"I Can Do It" But Should I?

Post author Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace is Assistant Professor of Church History at Memphis Theological Seminary. She specializes in social justice issues in American religion, particularly race and gender. She is a board member of Equity for Women in the Church, creator of the "Stole Sisters" podcast, and a figure skating coach. 

I've spent a lot of time thinking about gender inequity in the workplace, particularly in church work and higher education.

Why aren't women paid the same? Are women asked to do the same amount of work as men? Why are women such reliable lay volunteers but excluded from top leadership, or in the case of higher education, why are the most reliable staff often women, but the top leadership are almost always men?

While this is still an ongoing wondering for me, I do have some ideas. Please keep in mind that these are all general tendencies, and that I am in no way trying to speak for all women or all men or all churches or all educational institutions. These are just general observations, to which I'm sure there are nuances. (And the reason I had to write that at all is because I know there will be men who read this and want to quickly correct me for how non-sexist they personally are, without even taking the time to think about how they benefit from the system by being male or how their complicity with these systems does perpetrate sexism.)

Women are incredibly competent. We are good organizers, good with people, and willing to work hard to acquire new skills. We are ideal employees!

We are also very good jugglers, because we have had to be. (This was the most unsatisfying punchline of a rom com ever, in I Don't Know How She Does It.) We are constantly juggling to-do lists, long-range plans, short-range plans, grocery lists, menus, drop-offs, pick-ups, health care needs and frequencies, car repair needs and frequencies, budgets, organizing strategies, physical fitness for the family, sports and activities for the family, whose birthday is when and what gift to give, upcoming travel plans, what to wear in the family photo and who/where/when to take it, etc. And that's just our personal life, what some scholars have called "emotional labor." Even if there is a partner to help with the execution of household and family responsibilities, women tend to be the ones who manage this work, keeping track of what needs to be done and when, and delegating the responsibility. We still hold it, even if others help us do it.

And, we are juggling in parallel at work. We are thinking about committees, reports, newsletters, events, networking relationships, upcoming hires, upcoming presentations, class prep, professional development, conferences, association membership and leadership, etc. And even those women who are lucky enough to have a staff to help them are having to keep track of everything to appropriately delegate the right tasks to the people who can best execute them. We hold it all.

And on top of that, women tend to volunteer for things much more often than men. Whether it's to demonstrate competency, lean in with ambition, or a sense of obligation to help others whenever in need, women tend to volunteer for way more than men do.

In higher education, this means women spend more time advising, counseling, serving on committees, assisting with other departmental efforts, etc, which takes a lot of time and often interferes with having sufficient time for things that directly lead to promotion - namely, teaching and publication. So, the system of university evaluation and promotion systemically disadvantages those who are more engaged in service, which typically means women and minorities, the very folks already facing disadvantage in the field.

In church life, this means women spend more time on pastoral care visits, answering phones or returning calls, sending cards, offering mid-week Bible studies, sitting on committees, or having planning conversations. They are the backbone of the work, but very little in the limelight. And because of expectations that pastors serve their congregations, and the prejudice against women pastors, it is very difficult for women pastors to say no or to set boundaries on their time.

Serving professions (teaching, ministry, social work, etc) attract people who care about others and want to make the world a better place through service. These fields attract a lot of women. And women tend to be among the most competent in all of these fields, and more.

But these are the same fields that tend to exploit the labor of women, letting them put in extra hours without bonus pay or promotion, letting them sign up for lots of extra service opportunities but not factoring that in their evaluations, expecting them to produce results but not guiding them in how to budget their time so that they can succeed on the career ladder.

I'm so tired of the quick-and-thoughtless response that women are choosing to raise families, which is why they aren't seeking career mobility. What that means is that women are still expected to do most if not all of the work of raising a family, even if they work full-time, but men now want to take half or more of the credit.

And what's worse, it's so rare for men to volunteer for something that, when they do, a big deal is made about it. How many times have you heard moms at school compliment a particular dad for helping, but not expect similar gratitude for their consistent above-and-beyond helping? He did it once, which is so rare and precious, so we must throw him a parade, but never mind that we rise to the occasion on top of our regular jobs day in and day out!

