A weird thing happened to me a few weeks ago. I was at our twins’ basketball game, sitting by myself, when a vivid memory swooped in out of the blue from seven years ago. At the time, I was still on big-church-staff, and we hosted a special event where several of us shared dreams for our different ministries. Right afterward, an elder came up to me and said, “Wow, you’re a pretty good speaker for a woman.”
“You’re a pretty good speaker for a woman.”
At that point I had been getting stronger as a leader and came back with at least a halfway decent response (although I’d have a way better one now!). I asked, “Um, is that a backhanded compliment?” He just chuckled, and there was an awkward silence before we both went our separate ways.
He is not a bad guy. I do think he was being sincere. In his mind he was going out of his way to say something nice to me. My guess is he really had no idea it was insulting.
I don’t know why this memory suddenly came back to me but it sparked memories of other things people have said to me over the years as a woman in the church. It might be easy to dismiss some of them as not that big of a deal. I know many of you have far worse ones than these. But, I felt like sharing them today because they tell a story and paint a picture.
They highlight the realities of how being a woman in the evangelical church is like always swimming upstream—the subtle and direct slant against equality takes its toll. I understand why so many women have tired of the journey and left to find freedom and their voice outside of the church.
I am hoping that we can learn a better way so in the years to come our daughters don’t have to hear these kinds of things that have been said to me:
“Women aren’t supposed to lead men”—from my first real pastor, when Jose and I were newly married. Our pastor found out that women had been leading a weekly Bible study for military friends at our house and called me into his office, saying “I know you are new to the faith, so you might not know this, but it’s not biblical for you ladies to be leading. You can lead each other, but you can’t lead men.”
“Men need to feel like men and they can’t if women are always leading”—one of the leaders at a former church when talking about small group ministry. Every person–male or female–had the opportunity to lead, but the women seemed to be ones who made things go.
“We’re just not ready for a woman teaching from the front”—the all-male senior leadership staff. After I spoke at a different former church, they received inquiries about their “position on women in leadership.” They decided that speaking from the front at “real church” was “theologically” different from preaching regularly during a church service for the recovery ministry (even though there were a whole lot of men there). Oh, but they were addicts.
“It’s great that your husband is a pastor and you get to do these kinds of things with him”—a man, after I spoke at a Christmas banquet, assuming that Jose was the pastor of our church. I was like “Um, actually, Jose’s not a pastor. I co-pastor The Refuge with my friend Karl.” He gave me a blank look and went to refill his drink.
“Sorry, but when they heard a woman was speaking, a group of conservative pastors banded together and showed up at the meeting to vote against it.”—my friend, after having to disinvite me from speaking at a public school’s baccalaureate.
Oh, there are many more but that’s enough for now! The reason I share these is not to slam others but to highlight that gender inequality in the church is real.
These subtle and direct assumptions about women are deeply grooved into our culture and it will take a lot of intention to shift the tide.
My hope is that men and women alike will support and encourage women to keep moving forward despite these obstacles in whatever ways God is calling them. This isn’t just so women can lead but so that the church of Jesus Christ—the place that should be the free-est and most equal and bravest in town—can step more fully into all it is meant to be.
As we move forward, I’d love for a whole new generation of women to hear more comments like:
“It’s beautiful to hear your voice.”
“You were meant for this.”
“We need you.”
“We will gladly stand for what is right and take the hit against the nay-sayers on your behalf.”
“God created you for this.”
“Step into your passion.”
“We are sorry for the past but we are committed to carving a new future…together.”