I don’t often talk about my views on women in the church. My opinion is obvious when I stand in front of a congregation in a stole and preach a sermon. I don’t know why I tend to keep quiet about it. Maybe it’s because I’m so fortunate to be in a denomination that has been ordaining women for over 40 years. I am privileged to follow many women who fought hard to be ordained, and I reap the benefits of their dedication. I have known respect and honor from the congregations I’ve served over the past eight years, even when I was a brand new and inexperienced pastor who looked (and often felt) like a teenager in the pulpit.
Yet when I saw that Rachel Held Evans would be hosting One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality to promote conversations about egalitarianism in the church, I had to say something. I love how she notes, “people of goodwill and sincere faith can disagree on these issues.” I agree, and I am glad to offer my perspective.
At a recent conference I attended, I sat down to have lunch with a table full of strangers. The man across the table looked at me over our fried chicken and asked, “Do you ever wonder if the people in your congregation sit in the pews on Sundays and secretly wish you were a man?”
No, no I don’t. I was a bit taken aback by his question because, honestly, I don’t get questions like that very often. I don’t think he was trying to be rude, but rather was trying to understand my perspective (and maybe just trying to make conversation with a bunch of strangers over lunch). The relationships I have with the congregation I serve are hard-fought and earned, not only because I am a woman but because it takes time to create trust and mutual respect. I told this man as long as I show the congregation I am competent and care about them, often other concerns fade away. I don’t want to simplify the issue, but that is my experience. And I’m guessing the people in the pews wish I were a lot of things, not just a man. Yet we work with one another’s imperfections as forgiven children of God embracing true community.
At a different lunch at the same conference, I talked with some women. One asked me what I do. I remember telling her I am the pastor of a church in Minnesota. Later in the conversation, she asked me how I like doing associate ministry. I reminded her I am not an associate but a solo pastor. She became defensive and said, “Well, the way you initially phrased it, I just assumed you were an associate.” I think associate positions are essential and difficult and wonderfully specialized. What bothers me is her assumption that, because I am a young woman, I naturally belong in an associate position rather than on my own.
As long as I am in ministry, I will deal with questions and comments about my gender. I could go into my theological and Scriptural views on the worth and dignity of all people, which have informed me and my decision to pursue ordained ministry as a career. But when I think about the role of women in the church, I am simply overwhelmed with gratefulness. I am so thankful I grew up seeing a strong woman stand and preach in the pulpit of my home congregation. Because of her and the congregation’s willingness to call a woman, ministry was always an option for me. I am so terribly relieved I can fulfill my sense of call to serve the church. I was thrilled to see a woman recently elected bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA–not because she is a woman, but because she is qualified.
I know there are still many places in the larger church where women struggle to find respect, and I stand with those women. Yet in my own denomination I worry about the balance of gender as the face of leadership changes. I am concerned as the church becomes more and more feminized, we will need to work hard to define new and different roles for men. How will we engage men–and boys–in this new type of church? This question haunts me as I think about our future together.