Shepherding Hearts of Women
By Wendy N. Neilson
“Bev, do you ever see the church becoming a place where people understand pain like mine and express care to people in my situation?” came the heart-wrenching question from a friend. Beverly Hislop had heard this woman’s pain. And not only from this friend, but from so many like her many times before.
As a pastor’s wife, women’s ministry leader, and now Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care to Women in Portland, Oregon, Bev is compassionate and passionate about women and their pain and finding new ways to comfort them. It is at the heart of her vibrant ministry to women on a daily basis who come into her classroom at Western Seminary, and it is at the heart of her model for ministering to women detailed in her recent book, Shepherding a Woman’s Heart (Moody Press).
Bev’s office holds her floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall library. The titles on the shelf reveal she is not a book collector, but an avid reader. Her love of learning is evident. She admits she does not have all the answers, but she is a teachable teacher. In her book, Shepherding a Woman’s Heart, she says, “Often women fear they need all the answers before they can reach out with help. In actuality, women most often need a listening ear and an empathetic response…Only Jesus has all the answers and the power to heal. The shepherd’s role is to introduce the woman in pain to the Chief Shepherd!” And that’s what Bev has been doing as Founder and Director of Western Seminary’s Women’s Center for Ministry. Bev’s schedule is filled with personal appointments, teaching, writing, and lecturing across the country where she excitedly shares her expertise in ministering to women she has gleaned from nearly 30 years of experience. The Women’s Center for Ministry exists to “prepare and involve women in ministry.” Bev takes an active role in all of these activities.
JBU recently talked with Bev about her passion and heart for women, especially hurting women, and what it means to be a shepherd of women’s hearts.
JBU: How did God develop your heart for hurting women?
Bev: It’s strange that often at the time a seed is being planted, we might not realize, “Wow! A vision was just birthed here.” In hindsight, I see how a particular incident was the seed that sprouted as a concern, and developed into a burden and then passion to minister to women, especially hurting women.
I was a young mom with a new baby and a three-year-old toddler, and the only thing available for women at my church at the time was a get together to pray for missionaries. It was a great group of women, all of them older than me. All were serious about praying for missionaries. One particular morning, one of the women who had four teenagers raised her hand and said, “I wonder if there is anyway we could pray for some of our needs today, because I have some I really need prayer for.” The woman who was leading the group said, “You and your husband can pray for your needs at home; this prayer meeting is for missionaries.” I remember feeling like a knife had cut through my heart at that response. Afterwards, I sought out that hurting mom and prayed with her. My heart was so broken by what happened. I thought if the church doesn’t care for women when they’re hurting, where could they go? Where can women learn from a godly perspective about how to be godly women, mothers, and wives? Where can they go when they are in pain? Women need a loving shepherd - another woman who will come alongside them with understanding and compassion to shepherd them as Jesus would.
JBU: In your book Shepherding a Woman’s Heart, you tell a story of a woman married to a church leader who walked out on her after 20 years of marriage, in tremendous pain and with no support from the church. How can women in leadership become more sensitive to the pain of those around them?
Bev: I wish I could say that incidences of women in pain who are no longer attending church are rare, but they’re not. At Western Seminary, I teach two courses called “Women in Pain I and II.” Every school year, I hear students of all ages express similar stories. Women have often told me that the seminary classroom is the first place they could admit their source of hurt and feel accepted and understood.
I have found that once my students hear the story of a woman who has experienced the pain of abortion, divorce, or domestic abuse, for example, they begin to grow in compassion. Once students feel compassion, they open their hearts for an increased awareness of other women’s pain and an eagerness for helping those who feel it. This deeper understanding of pain then motivates students to acquire shepherding skills.
At the same time, a woman who has had the opportunity to share her own story of pain in a safe environment also grows in healing and compassion. A woman who has overcome intense hurt often feels an intense desire to help those with similar wounds.
JBU: Why do you think people can be so uncompassionate towards other women’s pain?
Bev: Sometimes in our desire to resist sin, we can miss seeing the real person behind a sin. Even when we know domestic violence is wrong, we can transfer our doubts about the ‘real story’ onto the victim. Then we find it hard to feel compassion or care for her. We are caught up in judging, wondering if she deserves our help. The very ones she had hoped would understand and offer her love, grace and help, only multiply the enormous pain and self doubt she already feels.
So often when looking at our Bible studies and women’s ministry programs, we wonder why hurting women don’t feel accepted or why they aren’t involved. Our beautifully-decorated Christmas luncheons and spring teas are not pulling them in. For some reason a connection is not being made.
