I’m grateful for space to write about about multiple women’s experiences in pastoral ministry and the persistence of sexism in the church. To fit the guidelines, I needed to cut this piece down by half. Below is the full version for those interested:
Last week a male colleague explained my sermon to me.
I’m assuming this fellow preacher had done the same amount of work and was equally—but no more—qualified than me. And he certainly was not in a position to portray himself as an expert. Yet, he provided his unsolicited opinion about my interpretation of Scripture. I was wrong because my sermon didn’t end up in the same place as his.
In the end, he offered to buy me coffee so he could further explain himself to me, trying to convince me of his interpretation. I ignored the request.
A few weeks later I was in a conversation with a male colleague and a well-known progressive leader. This leader politely asked me about my church, but turned to face my colleague when he shifted the conversation announcing, “and now I have an academic question.” Even though I knew just as much about the subject in question, the conversation between the men went on without me.
Most women are subjected to men who have little to no authority on a matter yet feel empowered to explain to women what women already know, or who assume that women have nothing to offer the conversation. But this is a staple of female clergy life, a profession dominated by both words and men. Female pastors endure such humiliations from male peers in community clergy meetings and in denominational gatherings regarding our words as well as our bodies.
As I was telling a friend the stories of my week, he came up with the idea of Ten (Or More) Commandments for Male Clergy, rules to guide them away from their sexism. We had a few to add to the list but needed to widen the net so I sent out a call to a private Facebook group composed of young clergywomen.
I was surprised to discover how many of the submissions were similar. Regardless of our denomination or geography, female pastors are experiencing sexist behavior in comparable ways. Because the group is primarily made up of women who serve in white Protestant churches, the responses gave a window into the ways white masculine fragility exerts itself in the church.
The bodily-ness of the comments caught my attention first. Multiple times female pastors relayed experiences in which male colleagues subjected female pastors’ bodies to scrutiny, particularly related to childbearing. In response, these commandments were proposed:
Thou shalt not mention or assume anything about my having or not having children.
Thou shalt never ask my due date when I haven’t informed you that I am pregnant.
Thou shalt not joke about my “having lost a lot of weight since you last saw me” when I in fact had a baby.
Thou shalt not comment on my legs or any other part of my body.
Thou shalt not refer to me taking off my robe after worship as “disrobing,” then look at your fellow male colleague and wink.
Thou shalt not shake the hands of all the men in the room, and then try to hug me.
The centrality of bodies is significant. In her essay, “Women in Power: From Medusa to Merkel” (London Review of Books, March 16, 2017) Mary Beard describes the pervasiveness of the stereotype that power, from the halls of ancient Greece to the modern Parliament, is by nature masculine. One of Beard’s examples caught my eye. She recalls an article in the London Times during a week when women would potentially become Metropolitan Police Commissioner, chair of the BBC Trust, and bishop of London. The headline read: “Women Prepare for a Power Grab in Church, Police, and BBC.”
Beard points out that “thousands upon thousands of readers didn’t bat an eye” at the suggestion that those seats of power were the property of men, possessions being “grabbed” or taken away by women. She comments, “If we want to give women as a gender – and not just in the shape of a few determined individuals – their place on the inside of the structures of power, we have to think harder about how and why we think as we do.”
Comments on a female pastor’s body are a way to highlight the differences between the bodies of male and female clergy in a way that positions women as interlopers to church power. These comments reinforce that female bodies are out of place in church leadership, given that ecclesial space has been gendered as male over the ages.
As Beard reminds us, “we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.” In drawing attention to pregnancy, in making sexualizing comments about “disrobing,” in suggesting that a clergywoman should smile more, in describing a female pastor’s voice as shrill —these experiences expose the discomfort men feel about women in “their” profession.
This discomfort–that women are hedging in on spaces of male power–was evident throughout the commandments proposed:
Thou shalt invite a young clergy woman into budget and financial conversations, instead of assuming she “won’t be interested.”
