The day I told my home congregation I thought God was calling me to be a pastor, the silence that met my pronouncement felt like someone had just dropped a weighted blanket around my shoulders. A relatively new believer, I had no idea I’d said something controversial.
My pastor took me to lunch and told me honestly and kindly—“In this denomination, women can’t be pastors. They can be missionaries and do the exact same things. They can lead churches in areas in the US that no man is willing to go. But they can’t do what you want to do. I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s particularly fair.”
The funny thing was, I didn’t want to do it. I had wanted to go to law school. In retrospect, that career certainly would have been easier. The irresistible push toward ministry hadn’t been my idea. From now on though, I’d often be treated like it was solely my erroneous idea, because God couldn’t possibly have authored it.
I didn’t know that silence on the subject would be the last time anyone would be quiet when I mentioned my call to ministry. More often, people had a lot to say.
In college, I stood beside a young man at our church, in line for the Sunday night dinner they served college students. I told him I believed I was called to be a pastor. He replied, “It would have been better if you’d never been born than you do that.”
In seminary, a fellow student critiqued my first sermon with his summary—“I couldn’t pay attention to anything you said because you’re so pregnant; it was distracting.”
Another student told me that he should have won the preaching award, not me, had the judges been using the “right” criteria.
One of the Old Testament TA’s in seminary let slip to me that my papers were better than those of the men who kept getting A’s, while I received B’s from that particular prof.
Of course, Twitter daily reminds me that I’m a heretic, an unrepentant apostate, and a Jezebel who has never read her Bible, among other things. That we just get used to.
But surely, after seminary, in an egalitarian denomination, these things would change, right? I would be recognized and appreciated for the gifts I could bring to the denomination and the church. I could work side by side with men also called to pursue the kingdom of God, and no one would care about my chromosome makeup.
Many days, this has been true. I’ve met many supportive men in the FMC, and many that go the extra step to advocate for women’s equality in the denomination. I’ve met far more, the majority, who consider themselves to be supportive but who fail to recognize their own patterns, beliefs, and inaction that unintentionally but firmly keep men in the positions of power. I’ve also met those who think like that man in the dinner line long ago, who would rather I’d not exist than dare to teach men. We have a wide range.
To borrow a thought from MLKJr, I’d rather deal with the latter group than the middle one, who believe themselves good and right (and they are good people) but who do things every day to preserve the unequal status quo.
Some of those daily acts I’ve witnessed:
It was after about the fifth time I asked that we had our first woman keynote an annual conference a few years ago. It hasn’t happened again. I don’t know what the percentage is on that, but it’s minuscule compared to all the men who have spoken there.
In all the books we’ve been assigned each year for conference, one has never been written by a woman.
A woman has never been asked to speak at pastor’s retreat, and very rarely at family camp. I’m honestly not sure on that last one—it could also be never.
I’ve sat under a senior pastor who didn’t believe women should be in ministry, but he headed our conference church planting committee and our church. His credentials and promise mattered more than the effect he might have on women, especially women leaders.
I’ve had senior pastors who saw me as more of a threat than a co-laborer, so I’ve not received the advocacy, information, or experience that male associates are more likely to regularly benefit from. When they didn’t see me as a threat, they assumed that, since I had kids, I wasn’t interested in opportunities anyway.
I missed important events early in ministry because I had three small children and a working spouse. Even when someone considered the option of offering childcare at these events, those in charge always tabled the idea because it wasn’t convenient. This deeply impeded my ability to learn about the denomination, meet people, and be seen as part of the team during those vital early years in ministry. It’s very, very difficult to recover from this kind of sidelining.
I’ve been told, after 25 years of service in the FMC, that I didn’t have enough proof of ability to lead a church I applied to pastor, while the man who held the job before me had virtually no experience at all, but he “had great potential.” He was also mentored and coached by leadership, a thing I and most women have never received.
Our almost exclusively male leadership is afraid to mentor women because they’ve become convinced by popular Christian teachers and writers that we’ll try to seduce them or someone will think we’re trying to seduce them and in any case, it’s too uncomfortable to navigate.
FMC male leaders have gone to conferences, seminars, service trips, and ball games to which I have not been invited, despite the obvious chance to learn and to network. Their desire to have an “all guys” experience overrode any benefit the event could have been to me.
Families have left churches when I came on staff because pastors had failed to teach FMC doctrine on women’s equality and had, in fact, reinforced the notion of male headship in the home.
I’ve listened to demeaning jokes about women told by pastors and conference speakers more times than I can remember. I’ve heard the stereotypes reinforced perpetually and had men speak from the pulpit about “giving” their wives money as if they were dogs receiving treats. If I complained, I was told I had no sense of humor. Women are too easily offended. “You must be a feminist—my wife thought it was funny.” Only once did a pastor listen and respond with repentance.
I’m not listing a litany of grievances here for the sheer joy of complaint. That's not a very joyful or productive pursuit. I’ve overall had a good experience in the FMC. It’s like a family you love and appreciate dearly but love too much to let pass and fester the terrible things Uncle Joe said at Thanksgiving dinner. Some things you have to confront because you love.
You might say of the things I’ve mentioned—Oh but that’s not true! That's not been my experience at all! I’m genuinely glad for you. It has been mine, and I’m not alone, and your wonderful experience doesn’t invalidate ours. They can all be true and real.
I could list many wonderful experiences and people with a spirit of real advocacy, too. I’ve listed these experiences (and there are many more) for two reasons:
To highlight real events for some who might not see their support of the status quo as the detrimental thing it is to women leaders in the FMC; and
To encourage women with similar experiences that they aren’t alone and they aren’t imagining it.
I’m grateful I found a denomination unlike the one in which I became a believer, where I could not lead except as a missionary. I’m on a mission of love to make it better.