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.