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I grew up and have lived a majority of my life in faith communities where both women and men are given equal space to speak, lead, and use their gifts. I had never had my giftings questioned because of my gender. I thought that this was normal, but unfortunately for many women, it isn’t.

I had heard story after story of women where this has not been their experience. Now as a woman in ministry, it’s no longer my experience, either

It’s not always as obvious as a snicker, or a “go home.” It can be subtle and pervasive and ugly. It can be a comment at a scholarship brunch when you’re in seminary — being told that you’ll make an excellent pastor’s wife, even though you are clearly there as a student. It can be a congregation where you and your husband are interviewing, wondering out loud if people will be comfortable with you preaching as regularly as your husband.

It can look like a wide range of things, and I can honestly say that most of it is not consciously done. . . although I’m never sure if that makes it better or worse. Each one still cuts, needs time to heal, and might still leave a mark.

It is not just men. It is not just people of a certain age group. It is not just people who live in one part of the country. It is not just in some denominations.

Here’s what this has looked like for me recently:

  • Being called honey or sweetie by strangers when I’m working to help them get pumpkins at our church pumpkin patch. If you are not in a place and time where everyone is called honey or sweetie, please don’t do this to a stranger. Even if you are trying to be friendly, that’s not what it feels like on the receiving end. As a rule of thumb — if you wouldn’t say it to a male who is my age don’t say it to a female who is my age.

  • Not being trusted to know the amount I am able to safely lift when moving things. If I need help moving something, I’m not afraid to ask but I am also very aware of what my body is and is not capable of. I don’t need you telling me. It is one thing to ask if someone wants a hand with something, but if they say no, please listen to them.
  • Other pastors talking only to Aric about “real church things” and to me about children and youth ministry. For those of you who don’t know, Aric and I co-pastor together. I have almost nothing to do with children or youth ministry. It’s run and organized by volunteers and the little bit that I’m a part of, Aric does too. Aric’s and my weekly responsibilities look pretty similar. Our job descriptions are identical.
  • Being told you’re not invited to the men’s breakfast unless of course you want to come to wash the dishes. Hard as it may be to believe, I was not planning on attending the “men’s breakfast,” and men are perfectly capable of doing their own dishes.
  • Getting a new desk in your church office and another woman commenting that she can picture Aric sitting behind it working. When asked by someone why she can picture Aric but not me the response was, “oh I picture her on top of it.” I can’t even. I have no response to this.
  • Being told when we were in the interview process that some of the churches we were applying to might consider us — but only because Aric and I were applying together. They would never have considered me if I had applied by myself.
  • A church telling you that women have always had a huge part of their leadership, because they’ve helped out with VBS and Sunday school for forever. I hate to break it to you, if you were supportive of women in ministry that’s not where the list would end. If women aren’t part of your leadership, a part of the people making decisions, then you aren’t supportive of women in leadership, or at least don’t have a history of it.

Even though none of these things are “that bad” they are still unacceptable — especially in a church. If we say that people are made in the image of God, then we should act like it. If we believe that we should love others as we love ourselves, we shouldn’t be a part of making so many children of God feel small and less-than. If we believe that the Holy Spirit comes upon women and men and children, then we should be looking to see what God might be speaking to us through others, regardless of their gender or age.

All of us accidentally hurt people all of the time, it doesn’t make you a bad person but it also doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Please hear me, it matters. You can do better, and your doing better matters too. Apologize. Ask questions. Learn. Try. We need you to be a part of the healing, and of helping others to not be wounded.

Maybe these things are not part of your experience. I am so thankful if you are in loving supportive communities of Christ. I long for the day that this can be true, actually true, for all women. Until then, there’s work to do. The first step in working towards change, is recognizing that there is a problem and unfortunately in far too many communities of faith there is.

Maybe you are someone who has been carrying around these wounds for a long time. You are not alone. You deserve better. But you deserve to not carry that junk around with you anymore. You are just as worthy of love and respect. You are gifted and called.

A lot of this is still tender for me, maybe it is for you too. But tenderness is what happens when you get a new layer of skin on a wound. Tenderness is a part of healing, and a reminder that more healing is to come. I want to be a part of that healing, not just for myself but for others, and I hope you’ll join me.

Ellen Balk

Ellen Balk is a minister in the Reformed Church in America. She grew up in the Midwest but now serves a church on Long Island, New York with her husband, Aric. She loves reading, hiking, and traveling.


  • Well said. We all need to hear this so we can be more aware and do things better.

  • Jill C Fenske says:

    I was ordained in 1985, a mere 6 years after the General Synod of the RCA affirmed the ordination of women to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. One of the comments I heard frequently was ” I’m really not in favor of women pastors, but YOU’RE OK.” After 37 years I still am not sure how I feel about those words, frankly for me they still cut both ways.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. I wish your experience didn’t exist or maybe was an isolated reality, but alas, I’m afraid your experience is all too normal. I’m reminded of my privelege as a man in ministry, and it presses me to be even more supportive of women in ministry and women in every field quite frankly.
    I only have one quibble with your sharing (and I hope I’m not “mansplaining” that is not my intent). You wrote, “Even though none of these things are “that bad” they are still unacceptable — especially in a church.” You have every right to judge the morality of the actions, as related to your experience of them, but honestly when someone said, “When asked by someone why she can picture Aric but not me the response was, “oh I picture her on top of it.” I can’t name this anything but misogynistic sin. I mean, it’s demeaning at best, grotesque in reality. I’m very sorry you had to experience this, and I’m fearful this kind of sin is a shared experience with other women in ministry.

  • Rosalyn De Koster says:

    Thank you, Ellen.

  • Cheryl Scherr says:

    Love what you said. It constantly happens outside the ministry as well. Loved it when you preached at Second Reformed.

  • Judie Zoerhof says:

    I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts into words. I have experienced this. The wound is deep. I think every woman should add an “Amen” here. It is only through raising awareness that any change will come. Thank you, Ellen.

  • Henny Flinterman Vroege says:

    Thank you. Unfortunate that we (mostly women) have to keep saying this. Interesting, too, that, of the seven people who replied, two are men.

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