Posts Tagged ‘women in ministry’
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, Exploring God’s Radical Notion that Women are People, Too by Sarah Bessey, Howard Books, 2013, 235 pp.
This book was chosen for a UCC clergy book group in which I participate, and I was very disappointed in this book as a choice for that group. We have been a church ordaining women and embracing feminism for 150 years, and this book seemed far too basic for our conversation. Bessey’s argument is about why women should be included in church leadership–a debate we are no longer having.
I am trying to separate my frustration with the choice of this book for that group and my feelings about the book itself, which are not nearly as negative. There are still far too many places in the church where women are not understood to be equally created in the image of God and qualified for spiritual leadership. There are countless women who are silenced, by their churches, by this theology, and by themselves. Bessey’s book speaks faithfully and well to those audiences, especially to those who find themselves with a hopeful suspicion that Jesus actually welcomes women to live up to their full spiritual leadership.
Bessey is a poetic writer, and her book is all heart. Her heart is beautiful, beckoning, pleading with the heart of her readers to be moved to open themselves to God’s plans for women in a more expansive way. This is lovely. She says things like, “Patriarchy is not God’s dream for humanity.” (14) She offers spiritual insights like these:
Let’s be done lobbying for a seat at the Table. I want to be outside with the misfits, with the rebels, the dreamers, second-chance givers, the radical grace lavishers, the ones with arms wide open, the courageously vulnerable, and among even–or maybe especially–the ones rejected by the Table as not worthy enough or right enough. (4)
That’s the thing when we say yes to God–it’s not about that one yes. Our one yes keeps resounding and spreading, like ripples in a pond after a pebble is thrown into it, until the yes of God and the yes of our hearts and the yes of Jesus’ love and the yes of us all sweep over the world. (149)
On losing her faith:
I hold almost all of it loosely in my hand now, all of it but this: the nature, identity, soul, action, and character of God is love–lovelovelovelovelovelovelove. Everything was resurrected on that truth. (50)
However, as a reader I needed more “head” to go with the heart, more substance and scholarship to make her case. Bessey’s understanding of the issues showed little or no research or understanding of biblical scholarship, and especially feminist biblical criticism. I have spent much of my adult life immersed in Christian feminist scholarship, and her book’s ignorance of these conversations was frustrating in every way. She presented ideas and concepts about Jesus, Paul and their attitudes toward women that have been explored in depth for more than 30 years–yet she talks as though she just found them herself in the scripture. While she may indeed have come up with them on her own, her versions lack the depth and perspective of so many ongoing conversations. I wish she had done just a little more homework, to discover that such a world even existed–she writes as though these are new ideas, and they are not. They are shallow, oversimplified (and sometimes even discredited) ideas about the interpretation of scripture about women. She never even questions or critiques the use of exclusively male language about God.
That is a harsh critique, but it is not the end of my assessment of the book. Bessey’s book still matters, it still has a place, it still fulfills a need, and I would still recommend it to certain readers in certain circumstances. Those just emerging from the closed world of conservative fundamentalism or evangelical Christianity will find a soul sister in Sarah Bessey. Women and men just beginning to question the hardened gender categories of biblical womanhood and pastoral leadership will find a handy introduction and invitation to open their hearts and minds a little wider.
I can imagine people to whom I would recommend this book, and to them it would be life-altering. However, that audience is small and targeted, and does not include the many of us who have already decided that women are to be fully integrated into the life and leadership of the church and have moved on to living it, doing it, and watching the consequences and changes women bring.
There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor, ed. by Rev. Martha Spong, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2015, 215 pp.
For years, my clergywomen friends and I have been swapping stories about what our lives are like in the crazy, beautiful work of ministry. “You should write that down.” “We should write a book someday.” “Somebody needs to publish all these stories,” the voices echo. Finally, someone did!
There’s a Woman in the Pulpit captures the stories of dozens of clergywomen across denominations and cultures and across the world. The initiative began with the RevGalBlogPals, a blog ring of women in ministry that I read for a long time and was honored to join when I became a blogger myself. Many of these women have been writing their stories for years, others are new to ministry or to writing. They pulled together the best of the best from all the submissions for There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.
