A real conversation from a few years ago:
Me: Even though we say that we affirm women in leadership in this denomination, I think there is still a problem with patriarchal attitudes in the denomination and even in my own local church.
Him: No there isn’t. So, why don’t you stop trying to take the word of God and use it to forward your own agenda.
Ouch. I brought up gender bias and I got told to SIT DOWN. The response shocked me. It was completely outside of my understanding of the character of the person I had begun the conversation with. I had said what I said to a trusted friend and ally, but was answered back by a cultural entrenchment. Looking back, I see the conversation was significant because it represented something much larger than one man’s opinion. That larger thing is systemic gender bias and it is real. My own experience with it in the church hasn’t been easy or pain free. Still, I believe my experience, and the experiences of many people, are being used by God in order to give us a voice to insist that ‘God is calling us into a fuller experience!’
After that conversation, I felt confused and questioned whether I’d done something wrong by bringing the issue up. It felt like someone who’d stumbled into a restricted area or seen something they weren’t supposed to. I apologized for what I’d said. I resolved myself to the fact that my perspective was from a different world, perhaps an old ‘pre-Christian days’ perspective and, therefore, wrong? I tried my best to let it go and fit in, but the reasons that made me want to share my perspective in the first place never stopped niggling at me.
At the time, I didn’t have the language I needed to help me. I hadn’t yet heard the words ‘privilege is invisible to those who have it’. I only knew that my perspective was not perceived as valid and that, because I was in the weaker position in that exchange, it was my perspective that would be dismissed. I did not know how to say that my style of leadership leans toward a ’round table’, which is a style more in line with feminist theology than the patriarchal hierarchy, so I felt the tension of trying to fit in to a system I’m inherently ill-equipped for without being able to name why. I thought it was just ‘me’.
A BIG word I did not know was ‘complementarian’,
which describes a gender culture based largely upon a ‘fundamental’ understanding of ‘biblical man and womanhood’. Within that cultural perspective, gender roles are rigidly set and defined. Patriarchy is justified by both men and women out of the notion that it is good and biblically correct. Men lead, they educate, they provide, they decide. Women care for their men, the domestic issues, the children, and they teach other women. Though it is not overtly stated that this is how things are, some form of complementarianism is what evangelicals mostly try to live out and it undergirds and informs absolutely everything in the social structure.
At first, it seemed to me the complementarian culture held a certain appeal. Let’s face it, men and women are different. Acknowledging that fact seems only logical and it felt good to affirm my femininity. I loved leading a ‘women only’ ministry. It felt great to encourage women who really needed some encouragement. Once I got my head wrapped around placing myself ‘under’ a senior pastor and ‘submitting’ to that authority, it was nice to have someone to whom God had given more ‘authority’ to tell me what to do when things got stressful and who encouraged me when I made mistakes. It was as if the responsibility for my words and actions was shared and that made me want to do my best. I did not want to reflect poorly on my superior. I wanted my work to make him look good because I appreciated and respected him (I still do).
But while some things about the culture felt good, I never felt fully in sync. The truth is, my love for leading women came from the fact that God has given me the heart of a feminist, not from a subtle foundational belief that it is biblically correct for women only to teach other women. My heart for inclusivity wrestled with the fact that there are really no places embedded into the fabric of the complementarian culture for nuance like single mothers who must fill the roles of both parents or for gay or trans people. Though it is said that men and women are equally valued within that culture, the reality is that women are not offered equal acknowledgments, supports, opportunities or remunerations to men. The opposite side of trying to reflect well onto my superior was that I censored a lot of what I said and protected him against the voices of other women expressing opinions closer to my own. On a certain level (which I tried to ignore), I felt like I was compromising my own complete and authentic expression.
Are you beginning to pick up that none of this felt very clear or clean edged or cut and dried?
Eventually, the sound of the dissonance became impossible to ignore, even from underneath all of the layers of rationalizing and justified experiences I had put in place and I made the decision to cut my formal ministry ties with that church/denomination/culture. It was a hard decision to make. I wanted so badly to have finally found the place where I belonged and could openly share the gifts that God has given me to share with others in the way I believe God is asking me to share them.
However, a string of occurrences made it impossible for me to continue to ignore that my perspective on what it means to support women in leadership and the perspective of many of the people around me were too different for me to navigate. For all of my desire to be a ‘bridge builder’, I couldn’t find a way. I discovered that though we spoke the same language, the meaning behind the common words we used were entirely different for us.
With the things that happened, I didn’t know how to cross the gap any more and eventually began to wonder why I had been trying so hard to do so. The voices in power around me said they understood and agreed with where I was coming from, but they took no action to make any real changes. When I asked for help I was met with silence. At some point, it began to seem that I would never be anything more than an amazing volunteer watching young man after young man rise through the ranks to the paychecks and positions of prominence. I realized that if I stayed I might be ‘paying my dues’ for decades.
So, here I am.
I am working to make sense of my experience over the last four years. On one hand, I had one of the best rides of my life with some really wonderful people. In many ways, I felt incredibly hopeful and free and I am grateful to know it is possible to feel that way now. I will forever feel a sense of connection to that place and those people. On the other hand, during that season I experienced a constant, low level sense of anxiety.
