The NINES, an annual online event featuring more than 100 speakers presenting on various topics for an allotted five minutes each, was briefly sidetracked Tuesday when author and popular blogger Rachel Held Evans pressed organizer Todd Rhoades about the lineup including only four women speakers this year.
Rhoades, who apologized to The NINES viewers for the "diversions" on the first day of the two-day online conference, told The Christian Post later that evening that there were a few reasons for the lack of gender diversity among the 112 listed speakers.
"First of all, the theme this year is 'what's working and what's not working' in churches. So... we asked primarily senior and lead pastors to be a part this year. That role in the church is still mostly male in 2013 whether we like it or not," Rhoades wrote via email.
"Also, while we do invite a good number of female speakers to participate each year on The NINES, many have, for one reason or another, chosen not to accept our invitation. The female speakers we have this year are incredible leaders, and we are glad they are a part," he added.
The four women participating at The NINES this year include Sherry Surratt, CEO and president of MOPS International, a Denver, Colo., organization that serves Christian mothers; Shunna Jones-Moreno, staff pastor at Oasis Church in Los Angeles, Calif.; Jenni Catron, executive director at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tenn., and Christine Caine of Equip and Empower Ministries in Costa Mesa, Calif. The remaining list of speakers include mostly pastors from across the U.S. and Canada.
Rhoades, director of New Media and Technology Initiatives at the Leadership Network, noted that a few years ago, the global ministry organized an online conference featuring only female speakers, totaling 40 women.
"It was great," he said. "There are so many great leaders in the church that are women, and we get a chance to work with a great number of them at Leadership Network."
Despite the Dallas, Texas-based nonprofit's attempt at inclusiveness, its 2013 testosterone-heavy lineup for The NINES was noticed by Rachel Held Evans, who engaged Rhoades in a Twitter chat about the small number of women guests speaking this year. Evans, a best-selling author (Evolving in Monkey Town, A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and popular blogger, archived her aside with Rhoades on Storify under the title "Frustrating conversation with the leadership of 'The Nines.'"
"More than 100 speakers and only four of them are women. This is not what the church looks like," Evans tweeted at Rhoades, including the hashtag "#thenines2013."
Evans went on to note, "Women make up 50 percent of the Church and 2 percent of #TheNines2013. Challenge the leadership on this and you'll be patronized & belittled."
Commenters using the "#thenines2013" hashtag had their tweeted comments appear alongside the live video player for "The NINES" stream, and a few chimed in to express both agreement and disagreement with Evans.
"If #thenines2013 cared at all about unity, they would have more women speakers and leaders. Period," tweeted Luke Sumner.
"Unity in the church doesn't happen when one side forces a perspective on the other. Please calm down," Jeff Mikels scolded Evans.
Evans left off her Storify conversation with a tweet from Rhoades in which he called her (with the addition of a smiley emoticon) "the new Mark Driscoll," perhaps comparing Evans' actions to the Mars Hill Church pastor's improptu presence at Pastor John MacArthur's Strange Fire conference last month. Rhoades included in his tweet a link to Evans' A Year of Biblical Womanhood book on Amazon.
The kerfuffle on the first day of The NINES online conference caught the attention of other media. The Leadership Journal's Paul Pastor described the exchange as a "meltdown". Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt wondered if Christian conferences were sexist and listed several popular such gatherings and their men-to-women speaker ratios.
Rhoades, meanwhile, expressed frustration with Tuesday's "diversions" to Christianity Today. The NINES coordinator told the publication that he hopes the complaints about lack of diversity do not take away from the annual event's purpose, which is to "motivate and inspire church leaders whether they are male or female with great stories about what is working."
Although viewership numbers have not come in yet, Rhoades told The Christian Post he was hoping The NINES 2013 would eclipse previous viewing numbers. The online leadership conference has been known to attract up to 30,000 viewers from more than 50 countries.
"We're constantly amazed at what God is doing in and through the church and great leaders like we feature on The NINES. And we love having the platform to share those great stories," Rhoades told CP.
The NINES was first organized in 2009 and featured 99 church leaders speaking for nine minutes each. The conference is produced every year by the Leadership Network, which works to help churches go from ideas, to implementation, to impact, according to Rhoades. The NINES, scheduled for Nov. 12-13 this year, was available for free viewing with registration at http://thenines.tv. The online event, which kicks off at 11 a.m. EST and runs for over five hours on both days, has added this year a dedicated video feed for European viewers: http://thenines.tv/europe.