So a friend of mine, a young woman who is entering ministry, has sent me interview questions about women in church leadership — and about my sense of myself as a church leader — for her studies in seminary. The timing of her interview request is uncanny: I’ve been having many similar and related conversations in recent weeks! Consider just a few of the chats and discussions that I’ve had in the past five days:
— On board a Chicago-to-Harrisburg flight, I had a conversation with an eagerly-Christian young man. He told me of his recent mission adventures to share testimony and teach Jesus songs in a so-called third world country. Then he asked what I was reading: a 1989 Semeia issue from the Society of Biblical Literature with a collection of primarily womanist essays. None of those words made sense to him (his admission, not my assumption). So to explain — in an admittedly limited and simple way — the book in my hand, I told him that I am a writer and a church pastor, and described my denomination by its reputation as the liberal branch within the Protestant spectrum. . . . And there ended our conversation.
— In another random encounter of the weekend, I met a couple in the lobby of a Chicago hotel (we were all stranded by our flights for the night); the husband was traveling to promote his book on the biblical theology of women preaching, the primary audience being those in his conservative white Pentecostal tradition. I had the professional sense that I should ask more questions about his book; in practicality, I was exhausted from delays and missed flights, and I couldn’t pull myself together to hear an outline of his theology that “allows” me to do what I already do. (An assessment of our conversation and an assumption of his perspective that may be unfair, I realize; I plead “too tired.”)
— There were also conversations over the weekend with my colleague, whose church I was visiting, and our comparison of notes about well-meaning congregants who like to remark about female pastors’ attire, earrings, haircuts, house cleanliness (or lack thereof), etc. And while we both really do accept those comments for their good intentions, we asked each other the rhetorical question of whether our male colleagues field similar remarks. My favorite “there’s-no-way-someone-would-say-this-to-a-male-preacher” comment received this month, after guest preaching and leading worship for a local congregation, came from a woman (not the older male I would stereotypically pin this comment upon) who told me sincerely, “You’re adorable!” . . . Um, thank you. I attended seminary and I put my kids through late night church meetings and I write & deliver sermons to be adorable. But thank you.
Let me not only “dump” on others for their perceptions, remarks, opinions, and theologies. In truth, I have taken to saying “I am a pastor” (when asked) with a degree of caution and a tone of apology, because identifying myself as a pastor inevitably shifts the most casual conversation, and sometimes I would prefer to have a basically casual and friendly conversation! (So far those predictable “shifts” include: bringing conversation to a screeching halt; turning the conversation into a pastoral session; or — at the very least — causing an uncomfortable pause.) Anticipating an awkward reaction when the question “What do you do?” arises, I try to couch my ministry (and therefore my person) into a palatable & simplified package for others to receive. That’s on me.
But sitting on the airplane this weekend, in conversation with a young man whose Christian tradition left no room for “social circumstance” to impact theology, or for women preachers to defy the writings of Paul, but rather stressed & spent its time on the importance of saving the eternal souls of post-genocide Rwandan orphans (among others), I had no interest in defending my call to someone who didn’t believe it anyway. So I let the post-“I’m a pastor” awkwardness be his, not mine this time, and went back to my book about the multiplicity of power dynamics in historic & modern white Eurocentric patriarchal biblical interpretation. In my own way, it was akin to saying “Screw you and your Colorado Springs education.” Except that I wouldn’t actually say that. But I’m secretly hoping for the day when God finally puts in Her two cents and turns Colorado Springs upside down.
Which reminds me to say to the Colorado Springs myth-makers, and to my governor, and to my local and state representatives and senators: Keep your moral-sounding-but-Truth-lacking laws off of my reproductive system, and stop using your patriarchal, power-anxious, it’s-what-the-people-want, pro-life lies to ignore the fact that I already have a life — this God-given and God-called life & ministry — but you want to prioritize the single-celled “life” of my eggs over my health, my career choices, and my access to doctors who will treat me like a person and talk to me honestly about my own uterus (seriously, that’s harder to find in south-central PA than I could have guessed), not to mention you want to limit the health options of women who choose comprehensive clinics like Planned Parenthood when caring for their bodies and their reproductive choices and their families. Have the decency to forgo your bribed self-righteous ethics long enough to look at the women who already have lives, and stop obsessing over our ovaries. Really.
Or, to say it another (equally cranky) way: “Hello. I’m a pastor. I’m a woman. I like to wear rockin’ heels. I can work a full day and take care of my kids even when menstruating, thank you very much. I can be trusted to make decisions about my body, my kids, and my own organs that could bear — if I choose — more children. Don’t be shocked, but I might even consult God (not your masquerade of morality) as I make those decisions. I have no problem looking you in the eye even when you think that I can’t or shouldn’t or am not allowed to, and I have a strong enough sense of ministerial authority that I will look you in the eye with a little bit of God in my spine. Lay off.”
Happy Women’s History Month, especially to my women friends & colleagues in ministry!