I never thought I would ever write a book about politics! But as my co-pastor husband and I led our congregation through the election season of 2012, we were confronted with the fact that there is no way to NOT be political. We have to live with people and in communities and what happens to those people in our communities, big and small, matters. That’s why we wrote Kings and Presidents: Politics in the Kingdom of God.
Churches have political structures as well. These structures are intended to care for the people and communities living in the Kingdom of God. They ought to look different than the structures of this world. But too often we see the same kinds of power dynamics at work within the church that we see on the campaign trail.
And this is bad news for women in leadership in the church. Advocating for women in ministry has never been more important. Here are my recent reflections on women and church politics:
Living Outside the Bubble
My bubble has burst. I didn’t even know it existed. And now I don’t know how to function without it.
For years I have lived in a protective bubble, bouncing from one role in the church to another, with a padded cushion keeping me from being crushed against the jagged edges of patriarchal systems that have gouged so many women in ministry.
As a student, I was encouraged, inspired, even commended for responding to my call to ministry.
Faculty and staff created a safe place for me to learn and grow. I read both church fathers and mothers. I learned the heritage of my Wesleyan roots and poured over the stories of the women on whose shoulders I stand. I prepared myself with the same curriculum as my male peers and lived within the same sphere of protection.
As a youth pastor in a mainline denomination, my predecessor was a woman.
Women in ministry was nothing new to them, in fact the church seemed thrilled to have a woman ministering with their youth, predominantly young girls. I thrived in a sphere of safety created by decades of exposure to strong women in ministry.
As a co-lead pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, I poured my whole heart into each and every day of life and service.
Together my husband and I went about the same work, the same calling, the same tasks of the office of pastor. I didn’t think much about how this partnership created a layer of insulation that warded off suspicion and resistance to my ministry. We deeply loved our congregation and felt loved and affirmed in return. Even the district in which we served added a layer of safety. Our district leadership was not only supportive of women in ministry, our leaders were related to women in ministry, namely, me.
For all these safe places in which I grew and thrived in ministry, I am so very grateful! Grateful to the brave women and men who made that possible, some who bore the brunt of those jagged edges so that I would be spared.
I’m not sure exactly when my bubble burst.
It really had little to do with me. I have been far too privileged, more than I could ever deserve. It happened little by little, as I have listened to stories of young women preparing for ministry, and second career women, risking great costs to follow God’s call.
Here’s what I have heard just in the last couple of weeks from daughters of God who are the future of the church…
“My first teacher in this course of study told me I shouldn’t be ordained, I could take his class, just not be ordained…”
“My parents won’t pay for my education if I am taking any kind of ministry or theology classes…”
“I am afraid of the pastors in my ordination interview. They don’t like to pass women…”
“I was told that the only women who make it in ministry are exceptions…”
“I just had to resign my church…”
And now I am standing here looking at a world I don’t recognize outside of the safety of that bubble.
When I moved to Nashville this summer, as my husband became a professor and I entered a season of waiting, it was an easy assumption that I would be an advocate of women in ministry. So many women have come to talk to me. As they have, I realized, I have never really been an advocate of women in ministry. I have been living behind the translucent sheen of my lovely bubble and watching as so many women have been hurt, wounded, broken, only it didn’t look so painful from my bubble.
When people used to say things like, “you must be a big advocate of women in ministry” I would say, “I’m just a pastor who happens to be a woman. I’m too busy being a woman in ministry to be much of an advocate.” I figured as long as I was doing a good job, that my life and ministry would be my advocacy. Because it should, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t my ministry speak for itself and speak well of women pastors?
Oh, how I miss my bubble. Suddenly I feel as though I have done nothing, nothing!
So I am writing this.
If you are reading this, I assume that some of you also think of yourselves as advocates for women in ministry. Perhaps, like me, you think that your quiet support and good example will be enough to ground down a few jagged edges out there.
But I am feeling awfully bold outside my bubble, so may I suggest that perhaps you are not the advocate you think you are. Perhaps you live in a bubble of maleness, or whiteness, or family, or education, or just ignorance. Hey, I’ve been there!
I wish I could play for you all the conversations I have had these last few weeks. Talented, passionate, gifted women with a lifetime of service to pour out are bumping into the hardheartedness of our church structures. And not only women, I have heard from brothers and sisters of ethnic minorities who are desperate to be treated with partnership and friendship, instead of permission in isolation. I wish I could play these stories for you as a kind of push pin to burst your bubble.
Because my bubble is gone and I don’t want it back.
You think you are an advocate of women in ministry. Is that because you think well of them? You don’t speak ill of them? Maybe you even read blogs about them. But what are you actively doing to support them?
Love is action. That’s what we believe, right? Not just thinking good thoughts or saying nice words. What have you done? Have you given up your position on that board or that council, in order to make space for someone who doesn’t look like you? Have you nominated a woman? Have you stuck your neck out for a woman, even if you got burned? Have you mentored a woman? Have you invited a woman to join your pastor’s breakfast club? Recently? Often?
There were times I had opportunity to do some of these things. And I didn’t. Because I didn’t want to stand out as a “woman” in ministry. I wanted to blend in with all the other bubbles in the room.
It hurts, to have your bubble burst. Believe me, I know.
But you haven’t heard the whole story. Listen to what the same women whose stories left me tattered had to say when it came right down to it,
“My first teacher in this course of study told me I shouldn’t be ordained, I could take his class, just not be ordained… but I know I am called to preach.”
“My parents won’t pay for my education if I am taking any kind of ministry or theology classes… So for now I am studying that on my own, talking to professors and reading books.”
“I am afraid of the pastors in my ordination interview. They don’t like to pass women… but I know other pastors who will advocate for me.”
“I was told that the only women who make it in ministry are exceptions… so I am going to be exceptional.”
“I just had to resign my church… but God is calling me into new creative forms of ministry.”
Somehow by the grace of God, the jagged edges of patriarchy in the church have not made these women hard!
If that isn’t a sign of the Spirit of God at work to call and empower women for service in the Kingdom, I don’t know what is! We need to advocate for these women, so that the church doesn’t need the glossy sheen of our privileged bubbles to look beautiful. We need to actively and relentlessly advocate for persons who don’t look like the stereotype of church leadership because Jesus burst the bubble on stereotypical leadership on a cross a long time ago.
My bubble is gone, shattered by the stories of remarkable women.
They have pulled me into a world beyond myself and my privileged experience. My love for the church is deep enough to bear a few of her jagged edges so these women can love and be loved by the church.
In Kings and Presidents: Politics in the Kingdom of God Shawna Songer Gaines and Tim Gaines challenge the claim that history is written exclusively by the powerful. Through a careful study of portions of 2 Kings, they note that trusting in God’s faithfulness is plenty political, and has real implications for our communities, the world, and the kind of political hope we can find in it all. Those interested in women in the Bible will especially appreciate their attention to the stories of women. Read a sample chapter here. Shawna is also the coauthor of A Seat at the Table: A Generation re-Imagining it’s Place in the Church and a new Bible study series, Breathe: A Sacred Space for Women.
Spanish Translation here courtesy of Evangelizadoras de los apostoles.
Image Credit: Pixabay