Institutional Sexism and Para-Church Youth Ministry

The Glass Ceiling

This is the term used by many to describe why many women and minorities fail to rise above certain ranks.  Over time women and minorities have made progress (often minorities before women) to advance to the higher levels of management up through the ranks of CEO.  Some feel that there are inherent aspects of organizations that men do better in because they get chosen quicker to be in the “all boys club” or the “white boys club” depending on what trade you are looking at.

The Church and the Glass Ceiling

I’ve chosen to not address this for the time being.  While this is a sticking point between denominations and I agree that this needs to be examined in light of biblical truth, I’ve been struck by something recently occurring at YS and their management shifts and new acquisitions on their leadership team.

For an excellent resource on gender roles in the church I highly recommend:Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)

The Para-Church

The para-church are those forms of Christian Ministry that fall outside of the church and function more like organizations.  Some of these include Group, Dare2Share, Youth Specialties, Focus on the Family and so on.

Since this is not church (and they don’t pretend to be church), I am not sure the egalitarian/complimentarian argument actually does anything here.  So we need to revert back to principles of equality, justice, love, peace found in the Imago Dei.

Youth Specialties’ Recent Announcement

Youth Specialties recently added to a number of relatively high profile, or upper level management moves.  Today, Youth specialties announced the hiring of Kara Powell of Fuller Youth Institute to join their leadership team as an advisor.  An excerpt from their press release reads:

Matlock continued, “As YS continues to serve the church in addressing current issues in adolescent spiritual formation and outreach, Kara’s experience in research and church youth ministry will provide unparalleled insight into ministry today. In addition to speaking roles at NYWC and YSpalooza, Kara’s greatest contribution will be giving strategic input on big picture issues at YS.”


Thanks to my Mac Dictionary: Sexism is defined as the prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.

So essentially we are to keep away from things that label a person by gender and asserting their value as a subset of their gender.  I loved that YS found someone so capable and competent to advise them on areas of research.  She is a PhD and has tons of other credits which are outstanding.

So, am I concerned that YS is sexist on an institutional level.  No.  But, keep reading…

What alarms me:

The reactions to this news of Kara Powell joining the YS team, by the twitterverse and facebook commentators.


The responses I’ve seen over twitter are overall positive, but their is a slight current that shows that we (the people who consume para-church ministry ‘goods’) still gravitate towards an institutionalized sexism when it comes to para-church youth ministry.

A few statements I’ve read today include:

Kara brings expertise and academic credentials to the team, and being female is a big asset.

intelligent thoughtfully spoken and theologically solid female youth ministry buff step into a role at YS

Statements like these, tend to attach femaleness to everything else she has done.  While it might sound “nice,” the problem lies in the principle that we don’t do that for other genders, or other races. 

It’s very much like saying she throws very well “for a girl…”  I’m not sure these people, who left these comments were intentional.  But that is the problem with institutionalized sexism.  It’s ingrained.  We make comments without thinking, and it exposes what inherent prejudices lies within the system we are immersed in.

Take the first one for example: brings expertise and academic credentials to the team, and being female is a big asset.

Take female and insert the various words male, black, white, single, old, young.  Does it change the way you think of the statement??? Perhaps it should.

Here is Kara’s Bio from her FYI’s Website:

Kara Eckmann Powell, PhD

Dr. Kara E. Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. She completed her PhD in Practical Theology from Fuller Seminary with a focus on Pastoral Role Expectations in 2000, an MDiv from Bethel Theological Seminary in 1994, and a BA degree with Honors from Stanford University in 1991. In addition to her roles at Fuller Seminary, Kara currently volunteers in student ministries at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. She is the author or co-author of a number of books and curriculum guides, including Sticky Faith (parent and youth leader editions and student curriculum, 2011-2012), Essential Leadership (2010), Deep Justice Journeys (2009), Deep Justice in a Broken World (2008), Deep Ministry in a Shallow World (2006), Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum (2001, rev 2009), Help! I’m a Woman in Youth Ministry (2004), and Mirror, Mirror (2003).  Resources from Kara Powell.  Follow @kpowellfyi on Twitter.

Based on that alone, who wouldn’t want to hire her for their youth ministry para church organization any day of the week (and twice on Sundays or Wednesday Nights???)  Note besides the second person pronoun, there are no other hints that her Gender has to do with her professional self. 

I have many female friends in youth ministry.  They are great.  Part of it is because they are female.  But their femaleness isn’t what makes or breaks them.  It is their passion, their love for God, their love for students and their gifting for what they are called to do.  Additionally, the times when femaleness is a prerequisite, it is often tied to gender role activities, such as sleeping quarters, mentoring (to some extent), talking alone, driving home, etc.  But when we tout someone for research and skills and academic credentials, I’m not sure the female asset-ness ought to carry the same clout.

If you have pushback-feedback, i’d love to hear it.  I’m open for suggestion and improvements.  My goal is to heighten our awareness of institutional sexism in youth ministry and ask the question, is this the way this game is supposed to be played??

