Thursday, July 09, 2009

by JW

I think I may be one of the blessed ones. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I really began to understand that my gender made a difference in my ability to share in the ministry of the church. I was fortunate to be raised by parents that worked to intentionally nurture my ministry skills and to model a life of service and leadership—both by my mother and my father. Even when I was a young child, my mother was writing articles for Christian magazines and going out of town to speak at churches and retreats. I didn’t know at the time that she was blazing a trail for women in Churches of Christ. Nor did I realize that her primary audiences were women—her gender prevented her from speaking to mixed audiences most of the time. All I knew is that my mother was using her God-given gifts in ministry in various ways. And it didn’t seem strange to me at all.

When I was a teenager, my mother began working on her master’s degree and, eventually, her doctorate in ministry. She did this on top of her full-time job, balancing these responsibilities with her marriage, children, and ministry at home. Again, I didn’t find this particularly remarkable at the time—it was just our life. But I do remember beginning to understand that my mother was unique. There were not many other women in her classes and sometimes the men didn’t know how to respond to her. I won’t try to tell any of these stories here because they are hers to tell, not mine. Plus, I don’t know if I really know any of them. I just remember beginning to develop a sense of otherness around this time. I knew that the way I understood myself as a female was not maybe how other people understood me.

My feelings of frustration about my gender didn’t begin until I was in late-high school. In those days, the youth group kids would sit near the back of the auditorium on the far lefthand side. Many Sunday mornings, a slightly frantic, sweaty deacon would come rushing over and would ask one or two of the guys to help serve communion. At first, it didn’t really bother me that I was never asked, nor were other great girls from the youth group. But one Sunday I looked up and saw that I was being served on each side by two guys who had JUST been talking about the party they had attended over the weekend. While they had both baptized in the previous months, neither one was resisting the temptation to party with their friends. Not that I was sinless or expected that the people serving communion would be any more righteous than any of the rest of us. But I felt the first painful pangs of frustration that my ability to serve at church was not evaluated based on spiritual maturity, desire, or willingness. Even though I had been a baptized Christian for seven years, I was not considered able to walk down the aisles with a tray because I lacked the important “spiritual gift” of the phallus.

Despite that frustration, I continued to serve in leadership roles in my youth group and was asked to deliver a public response to the church on Senior Sunday—one of two times I have ever spoken publicly during worship.

When I entered my freshman year of college, I still didn’t have much of an idea about the restrictions women faced in Churches of Christ. I had been sheltered and empowered by my family and, in many ways, by my home congregation. I quickly became involved with like-minded friends and we organized a devotional for freshmen—attended by probably 50 students. During one of the first devotionals, I volunteered to “give the talk.” You know, to use Scripture and my personal experience to edify and challenge the assembled group. After we sang a few songs, my (male) friend who was leading worship introduced me. And he said that I would be “giving my testimony.” Which was true, in a way. But what I was doing was no different than what my male cohorts had done in previous devotionals, only their talks weren’t specified as “testimonies.” He had chosen that word to describe my talk so as not to offend anyone. I remember feeling conflicted and a little hurt by that distinction, though I wasn’t wholly surprised by it. I didn’t want my gender to be the focus of my talk, I wanted the Lord to be the focus.

At the end of my talk that evening, I prayed for all of us. I don’t remember anything specific or remarkable about the prayer at all. And I didn’t think twice about doing it—after all, I had been able to pray, read scripture, and lead discussions in my youth group just months before. But after the devotional, a male friend of mine came up to me and told me that he had covered his ears while I had prayed because he didn’t want to participate in a sin: being led in prayer by a woman. I was absolutely floored. And hurt. And angered. This was the first time (and, thank the Lord, I think the only time) I have ever been so directly attacked for my spiritual leadership.

