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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Women's Circles

This week we have two questions on the same topic. Let’s jump right in:
Women's Circles - how do you handle them? When I arrived at my current parish, we had three women's circles, all made up of women 60 and over. A couple of women said things to me that implied they thought I would be involved in the circles. But I never felt I had the time, and I'm fairly certain that, had I been a male pastor, there never would have been any expectation that I would join a circle! Over the years, I have gone to various gatherings when all three circles joined together for a party or a luncheon or some other special event. I have publicly supported their ministry by speaking of it in worship, writing about it in the newsletters, personally praising its leaders, and showing up at anything the whole congregation was invited to. I have spoken and/or sung at individual circle meetings when specifically invited to do so. I have annually celebrated, in worship, Women's Ministries Day, where the women in these circles have led in every facet of worship and were celebrated by the congregation.

And yet I have always felt like it was never enough, at least in the eyes of some of the women. As members have aged and died, the circle membership has dwindled. There are now only two circles, and it looks like membership will not increase. Some of the women have lamented the demise and have complained that younger women don't join them. But I haven't seen much evidence that they have done anything to reach out to younger women, and, honestly, I'm not sure that anything they do could attract them. As a thirtysomething working mother, I completely understand why the younger women in our church have not joined these groups. The younger women in my church are stretched about as far as they can be - they volunteer for helping with the youth ministry, the hunger ministry, the children's ministry, etc. They are running their children from one end of town to the other for various events. Most of them work outside of the home and cannot come to an early afternoon meeting for tea and snacks with women who don't struggle with their particular challenges.

I am not sure what to do for these groups at this point. The future does not seem bright for them, yet they have provided a vital part of our church's mission and ministry. Their function goes way beyond fellowship - they raise money for various missions, they provide active ministry to some of the elderly in our congregation, etc. I am wondering how others of you deal with women's groups? Have any of you tried to help revitalize them? How have these groups needed to change in order to accommodate the younger generations? What has your role been in helping them think about the future?

And our second question, which includes some more context-specific issues as well :

I am curious how others handle their women's groups. In my context this means a once a month circle meeting whose attendance has dwindled and within the next few months might end up being just two sisters. They have invited me to come, but I have often had pre-existing schedule conflicts and when I could have come it has been cancelled because of bad weather. I have been to a few. The first time I stayed until it was over, more than 3 hours! The next time I told them up front when I had to leave, to be able to get dinner before the council meeting, and set my cell phone alarm to alert me when the time was up (1.5 hours).
They have never asked me to lead it, but I have recently heard from others that they are mad I am not leading it, because the pastor should lead the circle. Most recently I came back from a week's vacation to a very manipulative email from a women who has recently decided to join the circle but has only been to one because she always forgets to come. She basically accused me of being unaware of the various factions forming in our congregation and being unable to the cement to hold the crumbling place together. In her view the only way to hold the church together now is to start coming to circle, since they are being very gracious by willing to reschedule around me (something they have not told me). I am quite aware of the problems, factions, and landmines of our congregation. Being a solo pastor in my first call in such a complicated and conflicted congregation is a big part of the reason I don't have much extra time or energy for things like attending circle. Granted I should try to make it at least a periodic priority to give these ladies some extra attention but I can't help but wonder if they would expect a male pastor to lead or even attend their circle meetings.
St. Casserole responds:

While Women's Circles may be boring and endless, I suspect the women expect clergy women to attend because we are women. Circles originated when a women's involvement in Church life was restricted to a few activities such as child care and making food for events. Those days are over in churches served by clergywomen but Circles remain. In my denomination, Circles (now called Presbyterian Women) provide common Bible study for all women and added events such as education for leadership and mission opportunities. Younger women may find the schedule of daytime meetings with long business portions (who will bring what dish to what event, will new table cloths be bought for the Fellowship Hall, etc., impossible to attend and droll beyond reason.

However, attend the Circles as often as you can. Let the Circle ladies know you value what they do. Otherwise, you are sending the same message they get everywhere else: women's Church work and being older women do not matter. You don't believe this, do you?

Circles are a great place to catch up on pastoral information you need: who is sick, whose family is having troubles, and the "scoop" on how things are going church-wide. Learn to listen to these women. They are your congregation, too. They need your attention and respect. If you can offer love to them, they will be a source of good information to help do your work well and they will love you back. Your male colleagues will never be as valuable to them as you can be just because you are one of them.

Consider turning your thinking from Circles as a "rent paying" function to a time to slow down and be with a group of people who are ready to welcome you and want you with them.
Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, offers:
Oh friends...I feel I have no wisdom to dispense this week – but only huge quantities of empathy. I’ve been ordained (only) 16 years, but I feel as unable to answer this question now as I was at at the start – and meanwhile my list of similar examples could just go on and on.

