Rev. Kyndall Rae Rothaus is pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and author of Preacher Breath (Smyth and Helwys, 2015).
Rev. Rothaus kindly agreed to an interview with Equity for Women in the Church.
Equity for Women in the Church’s mission is to “facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.” How does this mission speak to you?
Our world is so desperately in need of equal representation of women in church leadership. For far too long, the church has neglected to listen to the voices of half its population, and anytime you amputate a part of the body of Christ like that, it has severe consequences. However, this centuries-old crippling need not be permanent. I’m excited that Equity for Women in the Church is committed to healing the church from the fractures caused by sexism.
Have you experienced "subtle" and/or "blatant" sexism as a pastor?
Certainly. Most professional women in any field suffer sexism, though I think it is often worse in Christian settings unfortunately, because too many people of faith have misused the Bible to reinforce gender stereotypes and hierarchies. The sexism I experience is more often subtle than overt, and it is sometimes disguised as age discrimination instead. I sort of doubt my male colleagues of a similar age receive the same volume of unsolicited advice from elders and disparaging comments about their youth that I do.
I remember leading a workshop at a conference on how to thrive in your first year of pastoral ministry. I had recently completed my first year as a senior pastor at the age of twenty-seven, which I imagine is pretty young for a Baptist female in Texas. One of the workshop participants was a young man who had just begun his first pastorate. He was nineteen, and no one batted an eye. (Well, I might have batted an eye.)
All things considered, I’ve been quite fortunate. I’m in my second pastorate at the age of thirty-one while I consistently hear from women my age and older who worry they will never find a church who will hire them. Some of the churches who are open to women ministers in theory want to hire pastors with ministerial experience, but there are not nearly enough places to get experience. Women don’t get invited into their homes pulpits (usually). We’re often left to advocate for ourselves, all while battling the internalized messages that we aren’t enough and that we will not make it.
In your powerful response to Baylor University’s mishandling of sexual assault on campus, you make an explicit connection between the sexism perpetuated by the church and violence toward women: “When we’ve barred women from the pulpit regardless of how passionately they tell us they are called, we should not be shocked when some of our sons do not regard a woman’s sexual consent as necessary either.” What are some ways churches can affirm women’s experiences and voices?
Tell women’s stories. Quote female authors. Read books by women. Invite women into the pulpit—to pray, to preach, to read Scripture. Tell the stories of women in the Bible. Talk about abuse, assault, and violence against women from the pulpit.
When women do speak up, do not dismiss what they have to say just because it hasn’t been your experience. In group conversations, whether they be in Sunday School, meetings, or small groups, pay attention if male voices are dominating the conversation. Encourage equal participation. Celebrate bravery more than modesty. Invite children to lead in worship. Strive to have equal gender representation in all areas of the church’s life. Invite women to share their stories and testimonies.
Talk about God as both father and mother. Use gender inclusive language. Validate women’s concerns as important.
How do you help your congregation grow toward greater equality and gender inclusivity? And how do you deal with resistance to these efforts?
I be myself. I look for ways to be more of myself. I think this is really important because we have not achieved equality if I (or anyone else) is having to fit into the traditional male model in order to succeed.
I try to model inclusivity by being intentional about including women and men in all areas of church life, especially leadership in worship. I encourage young girls to be brave and know their worth.
I bring a feminist eye to the Scriptural text and a sensitivity to woman’s experience to my interpretative work. I also (and I think this is the most important thing) try to let my own experiences of oppression create in me a deeper sensitivity, compassion, and passion for justice for all who are oppressed. Equality isn’t just about women. It’s so much bigger than that, so much more complex and intersectional. If my experiences don’t open my eyes to the oppression of my brothers and sisters, then I have wasted my suffering.
As for dealing with resistance, that’s a tough one. I try to be kind, pastoral, understanding, and patient without sacrificing my beliefs, my integrity, or my voice. It’s a difficult (and tiring) balancing act that’s nearly impossible to get just right. Discerning when to fight a battle and when to just let it be—these are tricky and sometimes daily decisions.