Just yesterday, a colleague and I were trying to visualize the life of some of the men we know professionally. Wake up and put on clothes you did not wash, eat a breakfast you did not cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, drive to work at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's drop-offs, work until you feel done for the day, drive home at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's pick-ups or errands, rest a bit in a comfortable chair before you eat a meal you didn't cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, read or watch television leisurely until you were ready to go to bed, and then repeat. We could not imagine it. Even when our children are staying elsewhere for a night, we are still juggling laundry, errands, menus, lists, tidying, health, and relationships. We don't get up when we want. We don't go to bed when we want. We often leave work before we feel done for the day. And when we do get home, we start an hours-long shift of caretaking, cooking, cleaning, and prepping for the next day. I'm lucky if I get 30 minutes of leisure time before I go to bed. But the men we were thinking of often post loving dad pics on Facebook, which is perhaps the only 30 seconds they spent with their kid all day. Most of their time is about themselves, yet they get credit for being an invested parent. Mom, on the other hand, is doing most of the work at work and most of the work at home, and it's "normal" so we take it for granted.

I doubt that most institutions mean to exploit the labor of women. I suspect that a problem is posed, a woman volunteers to help or has already demonstrated capability to solve the problem, and she is tasked. Women are doing more work, for less pay, and then going home and putting in another full-time job's worth of a shift to care for their families. Even if they have a staff at work and a supportive/responsible partner at home, women tend to carry the burdens.

It's a vicious cycle. If I say no to something I know I am capable of doing, I feel guilty, like I'm not being a responsible member of my community. But there are some things that I just don't have the resources to do. I don't have the time or emotional energy to take on every project that needs doing. Others have much more time than I do, they just aren't volunteering. Others know how to do the task just as well as I do, or even better, they just aren't volunteering.

And in the faculty/staff meeting, inevitably, the leader will ask for volunteers, there may be an awkward silence, and odds are a woman will fill it by volunteering herself. We are used to juggling a million responsibilities, so what's one more? We can get it done.

But is this ultimately helping us, making us look more like members of the team, and demonstrating our well-rounded capability? Or, is this keeping us in a hamster wheel, so bogged down in the things that others weren't willing to do, that we undermine our own career progress?

I'm not saying women shouldn't invest where they feel capable and able to help. Each woman should get to determine such things for herself. I'm saying that some environments recognize women as super jugglers and systemically take advantage of them, whether those environments realize they're doing this or not. I'm also saying some women don't realize when it's happening to them, and think that eventually their hard work will be recognized, but ultimately end up getting passed over for promotion by a man.

It's a complex problem that will require careful reflection by all involved. There's not one solution. The answers likely depend on the specific context. Some employers are being very careful to ensure that service counts for promotion. Some employers encourage their junior staff/faculty to judiciously limit their involvement so that their time can be devoted to developing new courses and publishing. And some employers insist on offering supplemental pay, revised job titles, or promotions for those who truly exceed their job descriptions. Some employers keep tally of who has volunteered for what and require those whose numbers are lagging to pull their weight.

But it is a problem. Even if women get to the executive table, which is still incredibly difficult, the table isn't set up for fairness. Men reap higher dividends even when women make bigger investments. The playing field is not level. And until the systems that perpetuate uneven expectations and uneven rewards for women are redeemed, we will have tokenism at best.

 This blog originally appeared at courtneypace.blogspot.com

Embodying Liturgical Seasons: Thoughts on Motherhood & Church

Post author Beth Honeycutt is a home economist living in Mars Hill, NC.  After divinity school, she served for four years as Minister of Christian Education at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, NC.  She is now a full-time caregiver to her 7-year-old son and 3-year-old boy-girl twins.   She feels blessed to be parenting in partnership with her husband.  Beth is a Sunday School teacher at her church, Circle of Mercy, in Asheville, NC.

