Missing Person: The male children's leader
If you take a look around the children's work at any church on a Sunday morning, chances are you won't spot many men. But why aren't there more male volunteers in children's work? Alex Taylor takes a look at some of the underlying issues
"Hello. My name’s Alex, I’m a man and I’m involved in children’s work.”
That’s not a sentence you hear very often (and not just because Alex isn’t all that popular a name). A quick glance at children’s ministry teams up and down the country would show that there are very few men serving, discipling and reaching out to children and their families. Go to a youth worker conference, and you’ll see a good gender mix. But attend any children’s worker event and the ratio could be anything up to 90 per cent female.
Premier Childrenswork (RIP) featured an article on this subject back in 2013, and it seems little has changed in the intervening years. That article quoted children’s work expert Nick Harding’s research on the subject, which suggested that 25 per cent of children’s leaders were male, with numbers falling to just six per cent for those working with under-5s.
This lack of men in children’s work reflects wider issues. Firstly, there are fewer men than women in church, so there are fewer men available to volunteer. However, the disparity in children’s work is far greater than the general Church gender gap.
More broadly, in society as a whole, there are very few men working in preschool or primary education, whereas secondary schools have a much better gender balance. Government statistics in 2016 showed that 38 per cent of secondary teachers were male, but that figure dropped to 15 per cent in primary schools. Just two per cent of the early-years education workforce consists of men.
So why don’t men volunteer for children’s work? Why is this area of ministry so female-dominated?
The status of children’s work
There seems to be an ingrained hierarchy of ministry in many churches. Ministry with adults is at the top. This is the ministry to which everyone should aspire and work toward. Under that comes youth work, and beneath that working with children. Bottom of the heap, under-resourced and recognised as important but not well liked, this ministry should neither be seen nor heard.
I’m exaggerating for effect, obviously. There are many churches out there with amazing children’s work; churches that care for and value ministry with children and families. But at the same time there are many churches where the leadership merely tolerates children’s work. Only this week I met a children’s worker who gets into trouble if the minister hears the children making noise during the adult service. Time and again I talk with children’s leaders who have to do children’s work in difficult circumstances: in rooms that are too small with budgets that are insufficient and support that is half-hearted.
This leads me on to the first of my suggestions as to why there are so few men in children’s work: many feel that it doesn’t offer a high enough status for them to be part of. Whether consciously or subconsciously, some men reject children’s work because little recognition is given and barely any status is afforded to children’s workers. Youth work attracts more men, but even that is often seen as a stepping stone to ‘real’ ministry: the ministry of leading a church (which usually equates to working with adults). Youth workers are often asked: “When are you going to get involved in real ministry?”
Much of this is cultural. Centuries of male dominance in society has led men to look for the top roles and to expect positions of influence. Men are told they can do anything, and there are very few obstacles in the way to stop them achieving what they want. This breeds a confidence that they can take the top roles. On the other hand, women are restricted by entrenched opinions of what they can and can’t do. Admittedly, this is an incredibly simplistic description of the complex issues at play. If you’d like to discover more, a few hours of research on this subject would be very rewarding.
The Church often reflects these attitudes of male privilege and opportunity. Men gravitate toward the roles that offer a higher status, while women are left with the ministries that are seen as supportive or supplementary.
However, according to research carried out by ComRes for the Church of England in 2017, the overwhelming majority of Christians come to Christ before the age of 18. If you’re looking for ‘results’ in terms of numbers, children’s work brings more than ten times the number of people into church than working with those over the age of 18. Our view of where we focus our ministry and resources should be flipped upside-down. Children’s work should be the most important thing we do.
Linked to the concept of status is the idea that some men (and some women, too) see ministry with children as women’s work. Traditional gender roles persist in many churches, and addressing these issues would take up more space than I have here (and more knowledge and experience than I have). There are some great thinkers doing great theological work at the moment, so if this is something you’d like to explore more I would urge you to look up people like @godloveswomen on Twitter.
There is often an assumption that women are better at nurturing children than men, and that this means women are better suited to children’s work. There is very little evidence to support this, however, and Carolyn Edwards, children and youth adviser for the Diocese of York, believes the differences are cultural: “Because we assume that women are better at nurturing they become better at nurturing, and because we assume that men aren’t nurturers they don’t fight for the right to do it, or they lose the ability.” In short, because women do more of the nurturing they become better at it, while men become deskilled.
