Rows and Circles in Women’s Ministry: Why You Need Both

When you think of discipleship in your church, women’s ministry, or small group, how do you picture the chairs being arranged? Do you picture the chairs in rows, facing a teacher in the front? Do you picture the chairs in circles, where small groups of women gather? Or do you think of discipleship as a single chair, where a woman opens her Bible and hears from God directly? 

While you may have a particular answer in mind, I’d like to argue that the Row, the Circle, and the Chair (By the way, this imagery is not original with me.) are all essential elements of discipleship. 

I hope you agree that the Chair is essential, that every woman should be discipled by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. But I’ve noticed that many groups either emphasize the Row or the Circle—not both. As I’ve served in a handful of churches over the past two decades, and observed dozens of churches and groups as a visiting Bible teacher, I’ve noticed several patterns.

I’m definitely speaking in generalities, but here are some common traits that I’ve seen emerge in groups that have a “Rows Only” or “Circles Only” approach to serving their women. See if any of these ring true for you.

Rows Only (No Circles)

When a group or church sets up rows each week (but no circles), it sends the subtle message: Here is a place where truth is celebrated! Rows Only ministries tend to have a deep passion for the Bible and theology, and they long for women to know the truth. They feel deeply responsible for shaping the belief systems that their women hold, and their passion for truth and right living is commendable.

However, the leaders of Rows Only groups may also worry about letting go of control. (Read more about controlling women in leadership in my chapter on Miriam in Control Girl.) They’re concerned about what might be missed or how the conversation might evolve if they let women loose to sit in circles. They also worry about not having leaders who are adequately equipped for these circles. So the Rows Only leaders err on the side of caution by keeping the chairs in rows, only allowing carefully selected leaders to step onto the platform.

The women sitting in these Rows Only groups tend to catch on quickly to the idea that the way to become valued and accepted in this place is to know stuff. Rows Only women tend to know what books they should be reading and what catechisms they should be teaching their kids. And they especially know who the teachers in the group are, since they were just standing up front on the platform. In a Rows Only group or church, it feels wrong to challenge these honored women in leadership—even if you’re pretty sure they’re incorrect about something.

The woman who attends a Rows Only group tends to share what she’s learning outside the church building, if she shares it at all. And she’s reluctant to ask questions that challenge what is being taught. She tends to conform—not only to the teaching from the Bible, but also to the opinions of the women teaching the Bible. In a Rows Only group, the woman with the most questions tends to have the fewest opportunities to ask them. And if she doesn’t embrace the opinions being shared in the row, she slips out and doesn’t come back.

Circles Only (No Rows)

The churches and groups that set up circles (no rows) for the women each week silently communicate: This is a place where community is celebrated! Circles Only ministries usually have a deep passion for women to connect with each other and find a place to belong. Their passion for hospitality and shepherding is commendable.

Circles Only groups tend to be more open and trusting with leadership roles—especially since circles require more leaders. Their mindset is: the more circles and the more conversations, the better. Circles Only groups worry less about what is being discussed and who is leading and more about making sure there are open seats for newcomers who might want to join the conversation.

The women sitting in this Circles Only group quickly learn that all are equally welcome and valued here. But sometimes they’re not really sure if all Bible passages are equally valued. Nobody is quite sure who the teachers of the group are, and it feels right to challenge anyone who has a different opinion—even if they’re pointing to a Bible verse as they share it. But the thing that feels most awkward in a Circles Only group is to tell someone she’s wrong. So most people (the leader included) just don’t.

In a Circles Only church or group, there are plenty of opportunities to discuss what you’re learning about the Bible—and anything else. Questions are welcome; solid answers are harder to come by. The women of each circle often have completely different beliefs about what the Bible teaches, which can be confusing. If someone feels bothered or offended by something shared in the group, she just gets up and moves to a different circle—or a different Circles Only group.

Both Are Needed

If you haven’t guessed by now, my point is that both circles and rows are needed. You need rows in your women’s ministry! You need circles in your women’s ministry! Both are important for discipleship to happen.

Do you doubt this? Do you struggle to see why one or the other is necessary?

To the woman who feels content with a Circles Only approach, I invite you to do a quick search on Bible Gateway of the words “teach” and “taught.” The Bible is literally full of examples of followers of God being taught by other followers of God. Including rows is essential. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.

To the woman who feels content with a Rows Only approach, I invite you to do a search in Bible Gateway on “one another.” The Bible is also full of examples of followers gathering in community oriented circles. Including circles is essential. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.

The women in your ministry need to be taught the Bible in rows. They need to discuss what they’re learning in circles. And they need to know that you’re committed to both. How will you adjust the chair arrangements in your group or church this coming season?

Speaking of a new ministry season, have you begun to consider what books and studies you’ll use in your women’s ministry (or for your personal study) this year? Good news: Revive Our Hearts is here to help! Shop the Summer Bible Study Sale now through August 16 for deals on some of our best-selling studies and more! 

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