I love my church.  I am profoundly grateful for the ways they have supported me as a person and a mother.  Circle of Mercy shares the values of Equity for Women in the Church, as two women and one man founded the church in 2001.  We currently have two female co-pastors, whose lives as daughters, sisters, spouses, mothers, aunts, and grandmother strengthen their authenticity and authority.

I love that my children see collaborative leadership in preaching, worship, and decision making among men and women, old and young, lay and clergy, gay and straight.  I love how those who serve communion weekly always stoop over to share the bread and cup with my children.  I love how sometimes children are the communion servers, and others must stoop over to them.  I love that each staff person, from pastor to child care worker, is paid the same hourly rate.  Some staff are paid more than others because they need more time to carry out more duties, but the work roles have equal value.  We are by no means a perfect church, but it feels like home to me and my family.

World Communion Sunday at Circle of Mercy (photo by Marc Mullinax)

World Communion Sunday at Circle of Mercy (photo by Marc Mullinax)

In light of my gratitude for my pastors and congregation, this blog invitation gives me an opportunity to put in writing some ideas I have been busy living.  Here at the edge of Eastertide, I find myself thinking how we can experience the rhythms of the church year in our bodies. Let me give you an example from my own life of early, biological motherhood: Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost resonate with pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding.

Lent and pregnancy are periods of Waiting.  Preparation.  Expectancy.  Lent comes from a word that means “lengthen.”  Before Easter, the days lengthen (in the Northern Hemisphere).  The baby makes the pregnant mother’s belly lengthen, widen, and round: past a certain point, I couldn’t see my feet while standing!

Lent is traditionally a season of repentance, of setting aside certain things to make room for spiritual growth, of reordering priorities.  Pregnancy is a period of setting aside and reordering, too. The mother’s organs literally shift to make room for the womb.  I felt new priorities because of the new life inside, like the craving to have a specific food right-here-right-now or the sudden need to rest when I wasn’t planning a nap.  I declared a fast of sorts, abstaining from and limiting certain foods, even as my protein, calcium, and water intake skyrocketed.  I bonded with the toilet to respond to nausea in the beginning and a pancake-shaped bladder in the end.  I redefined “accomplishment” as my feet were propped after merely folding a load of laundry and checking the mail.  

Just as Lent is a time to develop new ways of being and moving in the world, the pregnant woman walks differently, sits differently, stands differently.  Belly grows, breasts grow, ankles grow, feet widen, head to toe bears weight gain. In the weeks nearing birth, I turned sideways in order to access the kitchen sink or the cutting board of vegetables.  St. Paul admonishes the Colossians to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience…love” (3:12, 14).  As the pregnant woman embodies these values, she must literally wear different clothes!  I had new priorities because of the new life inside. 

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are traditional Lenten practices that shape our intentions and flesh out our desire to draw close to God.  Today, we may interpret fasting as promise-making, either by giving something up, or by vowing to do something important, all with God’s help.  Preparing for a baby has the fast-like quality of vowing to love, care for and cherish.  It involves child birth classes.  Car seat wrangling.  Diaper acquisition.  Baby care plans.  Name deliberation.  All with God’s help.

Almsgiving is generous concern for others.  In pregnancy, the “other” is both part of you and separate from you.  Because all nutrition goes first to the fetus, the woman’s very bones will cry out and surrender the calcium stores it had for her if she doesn’t eat enough of what the baby takes.  It is all too easy for women to give to others before we give to ourselves.  We must guard against depletion, anemia, burnout.  Through mothering and ministering, many women find it easy to be generous to and concerned for others.  Let us include our needs in this too!

Sometimes, almsgiving means that we are the poor and needy.  We may need to receive the almsgiving-generosity of others.  Church people are ever so generous to expectant and new parents, but only if I let it be my turn to receive, my turn to be vulnerable, my turn to rest.  From my own church community, I love that I asked for and received a blessingway in the weeks prior to my final pregnancy and delivery.  I love how people came to our apartment to help us with infant babies and a preschooler.  I love how even more came to help us move from apartment to house three years ago; we call ourselves “Mercy Movers” and help each other as needed. 

