Maybe it started with the constricting feeling I had as a young wife and mother attempting to fill the role of the “good woman” in the church. Maybe it was because I wondered about all those other people outside the church who didn’t fit, who didn’t come from the “right places” or look or talk quite like “church people” should. And I wondered: is there a place for them, do we care about them? Whatever the case, I always felt different; I didn’t fit, never felt that I truly had a spiritual home.
Seventeen years in one church and 12 years in another provided opportunity for me to serve and grow as a leader. Over these years I taught Sunday school and led women’s Bible studies. I led people in feeding the poor, I wrote curricula, designed and led interactive Holy Week services, preached and led the always-evolving weekly spiritual growth community in our home.
While I was free to practice in these roles, I was in the awkward position of doing so within the constraints of a leadership structure that did not find it scripturally permissible for a woman to serve as a pastor or an elder. I was leading without consent or guidance, but it was in this place that I grew as a leader. The ongoing weekly group that met in our home got serious about spiritual formation and study, and I took more clear leadership for our direction and teaching. The pastor struggled with my leadership because it defied his ideas of acceptable practice, but he didn’t interfere. But still I felt like a misfit in ways I couldn’t articulate.
This tension became increasingly difficult for me to navigate. I was relieved when the pastor called a congregational forum on the subject of women in ministry.
He asked all interested parties to pre- pare a personal statement backed by study and research to be presented at this forum. When the date to submit statements came around, he and I were the only two who prepared papers. Although congregation members expressed interest in exploring other options, the pastor made a unilateral proclamation that the status quo held.
I was faced with a challenge. I felt set up, misled, and so angry and disappointed. But I made the difficult decision to forgive and to re-enter the life of the community. I chose to lay down bitterness and resentment, to allow my anger to work itself out in safe places and to move forward.
As I look back, I can see how I was formed for the better in this painful time. I encountered Christ in a deeper way and discovered the value of being empowered without disempowering others.
In the years that followed I was asked to chair an interim church leadership team. When the team completed its term, an elder board was installed. My husband was ordained as an elder and I was invited to serve alongside him on the board. Although I struggled with the fact that only the men would have “a vote” on the board, I accepted the invitation. However, I eventually came to the sad but clear realization that in participating I was sup- porting a hierarchical system. Although it meant leaving work that I loved, I stepped down. Two years later we made the difficult choice to leave the church.
Finding a place in the emerging church
In the meantime, I began making weekly treks to the Benedictine Abbey at Mt. Angel near my home. I was moved by the liturgy and encountered a Christ who understood suffering. I earnestly began to seek expressions of Christian faith that could be more relevant in the real world, and I discovered there were many others like myself who were exploring ministry in a postmodern context.
This “emerging church” conversation came alive for me in a week-long gathering offered by Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, Wash. I traveled to Seattle with my husband and a few friends. We soaked up the incredible array of ideas and possibilities presented by Dan Allender, Heather Webb, Brian McLaren, Sally Morgantholer, the Damah Film Festival and more. I felt for the first time someone was speaking the language I had not known how to form! I left with a pile of books and a sense of being keenly alive. I had found my tribe. I was no oddity in this bunch. This felt like a spiritual home.
New worlds began to open as I read about teaching through story, about the incarnational life, about doubt and uncertainty as normal, about non-coercive and winsome ways to follow Christ and about other artists who were finding a home in the church for the first time.
In the spring of 2001, I headed to Seattle again, this time for an event produced by Jim Henderson and Dave Richards of Off the Map. This three-day event was full of practical application. Not only did it make sense to connect with people in relevant ways, but it could be done. Pragmatic and savvy connector Jim Henderson gathered wise practitioners and voices that discussed “do-able” evangelism and “ordinary attempts”.
I began weaving these new ideas into my own weekly community gathering; sharing books, resources, thoughts and practice. This group, affectionately called “Friday Niters” for their devoted pilgrim- age to our home every Friday night, learned along with me. We shared meals, life, ritual, story, exploration of Scripture, song and prayer together. My community group had become home to an assortment of artists and creative thinkers with their own gifts to share and an interest in exploring through art and creative ritual. I thoroughly enjoyed this process of leading by noticing what others could bring and making a place for them; not a style that had been modeled for me but that I discovered others in the emerging church practicing as well. Leadership didn’t have to look like the playground of my childhood or the church of my origin.
Making a difference
In the fall of 2002, pastor/author Brian McLaren announced the formation of the Emergent Village and invited attendees to an informational meeting. He described Emergent as a generative friendship, racially diverse and fully inclusive of women in leadership.
As much as I had been responding to the language, thoughts and forms of the emerging church gatherings and reading I was taking in, I had certainly noticed that most of the presenters, writers and even attendees were men. So when I heard the announcement I was delighted. I eagerly went to the meeting and found myself one of two women in a room with perhaps 150 men. I approached Brian McLaren about this after- ward. He responded with an invitation, “Come along and make a difference”.
I took him to heart and attended Emergent’s first gathering in Houston.
Theologian JoAnne Badley was the featured female presenter. I overheard a group of men seated behind me speak in a way that seemed dismissive of what JoAnne had to say. Their air was self-congratulatory: “We are progressive on the women question and it’s a done deal.” It is, however, one thing to say this but an entirely different thing to explore how to really hand power to women and honor the gifts they have to bring. As leaders of communities and as husbands and fathers there were indeed new ways these men could lead that would release women and back up the words with new practices that help build a new culture. I asked to share my impassioned response.
After I shared, a number of men in the crowd approached me to say they were challenged to make personal changes. One said he was going to phone his wife right away, make some specific apologies to her and see where they could make changes together. Another said he was going to help his wife access support systems and find relief from the some of the daily load of caring for several young children so she would be free to practice her call as a painter. Others appreciated the encouragement to continue doing what they were attempting already. Although they didn’t talk about how they were going to make changes in their churches or their ministries, I was heartened by these humble men who were willing to realize that authentic change is a dance that requires practice and mutual respect with intentionality. These men were willing to look clumsy on the dance floor as they took new steps.
The two years that followed held deep conversations, countless e-mails and friendships forged with other men and women who are on similar journeys. These conversations and relationships have empowered me to lead. For years, I led without permission. Now my call and my gifts are being recognized and developed intentionally in the widespread com- munity of the emerging church. Jim Henderson and Brian McLaren have used their power and influence to open doors for me. They are inviters and connecters of people. Because of strategic introductions and invitations from these leaders, today I am part of a team of incredible women — the Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Jen Lemen, Grace McLaren and Holly Rankin-Zaher. Together we form the Emerging Women Leaders Initiative sponsored by Emergent, collaborating to empower women leaders in the emerging church.
The dance has begun
Because of the evangelical heritage of much of the emerging church, cultural shifts need to be made to make way for women to minister as co-equals. We all have new steps to learn in order to move fluidly together in our kingdom work, but the dance has begun, sometimes beautifully and sometimes stumbling, most partners willing.
It is on this emerging church dance floor that I have gone from ministering without permission to ministering with invitation and opportunity. My gifts and skills, which were developed in non-traditional and non-academic arenas, are valued and my voice has not been silenced. I do look forward to the day when the church will be led by men and women pioneering together as equals truly empowering one another.
In the meantime, I have found a place that I can “come along and make a difference,” a place where my leadership style is recognized, a place where there is room for difference and room for questions, a place where I can practice new ways of being a leader with permission.