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No Woman Can Crack the Evangelical Bro Code
Why so many Christian institutions chew up and spit out talented female leaders.
Hello, Substack friends! It’s been three months since I last wrote here. Thanks for hanging on amid the silence. I was in Germany and Austria in late summer, then dove into a fall full of travel, speaking events, several new book manuscripts to edit, and a new season of the Saved by the City podcast. Truthfully, I do better in seasons with more structure and definable goals, so the busyness has been welcome, even if it has meant this space has been left unattended.
Due to recent travels, I’ve connected or reconnected in person with women who are in overlapping professional circles. And in our conversations, I’ve heard whispers of a familiar, tiring pattern of institutional displacement at the hands of male colleagues.
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The pattern goes something like this:
A woman takes a job at an evangelical institution (ministry, university, church) excited by its mission and ready to contribute her skills and expertise.
Within the first few years, and especially if she has or aspires to a leadership position, she meets overt or covert resistance from a male colleague or several colleagues.
Her job performance, Christian orthodoxy, soundness of mind, or institutional loyalty is called into question. These efforts are aimed at casting a shadow over her presence in the institution and slowly edging her out.
There’s some internal battle in which a top leader or board is roped in to determine next steps, often after a crisis. Perhaps everything is chalked up to a “personality conflict,” which obscures any bullying on the part of the man and any power imbalance at play. The leader or board feels caught between competing narratives, doesn’t want to lose talented employees, and has a mission to get on with.
Here’s the kicker, for the purposes of this essay: The top leader or leaders will usually take the side of the man. In the warp and woof of evangelical institutions, the woman has to go. This is especially true if the institution receives support from people outside of it who are raising Cain about her presence there.
In many evangelical institutions, women leaders are collateral for missional expediency and workplace culture and norms. At the end of the day, because of unspoken yet persistent beliefs about male spiritual authority and women’s circumscribed roles, it’s just easier for evangelical institutions to hire and retain men, specifically men who think and act like other top leaders.
It doesn’t matter how talented, credentialed, or solidly orthodox the woman is. She can hustle and strive for excellence, while casting her work as a team effort, so as not to seem careerist. She can defer to male leaders — even in areas of her own expertise — to show she’s not undermining their authority. She can dress appropriately feminine (she’s not trying to be a man, after all) without being sexy (she’s not that kind of woman, after all).
When things get hard, she can put her head down and tell herself it’s best and perhaps more Christian to stay in the institution and reform from within than to leave for her own well-being. God placed her here for a reason. Reforming from within often means carrying a lonely psychological and spiritual burden, while persistently ignoring one’s own gut and intuition, because how will this place ever change if not for her?
She can perform compliant femininity, as most women leaders have to do in moments to get the job done. But in evangelical institutions, in general, it will never be enough to undo the pattern I’ve described above. Talk to just a few women who have helped lead an evangelical institution, and I’m confident they’ll nod along in recognition at some of this pattern.
That’s because no one woman can crack the evangelical bro code.
What’s a Bro Code?
When I type into Google “Google, what’s a bro code?” I am immediately taken to an entry on Urban Dictionary:
Honored among bros, the obvious rules among bros, or guys in general.
#1 Sisters are off limits
#2 Exes are off limits
#3 If a guy is chasing a girl, let him have her
#4 Do not in any way, be that guy
#5 You always watch the game
Putting aside the philosophical questions raised by the distinction this entry draws between “bros” and “guys in general,” we surmise that the bro code is a collection of informal and unspoken rules about how male friends treat one another, especially in matters of dating. The term “bro code” is attributed to the lothario character Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) on the 2000s sitcom How I Met Your Mother. As such, outside the evangelical world, a lot of the bro code is about sex, and making sure your brahs have lots of it, in ways that treat sex like something men trick women into.
More generally, the bro code ensures that men look out for each other, and look out for each other before they look out for women. To quote frat boys of yore, “bros before hoes.” (According to my reputable sources on TikTok, the female equivalent of this is “besties before testes,” and the gender-neutral version, “mates before dates.”) At its best and least cringe-y, the bro code establishes long-term loyalty among male friends. The deep bonds of brotherhood once forged on the storied battlefield are now found on the golf course or at poker night or those places where you can pay money to throw axes at things.
And in a time when 1 in 7 men say they have no close friends, I want to pause for a moment and honor male friendship as such, including among men who work together. Camaraderie arises from navigating life in ways unique to being men, I’m sure. There are conversations I only have with my lady friends because they are ladies. So, men being friends is good, and men being friends in the office is good, in principle.
