would only be enriched if greater participation were to occur.

7 comments:

TheYellowDart said...

I appreciate your observations of the current situation in most Christian communities of faith and the Quaker community as well. I differ, however, with your take on the introspection/action front (if I understood you correctly). The men who are missing are largely men of action. I believe lack of action by the church is THE problem.

The clergy-led bodies have one man of action or a few acting "inside" the church which not only freeze out women but other men of action as well. The other men move on or don't attend in the first place; women, due to their historical stomach for such nonsense, can tough it out, hang on, and find meaningful work there. They can do more and want to do more, but are often not able to express themselves fully.

But there is plenty of work for everyone. There is plenty of action to go around if the action is outward focused. In fact, the church was intended to be every person in a vital active role. The problem is that the church lost its Way after the state took over (in the Roman sense but also in every subsequent empire). The action part that the church is missing is the Mission.

I'm not talking about Imperialism. I'm not talking about American Christians going to Africa to modernize them. I'm talking about each individual Christian being Christ to their community. The Way is the part that is missing. The Way is the Mission. The sent and sending God is one of action. He sends his followers in to the world to act, to speak, to transform. The immediate community of believers IS a place of introspection, counsel, equipping and refreshing FOR a trip back out into the world of action, together.

TheYellowDart said...

The clergy-led bodies are mostly busy (acting) on the "inside", serving themselves. They largely ignore the outside world as something hostile to be shunned and escaped. This leaves little room for action, and what little inside action remains is sopped up by a few men and very rarely a select few women also.

The Quaker community usually doesn't have the problem of the clergy-led "crowding out" effect even in pastoral bodies, but nonetheless, the community is stuck "inside" as well. There is some action on the peace front and a little in some leftist political causes, but for the most part proclaiming the good news involves earthly government which brings me back to my original point - state take over of the church kills the Mission.

Jesus did not look to the state or the religious establishment as the acting bodies. He looked to the people. We need to unshackle the mind and hands of the people to act - to proclaim the good news. The Way is BEING the good news in action. The people are the hands and feet of Jesus acting in the world as He did. The good news is that we don't have to wait on gov't (religious or political) to act. We don't have to be left on the sidelines to waste away our giftings or work for another's worldly empire building glory. Not only can we do vital work in the community, but that is our calling as a body: Local - Vital - Egalitarian

Any other aggregation away from local is human empire building serving some other god. Jesus was grassroots, organic, local, loving, and active. He never established a hierarchy, never distributed a book, never called for gov't reform or change, never called for a meeting in a building (outside the peoples' homes), never found anyone to exclude. My reading of the life, times, and teachings of Jesus leads me to believe that Jesus had in mind to subvert and disestablish institutional forms of earthly empire building in all areas of life by people loving individuals to a new allegiance - one that was not headed by an earthly regime.

The early church did this until the gradual take over by the empire of the day. Ever since then, there have been spurts and starts of throwing off the empire and the church being the church again, but it eventually gets infiltrated and domesticated by another empire. A man (or a few) turns allegiance back from God to man in the form of some govt which eventually robs the people of their vitality to act in their own community.

The Quakers were once one of the spurting and starting groups who were throwing off the empire, but I believe they have mostly been co-opted back into empire rule - looking back to men again instead of God to perfect His Kingdom using a disorganized gaggle of "unprofessionals" as is His Way.

Vol-E said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kwix said...

Kevin, this is a really interesting and articulate post. Interestingly, I find both men and women fully engaged in the ministries of my monthly meeting. I also find that a lot of the males there do a pretty good job of embracing Quaker practices, spirituality and values without totally sacrificing the more neutral or beneficial "guy"-type attitudes and behavior. ("Muscular Quakerism," maybe...?)

Then again, our Meeting seems to be a particularly thriving meeting, with lots of new members and attenders of all ages (except not so many 20-somethings), so maybe we don't have as much investment in some traditional patterns as other meetings might.

Anyway, thanks for raising some interesting issues to think and pray about.

Robin M. said...

In my Meeting, some Friends complain that our meeting is overly male and therefore less nurturing than they would like a religious community to be. A simple count most weeks would prove that there are significantly more men than women at meeting for worship but I think the business meeting is more even. But there aren't a lot of "tough, earthy, working guys" either.

I think there are a lot of men, especially young men, who haven't figured out what to do with their power. They are trying so hard not to be oppressive that they fail to live into the strength they have been given, physical or spiritual. I think this is a serious question for liberal white North Americans well beyond Quakerism.

Karen said...

This is an interesting post but it does not allow for any traditional understanding of why the genders differ and how they relate....and I have come to believe they do differ.
Most religions that are attracting men and keeping them are respecting the male need for seperation and clear roles. Men need a way to be male positively, they need to be different from women.
For a non-Christian look at the phenomenon I speak of, try "The Te of Piglet". Our society denigrates the feminine, not just the female. We mock traditionally female behaviour and encourage women to acquire male traits and express shared traits in male approved ways. To be feminine is anathema. When women act like men, men are pushed to find new ways to define themselves as masculine.
These are often hyper-masculine distortions that are highly negative and don't fit in well with religion, which actually encourages men to become more feminine. In Orthodox Judaism they insist that the feminine virtues (compassion, nurturing, softness) are the prized ones and will, in the World to Come, be the ones that will rule.
In the World that is Now, these are not valued traits, even in women.

Comrade Kevin said...

Hi Karen,

Thanks for your comment. You're quite right. The genders are different, but it's often difficult to discern what suitable gender roles need to be. I didn't include any traditional definitions of how genders differ or relate because I've called almost all of it into question.

Once you deconstruct the role of gender both for men and women, acknowledging what is destructive from what it acceptable is very difficult.

I suppose I'm arguing for a more organic, individual conception of gender that would exist in some natural state without the conditioning that influences everyone's thinking.