JBU: What are the top three needs you see in women in ministry today?
Bev: While these aren’t necessarily in any order, I’ve found them to be: the need to understand the diverse needs of today’s woman, the need for skills to shepherd women in pain, and the need for leaders to receive training, resources, and networking.
JBU: So what can we do; how can we meet the needs of the hurting woman out there?
Bev: Just as a paramedic first looks at the source of the bleeding, we should focus first on the injury. A woman who is bleeding profusely cannot receive instruction on how she might have prevented the situation. What the woman needs is emergency care from someone who understands what is needed to stop the bleeding. Once the initial source of bleeding is discovered and addressed, then more long-term and even preventive instruction can be received.
Too often the body of Christ starts with the preventative instruction, then long-term directives. The woman is told to memorize Scripture or pray more. This is valuable and needful instruction, but it is not timely when a woman is bleeding emotionally. In essence women are told, “Just get over it! Stop the tears and move on. It isn’t that bad!”
Women need someone to be present with them in their pain. It is healthy for women to feel their pain and cry. Once a woman is given emotional CPR, she is carefully watched for stabilizing responses and treated accordingly. Our first concern in giving directives is for her emotional well-being. Once she is stabilized emotionally, she can think more clearly.
JBU: What does shepherding women in pain look like?
Bev: A shepherd focuses first on the emotional pain and how women process emotional pain. Then the attention is given to the issues that cause women pain. A shepherd knows that women in pain first need to feel the pain before they are ready to think about the next step in their lives. And a shepherd responds with compassion. She skillfully dispenses pastoral care that is timely and appropriate. Finally, effective shepherding continues to move toward the goal of bringing women in pain to a healthy place. The shepherd understands that this will take time and resources. She coaches the woman toward making decisions that lead to health and maturity, and knowing when to refer to professionals.
JBU: Do you ever see the church becoming a place where people understand pain and really care for women in pain?
Bev: Yes, I do. I think it will happen with a new model of ministering to women. The model identifies women who are available to come alongside women in pain. In Titus 2, Paul exhorts Titus to train the older men, the younger men, and the older women. But Paul directs the older women of the church to take charge of training the younger. My students were demonstrating that a woman inexperienced with a certain emotional wound could find great comfort and guidance from another woman who had experienced it. Paul’s instructions addressed exactly what is sometimes missing an empathetic friend and mentor hurting women can turn to.
Several years ago I began to envision a group of women who had experienced divorce, received grace and healing, and were available to help other women through this kind of pain, women who had felt the tremendous pain and could say, “I’ve been there, I want to help.” My desire was to see women who had been wounded, restored, trained and used by God to bring healing and hope to other women in similar pain! I began asking God what I could do in my “small corner of the world” to transfer this classroom concept into the church.
The first step was to uncover the hidden hurts that the women in our church were dealing with. We conducted an unusual survey. Beside a long list of emotionally painful issues, respondents could check either “need help” or “give help.” The results were surprising. We had no idea how many women were presently experiencing, or had in the past experienced, emotional trauma. Once we tallied the results, we decided to address the top five issues in the coming year. Then we issued a general invitation, while also hand-selecting women to take part in a training seminar. We personally invited women we saw as potential shepherds ¾ women who had experienced intense emotional pain, who had been restored to emotional health, and who were willing to help others with similar pain.
A new model of women’s ministry focuses on shepherds of women as central to providing truly effective ministry to the broad scope of the needs of women. Ezekiel 34 defines four kinds of sheep, of which only one were being shepherded: feed the healthy, strengthen the young, bind up the injured, and care for the lost. How many of these people groups are our women’s ministries addressing? The focus needs to be on the women, not programs or events. Bible studies and events certainly are part of the model, but only as their purpose clearly ministers to a defined group of women. The purpose of each group is to lead women to the Living Water, Jesus Christ. But some women can only receive sips of water from a teaspoon. In our eagerness to feed women, we sometimes use a fire hose.
JBU: As women ministering to women, how can we begin to really shepherd the women around us?
Bev: We need to start by reaching out to women in pain with compassion and understanding, and shift our focus. Perhaps the next time a broken women comes across our church door or ministry, she will feel the compassion, understanding, and skillful shepherding that Jesus would have given to her. The question we need to ask is, “Are we willing to be part of God’s provision in the life of a woman in pain by shepherding her heart?” It’s my dream that the church will become this kind of place. And I believe it is beginning to happen!