Conversation, bargaining, blessing, pleading with the divine….in other words, prayer…..comes naturally to most pregnant women.  In a single moment, I felt intense gratitude, desperation, humility and wonder.   My need for God and delight in God reached new heights.  I rediscovered Psalm 16 when I was pregnant: “…I keep the Lord always before me…my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure…”

And then. And Then!  The moment we’ve all been waiting for—Easter and birth!  Easter–a high, holy, feast day for the Church—celebrates Christ delivered unto life.  Birth delivers the child into air and light.  Birth delivers the mother from sciatica, gestational diabetes, heartburn, preeclampsia.  Birth fulfills the waiting to meet the little one face to face.  Birth is an incredibly definitive moment for mothers, a holy ground of opposites.  The travail of labor renders her weak and suffering, yet also strong and capable.  She may feel afraid and shy, and then totally uninhibited as the baby is placed in her arms!  Aware of both her mortality and power, the mother feels exhausted and elated, drained and triumphant.  Jesus dwelled in opposites too: he was dead, but is risen.  Risen indeed!

The miracle is irrepressible—neither controlled nor contained, but embraced.  The mother’s body stretches, the stone is rolled away.  I may not know how I gave birth; I may not know how God raised Jesus from the dead.  But I do know the miracles: the womb and tomb are empty!

People gather for Easter and for births.  There is much to celebrate as our joy is made complete.  The days are accomplished after 40 days in Lent and 40 weeks of pregnancy.  In awe of new life, we welcome the new baby and the resurrected Jesus.   

We also see that even a gorgeous, healthy, “normal” baby may have a misshapen head from passing through the mother’s pelvis.  We realize that Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.  The Eastertide stories show us that those closest to Jesus didn’t even recognize him.  Sometimes birth stories are complicated or traumatic.  The joy may be accompanied by regret; both are real, both are true.  With thanksgiving, we understand our need for God even more deeply.

After the birth, with God’s help, we incorporate the miracles into our everyday lives.  Breastfeeding and Pentecost bring us into seasons of discovery and growth, as new life in community takes root.  The resurrected Jesus appears to his friends, ascends to heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends on the people.  They see fire, they speak with different tongues, they share their wealth, they provide for the widows, they struggle through conflicts.  Their new community takes shape.

Breastfeeding was my favorite aspect of the early motherhood cycle.  Nursing was not such a demanding, head-to-toe-altering experience as pregnancy was; it was certainly less demanding than the hardest work of my life in labor.  Breastfeeding was a season of bonding on the outside, and getting to completely fill the need of the little one.  A desperate baby makes the mother dripplingly desperate too.  The breastfeeding hormones relax the twosome, then both are relieved and satisfied…the baby blissfully full, the mother blissfully empty.  I nursed my sons, and pumped and bottle fed my daughter; I feel the bonding and closeness is comparable…and must salute the added family workload tending bottles!

In the economics of nursing, mom and baby can trust one another to take and produce enough.  All that is needed can be found through sitting and eating together, praying and learning one another’s cues.…especially if the partner comes with frequent glasses of water, grandma changes a diaper, the church brings a meal, and grandpa folds the laundry.  This resonates with the shared common life of the First Church.  As the mother traces her stretch marks, as the disciples trace the marks in the risen Jesus’ hands, feet, and side—the miracle changes the whole community as it welcomes and provides for new life.

In my own church community, I love how from 9-18 months of age, my babies sat in high chairs and ate all through worship.  I love that an 85-year-old widower always asks how I’m doing: “Are your children running you ragged, or are you having a ball, or both?”  I love how my honorary grandmother in the church blesses the noise and shuffle of children in worship: “It means we have a hope and future!” she declares. 

Of course, not all of us know so intimately the experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, but how might each of us recognize the rhythms of preparation, labor, new life, and bonding?  What if it is through fostering or adopting children?  Or through any relationship we build?  Through work and ministries?  And is our awareness of these rhythms heightened when women are our pastors?

