Although women are not ordained in the Orthodox Church, many of them are hearkening to God's call to serve - as chaplains, scholars, diplomats, mothers, teachers, leaders of parish boards and ministries, and in many other roles. Dr. Patricia Fann Bouteneff, founder of Axia Women, shares in this episode what they are learning about parish support of women across the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions. Recalling the Myrrh Bearing Women, they strive to care for the body of Christ and receive and proclaim the Good News of Christ's Resurrection. Learn more about Axia Women at https://www.axiawomen.org/
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast at the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm thrilled to be interviewing Dr. Patricia Fann Bouteneff, founder of Axia Women, an organization of Orthodox Christian women "dedicated to raising up one another's gifts for our own salvation and the well being of the whole church." Through her own consultancy business, Aphaia Resources, Patricia helps executives and entrepreneurs with their written verbal, digital and social media communications. She drives culture and change through content creation, communication, strategy and leadership coaching. She practices a servant leadership management style that allows every voice to be heard and overcomes political or cultural roadblocks creatively and collegially. Welcome, Patricia, thanks so much for joining me today.
Patricia Bouteneff 1:02
Thank you for having me. It's really good to be here with you. So tell us a little bit about Axia Woman Patricia, how did this organization come into being? What gaps were being noticed and what conversations inspired this work? I'm glad you ask. Several years ago, there was a student at St. Vladimir's Seminary, we live quite close and my husband teaches there. Anyway, she reached out to me to ask me if I could suggest the names of any Orthodox Women leaders for a paper that she was writing. So I started compiling the names of everyone I could think of, you know, one thing leads to another and you go down these internet rabbit holes and you start talking to people. I ended up with about 20 single spaced pages of names of women who are currently doing good work for the church, and I kind of kept on going. But in reality, I just got tired of typing. And so I just stopped. Ironically, the student when I went back to her, I said, "Okay, here I've got these names for you." She said, "Oh! Oh, no. I can't use these. I was thinking of empresses, saints, you know, back in the past." But compiling the list, I always think this was a godsend, because in compiling the list, I started to think, how did all these women end up in these leadership positions? I mean, I'm also one of those people who don't think of women as leaders in the church at all. People tend not to think of women as being leaders in the church because they aren't ordained. But the truth is that we are leading in all sorts of areas that don't demand ordination. We're working in pastoral care. We're working in chaplaincy and other ministries. Women are working as church diplomats working as administrative heads, advisors and jurisdictional committees and commissions. We're founding monasteries. We're running monasteries! We're acting as trustees and directors of Orthodox institutions. We're heading or otherwise participating in parish councils. There are women who are the chief financial officers and treasures of Orthodox organizations. And I think we know how important that job is, you can't succeed without it, right? Women are leading choirs. We're acting as thought leaders, as professors as authors, gaining credentials at our seminaries and becoming theologians. Women are founding parishes and other institutions. We're also working to hold bad actors to account within the church as whistleblowers. I'm sure I've left out quite a few more roles. But you know, you get the general idea. In fact, actually, Hollie, I haven't even included executive directors in that list. You know, as an executive director of Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, you also qualify as a leader within the church. I mean, there's a lot of women serving Christ, and a lot of different ways. And there's still so much work to be done. Right? It's unending. So, you know, I got curious about the way that one ended up in these positions. To answer the question of how they ended up doing what they do. I turn to Jennifer Nahas. She's a program evaluator with deep skills and creating and running surveys. She's also Orthodox; she's in the Antiochian Archdiocese. So we designed a survey, using recognized best practices, and found funding from Fordham's Orthodox Christian Studies Center. And we pushed it out to over 400 of the women that were on my list, as well as every seminary graduate from an accredited institution that we could find. So we ended up with a 48% response rate, which is pretty high. Well, if you think about it, these woman who are in the church, they're passionate about the church, they love the church. And the ones who responded, were really telling important stories, and we learned a lot from them. And I can't go into everything that we learned. I could talk three days about everything that we learned from that survey. But one of the things that so many of the woman said was that we need a network, we need a way to connect with one another. So many of the women who are leading feel very isolated, and just need some sort of support and to reach out to people and to learn from because a lot of them are breaking ground. That was our impetus. It wasn't our idea necessarily. Actually it wasn't our idea - we just saw the need and thought, well, they want it, why can't we? We should. You ask if we had any conversations with people to get off the ground? Yes, we did. Absolutely. Because I don't know how to start a nonprofit. I don't how to start a network. We had invaluable conversations, especially with the last remaining board members of an organization that had done astounding work in the especially the 80s and the 90s. It's called WOMEN, Women's Orthodox Ministries and Education Network, especially Dia Ake, and Teva Regule. Dia is more or less retired now. But Teva is still very much on the scene and doing outstanding work. Anyway, they gave us invaluable pointers about where to start, who to talk to, what the step by step process might be. We knew that we wanted our organization to be as diverse as possible, because the most diverse organizations tend to be the most successful ultimately. And we also knew that however diverse we became, we'd still have a lot in common as Orthodox woman, and that we've learned a lot. And both of those things has turned out to be very, very true. That has been a real joy. So that's our story.
