As women continue to progress toward full equality in the church, with more and more denominations affirming women in full ministry, some subtle barriers hang on, easily unseen by those they don’t affect. Gaslighting is one of them. It happens when someone insists that our perception of reality is wrong. It’s like walking on sand while someone insists that it’s pavement. We feel dizzy, crazy really, because, particularly when done by someone with power over us, we start doubting our own experiences.
Recently, we were reminded of a particular way women ordinands and pastors experience gaslighting. Here is a step-by-step description of the way this process can unfold.
Discouragement, Downplaying, and Exclusion
A woman senses a call to ministry and begins to explore that call. She makes it part of her prayers; she reaches out to friends, family, and maybe other women in ministry; she reads some books; she researches online. If she continues to feel this call, she talks to her pastor.
She meets with some resistance. It might be framed as, “You don’t need to be ordained to do what you want to do” and “I’m concerned that you will get ordained but then not get an appointment.” She might be told she doesn’t advocate for herself enough or that she is too brash or forceful. She begins to doubt that she has heard from God correctly, so she returns to prayer.
Having been discouraged from ministry, the woman goes back to her usual tasks. As she meets with other women, reads her Bible, and prays, she continues to sense her call. That call is confirmed outside of her church leaders as she speaks and ministers to people she encounters. Their responses show that her life and her words draw people closer to God.
As time moves on, she cycles through these steps. Maybe at some point she gets past some of the initial resistance and becomes ordained. Yet senior pastors and denominational leaders consistently marginalize or devalue her ideas. And because she is humble about her own self-perceptions, she often wonders, “Maybe this is God telling me I am wrong about my call.”
Meanwhile, she accepts the rare invitations to preach or teach and receives good feedback: “You made a difference in my life.” This feedback is like a mirror—when she sees herself through those she ministers to and with, she sees a pastor. But when she sees herself through colleagues and fellow leaders, she sees an annoyance, a mistake, a poor fit.
They keep telling her she’s walking on pavement. But it’s sand. And she struggles to keep her balance as she moves.
The Results: A Team of Our Own
For me (Laura), I’ve often felt as though I had a stamp on my forehead that said, “Not A Real Pastor”—invisible to me but perfectly clear to everyone else.
Hurt and bewildered by the lack of support from leadership and colleagues, women pastors can isolate themselves. We may begin ignoring our leaders’ guidance as it’s so difficult to come by and so laden with unspoken expectations. We may begin blazing a trail that no longer asks for permission from anyone but God. That’s when we get new labels: Uncooperative. Difficult. Complaining. And the worst—“Not a team player.”
We have talked with other ordained women who have said, “I would have gladly worked on whatever shortcomings they perceived in me, but there were never any concrete discussions. Leaders were simply not interested in talking to me and dismissed my concerns.”
For me (Jill), I have found myself in these circular discussions far too often. When women pastors ask why we aren’t getting more opportunities in our church body, the answer is that we don’t have a track record of leadership. Unfortunately, we can’t get support to pursue more leadership growth without a track record of leadership.
Male leaders receive funding, opportunities, and recognition based on their potential—while women pastors need a track record to even be considered for any of those. But a track record outside of officially recognized church activities doesn’t count. It’s a Catch-22 women leaders often find ourselves in, and eventually, it can wear on us enough to make us quit or go rogue.
For those of us who don’t want to quit, going rogue seems the only option, but that gets incredibly lonely. It’s easy to think we’re fooling ourselves. The mirrors turn into a fun house, and we forget which one is the real reflection.
Or maybe instead of quitting or going rogue, we become less engaged. Another Catch-22 for women pastors is being told we’re not a team player. We’re not enthusiastically joining in on group activities or pastor’s meetings. We are going elsewhere for our support. We might not be reporting on what we’re doing, feeling that any failure will be seen as another proof of our lack of leadership ability. We’re not being very cooperative, are we?
At least, not anymore. After years and years of gaslighting, of subtle and not-so-subtle messaging that we don’t belong in the pastorate, we’re not sure if we want to be on this team anymore.
Except my speaking, writing, and thesis work still keeps getting praised. I still get offers from other church leaders when they see my CV. I keep hearing from others how much I have to offer to the church. That mirror is still saying I’m doing what I was meant to do, and I do it well.
Maybe being a team player after all this isn’t the first thing we want to be. Maybe being on a team requires the team to stop playing by separate rules for different people, stop hogging the ball, and stop telling themselves and everyone else that we aren’t playing because we somehow aren’t qualified.
Maybe the church leaders who aren’t serious about it should stop pretending they believe in women’s equality when their actions shout otherwise.
Concrete Ways to Stop Gaslighting Women Pastors
Church leaders serious about women’s equality can check how they’re living out their own values with a few suggestions:
- Ask if there are consistent standards for pastoral candidates. Find out if the scrutiny of records is equal for women and men. Ask leadership how they plan to address the documented reality that men are judged by potential and women by track record
- Find out who the women are in your denomination or area who have skills in teaching, writing, preaching, or a particular area of pastoral work. Actively promote them as conference speakers, continuing education teachers, pulpit supply, and denominational writers.
- Ensure women receive the mentoring they need not only to do their job but to navigate the promotional and hiring system.
- Require everyone who wants to be ordained to serve under or take a class from at least one woman (a variety of women would be better) trained to recognize gender bias. Get their feedback on whether the potential ordinand is ready to lead women.
When women speak up from below, we may be further marginalized as “problems.” When leaders are silent, unconscious biases continue to operate unchecked. But if church leaders put intentional practices in place that challenge men and women who are still holding sexist biases and provide clear paths forward for called and ordained women, we can begin together to rebuild a healthier family of God.
Photo by Ashley Levinson on Unsplash.
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