God is a Big Brown Bear

Post author Rev. Daniel Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain and an Association of Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor.  He works at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC and is an active member at Park Road Baptist Church.  He lives with his spouse and five-year-old daughter and loves craft beer and vinyl records. Daniel blogs at Shaken Parent Syndrome

On the way to church one Sunday morning, my daughter said from the backseat:

“Daddy, can we see God?”

I had to consciously remind myself that she is five and that she did not want or need a theology lecture.  Since I never know how to answer questions like this, I use a little trick cribbed from Socratic learning techniques:

“What do you think, sweetie?” I asked her back.  “Do you think we can see God?”

“No,” she answered.

Well, there you go, straight from the mouth of a kindergartener: we cannot see God.  But the curiosity of a child is not prone to merely asking questions it already knows the answers to.

“I wish we could see God,” she said

“Maybe sometimes you can,” I shrugged.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, can you see love?”

She thought for a moment.  “No.”

“But can you see when someone is doing something loving?”


“Then maybe sometimes we can see someone doing something that God would do.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror; I could see from her expression that she wasn’t buying this.

I didn’t want this to be the end of the conversation; I wanted to rescue this conversation so she would feel as if talking about such things were ultimately a worthwhile endeavor.  “Well, if you could see God,” I asked, “what do you think God would look like?”

Without hesitation she said, “A brown bear.”

I had not seen that coming.  I’d half expected her to give me the classic WASPy child’s answer of an old man with a white beard, but instead I got a brown bear.  I couldn’t help but laugh with surprise – and not a little delight at her rich, if unintentional, subversion of stereotypical God images. 

“Is it a friendly brown bear?” I asked, suddenly struck by one possible problem with this metaphor.

She shrugged and rolled her eyes.  “Of course!”

“So you think God is a cuddly brown bear?” I summarized.  “Sounds good to me.”

After a few moments, she said, “I wish God was in the car with us.”

Again, my silly need to protect abstract theologizing overcame me and I said, “Maybe God is in the car with us.”

“Uh, no he isn’t,” she snapped, “or I would see him.”

“Oh, right,” I winced.  “Well, what would you do or say if you could see God in the car with us?”  At that thought, my own mind went straight to all the times that I, too, had wished for an audience with God.  My need for answers and explanations; my longing for an accounting of the sufferings I’ve seen; an assurance of some purpose at work beneath everything.

She looked out the window wistfully.  “I wish he was here right now so I could cuddle with him.”

I almost pulled the car over so I could let that soak in for a moment.  I pictured my child wrapped warmly in the protective arms of a fuzzy brown bear, no need for answers or explanations or assurances beyond warmth and presence.  My eyes filled with tears.

“That would be really wonderful,” I said after clearing my throat.  “Maybe sometimes God sends us other people who will cuddle us.  Maybe that’s how God cuddles with us, by bringing us other people who love us and cuddle us and look out for us.”

She frowned and continued to stare out the window; going abstract just wasn’t getting us anywhere.  She asked me more questions about God.  How does God eat?  How can God be in all places at once?  Where does God live?  All questions of concrete curiosity about this strange thing called God.  I answered as best I could, trying to avoid abstractions, and probably saying more about what I didn’t know.

My child is a concrete thinker.  It’s her job; it’s what her brain is built to do right now.  Intellectually, there are a lot of things in this world that are impossible to fully comprehend only from the concrete: love, hope, peace, God.  However, there is something really grounding and embodied about letting my child lead me into the concrete realities of these things.  Because I can philosophize about the nature of God all day long, but my real experiences of the divine are things I’ve felt in my gut and in my bones.  I’ve read a lot of books about emotions and love and passion, but the things I truly believe about the nature of love come from the ways I have been loved, and the only ways I’ve ever been loved are by people doing things for me in concrete, real, experienced ways.

I have no idea where God lives or what propels God’s existence or even what God is on any basic ontological level.  (Sorry, theology professors who taught me in seminary.)  I do know, however, that when I joined my child’s image of God – imagining with her how much she’d love to have a big teddy bear snuggle and protect her – that I felt close to God in that moment.  I felt warmth in my chest, felt a twinge of longing in my gut, felt the tears come to my eyes.  Those were all concrete experiences even if they came from trying to ponder abstractions.