Hollie Benton 6:19
Wonderful. And Patricia, you suggested, we refer to the reading of Christ's resurrection from Matthew 28 to ground our conversation today. I'm happy to read that now. "But the angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, I know that you're looking for Jesus who was crucified, he is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come see the place where he lay, then go quickly and tells disciples, He has been raised from the dead. And indeed, he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him. This is my message for you.' So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples, suddenly, Jesus met them and said, 'Greetings.' And they came to him, took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There, they will see me.'"
Patricia Bouteneff 7:14
Thank you. It's lovely to hear. We often post icons from the myrrh bearing women on our site, because we find them astonishing, just astonishing. I always think about it, after everybody else have fled in fear and grief, because they've just seen Jesus who they love above anyone else. He's crucified, he's dead. They're in shock. So they flee. So these women, they decide to try to do the impossible, they want to tend to Christ body, right? And how are they going to do that? There's a massive stone, that they have no hope of shifting on their own, it's sitting in front of the entrance to the tomb, and they know that none of their friends are going to be there that they can ask for help. And they certainly can't ask the soldiers who are going to be there. But you can imagine them coming together and giving each other courage and hope and some kind of fortitude. You know, they knew somebody had to do something. And they knew that he hadn't had the full burial rites that he should have. They go to the tomb, even though he's been completely disgraced in the eyes of the Romans, and the eyes of the Jews, and the eyes of the whole known world, you know, but they come because he loves them. You know, he taught them and he did miracles for them. Virtually every woman that showed up as a myrrhbearer had some sort of major miracle done for her. So they knew that not everything had been done to him, but like his funeral rites were incomplete. And they knew that his body was going to stink because it had been more than eight hours, right? They came, even though they knew that this was going to make them ritually unclean, you know, having contact with with his dead body. But because they did this, because they stepped out in their fear and their humility, they were the ones who discovered the resurrection. And they were the first to hear the good news. Can you imagine? And then when the angel commissions them to spread the word to others, that they become these apostles to the apostles. You know, I just I think of them. I always hope that we can support each other in loving Christ and serving him past logic the way these women did. You know, who knows where all this will lead? That's why this passage.
Hollie Benton 9:16
Axia Women is really doing an amazing job of inspiring its women to attend to Christ's body, despite the fear. Pulling together Orthodox Christians from both the Oriental and the Eastern traditions, Coptic, Malankara, as well as Greek, Antiochian, Russian and numerous other jurisdictions. In so many other contexts, we tend to operate in silos and really distinguish our differences. But what is it, do you think, that draws Orthodox Christian women together in this mission and service to Christ's body through Axia women?
Patricia Bouteneff 9:50
It's actually surprisingly simple. A lot of women love the church. They love Christ. They love the church and a big proportion of them really want to serve Christ through the church in ways that will help them live out their calling, whatever that might be. And I'm not talking about callings that necessarily lead to ordination, right? You can have a calling. I know everyone doesn't agree with me on this, but you can have a calling that does not involve ordination, that's when people become doctors. You know, many doctors feel like they have a calling. So there's a large population of women and also girls, especially teen girls who really want to serve the church, they want to make a difference to the church. But they aren't shown ways to do that. At Axia, because of the surveys and other work that we've done, we at least know and can articulate, and also raise up and celebrate the many paths to service that exist. That's one of the main things that draws women to us, but also quite a few men, surprisingly, you know, laymen particularly. I mean, we haven't done a lot of work - we didn't survey Orthodox men - that's something I would love to do. Right now, all our energies and funds are directed towards this, but if I ever get the chance, if anybody wants to fund, you know, a survey of Orthodox men along the same lines of lay men, I would love to undertake that. But anyhow, that's another subject. But the people that are drawn to us really respond to the joy of recognizing and celebrating the kinds of things that women do that don't get noticed, necessarily. And part of the reason they don't get noticed is, you know, if you met any of us, or any of our women of the week, actually, at coffee, hour after liturgy, when we can do that, again, you'd probably just think I was another commuter, or maybe stay at home mom or a retired person, because the majority of them don't talk a lot in church circles about the various things that they're doing. But believe me, they're doing it and they're amazing. And we really like to make their voices heard. You know, we love watching people share our joy. It's a lovely thing.
