Sophie De Witt has been involved in various aspects of women’s ministry for almost 20 years, and is the author of Compared To Her and One-to-One: A Discipleship Handbook. Married to Chris, who pastors Hope Central Church in Pinelands, and mom to Molly, Zach and JoJo, Sophie spoke at the Come Away Women in Ministry conference on her experience of women’s ministry both in the UK and in Cape Town. Here’s what she had to say…
Can you tell us a bit about your background in women’s ministry and where you are at present?
At 24, when I was working in London and helping out on the student team at All Souls Church, I was encouraged to go and do a one year Bible teaching training course (Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course in London). After completing the course and learning how much I really didn’t know about the Bible, I had the privilege of joining the staff team of St Helen’s church, Bishopsgate, in London as a full-time student worker. I was in that role for just over six years before moving to Cape Town with my husband Chris, for him to train to be a Pastor at George Whitfield Theological College.
Whilst Chris studied for his degree, I did three years of part-time study, as well as training and discipleship ministry. Our student placement for the three years was St James Church, Kenilworth, a large church where we were involved in training small group Bible study leaders. Since then, over the past nearly 12 years, I’ve been a pastor’s wife, now with three children, and involved in smaller churches. First at The Message in Mowbray, where I tried (probably not as diligently as was needed) a variety of approaches to women’s ministry, some which were fruitful and some which were less so.
And now at Hope Central Church in Pinelands which The Message helped us to plant three and a half years ago. We’re still very small, with just under 40 adults, and so women’s ministry looks rather different in such an intimate setting I think.
2Having seen other contexts, can you share one or two of the major differences you have noticed between here and the UK, in terms of women’s ministry?
I have to say I don’t feel adequately ‘qualified’ in any way to give a truly helpful response to that question and especially one that doesn’t potentially dishonour sections of the evangelical church in this country about which I am simply un or ill-informed. All I can do is give a very general impression from my somewhat limited observations and conversations I’ve had over the years regarding this subject.
With those caveats in mind, probably the biggest difference that I’ve noticed relates to the value placed on women being trained and equipped within their churches to handle the word correctly and be able to teach it to others.
In the UK over the last 30-40 years, a combination of a huge number of summer camp ministries, the Cornhill Training Course (now in various locations around the country) and also churches’ own apprenticeship schemes, have produced an army of women, equipped to handle and teach the Bible, to disciple other women and keen to be put to work in the local church.
From around the late 80s it seems that a handful of influential evangelical ministers/ministries started employing such women full-time and I think word just spread about how fruitful their ministry was, and how valuable it was for the minister and male staff who couldn’t – and probably shouldn’t – get to know and encourage all the women in their congregation. As a result, the demand and supply for women’s ministers steadily increased together. Only a very small percentage of these women completed three years of theological college, but those who did were also great advocates for all women getting trained, equipped and deployed as they were often given a platform at ministry conferences and so on.
Here in Cape Town, I have seen there is enthusiasm for women’s ministry but, in general, the shape of it has looked quite different. My impression is that only a relatively small percentage go and get theologically trained. It would be great if more felt called in that direction (although I’m not always sure that a full three year theological degree is needed … but that’s a debate for another time). And then on the church side, it seems that there is less impetus for trained women to be employed or even strategically deployed in churches.
Lower employment rates for women’s workers might be down to the fact that there are rarely the finances for it, even in bigger churches. I don’t know why. It may be a general lack of available funds, or church leaders not sufficiently valuing having a women’s worker on their staff, or a lack of congregation response to appeals for funds for such a post, or a combination of these.
I think churches in South Africa (with Cape Town being my frame of reference) tend to remain focussed on having the Bible taught to everyone by a few ‘experts’ and then perhaps discussed in small groups and, historically, there hasn’t been the same movement towards women being plugged into 121s or being intentionally trained up as small group Bible study leaders. Whereas my impression is that evangelical churches in the UK have sought over the past few decades, to train and deploy many more Bible teachers – both men and women – at every different level of church life except for the pastoral and teaching oversight of the flock, which is generally acknowledged as a role for men only from scripture.
But there’s certainly no less of love and genuine, sacrificial pastoral care of women in evangelical South African churches; rather just a bit of a gap in the area of training and deploying compared to the UK context.
So it’s been so encouraging to see the problem of this dearth in women Bible teachers who can train up other women, more directly addressed over recent years in various ways. I know there has been more 121 training going on in many churches around Cape Town, and there are more apprenticeships including women, also Hope Training Course (led by my husband and a couple of other Ministers!), and the wonderful ministry of Come Away – to name just a few specific training ministries now available to women.
What would you say is the best next step for women to implement a discipleship ministry?
Well, that is something I’m very much wrestling through in my own context at the moment and feeling like I’m failing to be honest. This is partly due to my time and energy limitations for the season I’m in and commitments I have, but realistically, also due to the reality of other women’s time and capacity limitations.
But generally I think the best thing we can do is to be promoting the full spectrum of one-to-one discipleship – from the more spontaneous and informal conversations that seek to minister the powerful word of God to one another, right the way through to planned, regular, focussed times of Bible study, training and prayer together. We need an army of women who are motivated and equipped to be intentional about the encouragement, edification, correction, admonishment, and training of each woman in the church one way or another.
And what of women’s speaking events?
Speaking events definitely have their place on the ‘Women’s Ministry Calendar’! They are great for gathering all the women together for teaching, encouragement and networking, and probably especially useful for bringing outsiders in to experience a slice of church community and hear the word shared with them in a relevant, accessible way.
But when it comes to a regular diet of Bible teaching, I think we probably have enough of congregational-style teaching opportunities on offer to us with sermons and podcasts and conferences and so on. As I said before, I think what is really missing is the personalised nurturing of individuals in their faith to root and establish them in Christ for perseverance, fruitfulness and multiplication, and also the personalised sharing of the word with unbelievers also. I guess, though, for that to happen, extra training events can play an important catalytic role? But perhaps the aim of our events in women’s ministry should be to – so as to speak- teach the women how to fish rather than just give them nice fish on a plate each time!
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