This is a second version of this article.  I made some changes based on “Push Back” and have appreciated it greatly.  Keep those comments coming 🙂

12 Responses to Institutional Sexism and Para-Church Youth Ministry

  1. Rachel Blom says:

    *climbing on soapbox* I’m very ambivalent on this issue. On one hand I believe that quality should prevail when hiring someone, but on the other hand there’s a shocking lack of women in Christian leadership in the broadest sense. Too many parachurch organizations are being led by men alone and I think they suffer for it in one way or another. Women bring additional qualities to the mix and complement the ‘male leadership style’. I’d love to see more women in leadership positions, provided they’re qualified for the job. Would it really be so wrong if an organization said: we really want a woman in our team and then searched for the best female candidate available? In the same way, I’d see it as completely normal if a multi-cultural church specifically searched to add multi-cultural people to their team, if that means it would reflect the diversity of the church better.
    I do feel however that the remarks being made about Kara Powell should be interpreted another way. Nobody is happy she’s added to the YS team just because she’s a woman. Everyone knows her credentials and they are impressive. But the fact is that she’s a woman and that’s good reason for ‘additional’ joy. So yes, I am happy that YS chose to add a woman to their team and I’m even more happy it’s Kara Powell, because she brings a lot to the table besides the fact that she’s a woman. *climbs off soapbox*

    • mattmurphy79 says:

      I’m not sure you can say ‘nobody.’ I agree it’s a great move and makes them more rounded. But when we add that into the category, there is a tacit, subtle (institutional) way of saying her credentials need that part to make her a whole candidate. When Doug got hired to YS i saw no comments attributing his maleness to the reason he got the job. Diversity is great. I just think when you start saying peoples race, gender, etc into the mix it takes away from their hard work, rather than add onto it.

      In the states, when applying for colleges and certain jobs you have the option of checking boxes to say your gender and race as a way of tracking who people hire, allow into school. When i was going through that, i refused to check boxes. Because I don’t want that to be a factor positive or negative, when people work so hard to bolster their credentials one way or another (academics, work, volunteerism).

      MLKing said we will be free when we’re not judged by our race (or gender for that matter) but are judged by the content of our character.

      Thanks so much for your post.

      • Leya says:

        I’m inclined to support Rachel’s thoughtful response. I am happy that Kara chose to take the position for both her credentials and her femaleness. My hope is that her being hired was not merely a token effort to be more “diverse,” but rather an intentional first step into equitable roles for men and women in leadership.

        Matt, in many ways, acknowledging peoples race, gender, etc of under-represented people in leadership is an attempt to acknowledge the potential (though more often imminent) reality of the adversity they had to face to get where they got to. Institutional racism, sexism, etc.. still exists, until it doesn’t, I think we’re allowed to celebrate the little victories… given that is truly celebration and not patronizing, condescending tokenism.

        • mattmurphy79 says:

          Thanks Leya,
          Great thoughts. I severly doubt this was a token move… it might be more part of a YS power play as they fight back, taking on Marko, Doug and now Kara. Some of these posts seem to say that I’m thinking this is overt, but i’m thinking its much more institutionalized and covert. When we get to the point that hiring a female (or a minority) is taken at face value and people don’t feel the need to take on that gender argument in complimenting and praising someone for great work accomplishments, then we still need to examine why it’s there and how to remove it 😉

  2. Leneita says:


    I have been in the “para-church” world for almost 16 years. However, I do think there needs to be a clarification. “Para-Church” ministries are actually non-profit organizations that consider themselves to be ministries. Typically they have one “cause” that they focus on- I think that Dare2Share is a para-church. However, Group and YS are actually “for-profit” companies. They actually function and have the same “rules” of diversity and such as any “for profit.”

    With that said I personally have experienced the “glass ceiling” in ministry for the past 20 years as a woman. When you talk to any woman in leadership in ministries they will tell you it is a struggle. The lines become blurred in the “para-church” world because there are not the same outwardly stated gender opinions as there are in churches. Certain denominations have ideas on women in “leadership” means.

    In “para-church” world often my experience has been the men have the the same opinions that they do in the “church” setting- but it is not as obvious. So there are parameters put on where we serve and how we lead. This becomes especially clear when we reach milestones in our life such as marriage and children.

    So yes- it happens. All the time. I struggle with it literally daily.

  3. There is a glass ceiling in Christendom, organized and para. It is gender, race, orientation, and theological. As a middle judicatory representative I witness the ceiling, a nice way of saying discrimination, in congregations seeking ministers or youth directors. The best I think we can do is point it out, but it must start with we who have the privilege, white males.

    My other concern for these “para” organizations, YS, Immerse, Group, Dare and FoF that are a primary resource base for many in youth ministry and children’s ministry is that the theology is orthodox or neo-orthodox. It is a death and salvation Christianity focused on Paul and pseudo-Pauline teaching rather than a Sermon on the Mount or Lord’s Prayer Christianity that focuses on the way(s) of Jesus and a practice of Christianity. It would be helpful, though probably not profitable, for these “paras” to hire persons that would identify as liberal or progressive in their theological perspective.

  4. Ummm…hadn’t thought about it much till you brought it up, Matt. I’ve been a woman in YM for over 30 years and I just keep plugging along. I do know that a woman still doesn’t get paid as much as a man in YM in churches (see Group’s 2010 Salary Survey). I also know I notice when there are no females on the platform when I get advertisements for a youth workers event or a youth rally. Comments like, “And her (Kara) being a female is an asset” is true. But overall, I guess you’re right about there still being a glass ceiling to shatter. I just don’t think about it much, because I went out a window instead and just kept going.

  5. Pingback: Top 20 Posts for 2011 | Engaging the Shadows of Youth Ministry

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