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Published Date: July 30, 2008

Published Date: July 30, 2008

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Vocational Identity and Direction

Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, women be­gan to enter the seminaries of the United States in record num­bers.1 Upon graduation, many sought ordination and have served well in various ministry positions for many years. These same women now find themselves sitting on empty nests, entrenched in the “good old boys” network that makes up much of the patri­archal church structure, encountering a variety of “stained-glass ceilings,” and wondering if this is where they belong.

Typically, men in our culture have experienced what have been termed “midlife crises.” This passage for women tends to be defined in terms of the physical changes marked by meno­pause, but less has been studied and written about the changes in vocation, relationships, and passions that occur for women, particularly clergywomen, during the midlife years. As a veteran of thirty years in ministry, I knew those concerns were mine, as well as those of my clergy sisters. It is necessary to identify and articulate questions regarding calling, work, and relationship to the institutional church and to provide space to hear and interact with the voice of God.2Who am I? Where do I fit in? How can my gifts be better utilized for the Kingdom? Can I remain in this de­nomination with integrity? What about the stained-glass ceiling?

The stakes are high. The church cannot afford to lose strong, gifted women in its leadership, nor can it have leaders who are hampered in their effectiveness by unresolved personal concerns regarding their ministry. As hard as so many fought to pry open the front doors of ministry opportunity for women, we must also work to shut the back doors of attrition. Research already indicates that fewer female seminary graduates remain in the pastorate than do male graduates, while, in one study, only 25 percent of female seminary graduates were currently full-time pastors in their de­nominations twenty years after graduation. The United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study, begun in 1993 by the Anna Howard Shaw Center, Boston University School of Theology, interviewed women who had left the ministry. In transcribing the tapes, one young woman was deeply moved by the voices she heard:

I was struck most by the oppressive silence of the promising, bright voices who had left local church ministry. I thought of the gifts and graces the church was losing out on because of its fear of change. One phrase kept coming to my mind when I would think of women leaving: the gifts of God for the people of God are being rejected.5

The remainder of this article will explore one biblical narrative for insight into these difficult questions (with the understanding that these questions are not limited by gender, age, or vocation). Hagar’s narrative reveals a woman whose interactions with the Almighty speak to the themes that impact women in ministry, particularly those at midlife or beyond.6

Hagar? Why Hagar?

In Genesis 16, we discover that Hagar is a female, Egyptian by heritage, and a slave to Sarai, wife of the Hebrew patriarch Abram. Given to Abram as a wife (concubine) by her mistress, she had sexual intercourse with him, conceived a child, and gave birth to Ishmael, son of Abram. She later procured an Egyptian wife for her son Ishmael (Gen. 21:21). These are the bare facts of the life of this ancient woman. While there are too many gaps in her life story for us to obtain a clear picture of Hagar, as we ask questions of her life and her encounters with God, we can ask similar ques­tions about our own lives and encounters with God.

What was it like for Hagar to be a slave in Sarai’s house? Sarai is a demanding, powerful woman, one who “holds privilege and power within the confines of patriarchal structures.”7 If I could choose which woman to be in the story, I would be tempted to be Sarai. Despite some awkward moments when Abram tried to pass her off as his sister, she got her way in most instances. She knew how to manipulate the system, even if the system was pri­marily her husband. And, to her benefit, she was acting out of her perception of the promise of God.

This raises a first question for a woman in ministry. Which woman am I? Am I Sarai, comfortable in the functioning of pa­triarchy, excellent at working the system? Or am I Hagar, not just a woman, but also marginalized by ethnicity and/or class status? Can I be comfortable with the woman I am, or do I desire to be another? Do I know who I am? Is that identity changing?

In Sarai’s tent

What was it like for Hagar to rise before dawn each day in search of water so that her mistress could have her needs met? Did she look to the future and dream of what might be, or were her eyes fixed on the present moment? As difficult as life may have been, it was pre­dictable until Sarai had an idea. Perhaps Hagar heard Abram and Sarai talking about Abram’s encounter with the Lord God and the promise of descendants as many as the stars (Gen. 15:5). Knowing that her mistress was past the time of childbearing (Gen. 18:11), did she sense Sarai’s gaze upon her as she contemplated her options?

