Gender at the UK Bethel ELA Conference

Today we have a post from Ella Green who is the Charity Officer for an ecumenical charity based in Harrogate. She studied English Literature at St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge and is now studying a part-time course at Leeds School of Theology.

 

European Leaders Advance is a conference with the senior leaders of Bethel Church, Redding, California, that aims to equip churches in Europe. It ran from the 24th-26thJuly this year and has taken place in Harrogate or London every year since 2013.

 

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Bethel church over the years and so I confess I was both a little nervous and excited about attending the conference. Bethel has been hugely influential upon the worldwide Church and has received praise and criticism for its strongly revival-focused ministry. There was no doubt from the title on the event programme, ‘Heaven invading Europe’, that revival was going to be a key theme of the conference.

 

The sense of expectation on the first night was palpable, and it wasn’t just on the first night I felt this, but indeed at every session. There were five fairly chunky sessions each day, and that’s not to mention the other endless opportunities for spiritual nourishment. There were ‘vision’ lunches, an ‘Encounter’ space for worship and ministry, a ‘Transforming Arts’ exhibition and plenty of chances for deep conversation with fellow delegates over break-times. It was certainly a spiritually intense few days and left me with a lot of meaty truth and wisdom to chew over!

 

The line-up of speakers included Bill Johnson, the senior Pastor of Bethel, Eric and Candace Johnson (Son and Daughter-in-law to Bill), Danny and Sheri Silk, and Paul Manwaring. Sue Manwaring, along with Tim and Sue Eldridge (co-hosts of the conference) also played key roles throughout the week. When I saw the names in the programme, I wasn’t sure what to make of the strongly family-orientated structure of the Bethel leadership team. I have to admit that as a single Christian woman, I sometimes struggle to relate to this very couple-focused perspective of ministry. However, the content of the sessions actually provided a refreshingly broad perspective of church and mission, with a strong emphasis on seeking a revival that lasts through the years and across the generations.

 

It was this focus on successful ‘fathering and mothering’ in God’s kingdom that particularly struck me. Clearly, the leaders of Bethel realise the importance of both fathers and mothers within the church, and yet there was no sense that these roles needed any kind of differentiation. In fact, there was very little explicit teaching on gender at all. Perhaps the closest they got to a discussion of gender roles was in a session led by Candace and Eric Johnson where they talked about co-leadership. They stood either side of the podium and spoke for equal lengths in turn; it was certainly not a case of the man giving the main talk and the woman tagging on at the beginning and end. Interestingly, Candace actually spoke about how she used to face this issue in their church staff meetings. Eric would naturally leap to the role of leading the meeting, jumping between ideas and giving her little space to speak, until the very end of the meeting when he would ask her if she had anything to add, by which point she felt frustrated and had given up on having anything to say at all! Eric was completely oblivious to the effect his behaviour was having upon her until she spoke to him about it, and so they now plan the meetings beforehand to ensure that each of them gets a chance to speak and share their ideas.

 

Candace also talked about her frustration at being labelled the ‘pastor’s wife’ when she initially joined the Bethel staff team. Whilst she didn’t feel any great need to be constantly praised and acknowledged, she couldn’t help but notice that Eric was often given credit for the work that she had done. I loved the fact that Eric’s response to this was to start referring to himself as the ‘pastor’s husband’ in his conversations with people.

 

As well as a few joint slots where couples spoke together, each speaker also had their own slot. I found it interesting that both the main female speakers, Candace and Sheri, placed emphasis upon the importance of ‘shining’ in our culture and context. In our self-deprecating British culture, this kind of message is perhaps less commonly heard, but it was empowering to be reminded that God uses us to ‘call out the greatness’ in each other. Candace explained that “we are called to develop our own voice and story….when we shine, we give others permission to do the same.” These women certainly practice what they preach; in a context where they could have easily become stuck as ‘the pastor’s wife’, they have clearly developed their own voices (indeed they have quite literally practiced preaching!) and it gives me hope that they are influencing a new generation of Christian leaders, both female and male.

 

Bill and Danny particularly focused on the need to successfully grow and equip future leaders. In an exegesis on what might be called a rather ‘niche’ passage in 2 Kings, Bill identified Hezekiah’s lack of concern for the future of his children and grandchildren as a symptom of his distance from God towards the end of his life and a sign of his fall from greatness. Danny followed with a talk later in the week about the importance of giving over responsibility to younger leaders, however risky this might sometimes feel: “Our role is to protect the momentum, not our ministry.” This seems to me to be a vital message, not just in relation to the kind of multi-generational leadership that Danny was speaking about, but also in the context of seeking gender equality in the church.

 

If we are to be led by the Spirit, in all His power, creativity, and glorious mess (if I’m allowed to call God messy?!), we cannot afford to be protective of our own roles and ministries; to be competitive or self-seeking. I have been convinced again by many of the words spoken at ELA that selfless investment in others is a sure gateway to seeing more of heaven on earth, and that means mature leaders have to be ready to give leadership roles to the younger generation. And yes, I believe that that also means that men need to be secure enough in their own identities as God’s sons to let His daughters step out fully and freely into the gifts they have been given.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons that Bethel is known by many Christians as a place where God’s kingdom is breaking through onto earth is that this church is creating a culture where people are empowered and released into their giftings. I would say that my time at the ELA conference has given me a wider window through which to see God’s heart for His church, as expressed so beautifully in Acts 2:

 

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

 

It seems to me that the leaders of Bethel get this. The Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate. We get to see God’s power fully present and active in our sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, in both men and women. And that is something that truly excites me.

 

The image on this post is of Candace Johnson speaking at the conference, courtesy of John Mudie.

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