Monday, July 06, 2009

Friday, Saturday, Sunday

On Friday, this is what I heard:

a panel of women--academics, ministers, teachers and other professionals, wives, mothers, grandmothers--talk about their experiences as women in the Churches of Christ. The purpose of the panel was explained briefly and simply: while we do a lot of talking about the "issue" of "women's role," and while that talking has utilized scripture, and reason (at least some form of it anyhow), and tradition (defined as 'how we've always done it'), experience, women's experiences, have been glaringly absent from our considerations. The panel was convened to address this gap, to create an opportunity for women to share their experiences. The first question was, "when did you first realize that your gender mattered in your church, and what was it that made you realize this?" This question generated answers ranging from early exclusion from brothers' childhood church roleplaying to "not until my 40's." These experiences were not uniform, except in one respect: at some point in their lives, each woman was forced to the realization that being a woman limited her ability to participate in the kingdom of God in the ways she knew herself to be capable of, in ways that she knew to be needed. And the responses to this realization were not uniform, except in one respect: each woman refused to listen to the message that she could not be the Christian, the fully empowered agent of God, the imago Christi, that the gospel itself proclaims she is. Whether she continued her work by creative accommodation of restrictive boundaries, or sought alternative spaces where she could serve without restriction, each woman's life testifies to the inherent power of the gospel as good news, for everyone, despite the ways our human flaws and blindnesses restrict it. The emotions present were not uniform, except in this respect: every one of us in that room wept at someone else's pain, whether it was generated by that first shock of discovery, or the backlash against stepping out in faith to serve, or the sense of fear and failure that accompanies these attempts. We all wept. Because these stories, which we have so long refused to allow to even be told, are about courage and fear and pain, survival, and hope that maybe things will change for the better.

At the end of the session, the woman sitting next to me, whom I'd never seen before, dabbed at her eyes and smiled at me, and gave me a hug. She, older and never married, native Tennessean and CofC her whole life, read my nametag: Jennifer Thweatt-Bates, Princeton Theological Seminary. "Good for you," she said. (And, "are you related to...?") I thought, this is who sits in our churches' pews, silent and with so much to say.

On Saturday, this is what I heard:

three ministers, all formerly of the Churches of Christ, currently "disaffiliated." Their experiences were not uniform any more so than the previous day's panel, other than that each one of them had remained in the Churches of Christ for as long as possible, and each one of them left sorrowfully. Each one of them, it was clear, still grieved the necessity of departure--whether it was decades ago or still fresh. Disaffiliation is too neutral a word. Divorce would have been better. The Churches of Christ divorced them, on what it self-righteously considers to be biblical grounds.

At the end of the session, a man I'd never seen before walked up to me and introduced himself. He'd been watching me watch them, he said, from his unseated vantage point at the front of the room facing the back, where I'd been lucky enough to snag an extra chair in that packed audience. He'd been watching me weep through Micki's recount of her preacher refusing to recommend her for divinity school, because she was a woman. He'd been watching me weep as Katie told how they'd told everyone they were preparing to leave the Churches of Christ for months and months, hoping someone would say to them, "please stay," make it possible to stay, and no one did. He'd watched me smile wryly as Andre told about the pink-haired tattooed girl in his ACU preaching course, who stunned everyone in her initial sermon with insights they'd never heard before, because "we never had a pink-haired tattooed girl before." He'd watched all this, and said to me, "These stories are your story right now too, aren't they?"

On Sunday, this is what I heard:

a youth minister, emceeing the baptism of a 15-year-old girl, rhapsodizing about the intimacy and spirituality of the experience for a father to baptize their child.

a sermon illustration comparing the experience of the Spirit to falling in love: the passion of the process of courtship, all the silly things guys do to woo their loves. You know what I'm talking about, don't you, guys?

an introduction of a missionary couple, in which the man was congratulated on finding himself such a great wife.

Afterward, no one said anything about any of that at all.


kel said...

i read this and think, "this is where i come from." a part of me wants to share this post with people i know so they can know me better. and a part of me has kept it mostly hidden because i haven't wanted to carry it over into my new life. i wouldn't say i left sorrowfully though. it's sad to me to cut some ties, but it's been worth it i think.

TKP said...

Oh Jennifer, I do hope you did some posting on Gal328 about this.

I have mixed reactions of encouragement, joy, disappointment and cynicism to your weekend events. Having been a member of a nondenominational church for the past two years now, I am only now starting to think about the opportunities that this huge metropolitan city I live in affords women in the churches of Christ. As it turns out, my leaving the churches of Christ ended up having less to do with "leaving" than "finding."

Although I've journeyed through idea of being a full-time minister in the churches of Christ I, like the vast majority of my female classmates in the undergraduate department of Bible, Ministry & Mission at ACU, ended up following a different route to ministry. If I couldn't be an education minister at a church of Christ then I would teach at a public or private school instead.

Okay, this is getting a big long, so you might have me posting my own blog entry about this. Tricksy you are...

JTB said...

