Review: Together in Ministry

Together in Ministry, Rob Dixon (Foreword by Ruth Haley Barton). Downers Grove: IVP Academic/Missio Alliance, 2021.

Summary: A field research-based approach to mixed-gender ministry collaboration identifying ten attributes for healthy partnerships.

Rob Dixon is a field ministry director who works closely with a number of female ministry colleagues in a collegiate ministry (in the interest of full disclosure, we work with the same ministry in different parts of the country). I welcome this book because it models and articulates the conditions for healthy mixed gender collaborations in a time of so much relational brokenness, patriarchy, and abuse in the church. Rob casts of vision of what many of us are experiencing in male-female partnerships where no one has to step back but all of us are encouraging each other in the pursuit of God’s mission.

Dixon introduces this by discussing that this has always been God’s intent. He, as others, observes that the “helper” God gives Adam in the form of Eve is an ezer, and far from implying subordination is the term most often used of God as our helper, and God is hardly subordinate to us! It can be argued that the Samaritan woman is Jesus’s first partner in mission, even before the disciples in bearing witness and gathering her village to hear Jesus. And we see a pattern of prominent women who work alongside men in the New Testament. Dixon then lays out his research methodology, which consisted of quantitative measures, interviews with roughly 60 people using an appreciative inquiry approach, as well as participant observation.

Out of his research he identified ten attributes that he clustered in three clusters:

The Inner Life Cluster:

An Authentic learners posture. This involves a mutual commitment to humility, to extend grace, to submit to one another, and curiosity.

Shared Convictions of Gender Equality. This consists of a shared biblical interpretation, an understanding that the Bible advocates full and equal partnership, and that collaborators treat this as a matter of conviction rather than as a pragmatic value.

Awareness of Gender Brokenness. Partners in mission are growing in self-awareness including sexual brokenness, undervaluing of female colleagues, and gender bias.

Community Culture Cluster:

Vision for Freely Shared Power: Rather than the control of power by men, there is a reciprocity between men and women, each affirming and advocating the other, reflected in equitable sharing of responsibilities.

Differences for the Sake of Mission: A recognition that we are equal but different, and that difference ought to be deployed in ways that advance mission, but that individual differences should be appreciated apart from gender stereotypes.

Value for Holistic Friendships: Healthy partnerships involve presence in each other’s lives beyond ministry situations–with families and as part of a community.

Corporate Sensitivity to Adverse Gender Dynamics: Recognizing and intentionally addressing the social dynamics in organizations that often favor men, excluding, discounting, blocking or putting at career risk, the women in an organization.

Intentional Practices Cluster:

Abundant Communication: This involves both quantity and quality and also is enhanced by regular debriefs of conversations.

Contextualized Boundaries: This chapter discussed “The Billy Graham Rule,” how this has not worked, how women have been hurt, and developing boundaries that allow for honest conversations of what is wise for each rooted in self-knowledge, what is situationally wise and, rather than a rigid rule, an understanding of the contexts where men and women can work with good boundaries with each other.

Public Affirmation and Modeling: The importance of leaders modeling their commitments to partnerships, celebrating publicly the work of each other, and good examples, and deliberately assessing how well up-front and other forms of leadership are shared.

Dixon devotes a chapter to each of these attributes discussing research findings about the attribute, the attribute in scripture, benefits of the attribute, barriers to implementing the attribute, and practical steps to develop the attribute. I found Dixon’s identification of barriers and practical steps especially helpful. I thought the taxonomy of sixteen different adverse gender dynamics in organizations especially significant–I think I’ve seen all of them and been guilty of contributing to or benefiting from more than a few! If I were Dixon, I think I might have figured out a way to cover the material on contextualized boundaries earlier, since I think many who read this book are thinking about that. But it kept me reading (or I suppose I could have skipped ahead!). Each chapter concludes with questions that groups working on ministry together can use to process and begin to implement these attributes in their communities.

One other element of this work that I appreciated was the missional focus of the discussion. So often, ministry situations I’ve witnessed are turned in on each other and it is easy to see how ministry partnerships may turn unhealthy. Dixon’s premise is that we have a mission given us by Christ in the world that is “all hands,” requiring the hands of men and women together. I so appreciate Dixon’s approach throughout, his own humility about mistakes, and the consistent effort to move from what is problematic in mixed-gender ministry to the opportunities for both people and ministries to flourish. We need more such voices and models.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.