Why does this happen over and over again in the church? A group has run for many years. It has been valued, valuable, meant a lot to people... But over the years it has dwindled and at some point it has lost touch with the next generation, and started to flag. The decreasing group is horrified, puzzled, cannot understand why people do not come – and they lash out at ‘them’ for not coming, and they lash out at their pastor for not making it all better for them.

In business it is said ’if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you keep in getting what you’ve always got’ - but over 20 or 30 years if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you all get older and eventually you die off. I cannot understand why groups can’t grasp this – even when they have the evidence of their own eyes.

The only eternal is God – but we try to make our church structures eternal: maybe it is idolatory, maybe it is original sin (we want to be link God).. My heart goes out to those who cannot accept decline, and to all those who must pastor them: and my only hope lies in God, whose steadfast love will be there when everything has crumbled. So my prayer for pastors is to keep faithful to God, keep pointing people to Christ, and keep praying that the Spirit will never let your sense of perspective or your sense of humour fail!

So, two fairly different responses there! How have the rest of you related to the women's circles in your churches? Do any of you have stories of having helped revitalize them (if that was an issue)? What other thoughts or experiences could you share?

**The queue is empty!** So if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to address, please send them our way!


  1. I am so blessed – the congregation I am in ministry with has a Women’s group, and I am welcome, but not expected to attend every meeting. I am invited to chair the AGM, and lead devotions that day, which I do. This year before they moved to other business, the chairperson commented that I was welcome to stay, but they understand if I need to leave as I have lots of other things to do [ and she didn’t know my schedule for the week] . I really appreciated the opt-out as I had been out all morning and had a Presbytery meeting that night, a couple of hours to return phone calls and cook dinner was great! They also struggle with the diminishing size and increasing age of the members of the group. But I don’t sense that they see it is my responsibility to do anything about that.
    I know a Minister [male] who would often drop in/ pass through the church complex as the Women’s group was having afternoon tea. It was amazing what he would learn in 15 minutes.

  2. I have attended our women's meetings since I started (when there were 2 of 4 circles left). I made clear from the beginning that I would not lead programs, because I believe leader development is part of the point of these circles. For me, it was one of the only ways to get into people's homes.

    In my church, this women's group, though small, was made up of much of the core of the church's leadeship. There were certainly tedious things about it, but there was also serious Bible study and sharing sometimes.

    At some point, once there were more potential new members, I hosted a Pastor's Tea at my house. I only let the youngest member of the circle attend (the one who got how much insider language and such they use) and the rest of the women invited were those who didn't participate. We talked about what could happen with such a group and how to tailor it more to the needs of those who didn't come.

    That resulted in some serious growth, for a few years.

    We have since had such a re-vamping again, over the last 6 months. I sat down with the core participants and we tried to name the key things that such groups provide (study, service, fellowship, stewarship, etc.). Then we divided them up among the participants to talk about.

    We had a gathering after church for all women who might be interested in a women's group. I started with a Bible study about Tabitha the Church Lady from Acts 9. Then each of the participants talked about what the circle had given them.

    Then we asked the group what they were interested enough in to make time for. Surprisingly, almost everything got a yes. Gathering just as women? yes. Study? yes. eating? yes. Service? Maybe, but most of that was already done by the whole congregation anyway. Being in each other's homes? yes.

    That was in August and we've taken the time since to think things through. There is a lot of structure that goes with our tradition's version of the circles (as I'm sure is common). We didn't talk about offerings at the first gathering, but we did in January, and the decision was to keep having them, but make them less complicated.

    Now we're on track to meet every other month, for dinner (rather than just dessert or snacks), with people taking turns presenting a program that may or may not use the "curriculum".

    It's been a good process for us, but I think our core group was probably more open to change than some might be. Also, it was one of the only functioning small groups our church has, so there was maybe more motivation to make it work in a new way than if you had other options to build on.

    I would just add that nothing works very well when you're operating from a place of guilt. Try to let that go, if it's hindering your relationship with these women. Don't be manipulated. I don't have kids, so doing this stuff was easier for me.

    But I also think it's true that younger women need more of this than they realize.

    Okay, I've said quite enough. Good luck!

  3. Just one more thing...

    It was quite clear that a male pastor could never have had a successful "Pastor's Tea" as a way of rejuvenating the women's circle, and they were very appreciative of that.

  4. My thought is that perhaps the circles/women's groups need to meet at a different time. And perhaps a different focus or mission. An afternoon of tea and tablecloths would drive me screaming into the woods, for sure.