It is essential that we have images for God.  We are imaginative creatures who make meaning through stories and symbols.  How can we understand a thing like the divine without the stories of scripture and our own lives?  Without the taste of bread and wine among friends?  Without the cleansing coolness of water or the sweet smell of oil and incense?  Without the hands of parents or the laughter of friends or the exhilaration of air in our lungs and sunlight on our cheeks?  I overlook all the concrete experiences that inform my understanding of God’s presence in favor of the vast and arcane theological arguments, but it is impoverishing for me to do so.  My child has no choice but to live in the concreteness of her life and it would do me good to join her.

A significant concrete experience of her life is living in her body.  Toes and fingers and curly hair and yes, the things that lead her and those around her to identify her as a girl.  Even though inclusive language is a theological concept adhered to with strict discipline in both our household and our church, she has still absorbed the tendency to speak of the divine with masculine pronouns.  For now, I don’t correct her; the abstractions of gender and language don’t seem particularly illuminating without the capacity for formal operational thinking.  But she sees a woman in the pulpit every Sunday morning at our church.  For the ways in which she sees pastoral leadership embodied by a strong, confident, thoughtful woman, it is well worth pleading with her to sit quietly while Pastor Amy preaches.  And as a church and family, we must continue to help her see herself in the divine, as we tell stories of faithful women disciples and of God as friend, Spirit, mother, midwife, sister.  As she uses the concrete world around her to learn to imagine, her mother and I want her to include as vast an array of images as possible in her make-up of divine possibilities: women, bears, and anything else she can dream up.

Of course, she is learning to experience the abstract through the concrete, even if she can’t yet comprehend it.  I’m thankful that she has people in her life who will cuddle and hold her and protect her and encourage her.  I’m thankful that she has food to eat and a bed to sleep in and shoes for her feet.  Her concrete experiences of care and provision will help her trust a God who seeks goodness and blessing for everyone.  And I’m thankful that she in turn can remind me of the concreteness of goodness.  Not just so I can get in touch with my own blessings, of which I have experienced many, but also that I might seek to be a concrete good for others.  Goodness – indeed, Godness – comes in many, many forms.



Not So Fast...The Double-Edged Sword of a Few Opportunities for Women Pastors


Post author Rev. Christine A. Smith has served as Senior Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Euclid, Ohio, since 2006. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling:  Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors (Judson Press, 2013) and creator of Shepastor, a blog for women in ministry. Rev. Smith has been married to Aristide Smith, Jr. for 22 years.  Together they have two sons (Aristide III and Caleb) and one daughter (Aris).

More and more congregations across Protestant denominations appear to be accepting women as licensed and ordained ministers.  Over the past two years, ABC USA saw the hiring of at least 6 women to serve as executive ministers in regions across America.  Recently, the historic Riverside Church in New York called a woman pastor.  Increasing numbers of churches have women serving as associate ministers.

Many seminaries have enrollments comprised of approximately 50% women. We are on our way, so it would appear.  But not so fast…

While it may seem that the struggle for women clergy is over, data proves otherwise. According to a 2015 Duke University study on the number of women serving as senior/solo pastors, the number still lingers at 11%.

In the article, “How Thick is the Stained Glass Ceiling?,” Heather Hahn writes:

Even as U.S. congregations become more ethnically diverse, a new analysis of Duke University’s National Congregations Study shows that women hold only a small minority of those faith communities’ top leadership positions.

Women serve as senior or solo pastoral leaders of just 11 percent of U.S. congregations — indicating essentially no overall increase from when the study was first done in 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend the nation’s religious services.

Yes, we have seen advancement in the number of women being called to and placed in senior/solo pastor positions, but the advancement is minimal and at a snail’s pace.  The fact that we can name the women indicates their scarcity. 

