Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

I Am Woman, Hear Me

Some months ago, the controversy du jour involved Vice President Pence’s policy of not meeting women alone. Some found his policy appalling, some found it quaint, and some found it proper. I weighed in on it here because it touched a bit of my own history and struggle as a teacher and particularly as a pastor.

In response to my post I received a kind and insightful email from a young woman whom I had had the pleasure of coming to know ten years ago. She is an intelligent and sensitive follower of Jesus who, as a woman, has had a difficult time finding a home in the church. In her email she shared her experience as a woman in churches similar to the ones I have pastored. I think we need to hear her, and others like her. (She has given me permission to post her comments, though I have edited them for brevity and anonymity.)

Neither she nor I bring these thoughts with any kind of agenda. But understanding the experience of others can implicitly suggest necessary agenda. If it does, I’m glad.
I am grateful for her honesty.

When I first started to engage in Christianity, it was really clear to me that I would always be limited in some way as a woman. When [my male friends] had questions, they’d just go meet with the pastor. When I had questions, it was just not the same, even if that’s not an explicit rule. All the pastors were men and I’m a woman. So the natural supposition was to find a woman, but for many reasons that can be difficult.

To just know that’s not really an option when you have a male pastor, to engage as an individual and share your questions and concerns, subtly tells us “this is for men” and that women aren’t priorities here….

To be taught from a young age that my very biology is evil in some way, not because we’re all evil (total depravity!) but because I am a threat to men in some unknown way that I do not control, that I can be responsible for leading men astray, or that there’s a risk I’ll harm their reputation simply by being a woman, the internalizing of those messages is confusing and hard and leads to lots of feelings of self-hatred and questioning of yourself….

I had an experience of sexual abuse from a church leader as a child and so the argument that women are a risk to men is minimized when I know the opposite (that is, statistically more probable).

Going to church as a woman can sometimes be a heartbreaking experience. Every time I went to church with a male, whenever people would come over to say hi, he would be greeted first. He would be engaged in conversation. My presence there was in relation to the man next to me. There were a couple of times that I would try churches for weeks by myself and really wouldn’t make connections and then a guy would come with me and all of the sudden we’re welcomed. You can definitely make the case that the guys were just more outgoing and friendly, but it was definitely not every time.

Yes, these aren’t huge things. I’m not being stoned when I walk through the door or anything, but it is obviously discouraging to feel, even subtly, as if I don’t have a place because of my gender.

I invite others to reflect on this and to share similar, or contrasting, experiences.

Previous

Between the World and Me

An Education

Next

Martin’s Slippery Slope

15 Comments

  1. Suzanne

    I believe the commenter speaks for countless women and I appreciate her transparency.

    I grew up in a church that taught me from childhood that by being a female I was a threat to the opposite sex, that men were superior, and that women were to be subservient. This fostered disrespect and abuse. Sadly, I think there are still elements of this mindset today.
    I too agree that going to church as a woman can sometimes be a heartbreaking experience. I am not a single woman, but one that has a spouse that is a non-believer and doesn’t attend church with me. As a result, I often feel single within my community. It may not be the reality, but it certainly is my perception that women who attend with their spouse or companion are treated differently. I don’t think that single women (outside of college girls) are welcomed into the community with the same openness as those with a companion. Perhaps many would disagree, but perhaps that is because they have not personally experienced the isolation that comes from being a female that attends church alone.

    There is so much to discuss and while this is most definitely an ‘elephant in the room’ we need awareness on the topic.

    Thanks for being brave enough to embrace it.

    • Awareness is important, and it takes brave people to bring that awareness to us who aren’t always ready to hear. Thanks.

  2. Eva

    I agree with her as well on many fronts. It is awkward as a woman. I think it is especially hard on “older” single women–by which I mean, not in their twenties. I realized when I was in my 30s and most of my friends were married already that something had changed. I was treated differently by men. Married men didn’t talk to me any more. And though I understood that a big part of that was that they wanted to respect their wives, I also felt a new kind of loneliness as many of these men had been my friends in the past.

    As a woman, talking to men about life concerns is just not comfortable. And yet, in our tradition, that is who we have in leadership. I am just not going to call up my elder to ask him for council. Not unless it is about something mundane.

    And the question of how women are to use their gifts in the church is also a very difficult one that I struggle with to this day. My gift is teaching, but I can’t use that in the tradition I am in outside of with children. And although I love working with children, I feel “boxed in” in a way I don’t outside of church where I spend the vast mafoirty of my time teaching and training adults.

    So, yes. Being a woman in church is a challenge. But with all that said, I feel blessed to be a part of the church–our church!

