“When the previous youth minister was here, he always filled in when the pastor was out,” Bethany, a youth minister at a church in the southeastern United States told me. “But the entire time James is on vacation, he’s gone to great lengths to find others to fill in. I am really hurt that he didn’t ask me to teach at all while he is on vacation.”
I had listened to Bethany’s sermons, and I knew she was a gifted and well-informed speaker—in fact, she was more qualified, more accomplished, and more adept than her predecessor by anyone’s standards. I also was aware that James, the pastor, was a conscientious man of faith who in some ways went to great lengths to support women in ministry, including Bethany. Something was amiss.
Bethany, at my encouragement, expressed her disappointment to James. The response? “It’s nothing personal, Bethany—I just didn’t think about asking you.”
What James failed to do was examine why he failed to think of Bethany, when previously he had the expectation that the youth minister would teach in his absence. James’s lack of awareness about why he had overlooked Bethany left her feeling misunderstood, underappreciated—and questioning her abilities and calling.
Bethany’s story is one of many that I have heard from women in ministry. While some do encounter outright opposition, more often they complain of being overlooked, undervalued, and underutilized in their key areas of giftedness. In fact, feeling silenced or overlooked due to her gender is an experience that is universal among the women in ministry whom I have known as friends and as patients. Repeatedly, many of them are given the message, “I just didn’t think about you.”
This problem is much harder to identify and to address than outright opposition to women in positions of leadership within the church.
The key to addressing our deeply held prejudices lies in making our thoughts and decisions intentional. Start by asking these questions about your faith community:
- Are men and women represented equally, both behind the scenes and in positions with lots of face time?
- Are women and men on staff paid at similar rates? If one of your female staff members were replaced with a male, would you feel compelled to increase the compensation for her job?
- Do your female staff members feel comfortable broaching topics of prejudice with the entire staff? Intentionally invite conversations on this topic both individually and as a group.
- How often do women teach? If the pastor is male, are guest speakers equally divided among men and women?
- When appointing positions of leadership, are women considered equally with men?
- Does your faith community speak in support of women in your community?
- Does the leadership staff back up women who are placed in leadership when they experience prejudiced reactions?
- Are the suggestions and leadership of women accepted and valued as an equal part of the team?
- Have conversations individually and collectively with the women leaders of your church. What are their experiences?
This is just a sampling of the questions that faith communities must intentionally consider to move beyond “allowing” women in ministry to supporting women as equally valuable contributors to a faith community.
This article originally appeared on God’s Politics (www.GodsPolitics.com), the blog of Jim Wallis and friends, hosted by Sojourners.