Campus News

Lack of female chapel speakers raises questions

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The typical Bethel graduate attends nearly 350 chapel services during their four years. Although each of the services presents a unique perspective, tone and topic, there are a few similarities which students now expect: Shawn Holtgren will keep worship on-beat by clapping the microphone; Dennis Engbrecht will close the prayer “in the strong and powerful name of Jesus;” and the guest speaker will be articulate, evangelical and  … male.

Mr. Adrian Despres presented the messages during this year's Spiritual Emphasis Week.

Think about it: who was the last female chapel speaker this year? If you didn’t answer, you’re correct! A woman has actually yet to take the stage this semester and won’t until Oct. 24, when Suze Fair from Fellowship Missionary Church visits campus. This year’s ratio approximates a five-male-to-one-female proportion, which is surprising since 60 percent of Bethel students are female. While this issue may seem like a harmless detail, many students, professors and administrators have considered it.

Shawn Holtgren, chapel coordinator and worship leader, recognized that female speakers bring a unique life perspective from which all students can learn. To emphasize one perspective over another short-changes the entire Bethel community. The empowering messages of Marilyn Lazlo, Brenda Slater McNeil, Jill Brisco, Lyn Hybols, JJ Heller and Oreon Trickey linger in students’ minds each time they exit the Everest-Rohrer stage.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the chapel speakers that I do remember are female,” said senior Jenny Reber. “Most of them have compelling stories that I relate to rather than just strong sermons.”

According to Dr. Tim Erdel, associate professor of the Religion and Philosophy Department, a male-dominant platform in evangelical Christianity exists “in the wake of tradition and general culture,” not as a result of careful biblical interpretation.

“Christ certainly included women in His ministry and broke some social taboos,” said  Dr. Elizabeth McLaughlin. “And both men and women were created in the image of God. I think there has been an administrative effort (to schedule more female speakers), but I wonder if it reflects on larger sub-cultural issues of evangelical Christianity.”

Kathy Gribbin, vice president of  life calling and student enrichment, shares McLaughlin’s perspective.

“To only show half is to only tell half of the human story … no one’s telling the whole story,” she said. “And it’s not just a Bethel College issue or a Missionary church issue; it’s an evangelical culture issue.  The glass ceiling is very real to women in evangelical Christian leadership.”

Though an entire culture may be responsible for this disproportion, its effects can be observed even on Bethel’s campus. Dr. Robby Prenkert is one of many professors on campus who fears the “powerful psychological message” that students receive by seeing so few women on stage. He said that it doesn’t only insinuate male chauvinism, paternalism and condescension, it declares that ministry, let alone the microphone, is for men.

“Women seeking positions in ministry need role models,” said McLaughlin. “I believe there are many women who have been called, question that calling with a lack of direction and ultimately choose something else.”

Dr. Erdel has seen this transpire many times in his department.

“A lot of women begin in Christian ministries, but very few finish. Many can’t visualize themselves in this role (without a model),” said Erdel.

Dr. Erdel noted that, in addition to irregular female chapel speakers, Bethel’s Religion and Philosophy Department is comprised of only male professors. Female students seeking full-time ministry are lacking examples, mentors and advisors where they need them most.

Holtgren understands the dangers of representing one perspective of ministry.

“I want everyone who comes to Bethel to be able to see themselves on stage,” he said. “I’m very aware that our women need to see models of godly, faithful women of Christ.”

A limited budget and pool of regional speakers make scheduling difficult, but Holtgren plans with strategy, purpose and perspective to achieve diversity and variety.

While the female-to-male speaker ratio is far from ideal to many on campus, Holtgren’s efforts have not gone by unnoticed.

“Bethel administration does an amazing job bringing a variety of speakers. Ninety-nine percent of our students will hear more female chapel speakers in four years than in a lifetime … of church on Sunday mornings,” said Prenkert. “More women (should) start answering the call to full-time pastoral ministry. Yes, our patriarchal church structures have set up a lot of barriers that make answering that call difficult … We need to change the structures, but what good will that do if women don’t answer the call?”

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