Axia Women has been active for two years now, I'm proud to say. Take a look at what we've been up to and what we're planning in our first annual report. (Sounds boring? Think again! We've got two great stories for you, and have tucked the numbers away at the end, though they tell a pretty good tale, too.)
Axia will be heading into strategic Board planning at the end of August. This reflective process comes at a critical time as our small board works to keep up with the trends and needs of Orthodox women. Our ever-increasing reach on FB and Instagram, as well as the requests we receive for individual and community support, advice, and prayer, tells us our network is important and vital to the health of our Church and its jurisdictions in the U.S.
This strategic planning process will take into consideration our reach and what we have learned from Orthodox women over the last two years. When our website launched in 2019, the Board added a short survey asking visitors to tell us a bit about who they are, what they think, and what they see in their parishes. To date, 67 individuals have participated and provided Axia with a window into how women experience parish life. In recognition of their contribution to our understanding, I thought I’d take a moment to share with you what they shared with us.
In so doing, it’s important to point out that the aggregate results that follow do not represent the fullness of what is going on across Orthodox parishes; it is not a declaration on women in the Church. We haven’t collected enough information for such grand statements. Nevertheless, it will constitute an important ingredient that will guide our work to ensure that all Orthodox women across jurisdictions can access Axia. These results help us develop benchmarks to monitor changes in attitudes and behaviors. And, what we learned will help us create more sophisticated survey instruments for the future.
So, with that said, this is what we know from the 67 respondents:
Axia is reaching lots of Orthodox Church in America members (50% of respondents come from that jurisdiction), followed by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (18%) and Antiochian Archdiocese (17%). There was representation from the Syriac, Macedonian, Serbian, Romanian, and Ukrainian traditions as well. This is good--but not good enough. Axia’s highest goal is thorough inter-jurisdictional reach. As our Board comes together, we will be taking a deep dive into how we communicate with these under-represented jurisdictions.
Axia’s survey has a good distribution geographically from across the US as well as age, with the majority of respondents falling in between 31 and 50. The majority of respondents come from parishes with 100-500 members. Seventy-one percent of respondents identified as women (and 11% women married to clergy). Interestingly 17% of the respondents were men. As we grow a network for Orthodox women, we must also remember our brothers in Christ and work together with them to build up women’s leadership roles in our parishes and beyond.
We asked several questions about parish life and found, overall, our respondents are optimistic about the increasing role that women are playing in parish life:
Over the last 5 years or so, we have clarified that there are not limitations to the involvement of women in the many ministries and roles in the life of the parish. Prior to this, there was a misconception among some parishioners that women could not participate in certain activities. Thus, we have encouraged greater involvement and this has been bearing good fruits.
Over 50% of the respondents said their parishes were supportive in affirming women to play an active part in parish life. They do so by not only serving, but also by leading in the choir, the chant stand, and parish councils and other administrative and liturgical roles:
Women are involved in every aspect in the life of our parish from Parish Council president, editing the newsletter, overseeing social media accounts and email for the church, church school, choir, handmaidens for girls, cleaning. I am responsible for sanitizing the communion spoons between recipients.
It has become much more common for women to read certain texts publicly in their parishes. 80% of the respondents tell us that women read texts like the Hours aloud. Far fewer read the epistle aloud at services: only half of the respondents noting that they are allowed to do so in their parish. A number of respondents expressed frustration around who receives the blessing and title of reader, not least because of the disconnect between roles and the ways roles are recognized (or not):
Women act as readers, but are not given the title of reader (although men are). Women readers are not allowed into the altar to receive the blessing before reading, although men are.
A quarter of respondents noted that women in their parishes are allowed to hold the communion cloth. Eight percent said their parish blesses women to go behind the altar if there is a need for them to do so. Only a handful of women preach; at least one of them has been asked to preach only in parishes outside her own.
Although Axia’s research questions focused on how women lead administratively and liturgically, that didn’t prevent our respondents from reminding us that women continue to serve in more traditional ways as well. Some are happy with this role; others want to expand the ways they can serve. Our respondents reminded us that women’s roles in their parishes largely continue to be defined in terms of cooking, baking, sewing, decorating, and cleaning. But our respondents also report that women serve the poor, conduct community outreach, and handle most of the administrative duties of a parish, which are roles that the diaconate once claimed for itself. They teach and lead Sunday schools; they fundraise so much that many of them are burned out. Women are the hospitality, community, and educational arm of their parish, again functions that used to belong to the diaconate.