I try to remember that the resistance isn’t just “out there”—in the world, in my congregation—resistance is in me too. So I practice self-awareness, because it’s not like I’m immune to blind spots. It’s good to remember we are all learning, and even though I’m teaching, I’m also always learning, so I try to be a good learner. I try to be honest about what I’m learning, and hopefully with my own vulnerability I can ease some of the fears we all have about finding out we were wrong about something.
Self-care is hugely important, otherwise I’d crumble! I come close to crumbling often, but fortunately I have friends who piece me back together as often as I need it. We keep each other going, and that makes all the difference. I don’t think anyone should attempt ministry without friends. It’s too dangerous to do alone. Also, I try to practice gratitude, because for every setback, there’s almost always a joy to be found too. I forget to pay as much attention to the good things as the hard things, so gratitude helps me re-shift my focus every now and then so I don’t get to wallowing. Antidepressants help too, as does therapy, nature, and quiet mornings on the couch. Finding creative and nondestructive ways to process and release anger and grief are vital.
Often advocating for women in ministry is seen as a “women’s issue,” rather than as an urgent justice matter that impacts the whole church and every gender. Why is it important for men to step up? How can men advocate on behalf of women in ministry?
First of all, sexism poisons everybody. Sexism has so many negative impacts on men as well as women. For example, we’ve been handed this distorted picture of masculinity—one that cuts men off from their emotions, disparages men’s tenderness and nurturing instincts, encourages violence, aggression, and domination, and even goes so far in some cases as to excuse criminal behavior. An overwhelming percentage of the world’s violence is perpetrated by men. It seems to me some of that brutality must stem from the unrealistic demands of “masculinity” that cripple too many of our men, fostering in them a fragility that must be tiptoed around, a sense of entitlement that must be preserved, and an insecurity about themselves that must remain hidden at all costs. Thank goodness for the men who have followed a different path, but when you are bombarded by harmful images of manhood, it is difficult to find your own way. I think if men and women worked together in relationships of mutual respect, we would help each other in significant and far-reaching ways.
One way for men to be advocates is to talk less and listen more. I remember asking a congregant if we ought to open the women’s Bible study to men and make it co-ed. She told me she’d rather not because men tend to dominate the conversation. I hear this from women all the time, and I don’t think most men even realize they do it. I know plenty of feminist men who still talk too much and too loudly. I love that they’re feminists. I would love it even more if an active part of their feminism was granting women the space to speak for themselves.
Don’t preach about why women are equal and should be preachers. Treat them as equals and invite them to preach. If you’re church “isn’t ready” for a woman in the pulpit, don’t accept that as an answer. When have God’s people ever “been ready” for God’s next thing? Most people don’t like change, but if change is the right thing, you have to be loyal to what is right, not loyal to what people want.
Also, cut it out with the sexist jokes. They aren’t funny.
Finally, pay attention to a woman’s intellect. We are perfectly capable of having a professional conversation without drooling over your body, and we expect the same level of maturity and competence from you. If you are unable to do so, you really ought to see a therapist about that.
What advice would you give to girls and women who are considering going into professional ministry?
Do it! We need you!
It’s a tough job, and so, yes, it’s a good idea to take your time prayerfully considering if this is the path for you. But if you choose not to go this route, do NOT let it be because you feel boxed in by your gender. That box deserves to be broken, and you deserve to be free of it.
Be you, and trust that you are enough.
Don’t feel like you have to defend your call to every naysayer who questions you. It’s not your job to change their minds. It’s your job to use your own mind to its fullest potential, and you really don’t have the time to waste it on people who won’t listen. It’s your job to be faithful to the work, and the work itself is your defense. Rock at what you do, and it’s harder for the opposition to stick.
What do you love most about being a pastor?
I love being safe space to people who are hurting. I love welcoming the formerly ostracized and the spiritual refugee. I love, love preaching. I love talking to kids at church and marveling at their imaginations. I love thinking creatively about worship, prayer, and Scripture. I love using my voice for good. I love writing and dialoguing with folks about what I’ve written. I love moving at a poet’s pace, when I can manage it. I love finding a new angle to an ancient story and bringing it alive for minds and hearts. It’s hard work, but I love standing for justice and knowing that a handful of the marginalized people in our town consider me their friend and ally. I love being innovative, and I love the moments in ministry when I really feel free to be myself.