Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stained-glass Ceilings and Silencing Women

I teach in a seminary in Philadelphia and every semester I am teaching different classes with a changing group of students. This semester, I’m teaching two courses that I am seriously enjoying. One is an exciting class called Gender, Sexuality and Leadership. We are looking at how our gender and sexuality (and other elements of their personhood – education, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, political beliefs, religious tradition, etc.) determine not only how we lead but also how our leadership is perceived by others. The course is a senior seminar so all of my students are about to graduate and enter into ministry – as pastors, as leaders in other ministry settings, and as public theologians.

As the course has explored the issue of how our gender is seen in leadership – especially in the church and religious institutions – we have had some intriguing moments of discovery. We have had guest speakers who have shared some startling stories of women being silenced and marginalized in their leadership. We have heard stories of women not being listened to in meetings and their leadership being defined as “less than” their male counterparts in a number of ways. And we have heard stories of women being denied in ministry and leadership by other women as well as by men.

When I hear our guests talk about their pastoral experiences I am reminded of my own. As a woman in pastoral leadership I have had some tough moments. One such situation happened in my first congregation. It was a small rural community in eastern Kansas. The town had a population of about 350 and the little church had 95 members. We were lucky to have 45-50 in weekly worship and to hit 65-70 on high holy days.

When I arrived I was told about Martha (not her real name). Martha was a very wealthy widow who had always had a significant amount of power in the congregation. Her financial gifts made up a large part of the annual giving of the congregation and therefore she had high expectations of pastoral attention.

Within the first few weeks of moving to the community I attempted to make an appointment to go see her in her home.  I was doing the same with many members – some who had not yet been in church since my arrival, some who might be in need of care, and others who I was simply told I needed to contact. Martha kept making appointments with me and then would cancel. I tried but was not sure how to proceed. Finally I decided to just drop by to see her one afternoon.

She invited me in but made it clear after an initial conversation, that I was not her pastor and never would be. I politely asked her why and she stated, quite emphatically, “No woman will ever be my pastor.” I tried to discuss the topic with her but there was no budging her. I asked if there were any possible ways that I could minister to her and if she would continue to come to church. She said she would come back to the church the Sunday after I left and would hold her financial support until that time as well. I pastored there for three years and she never darkened the doors of the church and never sent in her pledge.

I never could get Martha to explain to me why she was so opposed to women in ministry. She was not willing to talk about it to me. So I was left to wonder.

About a year into being appointed there, I heard that she was in the hospital in the next town over. I was told that her condition was serious. She was scheduled to undergo heart surgery to correct the problem she was experiencing. So I showed up to visit and offer pastoral care the day prior to the surgery. I knocked before entering her room and was told I could enter. So I cautiously entered her room to check on her, to let her know I cared, and to pray if she wanted. As I came in I said “Hello, Martha. I just wanted to come by to see how you are and to bring this get well card from the congregation.” She looked at me and asked if I would leave the card on the bedside table. I walked over to the bed and laid the card down. I asked her if I could pray for her and she responded “No, thank you.”

That was it. She turned in the bed away from me and I knew she was done with me.

I did ask a colleague from the UM Church in the town where the hospital was located to go by and offer her care before and after the surgery. And he did. Since he was a man, she welcomed him in and allowed him to provide her with care. That was all I could think of to do.

This experience is not rare and it’s not new. Women in ministry have come a long way but they experience these kinds of ministry denials often. Women are silenced and ignored. Women are limited in their ministry by stained-glass ceilings and sexist feelings.

It can be very painful and women can be left to feel helpless. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but want to offer a few suggestions. So how do we counter all of this?

First, we can continue to be the best pastors we possibly can be and be who God made us to be. We can continue to speak up and challenge those persons and systems that keep women from being in ministry or from sharing their gifts.

Second, we can enlist our brothers in ministry to be our advocates and allies so that they can help those closed to our voices finally hear us. They do not become our saviors – they become our partners.

Third, we can enlist and encourage our denominational leaders to be our advocates and allies as well and challenge them when they won’t be. We can hold them accountable.

Fourth, we can share our stories and help support other women in ministry by creating spaces where they can share theirs. We can be people of grace and peace in the midst of denial and silencing. We don’t have to hold all of the pain or feel like we have to solve it all but we can be someone who listens, learns and heals with others who have been hurt.

Fifth, we can strive to pray and keep our spiritual center so that even in times when our ministry and gifts are challenged we are able to keep on pastoring to those who will receive our gifts and graces. And this will allow us to keep on being a pastoral presence even for those less open to our ministry.

Lastly, we can have to hold fast to our call, lead with integrity and know that God called us – no matter what anyone else says.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Things Jesus never said ...

Things Jesus never said, "When they make a TV show about #theBible, make sure my Mother is white." Good grief this is such a disappointing series.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Maybe Not So Far Baby!