What was asked of Hagar, while a customary part of the culture of Abram’s day, is horrific from a twenty-first-century perspec­tive: a forced surrogate motherhood. When she turned away from Abram after he had planted his seed in her womb, did she see it as “a great honor for her to have intercourse with her master,”8 as Herman Gunkel suggests, or did she sense the offense against her body that a contemporary evangelical woman would experience?

Particularly for a clergywoman in an itinerant system of ap­pointment, there is a connection with Hagar. We sit and wait, as leaders whisper in secret, making decisions about our lives. At times, there is discussion, but in some systems the only choice is


the initial one (to accept a calling to ministry, which includes itin­erancy), and we are forced to respond to the direction of others. We live in the tension of the learned helplessness of slavery and our trust in God’s overall providence. If I go into this pastorate with reluctance, what will happen to my soul? Will my children survive?

Hagar soon found herself pregnant, and could have gone about her business quietly, carrying the baby to term. But there was a problem: Hagar “looked with contempt upon her mistress” (Gen. 16:4).9 Was this payback time for Hagar? Perhaps Hagar’s expanding waistline inspired Sarai’s rage. Jealousy and envy can be deadly emotions when allowed to run rampant through the life of a woman, especially one in a precarious position of power, about to lose perceived status to a slave. Trible raises another possibility when she questions the translation of the verb (qll). It can mean “despise” or “look upon with contempt,” but it can also mean, “her mistress was slight in her eyes” or “was lowered in her esteem.”10 Perhaps Hagar’s intent was not contemptuous at all, but merely a shifting of perspective.

What of related ministry questions? Can women hope to find a measure of equality within a hierarchal structure? Can we express confidence in our ideas, in the work we birth and the sermons we preach? When is it time to speak and when is it time to be still? What of our own sin when we feel contempt toward another or have a burning desire for revenge? What do we do when faced with a supervisor (or elder) who is simply unjust? And why can it be more difficult to work for another woman when we would truly like to work as a team? Trible senses our yearning, suggest­ing that “this unexpected twist provides an occasion for mutuality and equality between two females, but it is not to be.”11

To the desert

In her seemingly jealous reaction, Sarai went to Abram. “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me” (Gen. 16:5). When faced with Sarai’s complaint, Abram proved to be unwill­ing to provide Hagar any protection: “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (Gen. 16:6). Here, Hagar becomes the pawn to be passed back and forth between Abram and Sarai. “Then Sarai dealt harshly with her” (16:6). The verb (‘nh), with its meaning of affliction or harsh treatment, also describes the sufferings of the Hebrews in Egypt.12 Perhaps Sarai took a whip to Hagar’s back to teach the insolent slave-girl a lesson. Whatever she did, it brought Hagar to the point of no return.

For women in the church, Sarai and Abram in this scene stand as symbols of what goes wrong. There are many abuse issues with­in the church, some subtle and others blatant: power struggles, disregard, sexual harassment and abuse, and blindness toward domestic violence. Many women experience Abram’s abandon­ment when the hierarchy, the church, and the men (and women) we trust to protect us will not—and do not. Our Sarai can be ei­ther male or female, anyone dealing harshly with another under the auspices of the church of Christ. It may be the commanding church secretary who controls access to the pastor, or the elder who makes life miserable for the new youth pastor—or the senior pastor who is unwilling to intervene in either scenario.

“And she ran away from her” (Gen. 16:6). Pregnant, most likely without resources, Hagar heads toward home, as Shur is a region near the Egyptian border where Hagar found a spring of water. Reinta Weems suggests that “Hagar chose the unknown dangers of the wilderness over her pallet in her mistress’ [sic] house,” because being “under the power of a resentful woman can be a dangerous thing.”13 Hers may have been the decision of the mo­ment with no thought to her survival past Sarai’s doorstep, or she simply may have determined that life in her mistress’s house was unbearable and that the danger of the unknown was preferable. What is our response when we experience harsh treatment by the church? Do we run away as an act of desperation, or of defiance, or stay with the hope that circumstances will improve?