While the image of women serving in the pulpit is a welcomed picture, it can also be a double-edged sword.   With the advancement of a precious few women to the role of senior/solo pastor, some are developing a perspective that the struggle is over. With the increase of churches licensing and ordaining women, women serving in the role of associate minister is also on the rise.  Congregations who have one, two or more female associate ministers may truly struggle to understand the issue simply because they see women in the pulpit.

The stained glass ceiling, however, remains.  Statistics show that 89% of the time, Protestant churches pass over clergywomen and instead select a man for the top ministerial role.  In light of these daunting factors, what can advocates for women clergy do to change the current trend?  Below are some practical suggestions…

  • Retiring male pastors can help prepare their congregations to be open to God’s best… 3-5 years before their retirement, male pastors who are advocates for women clergy can spend time encouraging their congregations to be open to God’s best for them, regardless of gender.  Through sound biblical teaching, giving women opportunities to serve in prominent leadership roles, and open, honest dialogue, male pastors can plant seeds of receptivity among otherwise resistant lay people.
  • Denominational leaders can work with regional executives and elders to conduct workshops, provide resources (books, articles, guest speakers, etc.), and offer educational experiences to local pastoral search committees…  Whether churches have the “call” process or the “appointment” process, providing resources to church leaders that will help them to choose God’s best, regardless of gender, could be very beneficial for all concerned.
  • Develop a “Lead Pastor” project for women who feel called to pastor… The United Methodist Church developed a special program designed to pair women clergy called to pastor with women currently serving in the lead pastoral role.  The clergywomen shadowed/interned the lead pastor for a period of time.  This gave the clergywomen exposure and experience in leading larger congregations—a critical factor in creating opportunities for women who are often passed over due to lack of experience. (Read more about this endeavor here.)  Other denominations can develop a similar approach to increase opportunities for women pastors.

The aforementioned suggestions will not answer all of the issues related to the dearth of women pastors.  However, such efforts will advance the work to get beyond the stained glass ceiling!

Daring to Reach Out

Post author Lynn Casteel Harper is an interfaith chaplain, Alliance of Baptists minister, and writer living in Greenville, South Carolina.  She is currently working on a book about spirituality and dementia. 

On May 17, 1968, in front of the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, nine activists burned draft files, using homemade napalm, in protest of the Vietnam War.  Among the Catonsville Nine (all of whom were arrested) was Daniel Berrigan—Roman Catholic priest, peace activist, and poet.  As he walked in handcuffs on his way to trial, a young nun, Berrigan’s close friend, reached out her hand to him in a gesture of solidarity.  A federal agent descended on them, in what Berrigan describes as “a swift, reptilian move,” and crashed down between their hands with a karate blow.  “Don’t touch!” the officer barked.  Reflecting on the episode, Berrigan writes: 

It was the epitome of the system…Don’t touch—make war.  Don’t touch—be abstract about God and death and life and love.  Don’t touch—make war at a distance.  Don’t touch your enemies, except to destroy them.  Don’t touch…

Forty-seven years later, the “don’t touch” system persists.  It permeates our lives through all the forces that suppress whatever is true, honorable, and just.  Don’t touch—keep a safe distance from problems.  Don’t touch—violence toward women and people of color isn’t that big of a problem.  Don’t touch—keep your faith personal and private, nice and quiet.  Don’t touch—leave well enough alone.  Don’t touch—leave undisturbed the powers and principalities of the status quo.  Don’t touch—you can’t change much anyway.

“Don’t touch” rears its defeatist head in our faith communities.  True, churchgoers are probably not karate-chopping joined hands with swift, reptilian moves.  Rather an ethos of apathy toward injustice weaves its threads through the fabric of our communal lives.  Seemingly benign forms of “don’t touch” abound in the church, especially with respect to race and gender.  Maybe some of these lines sound familiar:    

  • Most people in our church support women in ministry, but we’ve just always had male pastors.  
  • We ordain women.  They serve as deacons in our church and as guest preachers on occasion. We do more than other churches in our town.
  • Our church is mostly white, but we welcome everyone.  Race is not a problem here.
  • Our worship styles are too different, so it just wouldn’t work to come together.
  • Race and gender aren’t topics of conversation at our church.  Those issues were settled a long time ago.  
  • We don’t want to get too political here.  It’s not worth creating controversy or losing members. 
  • If we just focus on following Jesus, injustices and inequalities will resolve themselves.
  • We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

These sentiments—which are often tacitly held rather than directly expressed—function to keep intact the status quo.  They reduce the rolling, rushing waters of justice to an anemic drip. They do nothing to counteract the underrepresentation of women in pastorates and pulpits; they do nothing to undermine de facto white privilege.  To do nothing, to risk nothing, is the essence of “don’t touch.” 

