When I was a senior at Baylor, I had the privilege of taking Dr. Rosalie Beck’s Women in Religion class. It was a great class and she was a phenomenal professor. She knew her students well and paid close attention to what they needed and how they were handling the class. When it came time for the final exam, she gave each student their own individualized final paper. My exam was, “Explain your views on women in ministry to Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., in a loving and kind manner.” WHAT?!?!
I was stumped. I had no idea what to write. I couldn’t believe she gave me this assignment! I agonized for weeks, paced back and forth in our apartment, and ranted to my roommates, who could not understand why I didn’t just, “write something and be done.” I ended up in tears, filled with anger and sadness. Hearing the stories in class and reading page after page of women who were abused, devalued, pushed aside and told they were less than or that they could not follow God into ministry was heartbreaking. I grew up in churches and in a family that was encouraging to women in ministry. I did not understand how people could so easily limit God. I finally wrote the paper. It was cathartic and healing to articulate my feelings and my understanding of scripture in relation to my call. It was freeing to come to the realization that I didn’t have to hold onto anger because people disagreed with me or even if they devalued my call. There was forgiveness and grace and a “shake the dust off my feet” moment. I realized my call was not limited to this man’s views, that the world was a big place with enough work for both women and men and Jerry Falwell did not call me, God did. I wish I could find that paper and reread it now. Dr. Beck understood that I could not be an effective minister if I didn’t let go of my anger, if I couldn’t articulate my calling in a way that was healing rather than defensive.
I have to say, it has been a challenge at times even after thirty years in ministry. I have discovered that there will always be people who don’t think you should be doing ministry, as a woman. There are always places that are closed, people who question your call and those who are out right rude and hateful. I have also found people who are gracious and accepting, excited to see and support women ministers. People who are thankful and encouraging of your gifts and abilities. It is still sometimes difficult to find places to serve and exercise your gifts, but more often, these days, I have found open doors rather than closed.
Recently, I posted an old video on social media of male clergy reading aloud things that had actually been said to female clergy. A few of my favorites are, “I can’t concentrate when you are in the pulpit, you’re so pretty.” “This is our little girl preacher.” “Women shouldn’t wear pants.” “Well, if God can use a donkey, he can use women.” “I’ve never met one of you.” These are just a few of the things mentioned in the video along with an incredible amount of blatant sexualization of female clergy. These words and the actions that typically come with them, are all incredibly hurtful and meant to be demeaning, disarming, to keep us in our place. However, I have found that God called me, God prepared me, God provided for me, and God walks before me and beside me. God has always provided places and people for me to serve. God has always led me to people eager to partner in ministry.
People still say ridiculous things, and some don’t even realize how demeaning their comments are to women in ministry. People are afraid of what they don’t know, the unfamiliar. Churches are nervous about doing something different. I have found even in the most “supportive and progressive” churches, some people don’t know how to reference or talk to women in ministry because they’ve never had the hard conversations or even the uncomfortable ones that help us all walk through new and different circumstances. How do we, the church, need to change to make room for women in pastoral leadership? Many congregations have never asked women clergy what it’s like to be women clergy, what kinds of things are offensive or hurtful. Congregations assume that having women ministers will be just like having men ministers, but we are different, and that’s a good thing. It allows us to have a more complete picture of God and a broader understanding of creation. Congregations need to be open to what their ministers need and be willing to hear the sometimes hard truth about what they have experienced.
Dr. Beck was right, and I needed to work through my anger. There are moments it resurfaces and hopefully, I use it to seek justice and show mercy, as I humbly walk with God. I am most thankful for that final exam and for the people along the way who have encouraged women and given women space to learn and grow and serve. God is gracious and loving and continues to call women to serve in all areas of the Church. Thanks be to God and to Dr. Beck!
Sharon Felton is Minister of Students, Faith Baptist in Georgetown, Kentucky.