Within this discussion of the many hours that women serve was an underlying frustration about how the Church relies on the unpaid labor women do in the church:
Our parish is happy for women to do as much unpaid work as they are willing to do, but--because they aren't paid--the priest and other council members have no qualms about making the work difficult. In other words, there's little sense that “the work is difficult, so let's find ways to make it easier, not harder.” There's also little sense of the value of women's work. For example, our prosphora-making team of three women baked 180 loaves of prosphora to prepare for a period during which we wouldn't have access to our industrial-sized kitchen. Our priest gave away 150 of those loaves as a favor to a local mission--without asking the team what that would mean for their plans. There's just a sense of entitlement to women's unpaid labor...
Paying for women’s labor isn’t necessarily the key to appreciation in a parish:
I wasn't really prepared for the fact that the decision to hire a woman in my role would be controversial. I do have a handful of allies who respect my professional background as an educator, and who seek my insights. But I'll admit it's been really lonely and frustrating to operate in a system that I believe is often sexist. I think what's most frustrating and hurtful to me is how some parishioners and staff have loads of patience for our Priest and lead cantor (both male) while they feel very free express their judgments and criticisms of my work, even when they have not taken the time to fully understand the nature of my goals and projects. In staff and parish council meetings, I spend loads of energy marketing myself and selling my ideas. Yet if a poorly articulated idea comes out of the mouth of a man (especially a member of "the old guard"), it's often accepted without question. At this point, I have been at the parish for two and a half years. Of course I cannot be entirely sure if the reason my ideas seem to be disproportionately dismissed is tied to gender, but I have reasons to believe it is. I am not the only woman whose remarks get steam-rolled in parish council meetings.
We did hear many cases of priests and male laity having trouble with women in leadership positions. As a result, our respondents say that they see women retreat from active church roles, even though many of them have found success and affirmation in their secular careers. Some even leave the Church. The comments were overwhelming with regards to this. Here I lift a few for consideration:
I think the biggest problem at this parish is an unconscious attitude from our priest towards strong women. And we have had no dean or bishop willing to consider even facilitating a conversation about it. I don’t think they see it or believe it. But I have watched many women leave and have nearly left several times myself. If we had options, I expect we would have left.
Women-only groups are most helpful in my parish, as they understand the issues that other women need support with. The men are virtually clueless when it comes to this. Culturally, it is a very sexist parish. When you mix men & women together, the men dominate & the women retreat. If the women do not organize themselves, they get no help from the parish at large, because all the major decisions are male-driven & made from a traditionally male perspective. Money is the bottom line. The church is run like a business, except for the efforts of our priest. Poor Father!
Sometimes our priest dismisses certain women’s concerns because we feel he views them as “hysterical women”. It’s very unfortunate.
Actually LISTEN to what women have to say. I don’t think the men on the parish council understand the women’s perspective, & so their voices often go unheard (unless they have a ‘surefire’ idea for raising money!).
Our diocese as a whole does not support women in leadership positions or women teaching, other than children’s groups. Women definitely still have a “place” and it is usually quiet and at the back
Another area of great frustration focused on girls in the parishes. While 32% of the respondents said that in their parish, girls serve a liturgical role in the main area of the Church, not one parish has girls serving in a liturgical role inside the altar or behind the icon screen. These quotes encapsulates the general feeling of respondents that Orthodox girls’ needs aren’t being adequately addressed:
I would like to see girls participate as "altar girls" and women should be allowed to serve IN the altar and not just as house cleaners. Also, when female infants are churched they should be taken into the altar area and around the Holy Table.
Support an even greater involvement of young girls liturgically - this would probably necessitate some conversation with the Bishop. It would be beneficial to reach out more directly to young girls who are transitioning from high school to college and who are trying to find a role in the life of the Church. It would be also good to expose our community in general, but younger women in particular, to "role models," women who have served the Church at local, national, and even international level. This could be very inspiring.
It’s the culture and institution that makes it most difficult for women, and girls, to fully participate in a liturgical life.
There are ways to incorporate girls (and women) into the liturgical life that some parishes are practicing successfully, but that other parishes may not know about. One of our tasks is to make these practices better known so that our girls can learn to be full participants in the lives of their parishes.
Several respondents noted that the best way to increase women’s participation and to recognize what many are already doing is to have greater conversations with the parish and with bishops.
“Our presbytera plays an active role in our community and so do a lot of older women who act as Eldresses helping give women and girls advice and guidance woman to woman and giving young guys and men a motherly guide to give the feminine perspective on things for guidance.
