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Essay

SHE: A Bit of Truth-Telling about Women in Ministry

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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. SHEIt 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.

26 Comments

  • Diana says:

    Thank you so very much for this blog entry and all your previous ones. You will be missed.
    I could write my own entry about my experience as part of a denominational staff that was all male. It was in the ’80s. Pioneer days. However it would be too painful and too exhausting. I am glad someone took on the task. Brava!

    • Theresa Latini says:

      You are most welcome, Diana. Thanks for the affirmation. I wrote this one through tears–the sad kind and the grateful kind.

      • Diana Walker says:

        Thank you for your thank you. It is funny, after all these years, and two extremely healing careers after my time with the RCA, that I still feel the sadness. It could have been so much more glorious had we all worked together instead of against one another. The jobs I held outside the church were full of grace. Isn’t that something. My best to you.

  • Laurie says:

    Theresa, I want to echo Diana’s gratitude for this and all your blog entries. It’s a privilege also to see and even participate a bit in your good work from day to day. Lay women who find themselves working within church systems are not immune from these experiences. Thank you for speaking the truth.

    • Theresa says:

      Thank you, Laurie. You bring up a whole additional missing piece from these conversations, the experience of lay women and even women ordained as deacons and elders. I can think of dear friends and family members who aren’t clergy but faithful church members who experience sexism day in and day out as they lead from positions without authority. They have less privilege by far than those of us who are clergy. If I was still blogging, their experiences would be the next post! Perhaps someone else will take that on!

  • Jill Hamming says:

    As a woman in ‘leadership’ in a congregation that does not permit women as elders, deacons or pastors, I always feel that I am in an odd place.
    My husband and I have prayed a few times to see if we can be part of a different church. God always says no, this is where you are to be. Then I whine to Him again about patriarchy and misogyny. . . and why do I have gifts that I am not permitted to use in my own congregation. After which I accept that He knows what He is doing. I come to peace again. And I go on praying and loving and doing what He gives me to do.
    Yet, it still hurts. I know which men (and a few women) see me as less than. I know who will not accept that I know anything about anything.
    (continued below as this system will not let me post my whole comment)

  • Jill Hamming says:

    I also know the men who do sometimes ask for my help and value my opinion, They say I am an asset to our congregation, but they still cannot accept women in those three roles.
    Now I was asked to be in this position of helping lead our congregation in a new venture. It is dear to my heart. I was thrilled and thankful. I love the work. But the old problem still pops up. It’s as if i am in a position of leadership but with no authority. . . .
    Recently I represented our congregation at a denominational gathering. I was fascinated and encouraged by watching men and women work together. The speakers and reporters of both sexes taught and spoke with wisdom, humor and love. I was filled with hope for the future and what might be.
    I appreciate this article and the affirmation of my pain.I quote:
    “You can’t be. You can’t be your best. Not in this system.”
    It explains what is so hard to put into words.

    • Theresa Latini says:

      Jill, thank you for telling this small piece of your own story here, for adding your voice to mine, to Karoline’s, and to other women’s voices who have gone before us all and will come after us. I felt such a pang of sadness and a longing for you to receive support, freedom, mutuality, and ease in your church ministry. I also felt incredible wonder and inspiration by your love of God and neighbor. Why else would stay and joyfully serve?! I now will go lament to God and pray for more opportunities for you to be in settings like the denominational gathering, where you are buoyed up with hope. Thank you again for the gift of vulnerability and honesty here.

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    This is vintage Latini – strong, accurate, passionate, pastorally and contextually aware – I will miss her voice on The Twelve. Thank you, Theresa!

  • Kelly says:

    Thank you from a fellow woman in ministry. I desperately hope the people who need to read this (predominantly white males) will. I will read it, too, for some solace.

    • Theresa Latini says:

      Yes I hope so too! Thank you, Kelly, for your solidarity. Hoping for solace and solidarity for you as well.

  • Holly Teitsma says:

    Thank you, Dr. Latini.

    • Theresa Latini says:

      I’m so grateful for you, Holly. Women students like you give me hope for the future of the church and remind me that it’s worth it all to say ‘yes’ to this vocation.

