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.