In the washout of the flood I feel as if I’ve lost community, friends, status, and the hope of a certain future. It has been a sacrifice. Walking away from three and a half years of dedication, hard work and building fellowship is not a decision one makes if one feels there is any way possible not to make it. Conversely, I can look back and say I had three and a half amazing years where I learned and grew in exponential ways. Those years and the people I spent them with have changed me forever in a good way. I am better for having spent my time there, no doubt.
So, did I make the right decision?
Or am I just a ‘spoiled American woman’ who is making problems up that don’t exist (as some of my female patriarchal friends would suggest)? At least with the church I had a building and a team and some resources to use. Now I have nothing but the internet and a few friends who like my ideas (not to scoff at those things – my friends who have stuck with me through this have been literal life savers and I am beyond grateful for their presence in my life). But, you get the idea – this has been hard, the sense of loss is real, and I have re-examined my decision quite a few times.
Slowly, God is helping me toward clarity.
People like my friend Paula Stone Williams help out. In her blog post on women called to lead, she writes from her very unique perspective about the real differences experienced by men and women in church settings like the one I left. She says that it is indeed true; women’s experiences in their leadership callings within the church are much different and more challenging than men’s. The playing field is not equal. Her perspective gives me permission to give myself a little bit of a break. She confirms for me that the Goliath in this story is real.
In looking for my own answers, I counted out the number of male to to female senior pastors in the denomination I was a part of. I had the idea that the number should be about equal if the denomination truly affirms and supports women as the doctrinal statement says. Now, my numbers aren’t exact as there are many men ‘senior pastoring’ more than one church and I only counted them once. I also did not count the female ‘senior pastors’ of preschools (there are zero men who are ‘senior pastors’ of preschools), but my findings were these:
Male Senior Pastors = 1,412
Female Senior Pastors = 123
The female senior pastors are found mostly in non-english speaking congregations. Almost without exception, the white, english speaking churches are led by male senior pastors. That means 11-12 men have been hired for every 1 woman in senior pastor positions and the ratio changes in churches that speak English, like I do. Looking at those numbers I think, ‘OK. I’m not crazy.’
So why was the original conversation so hard? Why was it impossible for the person I was speaking with to entertain what I said as valid? What happened?
My analysis tells me it is about perspective.
The person I was speaking to in the conversation at the beginning of this post has never known anything other than complementarianism and male privilege. From his perspective, which is representative of the much larger culture, the fact that he is a member of a denomination where there are any women in leadership at all means to him that he affirms women in leadership, and you either do or you don’t. It’s black and white.
I can see and understand now that it is not out of maliciousness or power tripping that I was shut down. The perspective he comes from looks at 123 female senior pastors out of just under 1600 total coupled with the fact that about 1/3 of total licensed ministers are female (leading in children’s, youth, associate pastor positions) and concludes this is what fully affirming women in leadership looks like. The complementarian perspective sees these numbers and says,
‘So,where’s the problem?’
for me, is that I know it would be a very big problem for a large majority of people in the church if the numbers were reversed. The problem, for me, is that I didn’t feel as if I could freely use my voice precisely because I am not one who can comfortably say ‘So, where’s the problem?’ I can’t look at those numbers and feel as if all is well.
The problem is that I could not change my own perspective enough to fully integrate myself into that culture and lifestyle, even though I prayed and fasted and asked God to change me and (I do believe) became completely willing to step into line with God’s will and ordering, whatever that may be. And that led to the biggest problem by far.
The biggest problem is this:
Because I do believe God is faithful and that God answers our sincere entreaties to come into line with God’s will, and because I did open myself completely to be changed by God in these matters, and because the result of these three and a half years of prayer only strengthened my conviction, I believe that GOD’S PERSPECTIVE is egalitarian! (That is the new word God is asking me to live and learn) Furthermore,
I believe it is precisely the patriarchal hierarchal thinking that saturates the church that God is leading us away from at this moment in our history. I believe God wishes for us to experience God in greater fullness through true equality, which leads us toward shalom.
As things stand,
the inability to see things from the other’s perspective got me and the church to where we are today. I am now a minister without the support and community of a church and denomination and there is a church and denomination who have lost a gifted and dedicated minister. In fact, there are many churches and many denominations who have lost many gifted and dedicated ministers out of a failure to be able to see the perspective of ‘the other’ and (I dare say) the PERSPECTIVE OF GOD. I can’t speak for the churches and the denominations. I can say that, for me, the lack of capability to change perspective has been painful and it is truly a loss.
Still, God is good.
I believe that all of this has been a piece of much larger picture that God sees for me and for my life, for the the church and the life of the church, and for all of God’s people at this time in our history. I believe that right now God is inviting all of us into a new and improved perspective, a perspective that opens space for all genders to be given a seat at the table, and to receive the amazing sustenance and nurturing that God has set aside for each of us. I believe God wants all of God’s people to receive and express God’s gifts to the fullest, so that we can create a society that is truly equal, merciful and just.
I guess that means that I believe God is changing the perspective on gender; slowly but surely, in the church, outside the church, and throughout the world.
I feel honored and blessed to be invited to participate with what God is doing.