Recognizing, Realizing, and Re-radicalizing: the Idea of Being a Woman in Ministry

I have had the good fortune this week to revisit some amazing friendships with some amazing women. Besides sitting at home watching “Nashville” and “Orange Is The New Black” and cuddling with my cat (picture forthcoming), I have been able to Skype with two of my best friends and visit two more friends who are very dear to me, all in the course of the last four days.

            I’ll start by saying I love my friends (doesn’t everyone?!). I am blessed to have a large community of folk who I try to keep up with as our lives change; you might say I love my friends. I have many male-identifying friends whom I love dearly, but this post is about (and for) my ladies. I love my girl friends, my women friends, and my mother friends—these are the women who encourage me, celebrate with me, cry with me, fight for me, and lift me up with their unconditional love.

            So, I’m sitting at a youth ministry conference listening to one of the most amazing and prophetic testimonies I’ve ever heard. Claudio Carvalhaes spoke about the ways that youth in the United States, and probably all around the world, are not being seen and encouraged as humans; instead they are being controlled (by their parents, medication, outdated models of education, you name it…) and have lost (or it has been stolen from them) the ability to be subversive, to be radical in the truest sense of the word. This talk, or lecture, or sermon (indeed it was all three!), struck me incredibly deeply.

            I had been thinking for a while about my education as a young white Christian female from a small Midwestern town, considering the ways in which my gender affected my educational experience. I’m lucky to have parents who value education and a family that could help me afford going to an elite liberal arts school. For about three years of college, I thought that my presence at that school meant that I was privileged…the end. Nothing more to it. But as I proceeded through the fourth year of my education, I began asking questions I hadn’t even known I wasn’t asking and taking advantage of opportunities (inside and outside the classroom) that I hadn’t even known that I didn’t think were available to me. One thing I did was write a senior thesis—yeah, whatever, academic paper, blah blah…but really, it was a big deal to me. I was asked to write a paper about a topic that I cared about, even down to involving my personal theology. I was being told that if I did these things, somebody in academia would value me…and I didn’t even know that I wasn’t feeling valued as a person in academia before. Wow. Another aspect of me doing the things I didn’t know I wasn’t doing involved me preaching a sermon for the first time by myself, and, in the larger picture, meant me taking my call to some kind of ministry seriously.

            This year I’ve been wading through a lot of feelings about being a woman in ministry. I encountered my first female preacher when I was 18 and in my first year of college, and since then the women that I have seen preach firsthand is still sadly low. Going through the process of becoming a religion major, contemplating divinity school, and thinking about what my role really could be in ministry, I’ve been confronted with this question: are you going to be a pastor? My response was usually to brush it off and say, “Noooooo, I’m just interested in children’s ministry” or “I’m interested more in social justice ministry” or “I’m not thinking pastoral, just education” or something like that. But that was a lot of me not listening to myself and just giving a quick answer because the feelings that I was having about that question scared me…and they still do.

            So back to the youth ministry conference and Claudio. He was talking about prophetic witness in youth ministry, about the de-radicalization of our youth. I sat there realizing that I was one of those “our youth” who had been deradicalized…and I think in large part, for me personally, it was because of my gender.

            Because I was a girl, I was taught (not by my family or teachers, but by society) not only to value my appearance, but also to base my value on my appearance and attractiveness.

            Because I was a girl, I was always asked if I had a boyfriend, and when I was in a relationship, I’d always become part of a “_____&______” construction, where my name always followed the &. Always following.

            Because I was a girl, I was taught different things about my sexuality than male-bodied and male-identifying people my age. I was taught to fear my body, to hide it, not because it is MINE but because it is dangerous and because it is distracting to others and because it could be manipulated.

            Because I am a woman, there are lots of people who have told me (mostly subconsciously, but sometimes not) that I am not worthy of ministry. I am not qualified to hear God’s call and God’s voice and to share my experience of my relationship with God with others. Until this year, I did not realize for myself that God’s really cool message for humanity (which I’d been fairly convinced of for a long time) was also for women—was also for me. That God’s community was also for me.

            All of these thoughts were swirling around in my head as Claudio finished his sermon-speech-talk and we began dancing, a whole bunch of youth ministers and clergy, to “Happy.” Thank you, Pharrell, for the opportunity to break it down with a bunch of clergypeople.

            As I sat down again, after a good bout of shaking it with other Christian folk, I introduced myself to the woman sitting next to me. It turned out we were both from the same state…and the same area…and then she asked if I knew her friends who lived in my town (of course I did, it’s a town of 5000 people!) Her friends turned out to be the family of one of my best childhood friends—and indeed, we had met before! When my friend and I graduated from high school, I met this woman at his openhouse. It hadn’t even dawned on me that she was a female pastor. At age 18, I was still scared of studying Christianity, worried about finding something out about the Bible that would make it all “not true”! At age 18, I didn’t know that in a few years I would be feeling led to ministry of some sort.

            Now, four years later, the wonder of this woman’s life and work astounded me. We had dinner the next night and chatted for a couple hours about what it is like for her to pastor a church, her experiences in seminary, and my questions and wonderings from this end of divinity school. She promised to help me in any way she could.

            This past week, I went to visit her church and have lunch with her. What an amazing church she has. What an amazing ministry she is a part of. What a beautiful and Spirit-filled woman.

            This spring, she was part of a string of many women who have come into my life rather suddenly; who have listened to me ask questions about preaching and visiting sick parishioners; who have hugged me as I’ve cried over patriarchy’s far and insidious reach into my personal relationships as well as my faith; who have discussed with me where in the legacies of Biblical women they find the most strength; who have sat with me and pushed me to describe my understanding of community, and of call. These women have held me close to their hearts; with their black, brown, white, wrinkled, smooth, dirty, perfumed, small, and large hands, they have held mine, and lifted me up. 

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