  • Lorilyn says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Theresa. Your voice and the voices of other ordained women in our circles are absolutely vital for bringing about the change that is so long in coming. I am a lay leader in the CRC, so I speak with even less external authority than those of you who are ordained. And I have so often wondered what happened to my ordained sisters that they are not leading the way in the ways I wished (simply speaking truth to power as you are here and exploring and experimenting more deeply with what true feminine leadership really looks like). And it’s likely they have done so in many ways to which I have not been privy. But after years of more observation, my own experience in growing lay leadership, and conversation with some of these sisters, I understand more. You worked so hard and endured so much to get where you are. And you continue to endure. And you are weary and you likely don’t want to threaten the access you do have to live your calling within these systems. So thank you for your willingness to fall from their graces into your truth.

    My weariness over the systemic patriarchy has come to a head in recent months. All the messages I am receiving as I listen to Spirit through dreams, scripture, community, etc… is that I no longer have the luxury of time. The clarity that I cannot be my best within a defiantly patriarchal system has created an unrelenting invitation for my leaving of this system. Not only do I need to be my best for the sake of honoring my Creator, but future generations need for me to be my best. Some will die, literally, if I do not do this work. And many others with feel orphaned. If I cannot be my best within this system, then I am leaving it, much like the lepers of 2 Kings 7. We are told, “The lepers went into DARKNESS.” We need to be willing to leave what is known (and there are probably a thousand ways to do this) and venture out into “enemy” territory, trusting the Spirit’s leading and provision which will allow us, a tthe appointed time to return with a great feast to share.

    • Holly Teitsma says:

      God speed on your bittersweet and faithfully present transition/transformation, Lorilyn!

    • Theresa Latini says:

      Lorilyn, thank you for your honesty and your long-suffering faithfulness. I hope you discover, by God’s grave, that there is much light and freedom and support in the places you are venturing into. And I hope the place you’ve left somehow someday repents its patriarchy.

  • Betsy Aho says:

    Dr. Latini, Thank you for hearing our voices, our stories, our struggles and our triumphs. I’m thankful you’ve been part of my journey.

  • asipoblog says:

    Thank you, Dr. Latini. It was a privilege to sit in your classroom, to experience your passion and care and your sense of self. You have given me someone to follow. I have been one of these women, encountering active and passive hostility from men, and surprisingly women. I’ve been told by pastors I was too old, too naive, not tough enough, and wanted too much. I’ve been told I didn’t have the right voice, and maybe I just wasn’t annointed. I’ve come under church discipline because I appeared angry, not because I was angry, or said angry things — because I APPEARED angry to the pastor. Did he meet with me and talk with me about why? No. He called in his biggest guns and fired them. I quit. If appearing angry is a sin, I’m out of luck in the church. Yet out of all fairness, I must add that the same God who loves each human being hasn’t forgotten me. Somehow, in the midst of all these negative experiences, I fell out of their graces and into God’s truth. He has used me in ways I can’t fathom. He has taken me to places and opened doors no man could. He has blessed me with men and women in my life whose voices tell me a different story. I just won’t ever stop because God’s ways are not men’s ways. There is hope in the midst of hopelessness. Thanks for holding up a light!

    • Theresa Latini says:

      Well, I suppose Jesus wouldn’t last long there either. Thank you for reminding us of God’s faithfulness and God’s truth that grounds our own. Beautifully put.

  • phatb says:

    Thank you, Dr. Latini! I’m grateful for you, and that I’ve had the opportunity to be shaped by your teaching. This is a strong and powerful post – I hope and pray for the day that it’s not necessary any longer. Until then, I’m thankful for courageous voices like yours…I have encountered Christ through you….

  • Marge Vander Wagen says:

    Thank you for all the comments. I am not alone. Ordained, but ignored. Time to get and read the book. What is said is true, “I cannot do my best work in a very limited and unfriendly atmosphere.” Thank you for encouraging me to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading to a more open place where I can do my best work.

  • Pamela Martin-Bremer says:

    Thank you. Can someone send me this book when they are done.
    54 African-American seeking call in the CRC. pmartin0.pamm@gmail.com

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