Thursday, February 23, 2012

Part 4: Dusting Off Your Feet: When You’re Not Allowed Behind the Pulpit

Part 1: An Apology for Women in Ministry

Most every woman in ministry I know has battle scars—things that have been done or said to undermine her ministry. Sometimes these stories come across bitter and acidic. Other times the stories shared offer up some kind of hope. I hope this post leans towards the latter.

Some stories are pretty easy to take in stride. Like this one that occurred at a youth worker’s conference a few years back:

Him: “What do you do at your church?”
Me: “I'm a youth pastor.”
Him: “A volunteer?”
Me: “No, I'm a youth pastor.”
Him: “You mean you assist the youth pastor?”
Me: “No, I'm a youth pastor.”
Him: “So you're like a director.”
Me: “No, I'm a youth pastor.”

I think this guy’s head exploded.

Other stories hit a little harder. I’m sharing two of my stories not because I want to focus on the story itself, but on how the story affected me. I want to address the feelings, questions, and doubts that emerge when you’ve dusted off your feet and moved on. Because that’s what really matters. You can’t control what happens, only how you respond to what has happened.

Story 1:

My first internship was at the fantastic Spring Lake Wesleyan Church under Pastor Dennis Jackson (one of my heroes). It was here I was given the task of preaching at a local jail. I eager accepted and immediately started working on my sermon. I prayed over this sermon, labored over this sermon, practiced this sermon. Two days before the service I called the prison chaplain. Our conversation was a bit awkward and went something like this:

Me: “I was just wondering if there’s anything in particular that I should be aware of or extra sensitive to going into this service.”
Him: “Well, uh, is anyone else going to be with you?”
Me: “Yes, two other interns are coming.”
Him: “Are they men?”
Me: “Yeeeees.”
Him: “Well who is the one who is going to be speaking?”
Me: “Um, me.”
Him: “Well I know your denomination might allow for women to preach, but I believe what the Bible says. You can sing or pray, but you can’t preach here.”

After hanging up the phone, the emotion that engulfed me was not anger or defensiveness. Despite my advocacy for women in ministry, my overwhelming emotion was shame. I felt embarrassed that I had thought that I might actually be able to preach. I felt embarrassed that perhaps I had forced myself on someone. It stung that someone thought I wasn’t taking Scripture seriously. Tucked in with that shame was a touch of despair. I remember praying, “God, how can I hope to preach in a local church if I can’t even preach at the local jail?”

My hope was that this story would just quietly disappear. I didn’t want anyone to know. I knew in my head that I had not done anything wrong, but shame is a funny thing and all I wanted to do was hide.

The story got around. It had to, the jail was suddenly short a preacher. And so I wasn’t surprised when Pastor Dennis brought up the issue in a quiet, matter-of-fact way. I was surprised, however, when he simply said, “Why don’t you share the sermon with me Sunday morning. I’ll take one point you take the next.” And so I did. And I loved it.

Story 2:

This jail incident turned out being good practice for what was to come. During my second year of seminary I applied to work for a Christian organization I had mentally put on a pedestal for years. It was a long application process. Lots of references and examples of my preaching. Partway through the application process I got a call from one of the staff members. He explained to me that his organization had never hired women. Of course, not because they were against women in ministry. He explained to me that there were four views of women in ministry:

  1. “Women can only teach their children.”
  2. “Women can only teach their children and other people’s children.”
  3. “Women can only teach other women and children.”
  4. “Women can teach anyone.”
“I’m at the 3rd view,” he said (I imagine he thought he was pretty progressive). He then proceeded to ask if I would be willing to come on staff under this 3rd view. Did you catch that? He was asking me to take The Great Commission and cut it in half!

I told him, “No thanks,” and that I believed my call to preach the Gospel was to the world, not a gender.

He sadly responded, “Well, if you are hired it will be interesting to see who on our staff will have to leave our ministry over this issue.”

Thankfully, I had enough emotional awareness to catch this man’s passive aggression. And I could see the absurdity of his four views (in my mind the first three are all one view). And I knew that even if they did offer me the job it would not be a thriving environment (they didn’t, by the way, and I fought the urge to send them a “I-reject-you-before-you-reject-me” letter). Despite all these pieces of knowledge, I still felt shame. Again came the thoughts, “Who are you to think you could work at a place like this?”

And while I wanted this story to die a quick death in my memory, I shared it with another of my heroes, Keith Drury, who had been following this story from the start. (Is it considered kissing-up to name my father-in-law as a hero? By the way, he's got a lot on women in ministry here. Though my favorite article is this one.) He wrote me the simultaneously most affirming and most angry email I have every received. I keep it handy and pull it out whenever I need a pep talk. There’s something very validating about watching someone you respect get angry on your behalf.

What surprised me the most about these experiences were the ensuing feelings of shame.

This past Wednesday I read a very heated, mean-spirited, heretic-calling response to some of these thoughts. It was long, raging, and profane (which reminds me, I need to bump Keith’s email from the “most angry” category in order to make room for this guy). It was honestly the meanest post I’ve ever read on this topic—and no, I won’t post it here, mostly because it wouldn’t make sense with all of the cussing blacked out. And I am happy to report that after twelve years of actively trying to sort through this issue myself I felt no shame at his words. My blood boiled and my hands shook a bit, but not an ounce of shame. Not at all.

