by Grace Al-Zoughbi
I am an Arab woman, a Palestinian (born and raised in Bethlehem), a Christian, and a Protestant with a heart not only for the Middle East but also for ecclesial diversity. My research on the role of Arab women in theological education has opened up a plethora of opportunities for me to be involved in regional theological education at multiple levels.
In October I participated in the Middle East Consultation (MEC) organised by ABTS. As I carefully studied the schedule for the three days I was impressed by its wide variety of speakers. I particularly appreciated that women participants from different spheres were among the list of speakers, a phenomenon not typical of most gatherings in the Middle East. The regional perspective I lent to the conversation was on the topic of Leadership Development and my contribution blended naturally with the other voices and perspectives.
My presentation, among other things, revolved around the role of mission in developing transparent and accountable leaders, the relationship between the theological institute and the church, and the significance of the role of women and their presence as leaders to help to develop the Arab church and society. Because the topic of women in leadership is a significantly under-researched field, it does not usually receive sufficient attention in the Middle East. Therefore, I will focus on this topic following a brief overview of the first points.
A Missional Vision for Leaders
As a Palestinian, I have observed the plight of refugees in my nation throughout the decades. However, I have also experienced the compassion of Palestinians from within the church who have served among Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan during the past decade. Given my background being geographically embedded in the context, I cannot overlook that the commission for global Missions was birthed in Jerusalem. Acts 1:8 demonstrates how God’s plan for the church is to be missional. Part of our identity as followers of Jesus is to take part in this mission. Christians in Palestine comprise less than 1% percent of the population. Within this remnant in Palestine everyone is called to be a leader, for ‘workers are few but the harvest is plentiful.’ Naturally, we may feel that resources are scarce in our region. However, it is imperative that we invest all that we are and all that we have in developing leadership for God’s Kingdom. Because one of the most pressing issues in the Middle East at this time is the crisis of the refugees, training transparent and accountable Christian leaders, both men and women, to minister into the dire needs of struggling, broken people is essential. Church leaders need to continue to train spiritual leaders to fill the gaps. One of these gaps in the Middle East is the severe lack of women leaders within the church and academy. This is not because there are not any women but because space has not been made for them to be servant-leaders.
Encompassing a Vision for Women Leaders
In examining the dynamics of leadership development, those currently in leadership ought to have a vision for encouraging women to examine their calling and look for ways they can serve in the church and theological education. It is part of God’s plan for women to be used as leaders within the Arab church and academy. The prophetic voice of Arab women should be included in the ultimate purposes of God for the Arab church.
My inquiring mind and heart for global missions lead me to look beyond the narrative I am embedded in as a Palestinian follower of Christ. Globally, there are a plethora of examples for academic gatherings for women. The Evangelical Women in Academia conference held through Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia is one of these. ETS Women (Members of the Evangelical Theological Society) is another. Logia is a third. The list could go on. Such gatherings are always challenging and stimulating given the academic caliber of women scholars and theologians and the presentations of the participants. Yet they never fail to leave me asking: Where are we in the Middle East when it comes to such networks? I dream of establishing a theological network for Arab women in the MENA, where we can discuss theology, write articles, publish books, deliver presentations not only about women in theology but about theology in general.
I often wonder to myself whether, in the Middle East, we need to borrow a model from the West to encourage the role of Arab women theologians and leaders – though I do acknowledge there is controversy around this topic in the West, too. It is inspiring to learn from a broader context, but we should never forget that theological education was birthed in the Middle East. Women should be considered for leadership in the MENA because a universal church with a missional paradigm cannot exclude more than 50% of its participants.
In my presentation for MEC 2021, one of my rhetorical questions was whether the church in the Middle East is intentional about “investing” in women leaders. As a woman myself, clearly, I cannot hide my subjectivity. However, because I am a researcher from within the context, an insider, it has been demonstrated to me through multiple conversations that I have had with Arab women that we have an indispensable and highly valuable voice. Historically, women were evangelists, deaconesses, prophetesses, authors. In the same way, current women in the church and academy can think contextually, write about theology, and teach creatively. Though sometimes women’s views differ from men’s, their views are equally important, vital, significant and greatly needed. Subsequently, this contribution has pointed to the pressing need for further conversations within the Arab context concerning the roles of women. It has pointed to the necessity for reflection from within.
There is a lack of encouragement in character formation within ecclesial contexts. How much more would this lack be apparent in forming women leaders, I muse. The history of the church does not lack for examples of women from the East and Eastern Christianity. Although these women have played a vital role in carrying the torch of theology and leadership throughout the centuries, they are seldom spoken about. This makes me question whether the church of today is less intentional in investing in women than in previous generations. Or is our overall impression that if there are women leaders, that would be fine, but if not, then that is just fine too?”
This blog post is pointing to the necessity of urgently creating a space for Arab women to be visibly and powerfully involved as servant-leaders in the church and the academy. If I were asked what the most important takeaway from the MEC consultation was, I would say it was the positive feedback following the presentation because I had highlighted the role of women. The words of affirmation indicate that there is more to what has been said and that new ground is being broken. If the church in an Arab nation like Lebanon -and the rest of the Middle East-is to rise out of the ashes, it will require strong, prophetic leadership which includes women. This will require male Christian leaders to make room in their theology and practice for missional, transparent, Christ-like, and Spirit-led women leaders. Personally, I have had positive experiences being encouraged by male teachers, colleagues, family members to be engaged in theological education, but I have also heard many men claim that it is easier and more worthwhile to theologically and academically invest in men than in women as women are primarily thought of as homemakers.
Although MEC was broadcast online, being physically in Lebanon at the time had strong implications for me. The golden sunshine -which I desperately miss in the UK- and the cool breeze that whispers through the cedars of Lebanon was so refreshing. It inspired me that the church should reflect such beauty in its dealings with women leaders. Brokenhearted for the plight of the Lebanese people, I was convinced that leadership who are welcoming to the presence of women will help to create a generation that will not give up hope easily. This narrative is suggesting that Arab Christian women in the Middle East have a voice, and they should (using the language of should) be given the platform to contribute through their thoughts, writings and humble service. I cannot stress enough that if we want to develop women leaders then we will have to demonstrate that there are role models who are currently serving in leadership positions, maintaining high moral standards consistent with true Christianity. I am inspired to think of the Middle East as a pioneer in theological education. In order to preserve this reputation and the heritage of the Early Church, the leadership within the church and academy ought to be proactive in their thinking and willing to take immediate corrective action.
Finally, as I proceed with my research and vision for the future, I have experienced that ‘with God all things are possible’. Therefore, it is possible that the red-lettered mural which I glimpsed as we drove by the decimated port of Beirut-“You have destroyed us and the future of our children”- will be transformed to voices of hope.
Lord, start in me and through me, I pray, and use my Arab sisters in the Middle East as forerunners of your truth and vision. The words in Isaiah resonate as if they were spoken for our own time, “who shall we send and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8). In Christ, may many Arab women courageously respond: “Lord, Here I am, send me!” so that we can bring about transformation in the Middle East.
Grace is active in regional theological schools and programs and is currently working on her PhD in Theological Education from the London School of Theology, London.