    • All of this (both the original post and this comment) resonate with me deeply. I’ll be 39 in a couple of weeks, have always been single, and am looking at the possibility of moving next year for work and really dreading having to find a new church. I’ve visited (and found) churches by myself most of my life, so I don’t feel uncomfortable going some place new by myself. I am friendly, although I am introverted, and have learned to put myself out there after a few visits if no one has reached out to me. But I also have major tattoos and dress colorfully, so it is hard for me to blend in in a new place 🙂

      The struggle I am coming to now, however, echos yours. What do I do with my leadership and teaching gifts when I attend churches that all believe that women should not be in leadership? I am training to be a college professor and regularly teach men and women, some even older than myself, and always get respect and engagement from all my students. But those gifts seem to have no home in the churches I choose to attend. I’m not interested in a church or denomination that has strayed from orthodoxy enough to ordain women, because I usually have many other issues with their theology, but I wonder if they might be a place where my gifts would be more welcome and could be more fruitful.

      And as I get older, I do get a bit restless under church leadership where no one looks like me. I am blessed to be part of church where I have a good relationship with both my pastor and several of the elders. They are willing to meet with me individually and I feel comfortable sharing some of my struggles with them. But I am also very close to their wives, and so I think they consider me family in a way that makes that relationship less awkward. But why are there so few single men, even, in leadership? I rarely meet unmarried church leaders, and there are struggles very specific to long-term singleness that often go overlooked in the church because there is no one in the leadership who can speak to them. And since most of the long-term single people in conservative churches are women, it feels doubly isolating.

      So, thank you for sharing this letter, for opening up the conversation a little more, and for being interested in the stories of others! It encourages my heart!

      • I’m intrigued by how the issues of being a woman and being single seem to overlap in the comments. It is not simply the experience of a woman that is hard, but that of being an unmarried woman. Thanks for sharing your take on this. And should you move to Central Florida, at CPC, tattoos are okay. And colorful dress.

  3. Well, I’m glad you’ve found a church in which you feel blessed. 😉

  4. Betsy

    Randy. This was so good. Thank you for being a pastor who listens and has thoughtful engagement with his entire congregation. I often mention how you would meet me for coffee or have meetings with me alone because I’m that small act you made me feel equally valuable to the other staff members and not “dangerous” because I was a woman.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how discouraging it can be to be a woman in a conservative denomination. I have a voice and am listened to, and yet there often feels that there is a limit to how far I can go with my gifts and voice/ I’m thankful that I have worked in two very healthy environments in which I was able to bring my concerns before the session or my pastor/boss, but not every woman gets that chance in other conservative churches and denominations.

    And I echo Eva, that as a single woman it can be even harder. Sometimes women are lumped in with their husbands voice and without a significant other it can feel as though your voice is lessened, especially in decision making processes. And similarly, I will be less likely to go to a man when I have a struggle and so the lack of women in leadership positions can limit the pastoral care of women in general in the church.

    I am incredible thankful for my time I was under your care because you were intentional and thoughtful in including my voice and the other women of the church – as well as other marginalized voices. My current church is also led by a man who seeks to hear and understand the minority experience in church. I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I experienced it from you.

  5. Angel

    All the “spiritual gift” type tests that I’ve ever been asked to take have listed pastor and teacher as my top two. While I’m not a huge fan of those kinds of test, these gifts are also the ones affirmed by the Lord and many people in my life.
    It’s been difficult in the past to reconcile people in leadership, who see my God given talents, and then immediately go silent when the next question, “so how/where should I use these gifts! ” comes up. So yes, I agree. It feels like there isn’t a place for women in the church when the church leadership is all male. I am young, but already have the “boxed in” feeling that Eva mentions.
    I definitely struggled not having women in the church who were in positions of mentorship and discipleship. As men, you go the pastor. As women, you quietly search around until maybe, just maybe, you find a women willing to invest in you. For a long time I did not have that and would not go to a male leader. The change in my spiritual growth was huge once Godly women stepped into my life as leaders (through my mission organization). They weren’t just with me during a women’s bible study once a week, they are invested in mentoring and discipling me throughout my life with the Lord.
    “Women in leadership” is such a controversial topic. But whatever the type of church, I think having women of all ages who are open, dedicated, and willing to mentor and disciple other women would be amazing and produce women who feel comfortable in the church, grow in the Lord, and make more disciples.

