Changing churches can be a painful experience, and experiment. My family recently moved an hour north of our previous home, and we were forced to leave our long-time church. So we made a list of churches in our immediate vicinity and began visiting. Two months later, one church just clicked with us. My husband and I gave it a few more weeks before verbally acknowledging what each of us already knew, but the first visit sealed the deal.
How did we know? Other churches we had visited provided sound biblical teaching, organized ministries for adults and children, people who welcomed us, and a pleasant worship experience. Why did this particular place call to us?
What is ethos? It’s the distinguishing tone, environment, or climate—and it’s powerful. It impacts how people feel, act, and respond. And while it may seem intangible, leaders must know how to influence ethos to the benefit of their ministry.
Ethos Begins With the Leader
What impacts ethos? Many factors—for example, the depth of the leader’s relationship with God, their spiritual, emotional and mental health, their view of themselves and others, their view of their role as leader, their comfort empowering others—and, if the team is mixed-gender, their view of the other sex.
If you influence others, you create the ethos. Who you are, how you think, and what you believe color the atmosphere. And what you think and feel about the opposite sex will determine whether or not men and women work together as brothers and sisters. You are responsible for the ministry’s health. It all begins with you.
As a leader, what kind of working atmosphere do you want to create? What kind of ministry ethos is optimal for both the men and the women God entrusts to you? First, let’s talk in general terms and then we will consider how to create a healthy mixed-gender ethos. As we consider a healthy ethos in general terms, there are two models that we do not want to emulate.
The Military Model
Rank, decorum, protocol, and formality are required for the military to be effective in its calling. Walk into a military office and you will sense the unique ethos. “Yes, sir”—“No, ma’am”—“Right away, sir.” The military model does not allow for relationship between unequals.
While relational barriers and formal structures equip the military to defend our country and fight wars, they are not appropriate in ministry. The military model impedes the kind of community ethos needed to build a strong body of believers equipped to fight a different kind of battle. Spiritual warfare requires camaraderie born in an ethos that fosters true sibling relationships.
The Professional Model
A professional working environment is not personal—not really. Employees are valuable as long as they are useful to the company’s overall purpose—the bottom line. This does not mean that companies don’t care about their employees. Many have learned that it is in their best interest to treat employees fairly. But companies are not there to help people—people are there to help the company.
The professional model helps create a productive economy—and there is nothing wrong with that. But ministry is not about making money or building the biggest building or touting the largest numbers. It’s easy to get confused about that in ministry, especially if the leader is confused about what kind of model to emulate. Ministry is about healing men and women and sending them out for the glory of God. As ministry leaders, we are not called to create a business or professional ethos.
However, the military and business/professional mindset still lurks in some ministers’ minds today. Should a senior pastor be friends with his executive pastor? The youth pastor? The women’s minister? The children’s director? His administrative assistant? How should ministry relationships function? What kind of ethos does the Lord want us to create?
The Family Model
The Bible uses family imagery to describe ministry relationships. Over and over, Paul addresses his readers as adelphoi, traditionally rendered “brothers” or “brethren” or, more accurately, “brothers and sisters.”[i] Paul uses family language repeatedly to address the church. Read how he described the ethos he created in the Thessalonian church:
As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous, and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
And don’t forget Paul’s instructions to Timothy:
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:1, 2).
Yes, a personal or family ethos is more complicated. It is easier to relate to one another in the military or in business than to relate to one another as family or friends. The lines are clearer; the structure set. Personal relationships require love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. They demand wisdom as we create an ethos of care and respect. A ministry ethos is a supernatural ethos, superintended by the Holy Spirit. But life transformation and exciting spiritual adventure are the norm in a supernatural ethos—and that’s the kind of place where Jesus shows up and works wonders.
We need ministries based on a family model, but instead we usually see business, military, and sports models. Then the emphasis is on who is in charge, who wins, and who is the star. The church becomes competitive, focused on the individual and the bottom line. I don’t see these models in the New Testament. Instead we see a community based family model. It takes both men and women to create a family model.[ii]
Working friendships bring complications. But healthy ministry requires community—a family serving God together. And friendships between men and women are part of the picture. Loving one another as siblings is not optional if we want to do God’s work God’s way—as a spiritual family of friends. If you are a male leader, how you view your sisters has a huge impact on the kind of ethos you create for sisters. It’s not just about your ideas on the role of women in ministry. It’s about whether or not you see women as sisters, precious and valuable as co-workers with you in ministry.
[ii] Dr. Michael Lawson, Chair and Senior Professor of Christian Education, Dallas Theological Seminary, from an interview on March 28, 2006.
This article is adapted from the authors' upcoming release Mixed Ministry: Working Together as Brothers and Sisters in an Oversexed Society (Kregel, 2008). Used by permission of the authors.
Sue Edwards, D.Min. (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Dallas Theological Seminary. Her heartbeat is to reinforce ministry partnerships between men and women, which strengthen church and parachurch organizations locally and worldwide. She has 30 years of experience in Christian education and Bible teaching, directing women’s ministry, retreat and conference speaking, training teams and teachers, overseeing staff, and writing curriculum. As former pastor to women at her local church she experienced healthy men and women partnerships on staff, and her passion is to pass on what she has learned. She is the author of New Doors in Ministry to Women and Women’s Retreats: A Creative Planning Guide. Married to David, she especially enjoys romping with their four grandchildren. Dr. Edwards’s research and teaching interests include women’s epistemologies and leadership styles.
Kelley Mathews, Th.M. (Dallas Theological Seminary), married and blessed with three young children, spends her spare time freelancing as a writer and editor. She served several years as the Women’s Ministry Director at Rowlett Bible Fellowship. Her two coauthored books are