At the spring of water

The climax of this scene occurs as Hagar pauses at the spring of water in the wilderness: “The angel of the Lord found her” (Gen. 16:7). Recorded here is the first appearance of an angel to a woman and the first annunciation account. The angel’s conversation with her begins by naming her: “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai.” Apart from the narrator, the angel is the only one to call Hagar by name—Abram and Sarai do not. His greeting was followed by two ques­tions: “Where have you come from and where are you going?” (Gen. 16:8). While quite willing to answer the first question, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai” (Gen. 16:8), Hagar fails to answer the second. Perhaps it is because she doesn’t know.

His words of direction to her appear harsh. “Return to your mistress, and submit to her” (Gen. 16:9). Trible recognizes the difficulty: “Without a doubt, these two imperatives, return and submit to suffering, bring a divine word of terror to an abused, yet courageous, woman.”14 When we raise the “why” question, we run into the problem of suffering and do not find clear answers. How could God send Hagar back to what was surely an abusive situation? Perhaps Hagar’s return to the relative safety of Abram’s household was intended to guarantee the survival of Ishmael. We must remember that Hagar’s story is only a small part of the metanarrative of God and the people of Israel, and, as a son of Abram, the baby she carried still had a role to fulfill.

While we may see Hagar as being courageous in the leaving, Weems sees her in a different light: “We are disappointed that in the end she did not have the wherewithal to remain gone.”15 How­ever, to have refused the direction of God himself would have been unthinkable, for it is likely that she had witnessed the power of God in Egypt when the Lord had afflicted Pharoah and his house because of Sarai (Gen. 12:17). This was not a God to be toyed with.

We find ourselves facing the same questions: “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Whether running away or stumbling in the dark, we ponder the circumstances and relationships that have brought us to “the spring of water in the wilderness” (Gen. 16:7). We can recognize how God has spoken in the past and how we have responded. We can also ask the ques­tion that Hagar seemed to avoid: “Where are you going?” We may not yet know the answer(s), but we can give ourselves permission to pursue the question. If we determine that, yes, we are running away, but not with any sense that we are moving toward some­thing else, it may not be time yet to leave.

What about the question of submission? Can there be circum­stances in which our submission “for a time” can guarantee the safety of whatever may be birthing within us? There may be a strange sense of safety for us in our returning. Yet, ultimately, we cannot demand to know all of the whys—we can only respond in obedience. My friend Jane encountered a “for a time” experience as she began her seminary studies. Even though her church did not have an egalitarian perspective, and the pastor did not sup­port her further study, the relationships she had nurtured over the years in the church proved to be an incredible support to her as she balanced work, family, and school.

The harshness of the command to Hagar to return to Sarai was tempered in two ways. The first was the annunciation of the angel to Hagar: “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your af­fliction” (Gen. 16:11). The promise of a son offset the dread of the command to return to Sarai. The second was the acknowledge­ment of Hagar, as she both saw and named God. Hagar knew that she was in the presence of the angel: “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi,” for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen. 16:13). Indeed, Hagar knew that El-roi was the God who sees. He saw her pain and sorrow, and she would ever carry that truth in her soul, as Patricia Shelley notes: “This is a new name for God, born out of a woman’s experience.”16

The comparable questions for women in ministry are many. Is there a difference between a willingness to submit and an en­forced submission? Should a woman return to an abusive situa­tion, such as an intolerant elder board or a denominational struc­ture that fails to value the ministry of women? How can I believe, how can I know, that God sees? What are God’s promises to me in the midst of difficult days? Or, as Weems imagines Mary’s thoughts, “But how can I be sure that this is God?”17

Hagar’s return to the tents of Abram and Sarai is assumed, for the text simply states, “Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael” (Gen. 16:15). Trible points out that this conclusion to this passage, with its focus on Abram, indicates that “Patriarchy is well in control.”18 What does that mean for today’s woman? If patriarchy is still in control, is God’s ability to work in the midst of it limited? Can a woman minister effectively in spite of the constraints of patriarchy?

The continuing problem of Hagar

A second chapter in the life of Hagar begins in Genesis 21. The conflict between Sarah and Hagar escalates again, as played out in the interaction between Ishmael and Isaac: “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac” (Gen. 21:9). Was there perhaps some good-natured teasing or roughhousing? Some translators have as­sumed an action of mockery on Ishmael’s part (such as the NIV’s translation “was mocking”), yet this scene may again have been prompted by Sarah’s concern for her own son’s future, not want­ing Isaac’s inheritance to be threatened by Ishmael’s existence.