    As far as expecting you as a female pastor to attend, and not a male, I would hazard a guess that you aren't going to win them over if you DO go. Perhaps a compromise would be to have a bi-monthly meeting with the Circle leaders? Have them in to the office for tea, and sit together and chat about their groups, how you can pray for them. Give THEM the care they are giving (hopefully) the women in your church. They sound tired and in need of some Shepherd Love --

  5. I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing

  6. The Mothers' Union, our equivalent in C of E, folded in these parishes very shortly after my arrival...It's sole remaining function was as a social gathering for its largely elderly members - though internationally the MU does wonderful things. I'm certain that the time had come to let it go, but do miss having an identifiable group of praying women...In training parish MU was huge, met socially AND provided cakes for any family friendly church activity that was timetabled...they also prayed mightily. I miss them :(

  7. Sorry folks, that should be 'we want to be like God' in my comment, not 'link God' - but you worked that out, didn't you! B-)

  8. Wow! Such wonderful comments already. Keep them coming, folks. I'm getting lots of good thoughts about how better to support our own women's circles.

    Ruth, sorry I missed the typo in your response, and thanks for the correction!

  9. hoo boy, as Pogo used to say.

    Within my 10 years at MH & U, the last remnant of the ACW (Anglican Church Women) decided to disband...part of their function was to get to the church together at an hour they could manage, and that was early afternoon (their median age was about 90, seriously). And yes, they did take 25 minutes by the clock on the wall to decide whether to write "Best Wishes" or "Much Love" on a birthday card for an absent member. But they were SO BRAVE in their infirmity, keeping track of the nickels and pennies, solemnly reading the latest letter about their overseas sponsored child, and so forth.

    They gave me a truly great experience also. We had begun to instal the elevator at the front door of the church. During the ACW meeting on this particular day, there was banging, which eventually penetrated the consciousness of the group: "What's all that noise?" I suggested we go and see, shepherded them down the aisle and out the front door and around the yellow safety-tape to where they could see the young workmen demolishing the redundant staircase in the space where the elevator would go. Much to the workmen's consternation, this circle of grandmas stood there in front of the open doorway and lifted up their voices and wept, "Because, dear, we didn't think we'd live to see it actually HAPPEN..." And before we resumed their meeting, they had pressed unsolicited pledges of some thousands of dollars upon me.

    After they disbanded, and after a gap, the "Knit Wits" formed, at the instigation of a mother-daughter combo... they meet, they knit (or crochet or mend or whatever comes to hand), they support each other, they pray when they need to, after a bit they have tea and some baked goodies, and they have an ironclad unspoken embargo on complaining, criticism, whining, and gossip. They make a lot of prayer shawls but not exclusively. I miss them!

  10. I realise that I didn't say anything positive about women's groups - but that wasn't because i am against them - just against any church group staggering on when it's time to stop so that something new can be born.

    Some of the most positive experiences of my ministry have come from being in the prayerful & listening & sharing company of wonderful women.

    And I just wanted to share a come-back from one of my wisest friends - if she hears someone say 'little old ladies' in a disparaging way she says "don't you disrespect little old ladies - I hope to be one myself one day!".
    Amen, sister!

  11. let's be honest attending women's circles can be as fun as staying home and poking out your eye with a knitting needle... and yet it is so important to be there. it's a trust-builder and you can get a lot of visiting/visitation done in that cirlce time.

    for younger women - we have tried short-term bible studies, instead of an every-month circle thing... and had a good response.

    the older ladie's group hosted an evening for ALL women of the church... and the "older ladies" had put together gift packages for the younger women... with chocolate; tea; bubble bath; candles... a relaxation goodie bag at the time of year when kids were rushing back to school.

  12. I just want to pop in and thank Crimson Rambler for that wonderful story! I will be thinking about that image all day, I think.

    Sorry I've nothing to add, since former parish never had circles...

    (Formerly CH)

  13. I have to say, I love our "church ladies," who've run a combination Bible study/quilting group since -- well, pretty much since the beginnings of our congregation in the 'teens. I had the opportunity last month to lead their Bible study, and I had a wonderful time.

    Most of the women involved in this group are in their 70's and 80's, although the quilting attracts younger retirees, including a couple of women who aren't otherwise connected with our church. I've never felt unwelcome because of my age or for any other reason.

    I agree that this is the group most in the know about what goes on in the parish, and good to be on friendly terms with. But at least in our congregation these women enjoy their independence; they like it if Pastor or a younger church elf like myself drops in from time to time, but I don't think they would appreciate a hovering pastoral presence (as used to happen in the church of my childhood, where the pastors didn't trust the women to run their own Bible studies and otherwise tried to exercise male supervisory privileges...even though I think in their hearts the pastors knew they were perceived more as annoyances to be tolerated.;-)) I think our pastor drops in on the women on a regular but very casual basis, and they're fine with that; it makes them feel respected without being controlled, if that makes sense.

