How are the chairs arranged, when discipleship happens in your women’s ministry? Are the chairs arranged in Rows, facing a teacher at the front? Are the chairs gathered in Circles, where small groups of women gather? Or is there a single Chair, where a woman opens her Bible and hears from God directly? I’d like to argue that the Row, the Circle, and the Chair (this imagery is not original with me) are all essential for discipleship. 

I hope you agree with me that the Chair is essential. 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 noticed, which evolve in groups that have a Rows Only or Circles Only approach to serving their women. See if any of these ring true to 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!” The “Rows Only” type leadership has 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 tend to 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 set women loose to sit in circles. They also worry about not having leaders for these circles who are adequately equipped. So the Rows Only leaders err on the side of caution by keeping the chairs in rows, and only allowing carefully selected leaders 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 there 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 wrong about something.

The woman who attends a Rows Only group tends to share what she’s learning outside the church building, if 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 ones teaching the Bible. In a Rows Only group, the woman with the biggest questions tends to have the fewest opportunities to ask them. And if she doesn’t share 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!” The “Circles Only” type leadership longs has 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 and valued here. But sometimes they’re not really sure if all Bible passages are equally important. Nobody is quite sure who the teachers of the group are, and it feels right to challenge anyone who has a different opinion than you do—even if they’re pointing to a Bible verse as they share it. The thing that feels most wrong 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—or anything else. Questions are welcome; hardcore 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

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 so 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 in Bible Gateway on “teach” and “taught“. The Bible is literally full of examples of followers of God being taught by other follows 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.

Your women 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 do you need to arrange the chairs differently in your group or church, this coming season?


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