One of the best things about being a parish pastor and a campus pastor working with young adults is getting to see the gifts for ministry in others. Even more than this, it is getting to help people discover their God given gifts and discern their best places to serve in ministry. Along with this is the joy of seeing other people in a congregation support, encourage and be excited about their brothers and sisters in Christ discerning and practicing gifts for ordained and other forms of professional ministry.
One of the difficult things, however, is seeing how differently women and men are treated during these discernment periods and beyond. Not treated differently in reasonable, appropriate ways either. In the sense that each person and call is unique and so many things go into that uniqueness, including personality and the identity of the person which, rightfully, includes but is not limited to the person being a man or a woman. This is something other than acknowledgment of different gifts, appropriate call and particular connection with people which would certainly affect the reaction any particular person could receive from a particular group.
It saddens me to see that women still receive less support and encouragement in ministry than men. For several years I have heard that the church (not necessarily one single church body but perhaps what could be identified as mainline Christianity and, of that, those traditions which now allow women into professional ministry) gives some sort of special privilege and place to women in order to encourage more and more of them to become ordained clergy. To my own pain, I have been told often that female pastors in particular receive undeserved recognition and appointments because of the church’s agenda to lift up women over men. In addition to the notion that seeking to assist an historically marginalized portion of the population to a place of stronger footing as a ministry of the church being portrayed as a bad idea, I am also convinced that this notion is virtually unfounded.
Could we locate particular situations as evidence that there have been occasions when a woman was chosen over a man simply based on the fact that she was a woman as many have insisted time and again? Well, of course we could. However, if we wish to use this sort of system of weights and measures, we have a good deal more factual evidence that the reverse has long been the norm in every measurable circumstance. The irony of a group and its supporters that has long benefited from a significant and virtually unmerited bias now accusing reverse discrimination (a dubious term at best) over a handful of debatable incidents seems to lend an air of incredulity to such complaints. Even if we take these concerns seriously, the fact remains that we often acknowledge the validity and authority of a woman as pastor, church educator beyond children’s Sunday school, evangelist, theologian, or ministry professional of any kind far better in theory than in reality and practice.
For many years I have watched well educated, faithful people who might never acknowledge or even be aware of a bias against women in church leadership repeatedly differ to men, lift up men above women in leadership and celebrate a man’s call to professional ministry with far greater excitement and enthusiasm than that of a woman. In many cases, it is done so in a way that would be obvious and never permitted in the secular world and yet the behaviors are dismissed, ignored or minimized if even acknowledged. This has not been limited to professional ministry either but can be and is present for women in congregational leadership positions as well.
Obviously, this is my anecdotal experience and observation in several church venues over many years and the experience of many others as well. Certainly, anecdotal evidence can be, and often is, dismissed as just that. Of course, all experience is merely isolated and anecdotal until it is complied and perceived as the actual norm.
So my wondering is this: what can be done?
The solution the secular world has applied of utilizing quotas and mandatory requirements seems entirely the wrong way to go. I am not convinced this works for the church. Mandatory female presence in certain classically male calls could be inappropriate and counterproductive, particularly when we say we believe God to be an integral part of one’s vocational call, most especially (though not limited to) in the church setting. Additionally, positions of authority are only truly effective if those who are subject to that authority grant that office proper deference or position within the system and forcing such a thing is rarely, if ever, successful. The intentional lifting up of women solely because they are not men will smack of vengeance and is no more righteous than the reverse. This will not do. Our ultimate goal must be to hear the Holy Spirit’s will and call and to be as open to that as possible, not to usurp that will with our own.
But if requiring people to accept women in positions of authority will not do, and I do not think so, what will? Some days I believe women have come a long way in the removal of an oppressive yoke (as opposed to the liberating yoke of Christ) and I am grateful for the freeing power of God’s had of liberation for this. And then there are times I begin to wonder about the ways we work against God’s vocational call, present for each of us in our baptism. What can we do to better align ourselves and our churches to God’s call for God’s people?
For myself, I am not sure. All I know to do is to keep looking for and encouraging the development and discernment of gifts in every child of God I come across. I will continue to lift up these persons before the gathered body of Christ and find opportunities for them to stretch their wings, exercise their gifts and pray that God may someday grant me the wisdom to see something more I may do.
In the meantime, I return to a text given to me many years ago when I faced a frustrating time in ministry: Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Cor 4:1