I’ve written before about the female clergy experience so, if you’re bored or over that topic, then I would move on from this. But if you’re still here, indulge my ramblings for a bit and I promise I move beyond gender towards the end.
It’s a well known fact that the vocation of clergy can be a lonely one, regardless of gender. You just quite don’t fit anywhere. I don’t want to diminish or negate that experience for my male colleagues as it is true and is difficult to navigate. But in conversations with other female colleagues (including an extensive one with my best friend who is also clergy), as well as watching and experiencing what can happen on-line to female clergy, I offer that we have an added unique layer to our experience. What makes this particularly challenging is that God’s very vision for humanity, the vision that many of us daily participate in, espouses radical equality and relationships. Yet, for many, our experience is anything but that. (I want to say up front that I think these challenges exist for women in the secular workplace as well.)
You Don’t Quite Fit in with the Women’s Groups
If you assume that as female clergy, we would have this whole set of people who would welcome us to be a part of their circle because women are so much more relational than men, you would be wrong. Reality is that many of the parishioners have been in the congregation for years, decades even, they have a fairly tight bond and so adding this “new girl” in isn’t on the radar. After all, we are the pastor so our main role is to pray or lead worship at the Women’s Retreat, right? Who wants the pastor at their Bunco or dinner out nights? We get it. But don’t assume that we would say no to an invite. Many people make friends at their jobs….need I say more? Many clergy, of any gender, have few if any opportunities to make friends outside of church.
Now, we don’t want to bust up bestie girl times, but just be aware that your pastor likes that too, and probably really likes you!
You Have Other Colleagues to Hang Out With
Yes…..and no….Whether we like it or not, clergy is still a male heavy vocation. (In my denomination, ELCA, only 20% of clergy are female.) Now, female clergy do get together and I, for one, want to give a shout out to all my sisters in ministry who love and support me everyday! But there is still a “good ol’ boys” club that exists and, again, we’ve noticed. Men have had the seat of power for essentially 2,000 years and we still live a in a primarily patriarchal culture, in and out of the Church. Many men are simply unaware that they, just by being male, possess more power than women. So their behavior matters-a lot.
There is still a stigma associated with hanging out with female colleagues-you might get labeled as “feminist,” “weird,” or it might raise an eyebrow that opposite gender colleagues can hang out. Sigh…are we all still in Jr. High? So, the men will go for beer with each other or they will go out together with their wives and not even consider that it might be nice for the pastor and her husband to be part of the crowd. Once again, we get it. A pastor and a pastor husband doesn’t fit the cultural norm or paradigm. Our lives and way of being in ministry are very different and frankly, new. Now, in fairness, what the church expects of pastors wives is ridiculous. They think that they are essentially getting two employees for the price of one. Interestingly enough, no asks or expects my husband to bake cookies for Sunday morning, arrange altar flowers, lead a ministry or teach SS. Which is good, as he has a job. I don’t volunteer at his job (can you imagine?) and he volunteers only sporadically at mine.
And Then There Are the Haters
Oh yes, there are men (and sometimes other women) who “believe in the Bible” and assert that women can’t and shouldn’t be clergy. After all, we are missing very important anatomy that enables us to be rationale and intelligent. On social media, it’s not uncommon for female clergy and particularly female clergy of color to be personally and professionally attacked for following God’s call for their lives. I witnessed this just yesterday and when I offered support to this colleague, a male colleague cautioned me for being to bold and outspoken about my support and own experiences with this same issue! Can a girl get a little overt support from her male colleagues? They all talk a great talk about affirming their female colleagues ministries and give great private pep talks. But when the rubber meets the public road? Crickets. What if the “guys” see that they might support any aspect of the “feminist agenda”? Will they lose some power?
Welcome To the Twilight Zone
Here we are, caught somewhere between our deep love for our call to ministry, the context in which we serve, and the people with whom we serve and the brokenness of human relationships as a whole. The Twilight Zone of female clergy is that we have even fewer places in the Church and in society where we fit in. I often wonder if the addition of female clergy in many denominations is a microcosm of how the Church is or isn’t adapting to changing culture and norms. In my more philosophical and theological moments I can theorize away how being and living part of the change in God’s Church and being a part of what the Holy Spirit is up to in the world is a gift and a privilege. I can convince myself that all of my colleagues, male and female, are doing the best we can and it just is what it is. I can reassure myself that all of my, and my sisters in ministry, uncomfortable moments are part of change, part of revealing Christ at work in us all and in the world. Change is hard, change is scary, change is unsettling. Change questions power, personal identity, and status quo.
This is not just change for the male clergy, but change for the female clergy too. We are just as complicit in all of the above challenges and uniqueness as the other players. We don’t always handle the situation in the best way and let our humanness get the better of us. We don’t speak up for ourselves for fear of not being liked. We don’t remember that the only person we can change and control is ourselves. We don’t practice the 8th Commandment as often as we should.
How can we as the intentional people of God name these pieces in healthy and productive ways for conversation? How can we finally move beyond conversation to self-examination and truth telling about our own fears: fear of loneliness (as the common human experience), fear of loss of identity, fear of loss of power, and fear of the unknown? How can we truly live with one another in our primary identity as children of God?
I am hopeful, honestly. I think we will together wrestle with these questions and realities and then realize that it’s our commonalities as people and people of God that has the power to over come these challenges. This is not just about those on the “inside” of the Church-this is about God’s mission for all people to know the love of God in their lives. What if we as “being the Church” could really live together in such a way that people were naturally drawn to this community of faith? What if we let go of our need for power and control in our own lives and gave into the power of God’s radical love?What if the only power we need to consider is that of the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us, make us new creations and move us from where we are today? What if we all truly believed in God’s promises that we all fit in?
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3: 28