Editor's Note: This is a 2019 CBE Writing Contest winner. Enjoy!
Here’s a hypothetical situation to consider: You and your spouse and family move to a new town. You find a church and decide to place membership there. A few years down the road, you learn you have a strong disagreement with the church’s position on women’s roles. Additionally, the church’s views on women’s roles are having a negative impact not only on you but also on your children—specifically your daughters. However, your spouse really likes this church, especially the senior minister’s preaching style. But you want to leave and find another church.
Who decides whether you stay or go?
During my growing up years, I spent many hours sitting in a church pew. In those pews, I heard over and over that men are the spiritual leaders of the church and of the family. Spiritual leadership was about control and having the final say-so. It included unilateral decision-making on the part of the spiritual leader (the man) for questions like where and when to go to church, how much money to put in the offering plate, and what to teach in the adult and youth group Bible studies. The spiritual leader received bonus points if he attended every men’s business meeting (only men had a vote in use of church finances), if his wife brought a dish to every potluck and taught Sunday school one quarter a year, and if his kids attended every church service and didn’t show up in the local paper’s police blotter.
My own family was much more open to women in leadership than our church’s denomination, so I grew up with a strange mix of teachings on spiritual leadership and women’s roles. Once a year, my extended family would get together at a camp, and we would have family church services and devotionals. At these family events, women family members prayed, served communion, and led some of the devotional talks. My grandmother was even occasionally invited to preach at churches outside of our denomination. Because of my family’s influence, I leaned egalitarian (though I didn’t know that term at the time). But since my dad was the minister at a very conservative church, publicly I was very complementarian so as not to cause controversy.
When I left home for college, I continued to hide my true views about women’s roles because I continued to attend churches and schools associated with my childhood denomination. However, I was very resolved not to marry anyone who did not see me as his equal. Fortunately, that desire was fulfilled, and I found a man who was even more egalitarian than I was!
Fast-forward fifteen years, and my husband and I found ourselves in the situation presented above. Life would have been easier, at least outwardly, if we had followed complementarian theology. We might have stayed at our church. My husband liked it, and his spiritual leadership and special insight as a man and husband gave him the power to say that we had to stay. But true spiritual leadership is not about telling people what to do; it is about creating and ensuring an environment in which every family member can grow and flourish as whole individuals in their spirit, their mind, their body, and even their gender.
While working through our church transition, we both wanted to respect the other’s spiritual needs as well as consider the needs of our children. Since my husband liked the church we were attending, he had a hard time understanding why our children and I did not. However, he patiently listened to our viewpoints and agreed to try a Sunday night service led by a woman pastor in a neighboring city. We agreed to continue attending our current church with him on Sunday mornings until we could decide on another church. This was a bit uneasy for everyone in the beginning. But as my husband watched our girls respond, grow, and participate during the Sunday night services led by a woman pastor, he began to fully understand my concerns about the harm our current church’s theology was doing them. After a full year of talking, praying, and sharing our opinions and frustrations, we all finally agreed that it was time to make a full move away from our current church and seek a church that was more affirming of women in leadership. We are still in that transition.
As I write this down, it sounds so calm and orderly—it wasn’t. Our transition had lots of emotional messiness. We spent lots of time questioning and arguing, and we felt lots of frustration with our churches and with each other. If my husband had just assumed the final decision was his and refused to work through this process with our family, it would have been a lot less messy—but only on the outside. Inside, my daughters and I would have felt resentment, depression, anger, and spiritual stagnation. Because we made the choice to work out our feelings about where to attend church together, we are all growing and learning and leaning into our specific spiritual giftings.
If you currently find yourself and your family in a similar situation, I want you to know that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a clear step-by-step process for figuring out what is next, but I do have a few pointers from my family’s experience:
Trust each other. Don’t view your spouse—whether he or she wants to stay or move on—as the “spiritually weak” spouse. If you believe you are equal partners in Christ, then believe that God is speaking to each of you. Sometimes he or she may be telling you different things at different times. By trusting each other and listening to each other you will eventually figure out where God wants you to go next.
Trust the journey. One of the hardest parts of our transition was that my husband felt guilty if we were not attending a church on Sunday mornings. It was hard for him not to rush the process because he likes problems to be solved. However, transitioning churches is not a process that should be rushed. There were many times that we ended up skipping church and having a service at home together. Or we took a Sunday morning off because we needed time to process what we were feeling and thinking about our transition. Once we began attending the Sunday night service, the waiting and seeking process became much easier for my husband.
Listen to the whole family. It is important for spouses to listen to each other, but if you have children, it is important to listen to what they are feeling and thinking as well. Once we started listening to how and why our children felt overlooked, unseen, and underfed at our current church, we were able to solidify a list of characteristics we were looking for in a new church.
Wives and moms, you are the spiritual leaders of your family along with your husbands. Don’t minimize your feelings or your viewpoints. This can be easy to do, especially for those of us who grew up being told this is what we are supposed to do. God gave you gifts, abilities, and insights that are vital to the spiritual health of your family. Don’t let those things go unused.
Our church transition hasn’t been fun, but it has definitely brought growth to our family. The respect my husband and I have for each other as mutual partners in shepherding our family has grown. We also trust each other more, now that we’ve walked through this transition together. I hope your journey will give you the same.