The moment won’t soon leave my memory.
I was sitting in the audience of my church, which I adore, listening to the announcements. The male pastor began explaining a new discipleship and leadership program designed to train believers to go into ministry.
I shared a look with my roommate, whispering to her, “Wow, I would love to do this!” She smiled and nodded excitedly as we continued listening… and that’s when I heard just one sentence that removed any possibility of my participation.
“We went through the interview and application process with many different men, and eventually chose….”
The first participant was introduced and I could sense my face flush red with disappointment, anger, and betrayal. I looked around, scanning the reactions of other churchgoers, but I was the only one who seemed to feel shattered in that one word: men.
My much beloved church made my heart ache that day.
I recognized that in the casual nature of the announcement the complete exclusivity of the program went seemingly unnoticed by the pastor and the rest of the church body. I could not believe that, in my church, this opportunity to grow in Christian discipleship, biblical knowledge, and pastoral ministry was something only offered to men.
I thought to myself, “How much longer are we going to cripple the ability and calling of the body of Christ?”
From that day forward, I began observing more carefully how different churches treat women.
I began initiating discussions of the topic, analyzing websites, and keeping my eyes open for gender discrimination in all parts of the church. I found it in churches of different denominations, in different cities and states. I heard it in sermons, read it in church bulletins, and blanched at it in “jokes” told from the pulpit.
- I recognized it in the “unplanned pregnancy” brochure in a church resource center that assumed the female sex of the reader—as if a life in a womb is the responsibility of a woman alone.
- I read it in a Sunday morning bulletin describing the opportunity “to have refreshments and meet other moms” after dropping off one’s children at Vacation Bible School (my father joked, “I’m sure some men would love to meet other moms!”)—as if a father couldn’t be bothered to chauffeur his offspring, or a mother would most obviously be the caretaker available in the middle of the day to deliver her kids.
- I experienced it personally when told by a co-worker at a Christian non-profit that I am “too aggressive about gender equality” or when I was very seriously asked if I wanted to “make my brother stumble” when respectfully inquiring about the swimwear dress code for an intern retreat (of course, I was immediately the perpetrator in the sin bound to happen as a result of my scandalous ways, and shame on me for daring ask such a question).
- I felt the weight of it in the evident discomfort of male Christian friends when I was caught reading a book with a title seemingly paradoxical—“Jesus Feminist.”
- I’ve shuddered as youth groups taught young women to see their virginal status as their ultimate value, and that they are solely at fault for the lust and sexual immorality of men.
- I’ve rolled my eyes at it as pastors introduce their wives by acknowledging only their sexual and/or physical character—“There’s my hot wife, waving in the front row. Isn’t she so hot?”
- I’ve been acquainted with its passive nature in pastors’ neglect to teach on the stories of women in the Bible (the bravery of Esther is only fitting for the women’s retreat, apparently).
- I’ve been asked, “You don’t really think men and women should be totally equal in the church, right?” and I’ve been told “If you do believe those things, your interpretation of the Bible is most definitely loose enough to let all manner of wrong beliefs into your personal theology.”
In these encounters I’ve unmasked “allies” who believe women could maybe be leaders or teach children, but couldn’t ever be pastors because “the Bible is clear about that.” These things, little and large, are what need to be uncovered and disinfected.
But first, more of the church must take notice.
My father, who sometimes wears a gray “This is What an Egalitarian Looks Like” t-shirt to his bible study, recently compared my passion for gender equality to bird watching. “You know,” he said, “a lot of people look at bird watching and immediately decide that they are not only uninterested in it, but they are also unsure of the type of person who would be interested in it.” I thought for a moment and then replied, “First, I just want other people to notice and acknowledge that the birds are there.”
Training the eyes of those in our church community and gaining awareness is a primary necessity. We must then transform our jokes and then let the inclusivity and respect of our humor trickle up to our debates and our decisions and our studies. The pulpit is a powerful position to hold, and the jests thrown about from behind it undeniably affect the perceptions of the congregation.
As we learn more together, we must revise the opportunities and resources we offer. Brick by brick, we must demolish the gargantuan wall that has gone unnoticed for so long. We must also be sensitive to nontraditional families and unconventional life choices (i.e. singleness).
We must take down the “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” sign from the clubhouse that is pastoral ministry.
We must provide opportunities and positions and seats at the table for women and girls who have ideas and leadership abilities and passions. Each church body must gather in its entirety to share and hear of the experiences of women in its community. We must not let our growth become stunted by slip-ups or by the discomfort that often accompanies change.
We must act in strength, courage, and love as we make our way forward.
Image credits: freerangestock.com and sheloves.com