Hollie Benton 11:56
Yeah, I was noticing on your website, axiawomen.org, a survey entitled, "How does your parish support its women?" So I'm really interested to hear what you're learning. What is working well, and where are the common areas where parishes are falling short, with respect to ministering to women, and developing them as parish leaders.
Patricia Bouteneff 12:17
I'm glad you asked me, that's obviously a subject that's dear to our hearts. And that survey on our website has really added what we learned from our original survey. From what we're seeing, it seems like leadership positions within parishes have expanded greatly. Over the last generations or so. It's become very common to have women parish presidents, women treasurers, and women leading education initiatives, leading youth outreach, creating programs that engage young people and other adults all the time working closely with their priests and deacons, wherever they may have them. We're also seeing, I think this is fairly new, I'm talking like, in the last 20 years or so that there are consistent programs that allow teens you know, both boys and girls to take active roles in the liturgy, so that their attendance and engagement in the parish remains steady. When you have those kind of programs, it makes a huge difference to those young people. And even though that's an age when many young people drop out of church-going. The other thing that's been happening, which has been lovely to see is an increasing number of women in the Oriental Churches. This has less to do with the parishes than with participation and dioceses and jurisdictions, is an increasing number of women in the Oriental Churches: Armenian, Coptic, and both of the Malankara churches that are getting higher degrees in theology, and just how much their bishops want to make use of their learning. Yeah, they really seize the opportunity that these women present for their people. And that's been really beautiful to see. I can't say that that's a trend that we see so much of in the eastern churches. And I don't know, I couldn't articulate to the cultural reasons for that as well. We're still sort of trying to figure that out. But those are the two trends. I mean, we are seeing more and more women in the eastern churches get their MDiv, and even their doctorates. So we can learn from our oriental brothers and sisters that way. So that's what's been going well, I think. What's not working so well. . . . this is really consistent across everything that we're learning, is that the support for women's initiatives, initiatives led by women, and this could also be the case for any lay persons initiative, you know, again, because I didn't survey men, I can't say for sure . . . is that support among clergy and hierarchy - it's whimsical. And what I mean by that is if you've set up a program or an initiative, and if a new priest arrives, he can just cancel whatever it is you were doing. Doesn't matter how long it's been going on. It doesn't matter how much success that you've been having. The same thing can happen if there's a new Bishop, or even if you have the same clergy or Bishop in place. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to complain to him about some aspect of what you're doing, and permission to do that project can just evaporate overnight. And this is a story that we hear over and over and over again. And it's one of the most demoralizing things that can happen to somebody who's been working really hard, and respectfully, to make a difference within a parish. The next part of that is there's usually no recourse in these situations, so far as I've heard. That's probably one of the things that I would love to see change. I don't know what can be done about it. But anyway, that's what we're seeing. So that's the outline of the good and the not so good.
Hollie Benton 15:40
Yeah, interesting. Part of Axia Women's mission is to advocate for increasing women's leadership in the church, maybe to reduce that whimsical nature that we're seeing? You likely deal with many concerns in this area, since the church does not ordain women as priests. So what is the focus of your advocacy?
