While recently attending the Young Clergy Women International Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, I got to spend the week learning from one of my homiletic heroes, Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary. In our first session, she made a comment that drove right to the heart of why I had found myself in St. Louis that week.
“You know how people say that things aren’t getting worse, they’re getting uncovered?” Dr. Lewis asked. “The stained glass ceiling is shattering . . . the shards of that ceiling are starting to fall, and they hurt.”
I am just past the fourth anniversary of my seminary graduation and ordination. I spent two years serving as a hospital chaplain and have completed two years in congregational ministry. Both hospital systems where I served had employed women in their pastoral care departments for several years, and yet I still saw the surprised looks on plenty of patient and staff faces when I introduced myself as the chaplain. The church I now serve is an affirming place for women in all sorts of leadership roles, and yet, on one occasion, visitors walked out of the sanctuary upon learning that I would be preaching. Local community groups have refused to work with our church because I am on staff.
I know the church today is a very different place for women in ministry than it was even a generation ago. I’m reminded every year as Baptist Women in Ministry gathers that I stand on the shoulders of women who have fought hard for me to have the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m grateful.
But as we’ve been discussing in this series, the struggle is nowhere near over. What I’ve noticed in the four years since I was ordained is that these days the hurt does not come from big sweeping declarations that my call is invalid but the pain happens as a result of the little disrespectful moments that gradually pile up. These occasional moments of disregard almost hurt more because they are infrequent, and I don’t have the calluses build up to deal with them. When microaggressions happen in spaces that have generally been supportive, I’m not prepared to respond, and I find myself questioning whether the behavior even happened at all.
These are the shards that are still falling, because the ceiling may be shattering, but it’s not gone.
Ministry is isolating enough without being a figure whose literal existence represents a justice issue in the church. One of the most important ways to navigate that world is to find community with others who understand that experience.
When we are connected to colleagues and peers, we have people to help us process the microaggressions that we might come up against. We have someone to assure us that we are not imagining things, to share their experiences with similar behaviors, and to help us think through our responses.
When women connect with one another, we can amplify one another’s voices in spaces not designed for us. In decision-making spaces where women’s voices are often ignored, interrupted, or co-opted, the women at the table can work together to reiterate the ideas of women and direct credit where it is due.
We all know that to thrive and grow in ministry we need opportunities for continuing education, but how often do we find that the information is completely useless because the leaders have not bothered to consider the experiences of women? Women and men in ministry benefit by learning from women.
There are a host of ways we can connect with community that will help us to build up these tools and resources. Find and join collegial groups that fit your particular set of demographics (for me, as an ordained female clergyperson under forty, that is Young Clergy Women International). Connect with mentors or groups that are specifically intended to respond to the particular needs of women in ministry (Baptist Women in Ministry provides great mentoring groups and they are accepting applications now!) In your own region, join or create a peer group to spend time with growing and reassuring one another in ministry (the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has great resources for getting connected to a peer group or creating a new one). Conferences like Nevertheless She Preached provide incredible opportunities to build networks and learn from one another.
When Dr. Lewis made her observation about the shards falling from the stained-glass ceiling, my lived experience made more sense. Of course, the pieces that fall are going to hurt on the way down, and we won’t always be able to avoid the hurt. But we can support one another and equip ourselves with the tools needed to keep working. If the stained glass is falling, surely, someday, for some generation of women in the future, that ceiling will be gone, and won’t we be glad to have worked together in bringing it down!
Lauren McDuffie is the associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky. Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org