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Published Date: November 6, 2019

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The Subtle Hazing of Women in Ministry

Editor’s Note: This is one of the 2019 Top 15 CBE Writing Contest winners.

It was my first year of seminary. I looked over the worksheet our spiritual development professor had just handed out. “Place the amount of time you spend on each activity in the blank beside it.” Quickly, I scanned the listed activities. Sermon prep. Check. Studying. Check. Visitation. Well, I didn’t really do that. No check. I kept scanning, then slowly raised my hand.

“Ah, where are the blanks for making dinner? Cleaning the house? Childcare?” Silence. “Shopping?” A couple clear—if immediately checked—snorts rose from the men in class. They had been busily filling out their forms. To ask that question had never occurred to them. Most clearly didn’t want it to occur to them.

“Well, I guess, maybe you could put that under . . .” the professor stalled out. “I’m not sure . . . Maybe we need to get a new form for next year.”

We were guinea pigs, the women that year and I. We knew—after we had applied and been accepted—that our school had just begun admitting women to the MDiv program, the denomination new to the concept of women behind the pulpit. With my well-honed mixture of naiveté and bravado, I’d jumped into seminary assuming fairness and reward for diligence. For the most part, this materialized. Many professors with deep knowledge and compassionate, equality-minded commitment taught me well.

Yet so many small things, like this worksheet, told us another story. Maybe the school welcomed us, but the daily reality of male-oriented assumptions, gender-biased reading material, and demoralizing interactions with students and faculty chipped away at our certainty. It was the accumulation of these small things, not the prejudices writ large, that eroded our souls and hearts bit by bit, making it more burdensome for the women than the men to believe in their holy calling.  

The message was clear: yes, women could be ordained. But only after they endured the subtle hazing the men never experienced.

The hazing my fellow female students and I endured in seminary included things like:

  • The unconscious bias reflected in the choice of activities included on that spiritual development worksheet.

  • An assigned textbook that talked about men preaching in words that made it clear the author meant men only.

  • The peer whose feedback to my sermon was, “You are so pregnant, I couldn’t concentrate on anything you said.”

  • The pastor who told the women in the class that we ought not ever wear pink, or we wouldn’t be taken seriously.

  • The Old Testament professor who told me I was being emotional and unreasonable when I questioned why I got a lower grade than men in the class who had done similar work.  

Even many years past seminary graduation, I have found that women still endure subtle hazing as a part of ministry life—small experiences that men overlook and women feel grating on their souls.

Mirroring my experience in seminary, the hazing my female colleagues and I have experienced in our ministry work has included things like:

  • Applause for women going into ministry during conferences led and keynoted entirely by men.

  • Meetings where others assume our husbands pastor or co-pastor with us, because surely, we aren’t doing this job on our own.

  • Pastors or leaders, who don’t believe women can be church leaders, being brought on staff anyway because “they’re great guys, and we can’t fight every battle.”

  • Guest preachers who reject women’s leadership, something no one thought important enough to check before they were invited to speak.

  • Seeing in real time what Sheryl Sandberg writes about in Lean In: female pastors being judged based on their record while their male colleagues are judged based on their potential, resulting in far more promotions for men.

  • The tacit assumption of church and denominational leaders, with a knowing nod, that we’re just being sensitive when we point out things such as I’ve listed.

A few months ago, I confronted a male pastor for making jokes about women while giving a message to a large group of pastors. This brother had told a joke about something he (and many others, judging by the laughter) found humorous, but I didn’t find the joke funny. I found it offensive and harmful. In his joke, the pastor held men up as shining examples of truth telling, putting women down as comically inferior. And I watched as his joke tacitly told all the listening pastors that this was OK to do.

He did not mean his words that way. He apologized kindly and sincerely. Yet he hadn’t done the work to listen to women and discover the potential offense himself. He actively supported women in ministry. Yet he still didn’t understand that one can be supportive in theory and harmful in action.

Twenty-five years after entering ministry, I still find myself advocating for women at meetings. Recently, I pointed out that a specific book, required for pastors in the conference, isn’t in line with our denomination’s beliefs on women’s value. No one else had noticed. The group leader took notes, as I’m sure he will next time too. But what I want next time is for him to notice first so that I can just be the pastor—not The Female Pastor.

Women who are called into ministry, you’re not being overly sensitive when you explain your experience. You know the difference between supporting and doing no harm. You intuit it. It’s OK to tell others what you have experienced and what you know to be true about it. It’s OK to advocate for yourselves. In fact, you must.

Give yourself permission to speak up because the men will not see what you see. Even the most supportive, considerate men in ministry will not see and feel what you see and feel. It’s not a character flaw that men don’t see what we see. (It is a character flaw to tell a woman she’s too pregnant to be given the respect of your attention. To his credit, my preaching professor informed that student of this without hesitation.) However, we cannot know what we do not know.  

Like marginalized groups struggling to let others feel what it is to live in their skin, women can get exhausted continually reminding their brothers of what they do not see and feel. It’s not our job, and it’s also OK to pull back and require men to do the work themselves. Young women, if you can, I encourage you to speak about your experience tenaciously, kindly, and without apology. If you can’t—if you’re tired of being “that woman” and need to focus on your calling instead of educating those who should educate themselves—that’s fine, too. We all have our seasons of moving in and out of this conversation.        

I would love for young women called into ministry to know they don’t have to live with the hazing but can courageously teach the difference between supporting and doing no harm.

If you choose to engage in educating male pastors and leaders, begin with questions. Ask your fellow pastors and your denominational leaders questions like these. Then, keep asking.

  1. How many of the books we use for teaching, recommending, and leading retreats and seminars are written by women? How many are by women of color? Could we be proactive by offering equal representation in the books we use and suggest? Offer a list.

  2. Does the language in our suggested materials assume pastors and leaders are men? Do they espouse complementarian theology? Please don’t make women accept the soul-scraping, page-by-page ache of non-inclusion. We don’t care if “they have other good things to say.” We stopped listening when it started pricking open the scars.

  3. When was the last time a woman keynoted a conference or pastor’s retreat? What about the conferences you promote to our leaders? Are women on the platform in a meaningful way? Remind them that, no matter how great the lineup of speakers looks, sitting through an entire conference of people who do not have your life experience does harm. It demands we do the emotional work of ignoring the speaker’s gender and finding application on our own. It tells us, again, that we are the aberration and they are the norm.

  4. Are our interview questions to potential pastors fair for both genders? Is there female representation on the boards that hire or promote them? Do we have a unified method of judging fitness for a position, and is it applied equally to both genders? What are our criteria for leadership, and are there inherent biases in them?

  5. Do we train our pastors in preaching sensitively? Do we actively discourage stories and jokes at women’s expense? Do pastors know how to ask for help in speaking sensitively?

Have the daily “little” things made me stronger? I suppose. But how would it look if we didn’t have to be made stronger through this kind of hazing? What if, instead, we were made stronger through the community of ministers working together, respecting one another, taking encouragement and sharpening from both women and men? Could we all be made stronger through mutual respect?

I would love for young women called into ministry not to have to worry about this at all. Until then, I’d like these women to know they can advocate for themselves, and their voice will make all our leaders stronger. 

Enter CBE’s 5th annual writing contest and raise your voice to help dismantle theological patriarchy! Email your article to by September 17, 2021. Learn more here.

Find more winning entries from CBE’s 2019 writing contest here.

Also by Jill Richardson: 5 Things the Bible Does (and Doesn’t) Say About Modesty