In the midst of such moral-ethical-spiritual stagnation, a new vision is emerging: Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.

To the forces of “don’t touch,” Equity for Women in the Church responds, “REACH OUT!  Risk touching and transforming faith communities and society!  Dare to imagine a new way of being the church!”  While the vision may seem idealistic at first blush, it makes good sense.  How natural (though not easy) for those who have been historically pushed to the edges of community life—women and minorities—to come together and forge faith communities across denominational and gender and ethnicity lines.   

In the Gospels, the woman who had suffered from hemorrhages serves as a good guide on this “reaching out” journey.  In the midst of a large crowd that pressed in on Jesus, she fights her way to him and dares to touch him, if even the fringe of his robe.  To receive healing, she reaches from the fringes to the fringes.  Feeling power “go out” from him, Jesus calls the woman out from the multitudes.  Instead of scolding her for her audacity, he holds her up as exemplary: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  This woman’s bold faith compels her to reach out, to hope for restoration, and to take hold of healing.  She defies the “don’t touch” forces that seek to hold her back.  Might we be so courageous?

This gospel story shows the healing power of touch, but we know that not all touch is life-giving.  We are painfully aware how touch can turn violent and violating, which is why we need just visions that seek to restore the sanctity of touch.  A just vision calls us to reach out in compassion, to extend the self in the service of truth and love, and to make ploughshares of swords.  The vision of Equity for Women in the Church calls us to touch in an effort to heal—to make well the sicknesses of thought and deed that prevent a more global, more complete vision of the gospel.  It is a touch that ultimately communicates peace.

The challenges to implementing such a transformative vision are many.  It means resisting a cheap unity, which flattens out real differences and silences discomforting voices.  It means developing relationships—not by avoiding the tough stuff—but in and through the dangers, toils, and snares.  It means approaching my own wounds and the wounds of others with equal reverence.  It requires “diving into the wreck”—to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich—and entering deeply into the stories (and histories) of our messy lives.  And especially for persons in dominant groups, it means serious, unblinking self-examination and critique—undergirded by an acute historical awareness of the legacy of white supremacy and male privilege.  

If all this seems too daunting, too impossible—well, that’s because it is.  It is a kin-dom vision, which means it is impossible to manage or administrate into existence.  It is impossible to contain or control—which is what makes the vision one of faith and not one of corporate expediency.  After all, the wind of the Spirit blows where she pleases.  

But let us make no mistake: while the vision cannot be micromanaged and bullet-pointed into reality, it does require intentionality, spiritual discipline, and good practices.  It calls on individuals and communities to make real commitments and to take concrete actions.  Without such intentionality, it is far too easy to default to a comfortable church-social club hybrid…and to roll back out the same ole “Don’t Touch” signs.

For Berrigan, the karate-chopping officer’s “don’t touch” epitomized a violent, impersonal system.  As I search for models for a transformed church and society—marked by courage, justice, and the pursuit of healing—Bree Newsome comes to mind.  On June 27, ten days after the terrorist attack in Charleston, Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and cut down the Confederate flag.  “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer,” she said.  “We can’t continue like this another day.”  

She refused the status quo.  She defied the “don’t touch” forces that say “just be patient,” “don’t rock the boat,” “wait another day.”  She dared to reach out (quite literally!), to cut down injustice, and to claim a greater vision.  May we possess a similar clarity of vision and audacity of action. 

Connect with Lynn at: lynncasteelharper.wordpress.com.