Here’s my response: I laughed. I cried. I shouted, “I know exactly what you mean.” I had to put the book down because I was too deeply moved to turn another page. I wanted to answer back by swapping stories of my own. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends (and, truth be told, several of the authors are my friends–in person or via the internet). I said a deep, sighing “yesssss” on multiple occasions.
The breadth of the stories moved me. While I expected the stories about tender moments with the dying to bring a tear or two, I was surprised to also find myself sighing deeply over the stories of mothering through ministry, or presiding at the communion table, or preaching. There were stories I immediately recognized as similar to my own, like keeping vigil at the bedside of a beloved church elder or searching for a nice pair of preaching heels, and stories that offered me a window into another’s life, like parenting a child with a disability or juggling a church and a farm.
If you want to know what it’s like to be a woman in ministry (or just a person in ministry–not all stories are gender-specific), this is the book for you. If you are a person in ministry and want to read something reflecting our experiences with beauty and wonder and humor, this book is for you. If you love a woman in ministry, this book will offer insight into her world. While there are occasional stories of sexism or gender bias, most of the book is just about the beautiful, messy, holy lives we share with beautiful, messy, holy people and congregations.
When I have shared stories like these with others, including male clergy colleagues, there is often disbelief. “That doesn’t really happen, does it?” You might read this book and feel the same question arise. Here is my three-part reply: 1. Yes, this stuff really happens. 2. Yes, I mean it. It really does. 3. Isn’t it beautiful and messy and holy, and isn’t that just what God is like?
I’m so proud to know many of the women whose writing is contained in this book, and I feel blessed to have our stories told for the world to share. Get it, read it, love it.
Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman, by Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith, Chalice Press, 2011, 123 pp.
Ashley-Anne Masters and Stacy Smith have captured the private conversations and storytelling that happen whenever young clergy women find themselves together, which is too often a rare and isolated opportunity. I remember the first time I was in a group of other young clergy women, thanks to the birth of the UCC’s 2030 Clergy Network. We all had our fair share of stories, good and bad, charming and challenging, hilarious and horrifying: being refused as a pastor because of youth and gender, having your wardrobe up for scrutiny, hearing people talk about “the pastor” without realizing its you, struggling with what to wear, handling discrimination or sexual comments or inappropriate behavior, discovering how to be ourselves while also fulfilling this demanding role as pastor.
Masters and Smith tell stories from young clergy women (themselves and others) and capture the power of those storytelling conversations—the laughter, the horrified looks, the empathy and understanding. The storytelling itself has healing and encouraging power, but the authors take it even further. In each chapter, between the stories, they offer scriptural and theological reflection on the questions at hand. The classic conversation about what to wear for what occasion is deepened with a reminder of the finery of the woman from Proverbs 31, or Paul’s instruction to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Stories about feeling at home (or not) in a new community take on new meaning when coupled with the story of the exiles whose captors demand they sing in a foreign land (Psalm 137), or Lydia, from the Book of Acts, who as a foreigner welcomes Paul to Macedonia.
This power of connecting biblical stories to contemporary stories of young clergy women was especially powerful in the chapter on pregnancy, when the authors reach back to biblical women as sisters on the journey, no matter what your journey looks like:
There are the “Sarahs” of the world, who may be too old to have a child; there are the “Hannahs” who wait many years to get pregnant; and there are the “Rebekahs,” who struggle with the relationships between their children. There are even the “Michals,” who, like David’s wife, are unable to sustain a pregnancy and end up parenting other people’s children. And yet as pastors, our pregnancies can be a step beyond. We can easily feel like “Tamars,” whose families are judged, or “Ruths,” who are foreign outsiders to the mainstream. Remembering we are daughters of these women can help us fulfill the roles of mother and pastor. In our life and ministry, we too are listed within the genealogy of Jesus and are called to be God’s messengers. (65)
This book is a real gift to young clergy women everywhere. It gives voice and validation to our stories, and offers the perspective and encouragement of sisterhood across thousands of years.
It’s been around awhile, but I just saw Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams as Rose Lorkowski and Emily Blunt as her sister Norah. In the movie, the two sisters start a business cleaning up after crime scenes, attempting to make better money than cleaning ordinary homes. Much to my surprise, I kept stumbling upon scenes that were strongly reminiscent of pastoral ministry.
In the first one, captured in the video below, they show up to clean up after a death. All we know when they pull up to the home is that the death was a suicide, and the man was in his 70s.