There is no overt bias - "no male or female in Christ" - but the Tradition is so male-centric in terms of worship, etc., it's not hard to see how some women may feel completely like 2nd class citizens. I have no answers since all such changes would have to be initiated and blessed by our Bishop . . . a good man but very conservative in such matters.
While these sentiments are latent with sadness and frustration, respondents clearly want to keep working with their parishes and the institutional Church as they offered up ways to address this culture by formalizing women’s ministries:
Allow women to become Deaconesses - allow them to read the epistle and hold the communion cloth during serving. Allowing them to serve as ushers. LISTEN proactively to get a real sense of what women are thinking and feeling about their role in parish life.
I think it would be good if our handmaidens could go into the sanctuary during services. Actively support the reestablishment of female deacons.
One of the things that Axia is working on is communicating the fulness of the kinds of roles that ARE open to women that many parishes, priests, and bishops may not be aware of, that could alleviate some of the frustration that women and girls can feel at the disconnect between what they are capable of and what their parishes limit them to doing.
The Axia Board has much to sort through at our August board meeting. I believe this person summed up the general sentiments of those who participated in this survey with this comment:
I love my parish, but I think as an institution it has a long way to go in supporting women.
We know that there are parishes out there that have learned how to support their women in girls to become full participants in the life of their churches, while others are still struggling to do so. We see it as part of our ministry to help connect the dots, so that parishes can learn from each other to succeed in meeting the pastoral needs of their entire congregation, and to support both women and men as women find their place in their parishes.
Mission and Program Accomplishments
Axia Women is the premier expert on Orthodox Christian women in the United States.
We are a network by, for, and about Orthodox women, in the service of Christ. It is a pan-Orthodox body, the first Orthodox women’s organization to span the Eastern and Oriental churches. Our seven board members come from six different jurisdictions. With this coalition, we prayerfully seek to manifest our values to the glory of God.
After conducting a first-of-its-kind survey of female leaders in the Church, we learned that one of the huge gaps for women serving at a high level in the church is a group that is by, for, and about them, that would give them space to connect with their peers within Eastern or Oriental churches, and to connect with their peers across the Eastern-Oriental divide. Therefore: Our vision is to be Orthodox Christian women dedicated to raising up one another’s gifts for our own salvation and the well-being of the whole Church.
Our accomplishments reflect our values.
Trust in the Holy Spirit
Axia holds regular prayer services led by Orthodox women for our community so that women can see themselves in services and feel more connected to the Church and God as we ask the Holy Spirit for guidance.
Axia hosts panel discussions of experts for Orthodox women to talk to each other about themes of interest and of topical importance. We publish Woman of the Week profiles of women from all jurisdictions, ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities, not only to recognize excellence, leadership, and diversity, but also to show other women and girls paths or ideas they might not have considered. Our Women of the Week profiles reach up to 50,000 viewers on Facebook and over 300 on Instagram. We held a paid panel discussion on Faith in the Workplace panel discussion that impacted over forty women. A live lecture on Invisible Leaders in the Orthodox Church reached several hundred people in Atlanta, Montreal, and New York City.
Speaking truthfully with grace in Christian love
We have sent one of our leaders to support women in spiritual court, and we are gathering information to advise women on what to do if they are called to appear at a spiritual court. We have a robust social media presence: our blog highlights women speaking authoritatively on spiritual, pastoral, and practical matters (reaching an audience of up to 4,365 through FB and IG). Our Woman of the Week series features women writing in their own voices about their expertise and their lives (reaching up to 50,000 on FB and over 300 on IG).
Service to enhance the life of the Church
We have so far led five online readings of the Canon of Racial Reconciliation (reached up to 1,446 on FB). We host free online fellowship gatherings. We are offering a grief workshop by a leading chaplain.
We keep hearing that--because we can’t be ordained--we can’t be leaders in the Church. We are changing that narrative. How? As seen above, we are showcasing the profound impact that woman already have in diverse areas of the Church’s life, in all our jurisdictions. First, through our Woman of the Week series. We are giving female thought-leaders platforms to share ideas and expertise. We are uncovering the kinds of roles women can and do play within the Church’s corporate prayer life, including leadership of reader’s services. And we have provided a blog where we can apply Orthodox spirituality and theology to the real situations we face every day, even in these times of great unrest.
These are some of the ways we are building an interjurisdictional community by, for, and about Orthodox women for the uplifting of our whole Church.
Patricia Fann Bouteneff is Axia Women's founder.