Louis B. Weeks: Women’s circles and bonding social capital

Women’s circles are the quintessential generators of bonding capital.

As I have participated in congregations through the years, I have stayed pretty far away from the women’s circles. My practical theology professor in seminary said, “They are there before you come and after you leave. They can do you in.” Those were the old days of essentially single sex theological education. Come to think of it, I was not really invited to attend a circle in those churches either!

I also discounted their existence on the argument that they were “extractionist” enterprises, draining energy that could have been used in seeking equal engagement with men in ministry to the wider world.

But maybe that was all just flat out wrong.

I just came from teaching a circle in our congregation, the third I have taught in the last three months. Seven women were studying the Revelation of John. Our lesson focused on Chapter 12, in which a woman gives birth to a royal son, a dragon seeks to devour the child, and angels fight in heaven (Guess who wins?).

I led them in thinking about John’s audience at the turn of the first century of Christian discipleship. We discussed Christians currently under siege in Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere. We talked together about those dispossessed who hear the Gospel and live in hope of Satan being overthrown on earth. We thought together about women giving birth as a universal symbol for hope and generative life. We debated the power of testimony (the weapon of believers in spiritual warfare, according to the text) and the wisdom of telling people about our faith.

I enjoyed the hour of conversation and the prayer times with which we began and ended. I did not mind that few of the participants had come prepared by reading the lesson or bringing a Bible to read the verses for themselves. One of the other circles gathered “least coins” and an offering for the annual project -- a children’s home in another part of the state.

All three occasions involved eating. Two took place before lunches were served, and the third led to a sumptuous dessert. Each time I pondered the gathering of “least coins” and modest offerings of $1 and $5 bills in contrast to the bountiful food and the elegant surroundings. These offerings support impoverished women in newer churches throughout the world.

As I studied the history of Presbyterian Women of the Church and their counterparts in other denominations, I came to appreciate their existence. Several times circles and women’s organizations in congregations took up collections for foreign missions and bailed out the Southern Presbyterians at crucial junctures in our history.

I found similar records elsewhere in Protestant mainline churches. Women’s organizations comprised the core of support for Church Women United, an umbrella organization that pioneered in integration and other progressive causes. Many congregations turned to the women’s organizations for reconciliation in times of conflict.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue that social capital comes in two varieties -- “bonding social capital” and “bridging social capital.” Bonding social capital occurs within groups of like-minded Christians (and other such groups). Bridging capital occurs between and among different kinds of groups. Both are necessary, and both are best built by religious organizations. Women’s circles in a congregation are the quintessential generators of bonding capital -- better than choirs and Sunday School classes, more durable than preachers and their admirers.

I have come to realize some of what women’s circles can teach me. They seem to thrive on collaborative leadership, a much “flatter” pattern of organization than most other church groups. They “stay with the wounded,” in the fine expression of Browne Barr some years ago -- praying for those who are sick, grieving, and lonely. In each circle I visited, at least one infirm woman with a walker attended and joined in. Everyone was welcome. 

So what do you think of women’s circles in congregations?

Louis Weeks is president emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and author, most recently, of "To Be a Presbyterian" (Geneva).