    • It’s possible that conversations like these will cause we who are in leadership to think how women can be better integrated, especially confident women with leadership and teaching gifts, into the ministry of a church, even in a church that believes the ordained office of elder is biblically restricted to men. Your comments are also a reminder for older women to aggressively seek out young women desperate for someone to pour into their lives. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Holly

    I, as a woman respectfully disagree. I grew up in the church, my father a pastor, my husband a deacon. I take ownership of me, I do not wait for someone to come to me to say hello or make me feel welcome, I go and say hello and shake hands and introduce myself. I also completely understand if a man is not comfortable meeting alone behind closed doors with a woman, not because women as a group are evil, but many times good men have been accused of things they did not do and it has ruined their reputation. Just like a doctor has a nurse in the room, so a man should feel he can protect himself. I just don’t like that women feel they are less than or they are ignored. Women in my opinion, can hold supportive roles in the church and they have other women they can talk to, such as the pastors wife or your bible study group, but men are to be the leaders of the church. I know so many disagree with me, but it is in the bible that way and we are made to be helpmates to our husbands as he is the leader of the home. Jesus had many women friends, but he did not chose any as disciples or in roles of leadership. Just my thought, NOT trying to be offensive by any means.

    • Thanks, Holly. I actually think that there are those commenting here who agree with your judgment concerning leadership. What we can’t disagree with is someone else’s experience, of course. And you are not being offensive at all. I think we need to share our experiences and our perceptions and to genuinely listen. That’s all I’m trying to do here. Thanks for sharing!

      • I should add here the uncovering of a weird coincidence. The church I pastor has a ‘Holly’ whose father was a pastor and whose husband is a deacon. She is not the Holly who commented here!

  7. Andrea

    Randy, thank you for your sensitivity to this subject and your willingness to offer a listening ear. In general, I agree that it is difficult being female in a more conservative theological camp. It is true that when a woman has deeper theological questions, or just life questions, she often feels disadvantaged by the fact that she usually feels the need to take those to a male. Although in the past, an elder from whom I sought theological advice helped me find a female mentor in the church. I have also been blessed that you and Barb have taken time to mentor me together in the past. At the same time, I have talked to many women who feel like there is not a place in the church to use their teaching gifts.
    Sometimes I am afraid we run into the problem of confusing (or merging) the ideas of discipleship with leadership. While leadership in the Church is exclusive to males, I don’t believe Scripture distinguishes between men and women when it comes to discipleship. We are all disciples of Christ. Jesus had a number of female followers, even though they were not one of the Twelve. He commended Mary for sitting at his feet as he taught. I would love to see an increased emphasis on discipleship among women in the Church; not only in regards to things like helping our husbands well if we are married (though that is important for wives, and we need mentors in that too). I would love to see the Church encouraging women to gain a robust understanding of God and his Word (through formal or informal training) so they can disciple other women (of course, under the overall leadership of the church elders).
    Women’s teaching gifts need not to be limited to children’s ministry (though we need to have great teachers there!); there is a huge need for them to be used with women. The challenge is, while the church’s pastors and elders are, by default, known to be biblically astute and wise, and have accepted a “pastoral” role in the church (I am using that term losely; I am not promoting the idea of female pastors), younger women desiring mentorship from women don’t always know whom they should ask, or feel intimidated. Older women in the faith might be interested in mentoring younger women, but think they aren’t “qualified” even though they do have a lot to offer. I guess there are times when women are pushed to be a bit more vulnerable when looking to be discipled, and hopefully are met with older women who have the courage to offer themselves as mentors.
    In saying all this, I do not wish to belittle anyone’s experience. This is a hard topic, and I know many of the feelings, experiences, and opinions shared are deeply personal and painful. I am thankful for those church leaders in the past who have treated me, along with the men in my midst, as a disciple of Christ first and foremost, albeit respecting (and not ignoring) my gender.

  8. Kedric W.

    Although it’s not directly related to the topic at hand, it came to my mind as something that churches are pursuing regarding lay ministry and one of those is St. Elmo Presbyterian in Chattanooga. It’s called Stephen Ministry and the website describes it as “congregations [that] equip and empower lay caregivers—called Stephen Ministers—to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”

    It tends to lean more toward caring for those going through some sort of crisis situation, but I thought it relevant because both men and women lay members go through training. All the things I’ve heard from those at St. Elmo who have become Stephen Ministers have been very good and a great blessing to the congregation.

    https://www.stephenministries.org/

    • Andrea Milgate

      I am a hospital chaplain and have taken a look at the training manual used to prepare Steven ministers. It really is great! I have a lot of respect for that program, and agree that it presents a wonderful opportunity for men and women to serve!

Your thoughts? Leave a comment...

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén