Editor’s note: This is one of the Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
I stood anxiously in the lobby looking for someone to talk to after church. I was relieved to have spotted my mentor, who is a prominent member of our church, across the room and walked toward her. We started talking about my desire to go to seminary. My mom had died six months earlier and I longed for maternal guidance on the subject.
I wanted to move forward in a career, but I felt unsure of my next right thing. In vulnerability, I shared with this woman my fears, my joys, my interests, and my pain. I had been talking with her for months about my grief and desire to go to seminary, and here again at church I sought her advice and approval so eagerly.
I anticipated the same motherly tone I was used to, but the advice she gave felt painful, surprising, and sadly familiar: “Maybe you should stop focusing on your dreams and focus on your husband’s dreams right now, since you are home with your daughter.”
I was shocked by her response to my curiosity and wrestling. Her response focused on the notion of being an appropriate “helpmate” to my husband above all else. Focus on my husband’s dreams? I had spent the last four years working hard so that my husband could finish his schooling. My husband and I felt excited for me to now focus on my own schooling and career. I stood in disbelief after she shared her advice, and I sought a way to end the conversation.
I left the lobby quickly and cried hot, angry tears for thirty minutes the entire way home in the car. The stifling patriarchy at this complementarian church felt discernable now. I could not be a full person desiring to advance and grow in my faith and career.
Feeling Unsettled in Our Church Community
My desire to go to seminary was threatening and odd at this church. Jokes were made in small group that women “of course” could never be elders. Men stood outside of the church kitchen when meals were prepared so that the women could do the work and the men could talk. The women’s Bible study was not held at the church but in various women’s homes; there were even cooking demonstrations to teach women new recipes to prepare for their families before the Bible study began.
Women in this church sometimes worked, but the expectation was that women would work as little as possible in order to prioritize their duties at home. Women in this church had many children. Women in this church were the only stay-at-home parents in the family. Women in this church were beautiful and their kids were too. The women dressed impeccably, they were a certain era’s image of perfection.
Was this who I wanted to become? Was this who I wanted my daughter to become?
The most painful part about this expression of patriarchy was that it was most often perpetuated by women. The women in this church had internalized the message from the powerful male leaders throughout decades and had fashioned an appropriate way of life. In a generational church context, the older matriarchs ironically held extreme power, but they wielded this power in an oppressive way in their families and the church.
The younger women were told by these older matriarchs, explicitly sometimes and implicitly always: Get married. Have children. Bury your identity. Get in line.
My mother was robbed from me six months earlier, at a pivotal time in my new mothering journey. Now, motherhood was all that was expected of me by my new faith community and the motherly mentors in my church who I looked to for help and advice. I felt unseen, frustrated, and trapped.
The Search for A New Community
I started seminary and remained at this church for eight more months. What I noticed in this time was that the women treated me differently. They seemed insecure to talk to me and asked me questions about my studies by using self-deprecating humor that they were not smart or incapable of knowing or learning the things that I was studying.
They had internalized an oppressive and all too common message: women are stupid and incapable of learning difficult things. They put me on the spot in group settings to answer theological questions. Their insecurity made them uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable too. I didn’t feel genuinely safe to share what I was learning. I felt conspicuous for learning. So, I silenced myself.
My daughter was one year old at this time, and I felt this urgent, protective desire to get my daughter out of this environment where I, as a woman, felt silenced and embarrassed for wanting to learn. I did not want to raise my daughter to be silenced or ashamed for her knowledge, for her passion, for her curiosity about God and herself. I never wanted her to carry shame for being a woman who loves to learn. I did not want her to receive the restrictive role of being a perfect wife and mother. I wanted the church to see her as an individual, not a gendered stereotype. I wanted something more for her.
We found an egalitarian church for us to attend in the area and made the paradigm shifting move, both theologically and physically. Our pastors were co-pastors: one woman, one man. Sitting under the woman’s preaching and leading made me uncomfortable at first, but soon felt like balm for my wounds. I had felt so visible and threatening in my previous church and I noticed my body was less tense here.
Women in this church did not have to look a certain way or pursue a certain career. There was equality amongst the leadership with men and women in leadership roles. There were stay-at-home dads in the congregation who changed my perception of equality in family life. There were other women in seminary. I was welcomed. My shoulders could relax. A woman was leading me to God, and she was leading my daughter. I felt my worldview widening and my full humanity received.
My daughter’s worldview shifted too.
Nurturing Our New Family Identities
My daughter is now five and knows a world where both women and men can be pastors. A world where her mom and dad can both be asked to be an elder or a deacon. Where her mom and dad can be the equal spiritual leaders in the family. Where women are visible and heard. Where dad does the dishes and the laundry and goes to work. Where mom, too, does the dishes and the laundry and goes to work. Where her mom can be honored as a loving mother who also wants to do meaningful work outside of the home and is praised for it. Where her dad can choose to be a stay-at-home dad and be praised for it too.
Sometimes when my daughter is playing, she pretends to be a pastor and raises her hands with power and care to bestow a blessing on us. I smile, receive her little blessing, and feel at ease. Her worldview is not constricted anymore. She is able to go forth, becoming a woman fully received by her God and the church.
Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash.