“One of the hardest things women in ministry have to do is advocate for themselves.”
Monday. I’m sitting in on a monthly meeting of the “Heightening the Role of Women in Baptist Life.” It is a conversation hosted by Pam Durso and Devita Parnell. We hear from five women about women serving as ministers in difficult places. A pastor on the west coast says this spring she’s still introducing herself meeting after meeting to other pastors in her association. They ask her, “Now who are you? What is your role in that church?”
A seminary placement officer tells us about a pastor who upon arriving in her new church put a “glass panel in her office door” so no one would suspect her of doing something amiss. She also tells us about the isolation she hears from women in ministry who have no place to relax, to be themselves or “let their hair down.”
A minister with college students tells us about preaching a few weeks ago. Before she rose to speak an elderly woman on the second row asked loud enough for everyone around her to hear, “Is she preaching? Well, then I’ll have to leave.” She got up and went. The minister preached about Jesus being rejected in his own home town.
Yet another woman told us about searching for a place to serve and finding a deafening silence, a lack of support, and discouragement after sending her resume out. For years.
And of course there are success stories. More than a hundred women currently serve as pastors and co-pastors in Baptist churches in the south. But those women still get beat up by personnel committees. Some of them are still seen as the junior partner or church secretary by folks in the community or even in the church itself. And it’s not limited to churches. Tenure review committees still disrespect assistant professors and lawyers still block women who are up for partner, and female doctors are still underpaid.
The problems are not new. Neither are they going away without kicking and screaming. No wonder it is hard to advocate for oneself. With a constant undertow of covert, institutionalized sexism it is exhausting just to keep your head up some days, or let your hair down, much less ask for equality, or a little respect, or just a break.
“To your courage and your grief”
When the women in the meeting finish their stories Pam asks for responses to what we’ve heard. Some folks start offering strategies for overcoming these difficulties. I appreciate the strategies, but my heart cries out to make a pastoral response.
I tell them about one of my favorite movies “Hanging Up” where Meg Ryan’s character is a daughter who is taking care of her aging and cantankerous father (played by Walter Mathau). He is in the hospital dying. She has had a wreck in the parking lot, and her work is driving her crazy. She is struggling with her two sisters to manage their father’s care. And her son and husband have their own demands. She finds herself across the table from a very compassionate woman pouring out her troubles. And the woman after listening and empathizing raises her cup of tea. And she says,
“To your courage and your grief.”
This is the first gesture of response I want to make to the women who are struggling to live out their vocations. They are also finding ways to thrive. They are pastors of large and complex churches. They are elected as leaders in their state organizations. They are placing scores of men and women in ministry positions. They are teaching, preaching and contributing to the life of faith in countless ways. I want to honor their courage and their grief.
“The servanthood dilemma”
Later in the conversation another woman makes an important point. She says, “We don’t know how to put ourselves forward or to advocate for ourselves.” Another says, “It’s hard to advocate for yourself, for what you need as a woman, because it is seen as self-serving.”
This gets at the “servanthood dilemma” I like to call it. Jesus calls followers to be servants, self-less and giving to others. To those with power this is exactly the right call. But that message is not the only one or the even the appropriate one in every case. He also says “don’t hide your light under a bushel” and “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” For those without power this is the leading message. It is a tension especially for women in our culture who are both powerful and disempowered at the same time. Both messages apply, but not in the same measure. One is sometimes more pertinent that the other. Living into the wisdom of both takes years of practice and being willing to push past the frustrations of being misunderstood.
A few weeks ago as I turned toward the final push for finishing my current book, I knew I needed some extra encouragement. I have supportive family and take part weekly in a couple of writing groups, but I needed some extra doses of support. To get it, I needed to advocate for myself. I put it off unintentionally for several weeks. Then I got my courage together and took the risk. I sent an email asking for encouragement and support. Thankfully my friends and colleagues took me up on it.
No doubt this move evokes other feelings in people. The sexism I’m trying to lay bare in this blog and my book is insidious and takes up residence in our hearts and minds. It projects self-loathing onto others and hates it in them. It takes the same ill feelings and produces deep depression and rage in still others. It fosters jealously and anxiety, too. But we’ll never change or transcend these debilitating feelings and structures of sexism without the vulnerability of risk, which is yet another paradox of grace.
So if you want to join in the work of change, begin by welcoming yourself, by accepting God’s welcome of you. Lift a cup of tea in honor of your own courage and grief. And then reach into that courage to advocate for yourself. And for other women and men you know and love. Sometimes all we need to be our better selves, to be better followers and lovers of God is a little encouragement, a word of understanding, recognition, support. So here’s to you: to your courage and your grief. And here’s to mine. God help us become the change we want to see.
Eileen Campbell-Reed is co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Eileen has researched and written extensively on Baptist women in ministry and is currently completely a manuscript to be published soon by Baylor University Press. Read her blog, “Keeper of the Fire.”