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Published Date: June 5, 2007

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Moving from Male Privilege toward Shared Leadership in the Church

White Privilege
a.    A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities. 
b.    A special advantage or benefit of white persons; with reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.
c.    A privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons enjoy over non–white persons.  

Kathy: White Privilege is a term that gets tossed around in many advocacy circles. I remember getting in touch with the word very clearly, because I benefit from White Privilege. I am a white woman, blond-haired, blue-eyed. I am automatically granted certain privileges that an African American or Hispanic or Asian woman is not, even in the year 2007 in the United States of America. Add the fact that I have a college education and my privileges increase. 

Karl: I also benefit from White Privilege. I am caucasian and college-educated. Both Kathy and I have a natural advantage over many people just because of the color of our skin. We didn’t ask for it, we didn’t do anything to earn it, it’s not our fault, we just automatically have an advantage in this society because we are white.

We both believe that part of our responsibility as Christians is to recognize and oppose worldly assumptions that are contrary to the Kingdom of God. Noticing White Privilege has made us more sensitive to the plight of the under-represented and culturally-oppressed, and we are deeply committed to breaking down prejudices that perpetuate injustice.

Kathy: While both Karl and I benefit from White Privilege, Karl also benefits from what I like to call “Male Privilege” in the church. Let’s take the definition of White Privilege above and substitute the word male instead of white to get an idea of what Male Privilege might look like:

Male Privilege
a.    A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by men in the church beyond the common advantage of women; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities. 
b.    A special advantage or benefit of men; with reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.
c.    A privileged position; the possession of an advantage men enjoy over women.

As a female co-pastor of an evangelical church plant, I bump up against deeply held prejudices about women in the church every day. Every time I experience these prejudices I am reminded we are not in an easy battle—the church has embraced a model of male-only authority that most everyone (both inside and outside the church) has subtly or directly embraced. 

Take a look at any TV program that pictures a religious authority—they are almost always men. Think of how many weddings you have been to where the pastor was a woman. Walk into most any church across denominations and geographic areas and it is fairly clear that, while women have made inroads into ministry, we are still in the minority. 

I try to just live out my theology without focusing too much on all the obstacles against me in ministry. But sometimes it does feel like I’m swimming upstream, that the current for men flows so easily, effortlessly, while I am using every bit of my strength to keep my head above water. 

Karl: In the church, men automatically get certain privileges that have nothing to do with giftedness, ability, or even reality of their situation.

Because I am a man in the church, here are some automatic privileges I tend to get:

•    Even though Kathy and I co-pastor together, many people assume I’m the one in charge.
•    People ask my advice about things I have no idea about but they assume I must know.
•    Invitations to preach at other churches or attend senior pastor events are addressed to me.
•    I am offered job opportunities that women would never be considered for.
•    I can lead and facilitate any groups, programs, or events without second thought.

None of these privileges make sense, really, since they are based on assumptions that preclude giftedness. Our community at The Refuge recognizes that Kathy has the stronger leadership gift, yet outside of our church most people assume that Kathy must be there to “support” me somehow. I automatically get the power not because of anything I do or have earned, but only because I am a male pastor in the church.

Kathy: Saying it out loud always leaves a bad taste in our mouths. As we remain committed to living out an egalitarian theology in our ministry, the prejudices against women in leadership are becoming less subtle. In fact, sometimes it is blatant. 

I recently co-authored a Bible study for women, but because I am a co-lead pastor, one of the largest Christian retailers in the nation refused to carry it. It was that simple—if I had any other job, they would be happy to sell the book, but because my title is “co-lead pastor” I am automatically disqualified. 

A therapist friend of mine recently offered to refer her client to me for pastoral care as she transitioned out of an abusive relationship. The client responded, “Oh, no, I could never listen to a woman pastor.” Although hearing these words hurt, this woman expressed a truth that is deeply ingrained in typical evangelical cultures—men are automatically the authorities even if they lack experience, training, or giftedness in certain areas.

We could spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing and listing all of the ways Male Privilege in the church is lived out, but that doesn’t lead us to specific ways we can begin to shift this deeply engrained cultural bias and move toward equality. What is the solution?

We believe change starts with awareness

The reason we learned about White Privilege in our advocacy training was so that we could become aware of our prejudices and then work to overcome them. Male Privilege is the same way.

Karl: At first I didn’t really see Male Privilege; it was just the norm in the church culture around me. But years ago my sister and brother-in-law started sharing their awareness and theological convictions about being egalitarian. I started to see more clearly all the subtle ways that I automatically received the power as a white male. 

Part of being aware is recognizing that if someone wins, that means someone else is losing. It is that simple. Men have been winning at this for a long time. Living out an egalitarian theology very practically at The Refuge we have a lot of data that supports how engrained Male Privilege is, but because we are keenly aware of it we can confront it instead of ignoring it.

We believe change requires those in power to lay some of it down

The oppressed do not get power unless someone gives it up. It is that simple. White people had to make room for African Americans on the bus. This means men will have to let go of power, release their hands from holding on so tight, and open the doors for women to step into their giftedness. The ideal Christian way is not for the oppressed to make things right, but for those who are privileged to step aside. 

Kathy: I recognize what a big sacrifice Karl is making to co-pastor with me. He has to give up power and diffused status and authority. And so do I by sharing leadership with him instead of being the sole senior pastor. That’s why we believe so firmly in shared leadership, not even just women and men working alongside each other but also just sharing leadership instead of having all the power and authority invested into one “set apart” person.

Also, unfortunately, we believe that in many churches success has become equated with numbers. This means that unless giving up power increases attendance, many ministry leaders won’t even consider it. We are fairly certain that initially a shift to egalitarian leadership will not equal greater numbers. In fact, it will cause some churches to shrink in the same way that some schools ended up losing students when integration was implemented during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Over time, however, we believe that justice will prevail and “thriving” may not be about success in our eyes, but rather about justice and freedom in the Kingdom of God. The safety that is created when men, women, and children across ages, skin colors, and socio-economic backgrounds are empowered instead of oppressed is worth every bit of sacrifice. 

We will never know the spiritual implications that taking a step of faith today will create. We gain hope from Hebrews 11:11—now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

We believe we must live it out more and try to convince less

Our best shot is just doing it despite the controversy, like Rosa Parks who was willing to endure the consequences of refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Her simple, strong movement toward what was right paved the way for others. 

Convincing people about the theological and biblical basis for our convictions is of course so important, and we don’t want to dismiss that—there are many different forms of advocacy. But we believe the best way to advocate against Male Privilege is to work against it, resist its powerful tug, buck the status quo, and live out a model of equality with grace and love and humility as best we can. We believe that is most compelling. 

This will require men and women who are committed to change to partner together, encourage one another to not give up, pray for each other, and offer support in tangible ways. We know from experience, it’s tempting to give up because we’re working against such a strongly engrained cultural bias in the typical evangelical church. That is why the work that CBE does encourages us greatly and reminds us we are not alone on this journey.

Racism and sexism are always about power. And pride is the root of power. In the Beatitudes, Jesus turns our human views of what is important upside down. He offers us a solution—humility and sacrifice. Like White Privilege, the antidote to Male Privilege is humility. We take Paul’s words seriously in Philippians 2:1–7:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (TNIV)

If we filtered all of our prejudices through this, followed Christ’s example of equality in the Kingdom, we believe the world—the church—would look vastly different.