By Meredith Flynn
Like nearly every aspect of church life and ministry, women’s discipleship saw major changes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Events were canceled, and small groups went online, even as many women struggled with mounting anxiety and changing dynamics at home and work. And the effects of the challenging season are ongoing. Lifeway’s Kelly King describes the current ministry climate in terms of ice storms and ice ages.
“I’ve experienced a few ice storms in my life, but they come and go in a few days—even though they can leave a lot of destruction,” said the manager of magazines/devotional publishing and women’s ministry training. “The pandemic has been more of an ice age because we are still coming out of a long season of having things shut down.”
As ministries do come back, they’re likely to look different than before the pandemic. Smaller discipleship groups may replace many larger gatherings. King also expects leaders will look for ways not just to reach women, but to shepherd them in the lingering difficult season.“We need to help women face their fears and replace them with confidence that comes from trusting the Lord with their lives, as well as the lives of their families.” — Kelly King, @LifewayWomen Click To Tweet
“There are so many women who need pastoral care. And by that, I mean women need each other for friendship, discipleship, and learning how to trust in Jesus each day,” she said. “We need to help women face their fears and replace them with confidence that comes from trusting the Lord with their lives, as well as the lives of their families.”
Laying a foundation
In her work developing and encouraging leaders, King describes the purpose of a local church’s ministry to women with three E’s: encourage, embrace, and echo.
“I think this is a pattern we see over and over again in the New Testament where people were encouraged to embrace Christ and echo His message to the world,” she said.
“Women today need encouragement more than ever, but we must encourage them to embrace the person of Christ and His Word.” That’s how we get to know Jesus more every day, she said. “The overflow of that embrace is an echo to take the gospel to our world.”“Women today need encouragement more than ever, but we must encourage them to embrace the person of Christ and His Word.” — Kelly King, @LifewayWomen Click To Tweet
Helping women love God’s Word is a key part of ministry strategy in Illinois, where women’s ministry leader Carmen Halsey starts with a single, focused question in her work with local churches. “The first question I always ask folks is how are you currently discipling your women?” said the director of leadership development for the Illinois Baptist State Association.
Halsey then follows up with a few more questions based on an assessment she first heard from fellow women’s ministry leader Ashley Allen. The questions move outward, from individual discipleship to how women are being mobilized to share the gospel:
• How many small group Bible studies does your church have for women?
• How many women have come to Christ in the past year through women’s ministry?
• Are the women in your ministry currently praying for lost women by name?
• Are you praying for God to raise up and send out missionaries from your church?
Those questions help leaders start to “peel the onion,” Halsey said, and uncover which layers could be stronger or more effective. The questions aren’t designed to put leaders on the defensive, but to help them know where to lean in.
Similarly, King encourages leaders to have a whole-picture view of ministry that includes five emphases: prayer, discipleship, evangelism, missions, and building community.
“These should all be part of any ministry within the church, but we often focus on one without the others in our ministry to women,” she said. “We can focus on gathering for community yet neglect the importance of prayer or evangelism. They all work together and should be at the top of any leader’s heart who is leading holistically.”
Small groups play big role
Jill Finley’s ministry at Bethel Church in Troy, Illinois, has long been focused on investment in and discipleship of women. In the current season, she’s seeing much need for counseling and smaller, focused groups that can help women facing challenging circumstances.
“Women should be counseling women,” said the women’s minister, who has served at Bethel for 20 years. “A lot of what I do is discipleship and counseling of women, and it’s been particularly important during this season of COVID.”When life transformation is the ultimate goal, smaller groups are key. Click To Tweet
Former ministry models may have placed emphasis on big attendance numbers, Finley said, but “it was less about transformation, more about participation.” When life transformation is the ultimate goal, as it is at her church, smaller groups are key.
“We want to see—I want to see—women transformed,” she said. “And you do that in smaller numbers, in small groups, one on one, in mentoring relationships where you really live life out together.” This fall, Bethel offered several small group Bible study opportunities, including a group focused on anxiety. That group was the best attended of all the studies, Finley said.
“One of the things I continue to see happening is that women are gathering in smaller groups around tables in homes,” King said. “They are inviting conversations into the process and desiring women to find community, friendship, and mentoring relationships.”
She anticipates as women return to church and local ministries, small groups will continue play an important role in discipleship, as will technology. Online Bible studies will still be popular, she said, but leaders may be tasked with finding ways to serve online and in-person audiences. Soul care will be important."I believe there is a lot of grief to process, both in the grief of losing people to the virus, but also the grief that comes from unmet expectations.” — Kelly King, @LifewayWomen Click To Tweet
“I believe there is a lot of grief to process, both in the grief of losing people to the virus, but also the grief that comes from unmet expectations,” she said.
“I think leaders are going to need some real help in dealing with their personal walk with Christ and tending to their own souls. We must have some honest conversations about loss, fear, and anxiety that were already a concern before the pandemic.”
Meredith is a freelance writer in Springfield, Illinois.