Rose instinctively moves to comfort the grieving widow. Notice the awkwardness in her face, her posture. She does not know what to say or to do, because there are no words that can be said and nothing she can do to change the grim situation. She just sits by her side and holds her hand so the bereaved woman is not alone.
So much of the pastoral care we clergy offer looks just like this. “Would you like me to sit with you for awhile?” I have asked that question hundreds of times, in hospital rooms, funeral homes, living rooms and courtrooms. Like Rose Lorkowski, I sit awkwardly, silently and uncomfortably with the grieving one for awhile. Like Sunshine Cleaning, there is a service that we clergy perform, with funerals and information and planning. But much of what we offer is simply our presence, holding hands and lingering, unhurried.
Later in the movie, Rose goes to a baby shower for one of her high school friends. Surrounded by married, successful friends from her high school days, she proudly begins to describe what she does for her business. It’s more than cleaning, she says: “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound, sad… and… we help.” You can catch the line in the trailer below, starting at 2:02, although the visuals are not from that part of the film.
For many people who are not churchgoers, clergy play a similar role. We show up when someone dies, or when their churchgoing parent is ill and hospitalized, and we help. Or at least we hope that we do. Sometimes we just sit and hold their hands, sometimes we offer information, sometimes we sing hymns or wash dishes or plan services. Hopefully, always, we pray.
One other connection, from that same scene: Rose’s description of her life’s work is full of pride and excitement. However, her baby shower audience responds with an awkward pause and blank stares that belie a mix of horror and intrigue. The scene made me laugh out loud. I know those looks. Being a pastor, especially as a woman, frequently makes people uncomfortable in social settings, and sometimes people don’t know what to say about your work. Rose’s description of her work just serves to prove to her that she won’t ever be “one of the gang” again with her high school friends. There is an aspect of that in ministry as well, as we always carry our pastoral persona with us, like it or not.
Sunshine Cleaning was an unlikely source of wisdom and imagery about pastoral ministry, but I take it wherever I find it.
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)
This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.
Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960’s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.
It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.
The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement. Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:
Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:
“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”
So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.
Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.
My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.
Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.
Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.
We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.
Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.
Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life by Joanna Weaver, Waterbrook Press, 2000, 242 pp.
I read this book at the choosing of our Women’s Fellowship group, who asked me to help lead them in a discussion of a chapter every month at their meeting. To be honest, it is not a book or genre I would have chosen for myself. On the bookstore shelf you would likely find it under “spirituality,” but it could also be “Christian self-help.” I feared it would be shallow, poorly written, conservative in its ideas about God and women’s roles, and so filled with advice it would make someone’s head spin.
I am pleased to report that it was not. While I would not give it five stars for any of those categories, Weaver’s style and theology were basic, clear and filled with warmth and love. Using the basic conflict between Mary and Martha’s roles (one in the living room, one in the kitchen), and the wisdom of Jesus to come to the living room for time apart with God, Weaver takes a close look at the hectic nature of women’s lives. She names the tensions we feel between faith, friendship and faith, and our need to get Martha’s tasks done while taking Mary’s time with God. She gives practical insight and advice about these matters of the heart.
I read this book in short doses, and in conversation with the ladies of the Women’s Fellowship, a dedicated group of women aged 75+. My experience of the book was shaped by that conversation, and by the wonderful discussions it sparked among us. (Including this one.) While, for most of them, the busy time of their lives is over, they still felt the same pressures of care-taking in different ways. The book opened us to moments of conversation about the expectations men have of women’s roles and service, the portrayal of women in the Bible, the historic exclusion of women from church leadership, the tension between grace and works, and more.
These women connected to Weaver, because she wrote with such a sense of honesty and openness. She freely disclosed her struggles with everything from a messy house to a vacant prayer life. The women’s hearts responded to her honesty, and they responded with an honesty of their own. The book’s tone launched a frankness that is rarely seen in my church conversations, and it was a real space for the Spirit to work.
I would not have chosen this book for myself, but I took great delight in reading it alongside these women. Weaver’s faithfulness and earnestness let the Spirit speak through her, even though my perspective may be a bit different. It might do the same for the women’s group at your church.
This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.
Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.
Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.
From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing “people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)
I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.
The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.