Sarah confronts Abraham once more about the problem of Hagar: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). We can almost hear the way Sarah might have spat out “that slave woman,” her air of superiority oozing through her words as she refuses to call either Hagar or Ishmael by name. Here again we see Sarah in a harsh light. Weems’ insight is powerful: “Sarah was not willing . . . to show mercy to a woman whose back was up against the wall.”19

The woman in ministry may find herself in Hagar’s helpless­ness. Through no fault of her own, denominational leaders or church elders may see her as trouble, as the ideas and ministry she births may threaten “their inheritance” or simply the status quo. She is asked to leave, or she is marginalized in a variety of ways. She is labeled as “that radical woman.” She may decide that the price she is being asked to pay is simply too high for both her­self and her family. She no longer fits. When there could be room for mercy, there is none, and she is cast out or marginalized.

Sarah’s fury resulted in Abraham’s action. In the morning, “Abraham . . . took bread, and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulders, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the desert of Beer-sheba” (Gen. 21:14). In chapter 16, Hagar was running away, but, in this account, she was wandering, with the added respon­sibility for a child. “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept” (Gen. 21:15–16). Hagar is now facing the greatest fear of a mother: watching helplessly as her child is dying.

The woman who chooses to leave, or who is forced to leave the church that has been her life, can identify with Hagar. She weeps over her own fear and pain, but more so over the fear and pain of those she loves. The grieving may be for her family, for her spiri­tual children who are struggling in her departure, or for her ideas, programs, and “birthings” that are in danger of dying. We cry out to God, remembering his promise, and heaven is silent, at least for a time. We cannot bear to watch. Yet, the story is not over.

“And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink” (Gen. 21:17–19). Remember, Hagar, I gave you a promise. I am faithful.

Here is one of the mysteries of God. At times he appears. At times he does not. When we have been faithful and his presence is apparent, we can rejoice. But the more difficult questions come when we cannot see his face, when it seems that Hagar’s El-roi (“the God who sees me”) is no longer seeing or hearing. Then what? When we are weeping in the darkness, literally dying of thirst, can we trust the promises of God? Can we see the well?


Can we find answers in Hagar’s story? Sarah Lancaster concludes that the concept of learning from the lives of biblical characters is a valid one: “The actual telling of stories is important because it allows us to test various possibilities for ourselves. We see from decisive moments in narratives what our own decisions might yield.” She also reminds us that, “through the narrative that the Bible tells, the hearer/reader comes to understand better the way that she and others stand in relation to God.”20

In time, Hagar learns that she can trust her sight, hearing, and voice. Hagar sees. As Gerald Janzen explains, “She [Hagar] emerges . . . as a percipient and evaluating subject in her own right.”21 Hagar hears from God himself. He knows her name and her affliction. And Hagar also claims her own voice. She knows God. Janzen observes, “She characterizes God by exegeting the divine name on the basis of her experience with God in the wil­derness.”22 Her experience teaches us that we can do the same. We find new life beyond what we know. We speak. We see and name God. We see God in our pain. We encounter God, and we drink from the well revealed to us. We listen for our name, and hear God’s voice. We choose obedience, and, in all of that, we speak our own name.

Hagar’s narrative also illustrates that God is at the margins. When we feel most abandoned, God is there. We realize that we can live, contribute, and thrive on the margins. Laura Meyer speaks of that promise:

What we know of Hagar’s story locates her at the margins of others’ lives. Yet glimpses of her through the crevices of oth­ers’ stories show us a holy and chosen woman who . . . named God. Driven from her tenuous place as another’s handmaid in a world whose stability had eroded, Hagar’s hope rested in God’s promise. Hagar’s life is held by God’s holy promise, a promise other people of promise reject and deny. Sometimes we, like Hagar, are bonded, used, cast aside though laden with promise, and finally cut adrift to an unknown, ambiguous freedom.23

As Janzen suggests, “What Hagar has seen is God’s gracious self-disclosure to her, involving both compassion and forgiveness on the one hand and the offer of an open future on the other.”24 The answers we seek may be those of an “unknown, ambiguous freedom” or the “offer of an open future.” We may be frightened or unsure, but we can take courage that the God who stood by Hagar will be our God as well.

