For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘women’s fellowship

But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say, “Live and let die, live and let die”

Ah, the wisdom of Paul and Linda McCartney! Have you heard it, church folk?

The world is an ever-changing place. Each generation displaces the one before. New technologies render yesterday’s marvels as obsolete junk. Taste, preference and popular culture shift constantly. People die, and other people are born. Old things sometimes want to die. New things want to grow.

Far too often, we in the church forget this cyclical rhythm of life. Programs and ministries of the church are a part of this same ebb and flow. New things grow, old things die. In spite of our fervent belief in resurrection, we seem unwilling to let go and trust that God can birth a new thing in place of the old. Instead, we exhaust ourselves in seeking every means of life support available to sustain a ministry that has no chance of long-term survival. It is not the dying of old ministries that makes us feel weak, exhausted and hopeless as the church—it is the fact that we are drowning in life support for them.

Just today, I was visiting an elderly member who said, “Oh, I hope the Women’s Fellowship keeps going.  It’s been such a good thing over the years.” I agree with her—our Women’s Fellowship has been a huge part of the growth and ministry and service of this congregation for over 75 years. They are currently down to less than 15 participants, the youngest of whom is approaching her 80th birthday. They are a shadow of their former selves, when women gathered 100+ strong and wielded significant political and financial power within the church.

However, the Women’s Fellowship is also still a vital and vibrant ministry. They gather once a month for a meeting and program, usually a study of a bible-based book. The group leads our ministry to homebound members, ensuring that everyone receives a visit and a card once a month. They sponsor the education of a girl in Sri Lanka, and make small contributions to various charities throughout the year. Their members are happy and engaged in leadership, and other than occasionally leading Bible study, they thrive without staff or pastoral support.

In spite of their continued vitality, they are still an aging ministry that will probably die out when its current members can no longer sustain it. Like its members, the Women’s Fellowship is nearing the end of its life cycle. Women’s roles in culture have changed. Most women now work outside the home and are not available for daytime meetings. Women are no longer barred from serving as officers and leaders in the church, and they find their opportunities for leadership throughout the congregation. Gender-based groups are giving way to affinity groups based on age, family status, hobbies, interests and time.

As the pastor, I will be there when the time comes to help the remaining members of the group to celebrate the life of the Women’s Fellowship and to grieve its passing. That time is not now, but it is in the foreseeable future. I will help the church to understand what it will mean to lose their ministry to homebound members, and determine how to find new ways to connect with these lonely souls. This work will be difficult and painful at times, but I do not expect it to be frustrating, exhausting and hopeless. I believe it will be holy.

What would be exhausting and defeating and depressing would be the tasks required to keep the Women’s Fellowship alive, the measures of life support. Begging younger women to attend. Moving the meetings to an evening in the hopes that working women will jump in. Investing hours of my time and energy to design flashy new programs and bible studies. Heaping guilt upon women who could attend but choose not to. Taking on the tasks of leadership myself, since there is no one else to do it in the group. We could do all of those things, and chances are that the Women’s Fellowship would still die, albeit maybe a year or two later. Chances are even better that we would all end up feeling bitter, exhausted, disappointed, guilty and hopeless about the future of the church. We would see the death of this aging program as a failure on our part.

McCartney’s words are good advice for the church: “But if this ever changin’ world/In which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say, ‘Live and let die.'” Letting something die is not a sign of failure, but a sign of faith—faith that the God of Resurrection can bring new life out of death. That new life will not likely be the victory we expect, the program we planned or the old body we once inhabited, but it will be holy, hopeful, alive and energized to meet the needs of the changing world we live in. And so will be the church that welcomes it.

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Our church’s Women’s Fellowship is a small band of 10-15 women ranging in age from 75 to 90. They meet once a month for a business meeting, program and refreshments. The Women’s Fellowship is the descendant of a once-thriving and prominent Women’s Guild, which attracted hundreds of women who had no other opportunity for leadership or employment and wielded enormous financial and influential power in the life of the church. The evolving nature of gender relationships, the inclusion of women as officers and leaders in the church, and the reality that most women now work full-time outside the home has diminished the need and authority of these kinds of women’s groups over the years. The Women’s Fellowship no longer wields such power, but they are still a mighty cool bunch of ladies who contribute a great deal to the ministry of the church.

I have been leading a book discussion with them every month for their program, and this month the chapter focused on the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, particularly the Johannine account which identifies her as Mary of Bethany. We had already giggled and tittered about the sexual nature of this encounter, and talked about the intimacy of that moment. We wondered together at the woman’s motivations, at her feelings for Jesus. Then I asked, “Well, what about Jesus? Why do you think he accepted such an intimate gesture, such a show of affection? Why did he just sit there and let her wash his feet with her hair?”

“Because he’s a man. They just expect you to serve them,” blurted an 80-something former farm girl, tough as nails and as loyal to her church as anyone can be. And the whole room erupted in the honest, raucous laughter of recognition—for a moment, until we realized she had just made a man-joke about the ego of Jesus Christ. The laughter reverted to nervous giggles followed by awkward silence, as they looked to their pastor to see how she would react.

I have to admit I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to affirm the truth-telling nature of her comment. It opened a powerful connection and shared experience in women’s lives, a feminist consciousness-raising moment. I wanted to name and unpack the reality she described, that men have been trained to expect women to serve and to sacrifice, and they tend to overlook and underappreciate the real cost of women’s gifts and service.

I also felt the need and desire to defend Jesus from being a typical man. I want him to be my feminist hero. I think there is some justification for this in the Gospel. Jesus did talk to women without prejudice, engaged them fully in his ministry, bent gender roles, spoke up in defense of women and adopted a posture of service and sacrifice that is not so different from women’s traditional roles.

I did both of those things, and the conversation progressed. But the original comment still pricks at me, because it reminded me of the uncomfortable reality that Jesus was still a first-century man. He may have been a good man, a forward-thinking, radically inclusive, woman-affirming man—but he was still a man. He probably did not overcome all the prejudices of his day around the expectations of women’s servitude.

It renewed my yearning for a female Messiah, a woman of spiritual and moral consequence, who breaks through gender stereotypes to establish a model of the faithful life as a woman. Jesus sets the model for what a God-dedicated life looks like for a man—serving others, humbling yourself, giving up home and family for the sake of spiritual pursuit, standing up to power and working for peace and justice. What does it look like for a woman to live that kind of life? Jesus’ model life was made possible by the women supporting him, providing food and shelter and clothing to him. I refuse to believe that supporting male spiritual leaders is as good as it gets for women, so what does it look like for a woman to live a model faithful life?

When society already demands humility and servitude and trains us up to practice compassion and reconciliation, what does spiritual leadership in those areas demand? It requires extra courage and fortitude for women to stand up to power and speak out against injustice, so perhaps that is where our spiritual leadership comes forward. But what about giving up home and family? Who’s going to feed the children if women start following Jesus’ model of leaving those tasks to someone else?

This yearning for a female Messiah is not new to me. I believe many women share the aching desire for role models, spiritual and otherwise, that show how to overcome the gender stereotypes of service and humility while continuing to be serving and humble, how to stand up to power and speak for justice while still practicing justice and care in our family relationships, how to lead and give and serve across the multiple, challenging roles and stereotypes women face. Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Dorcas, Lydia—these are important examples, but their stories have been so filtered through gender stereotypes that it is impossible to look on their lives without filters.

Jesus is still a feminist hero. But sometimes I still want more.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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