Here’s the point of this post: women in ministry will encounter hostiles. We will. We just will. Encountering hostiles cannot be avoided. The question that remains is how will we respond to hostility. I don’t mean what do we say to naysayers, though that’s certainly important, I’m wondering how we will internally process these stories? What will we say to ourselves? What questions and pronouncements will echo in our minds after the conflict has fizzled?

In my case, I am very thankful for mentors in my life like Dennis and Keith. Early in my journey I was told to find a female mentor. I suppose that might have been helpful had I known a woman pastor. My advice is a bit more direct: find a mentor. Period. Male or female, in my case it didn’t really matter (though I did get a little misty eyed the first time I saw a woman preside over the Eucharist). Find someone who won’t let you sweep your stories under the rug but will exorcise them through opportunity, encouragement, and righteous anger.

Don’t allow shame and bitterness to corrode your call.

(By the way, I should have warned you this women in ministry thing has been brewing in my mind for a while and I’ve got another whole week’s worth of blogs.)


Sarah Wilson said...

I've been enjoying these, Mandy. Sometimes I feel absolutely sick to death of talking about women in the ministry--the arguments are out there; what's remaining is the change of heart, and you just can't talk someone into that.

I'm also struck by what you say about shame. It's been my experience that the weird, destructive, I want to say even perverse thing about shame is that it always attaches to the wrong person. Shame chases after and soils victims instead of perpetrators, giving the perpetrator a double victory. How could we teach people from an early age--whatever situation they may face--to become shame-repellent?

Sarah Sanderson said...

I had no idea that you have had to face situations like this! Thanks for sharing Mandy

Raul and Catie said...

I appreciate everything you're sharing so much, Mandy. Thank you for being so open and honest and letting us know that when we think this issue is being overcome, it definitely is not.

Amanda said...

What wonderful comments to wake up to this morning! Thanks, Friends.

Sarah, you're words on shame are fascinating, "It's been my experience that the weird, destructive, I want to say even perverse thing about shame is that it always attaches to the wrong person. Shame chases after and soils victims instead of perpetrators, giving the perpetrator a double victory."

Profound! I'm going to quote you on this. And yes, it certainly warrants further conversation.

teacherjan said...

I'm loving these blogs, Mandy! Go, girl! GIRL!!!!! You are a gift to ministry anywhere and you have an amazingly approachable way of taking us through your journey. I know God has GREAT things for you and THROUGH you . . .!

Lynne Payne said...

What a great series! Thank you for sharing these blog posts. I am also in full time ministry (I was ordained last summer) and have faced similar situations/feelings. If you're not already working on a book... you should write one!

Jess said...


I love these posts as well! I have not faced a lot of opposition, but I have no doubt it will happen at some point. I love hearing how others have processed through the times when it does happen. I look forward to the next week's worth of posts :).

Dennis Jackson said...

Dear Pastor Mandy. Thanks for your kindness in this . . . I appreciated it, and hoped that my response in the day was fitting for any intern who served in some of the most memorable and rewarding moments of my life.

I don't remember the content of the message from that day, but I will never forget the joy and passion of your preaching - and I got to partner with you!

Lots of love,


Amanda said...

Thanks, Dennis. It was the passage in Acts on favoritism where the sheet was lowered in front of Peter and he was told to "eat". Quite fitting.

Thanks for the opportunity and the tip on Rain-X. :)

John Zelazny said...

Thanks for these blog posts. Learned of them through Josh Z. posting them on facebook (former youth pastor to my daughter who is now in seminary) I am sure these blog posts are an inspiration and education to her although she has already had to deal with similar situations. It was something to watch her walk up to a lead pastor of a fairly "progressive" growing plant church in our area and ask him to justify why their denomination does not believe in women pastors. "Oh we have a place for women in our ministry team... look we have a woman leading children's church...etc." Even in our own church (Presbyterian with a woman pastor) it just amazes me to know of the amount of people, even women, who openly oppose women being in a position of ordained ministry. Our pastor can deliver a "knockout", profound, sermon and these people have such a block that their reaction would be , meh. Keep doing what you are doing!

The Rupps said...

My mom loves to tell the story of a woman in my early childhood who, after hearing my beyond-my-years answers to questions about the Bible, said to my mother, "Maybe she'll be a pastor's wife." To which my mom replied, "Maybe she'll be a pastor."

The funny thing is, I am a pastor's wife.

He he.

Love this post and love that you are sharing these things. So important. Love you, Mandy.

Kelly said...

Also, Mandy, I co-authored a book called "The Problem with the Problem with Women in Ministry Leadership." If you haven't seen it, it might be a helpful resource for you --

Emily said...

Thanks for these posts Mandy. I'm passing them along to friends who have asked me questions recently. I have responded to them in various ways, but keep thinking, surely there is a more accessible way of dealing with these questions than turning people to commentaries on the matter. Your own posts and the sermons and articles you mention are helpful. Thanks for taking the time to share.

Youthleadergina said...

Thanks for sharing. I work at a more conservative church...I knew that going in. But as long as I can use my gifts in the way God wants me to, I am good! If not...well there are other place God can call me. For now, my ministry is perfectly suited to my call, regardless of no "pastor" title.