Patricia Bouteneff 15:59
That's another good question. I mean, let's just keep in mind that Axia, and one of the reasons we're called Axia, it's not something that you say about yourself, that's the same thing for the word Axios. Right? We say it about each other. We're here to advocate for the person who is worthy of being heard, but who's not being heard. We don't think you should need to be ordained to have your work within the church recognized, or your voice recognized, or your leadership recognized. We're also not advocating this recognition for the glory of Orthodox women. We simply believe wholeheartedly, that the body of Christ benefits when all of its members flourish, and reach their full potential within it. We recognize that Orthodox women are called all sorts of roles, and believe that they should be able to live out their callings. And our Woman of the Week series shows the wide variety of ways that women are found to do that. And none of us are ordained, obviously. In all truth, we already know women who are living out the role of deaconess within our parishes, they just don't have the formal recognition by ordination through the church. Someday the church will catch up with that reality, who knows if it'll be during our lifetimes, but the work gets done. Again, it doesn't necessarily get recognized. So, you know, we see our work as advocating for the recognition of women's lay leadership. We think that that's very important - women's leadership within the church - and basically, for women, and diverse voices generally, to have places at the table, wherever decisions are being made that affect us. It's a mantra, again, I'll go back to those. I spent a good deal of time working in the corporate world. And it's a mantra within corporate circles, that the most successful companies, the most successful boards are the ones that genuinely embrace diversity. I mean, why wouldn't we want the church to have all the tools at its disposal to be as successful as possible. The more the church can find the ways to embrace the true diversity, and we have huge diversity within our dioceses and jurisdictions, in a way that most of the Protestant churches don't have, the healthier that we are going to be. And the better we are all going to be able to serve Christ and to bring us all into a healthy relationship with them. I mean, don't we all want that? That's what we really want to see, above all.
Hollie Benton 18:27
How do you navigate this area? How do you navigate the teaching of the gospel? For example, St. john the Baptist says, "I must decrease so that He might increase." And also we hear it from the Apostle Paul and Galatians, "There's neither Jew nor Greek, there's neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus." So how do you advocate for increasing women's leadership? Yet hold that teaching that it's not about being a woman?
Patricia Bouteneff 19:00
Absolutely. No, it's not about being woman. I think it's about women being recognized as fully human. If we learn to treat women, the way Christ treated women, if everybody within the church looked at women, the way Christ looked at women, and maybe even take the myrrh bearing women, I mean, the men who can blame them, they ran away. You can't blame them, it was a terrifying situation. They could have found themselves killed or crucified at the same time. And the women possibly didn't face the same danger, but they can't have been sure of that. Women can serve Christ very fully. He knew that, he respected that. The one person who understood that he was going to his death was Mary of Bethany, and she took steps to anoint him in advance of that. Nobody else truly understood him. And he said of her in a way that he didn't say of anybody else. She will be remembered for this wherever my story is told. It's not saying that women have to be recognized as anything. Christ didn't recognize women as being better than men. He recognized them as being people with wholly valuable contributions to make to him and his ministry.
Hollie Benton 20:09
In many ways, I see him using the outsiders, the others of the community, the ones without power. He recognizes and uses them to teach his point in many ways. And so he's signaling to others that the lame and the blind and the deaf and the women and the adulterous and all of those are able, if they have ears to hear, receive the gift of salvation and mercy through that teaching. Wonderful. So please tell our listeners what they can do to learn more about Axia Women and how they might get involved. And it sounds like there's laymen involved in this as well.
Patricia Bouteneff 20:44
We have followers that include laymen. Actually, we have followers who are priests, actually, and bishops. But I would say, first of all, check out our website, axiawomen.org. There's a number of things that they can do there, they can learn more about our initiatives, they can read up on our woman of the week, we have some amazing blog posts from women from all around our jurisdictions. And they can take our surveys, which is going to add to our knowledge base, they can sign up for emails, stay on top of our news, and hear about any upcoming prayer services. And they can join on the discussions on our Axia Women Facebook page and Instagram presence. Also, what I'd love to see happen above all at the moment is they could use the contact form to nominate a woman of the week that they'd like to see honored.
Hollie Benton 21:27
Thanks so much for the work that you're doing to minister to women and raise them up in the different roles and contexts that they serve. It's really exciting to see this happening, and especially among all the Orthodox faithful our Oriental and Eastern brothers and sisters. So thank you for this work. Dr. Bouteneff.
Patricia Bouteneff 21:45
Thank you, it has been a joy and delight and you know, also very much a challenge. When you bring people together, there's a lot of exploration that goes on, like just learning about each other. But you know, there's also misunderstandings, there's different ways of doing things. There's different ways of communicating. It's a tough process, but it's just been so worth doing. So we're looking forward to sharing more and more about all of this as time goes on.
Hollie Benton 22:07
So excited to see this flourishing.
Patricia Bouteneff 22:11
Yeah, thank you so much for going. It's been a delight.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai