I sat uncomfortably rehearsing how I’d ask the question that had to be asked. I knew it would initiate a painful conversation, but we couldn’t ignore it forever.
I was not wrong. It became clear in that meeting that yes, our pastoral candidate was a staunch complementarian. Our church, with its egalitarian tradition, governing documents, and leadership structure, was poised to hire a pastor firmly opposed to the leadership of women.
The hardest part to swallow? This was not a big deal to most of our church family. Only a handful of us believed the church’s position on women’s leadership was important.
Some in our community seemed unaware of the church’s stance and were unfamiliar with the issue. For most, it simply wasn’t important; what mattered was getting along and agreeing to disagree on “secondary” issues. My wife and I were heartbroken to see only a tiny minority stand up for what we had thought was a defining value of our faith community.
I am proud to say that the leaders of the church made the difficult, but good decisions needed to guide the church down a path more in line with its heritage as a supporter of women’s leadership. But it was a painful process for the church.
We have since transitioned to another church, but I’m still troubled and deeply saddened by what happened. How does an egalitarian institution become egalitarian in name only, such that most of its members either oppose its stance or don’t recognize the importance of the issue?
In my experience, the answer is quite simple, if a bit cliché: Talk is easy. Walking the talk can be really, really hard.
It’s hard to take a stand on a divisive issue when you’re trying to build unity in a church. It’s hard to make the extra effort to recruit a female candidate when so many suitable men are available, when hiring a woman will upset people, and when you know you’ll have to defend your actions again and again and again. It’s isolating to be that person—the one (and only one) who is always bringing up the same issues. It can be hard not to just smile and laugh it off when someone makes a sexist joke. It’s hard to know if you’re acting out of love or anger. It’s hard to know whether you’ll help the cause more by speaking up or shutting up. And it’s exhausting to do the hard thing day after day, year after year.
About a year ago, with all this fresh in my mind, I wondered what could be done so that what happened in my former church isn’t repeated in churches and organizations around the world. What could I give to leaders who wanted to avoid finding themselves where my church had found itself. Perhaps, I thought, Mutuality could be a starting point. I asked God for guidance.
Days later, I was contacted by Charles Metcalf, the author of our lead article. A pastor of an egalitarian church, he had been confronted by a church member who expressed opposition to women’s leadership. “I felt like I had failed my church,” he wrote. He wanted to share what he’d learned from the experience. As I read his words, this issue began to come to life.
In this expanded issue, egalitarian leaders offer practical insights on how we can move from belief to action in a variety of contexts. You’ll find several common themes, among them the need for everyone to take part, to be intentional, and to stand up (or to step aside) for what we believe. May we all listen carefully and act boldly.