Longing for mercy

A final lesson can be summoned from what is not found in this narrative, that is, human mercy. The interplay between Hagar and Sarah is a tragic reminder of relationships between women gone sour. Yet, despite their lack of mercy for each other, God responds to Hagar (and Sarah) in mercy, foreshadowing Peter’s exclamation: “By his [God’s] great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope . . .” (1 Pet. 1:3).

Ultimately, the mercy of God and the hope that mercy extends become Hagar’s greatest gifts to those wrestling with questions of vocational identity and direction. Joan Chittister recognizes that, when she walks through struggle with integrity, she can then give authentic leadership: “Once we have truly struggled with something that stretches the elastic of the spirit, we are worthy to walk with others in struggle, too. Then we’re ready to listen. Then we’re able to lead.”25 Even in the midst of unanswered questions and stained-glass ceilings, we do not lose hope. The Lord hears, knows, and responds. Whether we are wandering in the desert of ambivalence toward our calling or wondering through the uncer­tainty of allowing new life to be birthed in us, we can continue to claim the merciful presence and power of El-roi allowing women to minister effectively and with joy.


  1. David Van Bierna, Elisabeth Kauffman, Jeanne McDowell, Mar­gurite Michaels, Frank Sikora, and Dierdre Van Dyk, “Rising Above the Stained-Glass Ceiling,” Time, 28 June 2004, 58.
  2. The tool developed for the project component of the doctoral work was “Wonderings and Wanderings: A Directed Journal for Women in Ministry,” available through the author at gracednotes@juno.com.
  3. Barbara Brown Zikmund, Adair T. Lummis, and Patricia M. Y. Chang, Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 7.
  4. Isolde Anderson, “Two Decades Later: North Park Theologi­cal Seminary Female M.Div. Graduates,” Covenant Quarterly 56, no. 3 (1998): 25.
  5. Margaret S. Wibord and Elizabeth Collier, “United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study” (Boston, Mass.: Anna Howard Shaw Center, Boston University School of Theology, 1993), iv, www.bu.edu/sth/shaw/retention (accessed 14 Nov. 2005).
  6. Identified themes for this project included identity, paradox, di­rection, God image, voice, loss, fear, movement, and relationship. See especially Lynne M. Baab, Embracing Midlife: Congregations as Sup­port Systems (Herndon, Va.: Alban Institute, 1999); Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, ed., In Her Own Time: Women and Developmental Issues in Pastoral Care (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2000); and Joyce Rupp, Dear Heart, Come Home: The Path of Midlife Spirituality (New York, N.Y.: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997).
  7. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Bibli­cal Narratives (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1984), 9.
  8. Hermann Gunkel, Water for a Thirsty Land: Israelite Literature and Tradition, ed. K. C. Hanson (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001), 70.
  9. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
  10. Trible, Texts of Terror, 12.
  11. Trible, Texts of Terror, 12.
  12. Trible, Texts of Terror, 13.
  13. Renita Weems, Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (San Diego, Calif.: Lura Media, 1988), 6.
  14. Trible, Texts of Terror, 16.
  15. Weems, Just a Sister Away, 12.
  16. Patricia Shelly, “Hagar and the God-Who-Sees: Reflections on Genesis 16:3–13,” The Conrad Grebel Review 11, no. 3 (1993): 267.
  17. Renita Weems, Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wis­dom, and the Blessings of God (New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, 2002), 79.
  18. Trible, Texts of Terror, 19.
  19. Weems, Just a Sister Away, 15.
  20. Sarah Heaner Lancaster, Women and the Authority of Scripture: A Narrative Approach (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 2002), 105, 180.
  21. J. Gerald Janzen, “Hagar in Paul’s Eyes and in the Eyes of Yahweh (Genesis 16): A Study in Horizons,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 13, no. 1 (1991): 5.
  22. Janzen, “Hagar in Paul’s Eyes,” 14.
  23. Lauree Hersch Meyer, “Hagar’s Holiness: Genesis 16 and 21,” Brethren Life and Thought 37, no. 3 (1992): 150–51.
  24. Janzen, “Hagar in Paul’s Eyes,” 14.
  25. Joan Chittester, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2003), 83.