I attended college in my hometown, and my home congregation was undergoing an extensive study of women’s roles in public leadership. I was invited to be part of a discussion group one afternoon, to share my views with other members of the church as well as the elders. I shared my previous experience about feeling frustration when the boys in the youth group were invited to serve communion and the girls were excluded…and a man in the discussion group responded with the following sentiment: “It’s probably a good thing that young women don’t serve communion. What if a woman wore something sexy that made the men in the congregation lust after her. That would be detrimental to the spiritual state of the men during communion. Therefore, women shouldn’t serve communion.” Again, I was floored. I couldn’t believe his willingness to disenfranchise women based on some men’s inability to control their sexual desires (not to mention the total lack of trust that women are able to dress modestly and appropriately!).

When my husband and I started dating, he was working on his Master’s of Divinity and was ministering at a tiny rural church outside of town. I joined him in that work, and, though the church was conservative, I witnessed beautiful female servant leadership by Audrey and Mildred, the octogenarian matriarchs of the church. Each week, they would arrive at the building early to prepare for worship. One had a good right arm, the other had a good left arm. So they would stand, bad shoulder to bad shoulder each week, preparing the communion trays—Audrey on the right, using her good right hand, Mildred on the left, using her good left hand. And even then, in my early twenties, I didn’t miss the significance of this image: two women devoted to the service of the church working side by side, taking up the other one’s slack to the glory of the Lord. My husband and I learned a lot at this tiny church—our first ministry together. But the witness of Audrey and Mildred is the primary image that remains for us.

And I think of so many other women, both in progressive and conservative churches, who have blazed trails or have quietly made strides in their service of the Lord—their curious exploration of the Word. And I am grateful. Because I know that my way, though frustrating, is easier because of their work, their pain, their humiliation.

I am blessed to have a husband with whom I have an equal partnership in our marriage and in our ministry. He actively supports all of my gifts—both spiritual and otherwise. I think this may be the heart of the blessing I feel from the Lord when it relates to women in public leadership: I do not feel the desire to have full-time or public ministry in the church. At least not right now. I am a theater artist and I feel fully empowered to explore and utilize those gifts in my career. Most of the frustrations I have felt with my congregation in the last three years have had nothing to do with my gender. I have been blessed to be part of a young professionals group that has accepted me (and other women) as full teachers and leaders. I am still baffled by the silly little semantic acrobatics we go through to be sure not to offend more conservative members (women in my church are allowed to read scripture during the worship service, but they do it from a seated position; to “justify” this, men who read scripture also do it from their seat). But the last three years have been encouraging to me because, in that time, I haven’t really had any arguments about whether or not women are able or gifted to lead in the church—the conversations have been focused on how quickly the church can adapt to female leadership and what the appropriate next steps are…

And this is where I find hope, as a strong, gifted woman in Churches of Christ. I think churches will either change their views on this central issue, or they’ll further isolate themselves from the rest of the world, will lose their young, dynamic members, and will eventually either shrivel up and die or implode on themselves. I feel churches of all stripes reorienting their focus to be more concerned with justice and peace. A few Churches of Christ are joining this movement. And this gives me hope and excitement. I can see that the road will be long as women have to continue to fight for a voice and an equal share in the gospel mission. But I am encouraged that there is hope within Churches of Christ. I am committed to sticking around and doing what I can to help in the journey, knowing that if—after years of struggle and attempts at reconciliation within the C of C—my husband and I can’t make it work, we will move on to another group that recognizes my voice as equally as important as his.

Until then, I join with so many other witnesses—male and female, silent and outspoken—in testifying to the goodness of our God, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of frustration, suffering, and doubt. To Him be the glory forever and ever.


Indie Pereira said...

"I lacked the important “spiritual gift” of the phallus," is my quote of the day. Thanks for sharing.

jduckbaker said...

I thought the same thing!

Thank you for sharing such a hopeful, thoughtful message. You are right. To God be the glory.

JTB said...

absolutely. that is now part of my permanent lexicon.

TKP said...

I smiled when I read this. Thanks. Also loved your new term. Heh heh heh.

JTB said...

I think I was one of the blessed ones too. Like you it was only after leaving home and entering the quasi-independent realm of college life that I ran into the realities of limitation due to gender.

Thank God for sensible parents.