    When 30-something-or-so people tell me that they'd like to go to church but don't think they'll find enough of a peer group to feel comfortable, my advice to them is "Don't worry about people in your own age range. Make friends with the crones, and you'll be fine." And I believe it.

  14. There are so many issues swirling around this! How do we continue to minister to our older women and enable them to minister to one another and to us? They have so much to give, and the idea of shunting them aside is offensive to all of us — no matter how difficult they can be, and oh, mercy, we all know they can.

    How do we enable our already-overloaded younger women to participate? I agree that no young woman in her right mind would want to attend a PW meeting at our church, and if PW began to evolve from their mid-20th-century mindset, I'd surely perceive that as a sign of the apocalypse. Setting up competing groups, young vs. old, surely isn't the answer, so I've tried to fudge and set up interest groups with the same theological core.

    How do we draw them into the life of the church, which will always require someone to do the "women's work" of organizing funeral dinners, remembering birthdays, etc. (In our congregation, the deacons have taken over most of that, and the deacon moderator is a man! Still, who is going to teach those skills to the men?)

    In answer to what I perceive to be the question (in my mind, which is smooshed between Ash Wednesday and a Friday-morning funeral), all that has ever worked for me is to attend when I can, for as long as I can, and in between, try to give them meaningful work in the life of the church.

  15. I agree that certain aspects of women's groups within the church are left over from when women had little power, but if they had fund raisers, etc. then they could have some power. It isn't that long ago that in some churches, the pastors had to at least meet with the Women's bible study leader before the circle met.

    All I can say about that is AKKKKK.

    I also have problems with a Sunday in the year for Women's ministry, ie, the women doing everything during the worship service. In our church, women are fully integrated already, so they don't need a special Sunday. It would be more of a novelty for the church to have a men's Sunday.

    Perhaps the pastor needs to have a frank talk with just the leaders of the women's circles and find out expectations and try to figure out unsaid expectations. Maybe the pastor also has some unsaid expectations.

    I personally love some intergenerational groups, but I think it makes no sense for a group which has grown older together to "expect" younger people to join them. It would make more sense to find a common theme that might bring a few of the older women together with the younger women. Younger women often need some built in babysitting to be part of the time period. Or they could have a meeting during the Sunday School hour (except for those who teach, of course.)

  16. Knit Wits! I love it!!! I confess that the last women's group I was in was called "Stitch and Bitch" so I think that title is more eerrrr, publish-able!


  17. I know that women's groups and circles have played a cricial part in the life of our churches and have given support and leadership opportunities to women when women were not treated as full memebers of the congregation but recently when I have attended women's events I find myself wanting to scream "You really can't figure out why the young women don't come! Really! It could be the bad time slot, it could be the fact all you do is complain about how people never come, it could be how you demonize soccer and the fact that mom's would dare want to attend their kids games instead of come to this meeting, or it could be that if they come to one thing they know you will try to guilt and shame them into committing to helping with some time consuming fundraiser but so far I have kept my mouth shut, and prayed it would be over soon.

    As I look around at their body language I can't help but feel like many of the women who do attend don't really want to be there or help out with the next fundraiser but they keep coming out of a sense of duty or guilt not a sense of calling or spiritual edification. I want to tell them you know this is optional, if it isn't working anymore let's stop and try something different. But again I just hold my tongue.

  18. The Presbyterian Women's group in our denomination was created to give women leaders an outlet when they could not serve as clergy, elders, or deacons. Today, obviously they can, and yet our circles continue. One of the issues we have is that - while women of different ages want to meet - the PW Circles feel exclusive and confining to some of our women. A "young woman" in our congregation tried to connect with PW and they essential disinvited her. As well, I was recently asked to tell a group of 20-somethings that "they were not allowed to meet" as a small group outside of PW.

    I've found that many congregations have such issues with The Church Ladies. There are issues of entitlement, ownership, cliques, and power. But I've found that there are also women who are good people who find a social and spiritual outlet in our Presbyterian Women's group.

    The truth is that we have to figure out a way to love these ladies without accommodating them in ways we would not accommodate other church people. They can truly be among the most difficult members of our churches.

  19. In the last chuch I pastored we didn't have women's circles, but we did have a women's craft group.

    I realised very early on that all the key stakeholders of the church were either in the group or their wives were in the group.

    Because of this, even though craft holds no interest for me I attended the group when I could and had them teach me how to knit.

    I learnt more about what was happening in church during those mornings than almost any other time, and was able to empower these women which made ministry much easier than may have otherwise been.

    If you can attend with the boudaries of just attending not doing, and sometimes you won't be able to make it, the results, in my experience will certainly be worth it.

    I'm certain that in years gone by the pastor (male) played golf or did something else with the men of the church for the same reasons.

    With all that said, every situation is different, cover everything with prayer and jump.



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