How to start women's ministries in your church

It's more than women interacting with women; it's focusing on a vital dimension of church life and growth.

A pastor's wife, Marybeth Gessele writes from Gaston, Oregon. She is the author of No More Cinnamon Bear Cookies, a book on explaining death and dying to children.

When women's ministries was first introduced, I was a bit distressed. Here was another program to sponsor, cajole, push, and make happen. As a pastor's wife, I felt I had enough to do with the multitude of duties required plus numerous other fill-ins on Sabbaths. Just keeping my own family fed, clothed, laundered, schooled, and living peace ably together was a feat in itself. I didn't know what women's ministries involved, and it didn't matter. I didn't like it anyway! It was something new, something needed by our churches, so I was told. It seemed to me like a fancy name for the altruism already active in our local church.

I skeptically read the material the conference sent, and even attended a meeting on how to organize a program. I had a difficult time getting interested, yet I could see some benefits in such a program. I kept telling myself it was my "duty" to be involved in this new thrust, but my enthusiasm was only a smiling facade.

H. W. Silvester once said joy comes not to the people who seek it for themselves but to those who seek it for others. That was it. I would be come part of this new program for the sake of the women of my church. Or so I thought!

Soon I discovered that women's ministries has functioned successfully in many churches. It has helped women reach out to one another in the church and community by sharing God's love. It has provided fellow ship, spiritual growth, information, inspiration, and much more. I could see how it could be an encouraging tool for the women of the church. The men too could benefit indirectly. There's not a pastor around who would not appreciate a group of praying women, interested in the spiritual strength of the flock.

We barely digested the information, and our church board was urged to select a women's ministries coordinator. The board members were not even sure of the reason for the new position, but they dutifully performed their task.

The weeks that followed were difficult for me. On the one hand I found committee meetings irritating; on the other, I always came home excited about the plans we were making. I felt frustrated defending women's minis tries as not being a women's lib group. Some women were enthusiastic about what such an organization could do for them; others wondered why women needed such exclusive attention: couldn't we do things as families, like in the good old days?

Our churches have women who need each other: single mothers, divorcees, widows, and women whose husbands are not church members. They come to church hurting, empty, lonely, and stressed. They smile graciously and try to pretend things are fine, but their insides are riddled with anguish. Women's ministries could meet the needs of these women.

In our church, even before women's ministries was evolved, we were having annual retreats for women. At one time, as part of the planning process for a retreat, we con ducted a survey on the most pressing needs of women in our church. What do you think was the greatest need of the women in our congregation? Friendship. From this one area we have endeavored to fan out, providing a variety of activities for women of all ages. The idea is simple: for people to be come friends, they need to get to know each other. Providing opportunities for togetherness fosters friend ship. Friendship creates interest; interest brings about concern. Before long, caring, meaningful friendships are formed. Spiritual nurturing is assured. Isn't that the whole objective of women's ministries?

If you have an active women's ministries in your church, good for you. If you don't, here are some pointers that may help.

Pray. Get a few interested women and pray together. Ask the Lord to direct you. He will give you ideas. He will show you whom to contact. Prayer time can be a real bonding factor and the key to success.

Select a coordinator. Unless your church is quite small, it usually works best if someone other than the pastor's wife leads the women's ministries. Someone who knows the women well, someone with whom women can identify easily, someone who can give leadership. A woman pastor or pastor's wife can be a sponsor. Members given ownership are responsibly involved. Discuss the coordinator choice with your initial prayer group and present it to the church board for approval. Let the church board also appoint a women's ministries committee with three to five members.

Expect small beginnings. Any thing new takes time. Don't expect a huge turnout at your first activity or any of your activities, for that matter. Be grateful for a few. You may want to plan an early-morning walk, organize a Sunday breakfast together, provide an opportunity to share favorite Bible verses, and pray for each other.

Encourage variety in your program. Not everyone is interested in everything; so the more varied your program is, the more interesting it will be. Our church group recently did something that doesn't sound like women's ministries at all! We decided to have a little girls' tea (herb tea, of course). We thought it would be fun for the kindergarten and primary girls of our church to have their own tea party. We sent out personal invitations asking them to come, complete with party dresses and dolls or teddy bears. Their mothers were invited too. Talk about excitement! For an hour on Sunday afternoon the little girls were given full attention. Our women's ministries coordinator explained that tea parties were a chance to practice manners and proceeded to review basic courtesy. She reminded them that good manners includes being kind. The bottom line of this whole activity was to let the little people know that their church considers them very special. It also brought mothers who otherwise might not have come.

Build on what you have. Churches have personalities as different as people. What works in one church may not work in another. Use your imagination and fit your women's ministries to the temperament and resources of your church.

Finances. Not all churches can afford to finance women's ministries. But don't let the lack of money stand in the way. In our church, women's ministries had to be totally self-sufficient. Our retreat costs are spread among those who attend. Other activities (like the teas) are funded by well-wishers or by nominal admission. Meals are usually potluck. There are dozens of things that can be done with out finance.

Remember your focus. The whole purpose of women's ministries is not to plan activities for activities' sake, but to plan with spiritual ministry in mind. Many are the women who are hurting, lonely, and discouraged. Women's ministries can provide them encouragement and a reason to go on. Just having a core group of people who care and who are praying for each other is ministry in itself. God would have us bear one another's burdens. That's what the church is all about.

Do I still think women's ministries is just a fancy name for some thing already happening in our church? Yes and no! Yes, it is a name for women interacting with women, but now with a definite goal in mind. No, it involves far more than a name. It has given the women of our church a chance to focus on a vital part of church growth keeping what we already have. And making it stronger. I personally have been blessed by the unity I see happening on purpose rather than by chance. Getting involved for others as a duty has resulted in immeasurable blessings in my own be half. Try it in your church. Women's ministries is for real.

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A pastor's wife, Marybeth Gessele writes from Gaston, Oregon. She is the author of No More Cinnamon Bear Cookies, a book on explaining death and dying to children.

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