This has been a strange and interesting week to be a woman. It all started with Seth MacFarlane being a misogynist at the Oscars. He made jokes about domestic violence, alluded to women as poor leaders, mocked women’s bodies, and made other offensive jabs at the women and young girls in the room and about women in general. It was disgusting and inappropriate. It was not funny.

But things then got worse. During the show, the satiric website The Onion posted a repulsive Tweet calling the 9 year old actress, Quvenzhané Wallis, a cunt on their official Twitter account. This little actress starred in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild and came to the Oscars with wide eyes and a beautiful spirit. The Onion apologized the next day but did not disclose if the offender was fired (as they should be). How can anyone think that what they posted was humor – satire or not? How can one post something like that about a 9 year old girl? It was not appropriate. It was disgusting.

Later in the week, the fairly new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, made news asking all telecommuting employees to come into the office instead of working from home. She was criticized from both the right and the left, from men and women, but many also commented repeatedly about her being a new mom who built a nursery near her office so that she could be close to her child while she worked. She was ravaged by the media about her own office practices and about the ways the new policy would affect both men and women working for Yahoo. As a woman she was critiqued in vicious ways as being insensitive to the needs of other parents while she had the best of both worlds. It was another attack against mothers who work and all of those who work from home. It was not ok.

In Washington, DC our Congressional leaders were debating the re-authorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Many thought it was a no-brainer to pass a bill that protects women from domestic violence and that creates ways to gain redress against those who perpetrate violence against women. But it was not an easy bill to get passed in the House of Representatives. Women’s groups have been calling for this re-authorization for months and finally it was passed. It is wrong to not value women’s bodies as sacred and deserving of protection. It took too long to get this done.

This week Connecticut state Rep. Ernest Hewett was stripped of his office as deputy speaker for a lewd remark made to a 17 year old young woman. The young woman was testifying about her involvement in an ambassador program that helped her overcome her shyness and get over her fear of snakes.

"I am usually a very shy person, and now I am more outgoing," she said. "I was able to teach those children about certain things like snakes that we have and the turtles that we have. ... I want to do something toward that, working with children when I get older."

Hewett then said: "If you're bashful I got a snake sitting under my desk here."*  Good grief. Seriously? In 2013 we’re still saying things like this? Hewitt apologized for the remark and the young woman accepted his apology, but the fact remains – he said it. He said it in a state house committee hearing room. He said it to a 17 year old young woman. It was totally wrong and repulsive.

I wish this week was an anomaly. But if you have watched any news in the past few election cycles, you know that it happens all too often. I wish these kinds of things did not happen to women – women of color, survivors of domestic abuse, young women, innocent girls, working moms, teens advocating for programs – all women. It should not happen.

I think that many have grown complacent with the belief that women “have come a long way, baby.” Women have made great strides in the past few decades. But the truth is we still have a fight on our hands.

We still have to work for justice and equality. Women still make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes. Women still get critiqued for their attire if they are raped. Women still have to fight for their rights when abuse occurs in the home. Women still have to fight for their little girls to be treated with respect and honor.

Women fight this fight everyday – here in the US and around the globe. I am getting tired of fighting for my place at the table and – once there – fighting to not be called names, belittled, and ridiculed for my gender. But we have to keep on fighting. No matter how tired we are – we owe it to Quvenzhané Wallis, to the 17 year old young woman in Connecticut, and to all girls and women everywhere.

Men have an important role in this. Men must stop perpetuating this crap. They have to stop belittling women in public and in private. They have to honor the women in their lives by not seeing them as a punching bag or a punch line. They have to teach their girls to expect more from the boys and men around them. They have to teach their boys to honor girls just as their sons deserve to be honored. And men have to stop letting other men around them get away with all of this either. Men have to be advocates for women – everywhere.

And the church has a role as well. The church has to affirm the presence and role of women in active places of ministry and leadership. And the church needs to advocate for better education, engagement, and advocacy for women in the world, in society, and in their very midst. We have to teach respect and honor of all persons. We have to listen to women’s stories and help them find resolution and grace in their lives.

In Galatians, we read, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:28 – The Message)

As a Christian and as a person of faith I believe this. I believe it to the core of my being. I believe it as a woman and as the aunt to four young women. I believe it as a mom to a teenage son who I am raising to respect women and advocate for them.

I pray we all find a way to live into equality. I know it will be hard but we deserve a world where all persons are valued and treated with respect.

And it begins with us – all of us. I for one will NOT accept this crap. I will continue to speak out. And I will hold others accountable for what they say and do.

I invite you to join many of us already in this fight, to continue on this justice journey, and to hold folks accountable. During this Women's History Month - let's all demand a change.

We all deserve better.

*Rep. Hewitt story from Conn. Lawmaker Stripped Of Post After Lewd Comment To Teen Girl. (accessed March 1, 2013).