I'm more tricksy than you think, TKP. Wanna guest blog?

JTB said...

You too, Kel.

I'd like to get some guest bloggers to share some experiences re gender in the church, along the lines of the CSC panel...very open-ended. Y'all think it over, and I'll be writing a kick-off post and thinking about some groud rules...

JTB said...

P.S. I think a gal328 resurrection is on the horizon, possibly.

TKP said...

Hopefully I jump started it by posting a link for this entry. And sure I'll be a guest blogger. Does that mean I get a free copy of the JTB manifesto??

stan said...

My wife Lorrie and I are spearheading a new church planting in Abilene, TX. It is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and gender-inclusive gathering. It is called the Mercy Street Church of Christ. We are new to Abilene. Moved here from New Haven, CT.

Our first gathering is scheduled for this Sunday, July 12. We will be hosting the gatherings in the upper room of our house until we need another space.

More information about this planting and our efforts can be found at

Our email address is:

I have tried many times to post on gal328 but to no avail.

Pass the word. We welcome input/advice/thoughts/prayers, etc.

Mike said...

Thanks, Jennifer, for this feedback from the Scholar's Conference. You are an amazing teacher of God's word. My prayer is that you'll be able to use your gifts to God's glory.

Now this regret: I wish I had called Katie. I wish I had said, "Stay." I wish I had cashed in chips to make it happen.

Mike Cope

Mike said...

By the way . . . I had to come here to find out that there is a Church of Christ starting ACROSS THE STREET FROM WHERE I LIVE in two days -- the same day I preach my final sermon at Highland!

JTB said...

That is hilarious!!!

I wish I'd called Katie too. I let myself be reassured by the pain-free pragmatic version of events, and I should have known better.

lisa b said...

I was at CSC too. That was a very powerful panel discussion, wasn't it? It was interesting to see the varied responses from the women I knew who came from HU. My friend and I sat together and cried, especially during D'Esta Love's prayer. Two others seemed uncomfortable -- maybe offended? -- by the content and didn't stand or applaud at the end.

I've found it difficult to write about my experiences at CSC because of my position at HU. I do not have a power position by any means, but I do believe there would be ramifications if I publicly stated my beliefs about gender equality in the C of C. There are many things that just aren't said out loud here.

JTB said...

Unfortunately I don't find it hard to believe that there would indeed be ramifications.

I've joked before that a sex change operation would be more pertinent to my hypothetical application at my alma mater than my theology PhD.

It makes me sad (which is why I joke), because I actually feel like I benefitted from my time at Harding, and got an excellent education that has served me well. I loved my profs, both in the English dept and in the Bible dept. I loved having the chance to adjunct for a semester, and still feel like that was one of the greatest affirmations possible of my academic vocation,to be invited back as a sort-of-"colleague" by those who had taught me.

It's like KSS says in her post re ACU. It just makes you feel like a bitch, thinking about all you've been given, knowing that what you have to give back is so unacceptable.

lisa b said...

"knowing that what you have to give back is so unacceptable"

I've been trying to explain this dynamic to my husband and have had a difficult time expressing it.

I didn't ask to be female. I didn't ask to be intelligent. I didn't ask to be gifted with public gifts. Do men have any idea of how hurtful it is to not be able to use your gifts in the place you love the most? Do they have any insight into what it means to have to weigh every word that comes from your mouth with "Will I be seen as difficult if I say this? Will I be labeled as (fill in your own blank) for questioning this?"

No. I don't think they do. I don't think they can understand what a lifetime of being an observer and not a participant does to a soul.

I have hope that my daughters will not live a lifetime of these experiences and questions.

Mom said...

I was 62 years old when I left the Church of Christ. It was the most painful decision of my life, and the best thing I ever did. I was 50 years old when I began to question the traditional teaching about woman's role. My father had been an elder. My husband was an elder. My son was a deacon in the church. My roots were long and deep. We studied. We prayed. Many others shared our understanding, but were unwilling to change a tradition for fear of upsetting someone. Never mind that many were already upset and the tradition was not true to scripture. We were called all manner of names for questioning and challenging. The atmosphere in our congregation felt like a war zone. We had been actively involved in our congregation for 40 years. It was home. Leaving was like a painful divorce. We floated through many different churches after leaving. We now worship with a Presbyterian church were we can worship and once again feel part of a church family. We have found a new home. There is life outside of the C of C. There is a better way. My sons and daughters are welcome to use all of their talents here. One daughter is an elder. The other has preached on several occasions. I still teach Sunday School and teach the children that Jesus loves them. I am a woman recovering from the Church of Christ and finding joy in church again.
Sue Evans
Bowie, MD

JTB said...

hi Sue,

would it be okay to post your comment as its own guest blog? I would rather that narratives like yours not get lost simply because they are buried in the comments...but I won't re-post without your say-so. you can comment here or email me (email address is in my blogger profile).

thanks! and thanks for commenting and sharing your story.


Mom said...

Sure, Jen, you can post my comment on your blog. Thanks for giving me a voice.