But when the bro code works its way into workplaces that are meant to be guided by excellence and fairness, those bonds of friendship can easily slide into favoritism, cronyism, and excusing bullying and/or boorish behavior that harms colleagues and sisters in Christ.
The Bro Code and Christianity Today
I’ve been thinking recently of the report that came out last year about two former Christianity Today employees who were credibly accused of sexual harassment. If you’ve followed my work over the years, you might know that one of them was my boss for nearly 10 years at CT.
The report details multiple instances of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments. Of course, I witnessed some of the behavior described in the report and wasn’t necessarily surprised by it, although the repeated pattern of it all continues to stun.
I keep thinking about one detail in it, something I wasn’t aware of while working at CT.
It involves the HR director and the two men credibly accused: [Edit: It involves the perception held by many women on staff that the HR director played golf with the credibly accused, even though he maintains he did not.]
The HR director, [Richard] Shields, was also associated with a group of senior men at the ministry who played golf, including [Mark] Galli, [Toks] Olawoye, and several others. A number of women said they decided not to report harassment because he seemed more likely to sympathize with men in leadership than young women making accusations.
The CT report details woefully inadequate HR policies related to harassment. It notes that several women filed complaints about Galli and Olawoye over the years and nothing happened. This left “many current and former employees with the impression there were no consequences for any misconduct short of a felony.”
The golf course story stands out to me, because it underscores how male friendship in the workplace creates loyalties that can disempower women in the face of harassment and sexist bullying. The bro-code rituals that establish friendship among male colleagues necessarily shape attitudes and policies at the workplace. What happens on the golf course doesn’t stay on the golf course. Not least because colleagues who aren’t on the golf course perceive there’s an in-group marked by gender. And because if your buddy on the golf course is kind of a creep on the job, you’ll find it hard to hold your buddy accountable in the latter place.
Men Are Assumed Breadwinners
To be clear, I include this story not to single out Shields. The failure to discipline Galli and Olawoye implicates a number of leaders who knew of the behavior and didn’t say anything, or did so in a light pastoral tone rather than in a formal, written way. Since I observed some of the troubling behavior, I wonder if I could have done more, besides warn female colleagues. But I think the reasons so many leaders at CT looked the other way encapsulate the evangelical bro code too.
If I had to pinpoint how the evangelical bro code works in Christian organizations, it’s this:
Men ensure that other men can provide for their families and enjoy meaningful work — even in cases of unprofessional behavior and lack of competency — because work is core to men’s identity. Men are called to work, and to leadership, in ways that draw loyalty among men to protect each other’s careers and reputations.
When I worked at CT, I heard my boss say that the organization wouldn’t let go of certain employees who weren’t performing the most basic tasks, because “he has a family to provide for.” What initially sounds like a nice ministry approach, like a Baptist Olive Garden (“when you’re here, you’re family!”), is actually discriminatory. It discriminates against women, who are assumed to not be the primary breadwinners. And it discriminates against single people, who are assumed not to be providing for family either. Men who are average or below-average at their jobs are protected in ways women and unmarried people who are excellent at their jobs are not.
Obviously the bro code is bad for women because it asks them to deal with sexual harassment on their own — such as through a whisper network, as at CT. But beyond the more obvious harm of harassment, it also asks women to tolerate men who are bad at their jobs. Or to tolerate men who are good at their jobs but are cyclically unprofessional, volatile, have poor interpersonal and/or regulatory skills, and make them feel like crap. And none of this is good for Christian institutions or the church. One, because it often means that unqualified men lead those institutions in unhealthy or unwise ways, setting a low standard for others’ conduct and expectations. Two, because Christian institutions are to be places where all people are ensured dignity, fairness, and physical and emotional safety, and where bro codes are superseded by kingdom codes. If your Christian institution is functionally an old-boy network, there’s probably not much discernibly Christian about it.
The Game Is Rigged
I don’t want to discourage any women from applying their gifts and expertise in ministry. I know women leaders who would say they were supported in their work, among male colleagues, in evangelical institutions. But I also have heard enough stories over the years to believe there’s something in the water at evangelical institutions — even those that claim to be egalitarian — that’s bad for women leaders. And no woman has to sacrifice her mental and spiritual well-being trying to win a game that’s rigged against them from the outset.
The evangelical bro code is driving talented women away from institutions that need them. It’s also offering a poor witness to a world that wonders if Christianity has essentially always been an old-boy network. Changing it from within isn’t on women. It’s on you, bro. —KB
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