The comparatively low status involved in children’s work and the views on male and female roles in church may put those running children’s work off asking men directly to get involved. Does the assumption that men wouldn’t want to be involved subconsciously prevent us from asking them? There are probably men in our congregations who would be brilliant children’s leaders but they have never been asked to consider it, so they may not have realised that the skills and gifts they have make them ideally suited to working with children.
Viewed with suspicion
Statistics generated by the numerous child abuse studies vary, but it is true that the vast majority of perpetrators are male (figures range from 80 to 95 per cent). And this prompts a suspicion of men who volunteer to be involved in children’s work, leading to the loaded question: “Why do you want to work with children?” Faced with such a question and suspicious attitudes, this may be why men back off.
Although the majority of abusers are male, the reverse is not true: the majority of men are not abusers. Yet it seems that some in the Church still believe this. I spoke with one children’s worker earlier this year whose church had a policy that two men were not allowed to run a children’s session without a woman being present. Maybe the churches in this example thought the men would cover for each other. Perhaps they believed the presence of a woman would prevent abuse from taking place; abuse that this practice implied would be inevitable if men were left in charge of children on their own.
While it’s fair to say that this example is probably fairly isolated, the underlying suspicion still exists. This is fed by our constant access to news; access that is unprecedented in our lifetime. Stories of abuse are recycled every half-hour on news stations. They are dwelt on and picked apart on news and opinion websites. In short, the narrative of men as abusers is regularly in our view.
However, if we follow best practice in safeguarding and recruitment for volunteers of any gender we can build a balanced team of trusted individuals who are called to work with children, and not just because they are considered a safer gender.
What message are we sending?
Having such a gender imbalance within children’s work teams reinforces these ingrained attitudes in the minds of the children. If they grow in their faith into adulthood they are likely to retain the same opinion. Children’s work is done by the women while the men do the important adult stuff.
This generational reiteration of such attitudes merely perpetuates the issue. People will most likely reproduce what they see being done because ‘that’s the way these things happen’. Children who grow up and remain part of the Church into adulthood will more than likely share those same ideas, just as the current lack of men in primary education will contribute to a lack of men in the future.
We need genuine role models in all areas of church life so children see that they can volunteer and get involved anywhere God is calling them, not just to the roles that have traditionally been performed by their gender. This means having men involved in children’s work, but also having more women involved in areas where they are currently under-represented.
I think we can underplay the importance of representation. Seeing someone who is like you performing a role – and excelling in it – can be incredibly empowering. So for a girl to see a women preaching or a boy to see a man leading a toddler group breaks norms that might have grown up out of years of tradition and ‘the way things are done’.
And that’s not to say that role models can only take the form of those who share the same gender as us. I was struck by the fact that when Doctor Who announced that the Doctor was to be played by a woman, how many people (mainly men) complained that their sons had lost a role model. Even taking into account the idea of representation, we can’t say that Jodie Whittaker isn’t a role model for boys as well as girls. Having men and women leading in our children’s work provides a whole range of role models for children to learn from; not only in terms of faith development, but also in terms of Christian community, serving, equality and care.
So, what can we do to attract more men to children’s work? Here are some pointers to think through in your church:
Value children’s ministry as a church. Speak with your leadership team about how they value the children’s work. Have a vision for children’s work and get buy-in from the different parts of your church community (rather than just doing children’s work because it needs to be done). Regularly pray for the children’s work team, and make sure you do this with the whole church community, not just in prayer meetings. If everyone in the congregation sees this ministry as one that is valued, this will raise it up in their own minds. And if you can, get the church leadership to volunteer in a children’s group!
Have robust safeguarding procedures in place. This will enable men to feel safe when working with children and help parents overcome any underlying suspicion of men who volunteer to do children’s work. Get in touch with thirtyone:eight (thirtyoneeight.org)
for help and advice on creating and maintaining a safeguarding policy.
Ask men to volunteer. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. We could be missing out on some of the best children’s workers in our churches because of our own assumptions about whether men would want to be involved in helping with the toddler group, leading a Sunday morning session or volunteering at an after-school club.