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It’s a regular occurrence for me in my line of work: SHE sits before me and tells me a story of struggle for respect, dignity, justice in the church and academy. SHE tells me about benevolent sexism, ambivalent sexism, hostile sexism, and sexual harassment. Too frequently, SHE doesn’t know these interpretive categories, which might help her differentiate from the actions of biased persons and the practices of patriarchal systems.
Whatever form these stories take, I typically feel angry first, grieved second, and weary third.
They sound like this . . .
SHE has been ordained to full-time ministry, yet SHE continues to be relegated to work with children or basic administrative tasks in congregation after congregation.
SHE puts forth her theological analysis in class and a fellow white male student uses the term, “Bitch slap,” in response. He intended it to be complimentary; it’s not.
SHE is about to preach to a youth gathering. The host introduces her by reference to her attire. The young, predominantly male audience hoots and hollers as SHE walks to the podium. It takes all her inner resolve to maintain her composure and preach God’s Word.
As SHE walks to her office, a male colleague whistles at her. The next day another male colleague sees her and two other female professors talking. He quips, “That looks like trouble.”
When male students argue for complementarianism, SHE hopes the professor will take a clear theological stand for women. That doesn’t happen. Repressive tolerance operates through silence.
SHE pastors a traumatized church. The previous pastor grew the church to one of the largest in the city. And he raped his way through the congregation. SHE reported it to the judicatory. They said, We believe you. But if you press charges, you will be destroyed. Thirty years later, SHE is still trying to help that congregation heal.
SHE wonders, after working in a number of congregations, What is worse, the hostile sexism of the last community or the ambivalent sexism of this one?
SHE stands before her class pregnant. There’s no hiding SHE is woman. SHE is powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Her male students sneer at her and attempt to trip her up with questions unrelated to the topic at hand.
SHE walks into her office and finds it plastered with maxi pads and a derogatory hand written message about women in ministry. SHE is the first ordained woman in this congregation. SHE is told it was only a joke.
SHE is the most gifted M.Div. student I’ve taught in twelve years. SHE complains about a male faculty member who has crossed boundaries with her—stroking her back, joking about sex—while also verbally affirming her call to ministry. He is predatory. Nothing is done. SHE drops out of the ordination process.
This book arrived on my doorstep a week ago. It is a book about truth-telling, and it is a book that tells the truth. By “naming a thing what it is,” SHE is a practical outworking of Luther’s theology of the cross.
I hope you will read it whether you are a woman in ministry, a woman headed into ministry, or anyone who wants to be an ally for women in ministry.
Karoline Lewis, the author, is a nationally respected preacher. SHE is the voice of Working Preacher. SHE teaches at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN). SHE is a former colleague and one of my dearest friends. The book comes from years of living and hearing stories like the ones I listed above. Which is to say that the book is conceived, carried, and birthed from the values espoused within it.
In five chapters, Lewis explores five truths essential to women thriving in ministry. Each chapter begins with a poem, ends with suggested exercises and reflective questions, and is chock full of nuggets of wisdom. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from each of the chapters:
Chapter 1, truth about women, the Bible, feminism, theology
“To claim your own power as a woman in ministry demands that you wrestle with the concept of the authority of scripture and how that authority functions in your life.”
“[I]f the overwhelming majority of interpretations of biblical stories have been created out of white, Anglo-Saxon, male-dominant narratives, a major corrective is necessary . . . Forty years cannot erase centuries. We are just getting started.”
Chapter 2, the truth about vulnerability, bodies, and sexuality
“And to be a woman in ministry means that you will need to talk about characteristics of God that will be less than popular to most and perhaps not a God they are willing to embrace. You will need to talk about the power of God, not only as it manifests in ‘typical’ ways that are recognizable by the world: acts of domination, battle, and violence. But you will also need to talk about how God’s power is also experienced and revealed in weakness, in lowliness—and in vulnerability.”
Chapter 3, the truth about gender, identity, and authenticity
“[O]ften the resistance to your leadership has less to do with you and more to do with the fact that you are not representing the leadership traits a person believes should be inherent in women who are in leadership roles.”
“Leadership traits and values are segregated by gender, and to excel in areas outside of your prescribed role is to invite suspicion and discomfort.”
Chapter 4, the truth about sexism
“While there will be sexist comments about you and directed to you that will come from people who ‘do not know any better’ and who do not realize the effects that their comments might have, there will be others who know exactly what they are doing.”
“One of the absolute essential truths of thriving as a woman in ministry is to have girlfriends who are also in ministry. . . . [this is] perhaps the most critical when it comes to dealing with sexism. You will need to know that you are not along. You will need to be affirmed in the fact that you are not making this stuff up. You will need spaces to cry, be angry, scream, and swear.”
Chapter 5, the truth about leadership
Lewis argues that women in ministry need to be grounded in their own authenticity, authority, and power. SHE frames this as “autonomous leadership,” leadership that reflects who you are, who you know yourself to be, and expresses itself through competent acts flowing from personal integration. SHE sums up this dimension of leadership with this quote: “She fell from their graces into her truth.”
That pithy quote is worth a lifetime of meditation or at least a good long while.
Finally, I want to add something that resonates with Lewis’ analysis throughout the book: you cannot be your best in defiantly patriarchal systems. I learned this from a male colleague, a person of color who knows far more than me what it is to be marginalized. I was recounting to him some of my obvious shortcomings. Discouraged, I said to him, “I’m not at my best.” He gave a quick, pastoral response, “You can’t be. You can’t be your best. Not in this system.”
Those words, because they were full of truth, put my heart and mind at ease. They reminded me of my own humanness and the pervasiveness of sin, which cannot be overcome by anyone but God. That’s the thing about truth-telling: even when it’s painful, it is freeing. Because it opens up the possibility for seeing and hearing and remembering the One who promises to set us all free.
As I conclude this last blog as a regular part of The Twelve, I think about my own daughter. SHE is two and smart and funny and extroverted and verbal and has a memory that astonishes me. Sometimes SHE growls a bit when SHE laughs and arches her back as she stands up tall. I want to shout out, “I am Eleanor! Hear me roar.” Sometimes I do; my husband, Tom, joins the song with pride and joy. I think I’ll take a lesson from her as well as my dear friend, Karoline. I hope you’ll do the same.