Thou shalt not ask or expect a YCW to take notes in a meeting, make copies, or serve coffee.
Thou shalt not assume, based on my sex, that I’m better at working with children, youth, or women than you are.
Thou shalt not call me sweetie, kiddo, or girl.
Thou shalt not treat me like your granddaughter, even if your granddaughter and I might be the same age.
The cultural myth prevails in the configuration of power in the church: that women are not interested in money (and aren’t adept at handling it), that women happily tend toward secretarial work, that women are naturally gifted with children, and that women are nonplussed by a host of disempowering nicknames.
Each of these stereotypes is an attempt to carve out a space within the world of male clergy for women to assume their socially gendered roles while keeping intact a hierarchy that privileges men to make more money, to receive more public speaking invitations, and to form relationships with adults with power.
These are not only noisome and ridiculous humiliations that women suffer. These stereotypes impact the ministries and careers of women in church leadership. I have one female colleague who was called out by a male lead pastor for not working seventy hours a week, as he had set by his own example. The suggestion was that overworking is a sign of power, authority, and commitment while boundaries are a sign of weakness.
Another female pastor shared about a woman who was offered two-thirds the salary of a clergyman with equal experience and education in an equivalent role. Another discovered that a search committee was told that, for the salary they were offering, they should only expect that a woman would be willing to serve as their pastor. The committee was livid – not at the pay gap, but at the idea that they would have to consider only women for the position.
Women were most vexed when their male colleagues tried to excuse their sexism because they purported to be feminists. In reply, the women who shared with me offered the following commandments:
Thou shalt not doubt me when I say something is sexist, without arguing to me why it wasn’t.
Thou shalt not use “I’m a feminist” as a shield for your mansplaining or gentle misogyny, when your advice is unsolicited and you have not asked permission to dispense it.
Thou shalt believe women when they say things.
Sexism is perniciousness when it hides behind the veil of allyship. This is also the most extensive assertion of power as male – that women do not have authority to name sexism and can be questioned by men about their own experience of the world, of which women should be, without question, experts. It is not surprising that mansplaining came up in several comments. While mansplaining is a wide-spread complaint among women, it has special resonance for clergywomen because our role is to proclaim the Gospel in public and with authority.
Speaking in public is the subject of Mary Beard’s iconic essay, “The Public Voice of Women” (London Review of Books, March 20, 2014), which should be read monthly by all women who speak publicly as a reminder that there is nothing neutral about female voices in the pulpit. Beard writes, “It is still the case that when listeners hear a female voice they don’t hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather they have not learned how to hear authority in it.” Beard adds that they also do not hear the voice of expertise, unless that expertise is isolated to privatized space (think here of women who can teach Sunday school to children but would never be given access to the pulpit).
Female clergy shed light on the persistence of institutionalized male fragility — buckling down, securing the fortresses — in both conservative and assumedly progressive churches. A sinister tactic of patriarchy in the church is creating the expectation that women must “get along” with patriarchy because the cost of not doing so is church unity. Unity is often the asserted overarching value, regardless of the fact that it is women who are asked to accommodate sexist individuals, theologies, practices, and institutions, never the other way around. There are plenty of all-male clergy traditions and roles to which men can retreat. Not so for female pastors.
The outcry of white clergymen that they are being excluded by women’s intolerance of sexism is the most obvious signal of the white church’s epidemic of male fragility. White male clergy flip the script, asserting that sexism is another diversity to be tolerated. It was diversity that gave way to the cracks in the barricade of male ecclesial leadership through which female clergy slipped, and men intend to exploit that weakness. Since the call to diversity created the current situation, diversity becomes a tactic to preserve white patriarchy. If a woman questions this arrangement, an arrangement made without her consent, if a woman stands up to someone who will not recognize her ordination, career, or call she, fantastically, faces the accusation of intolerance.
What is to be done? For one, men must do better. Our male colleagues must start confronting sexism in its overt and covert forms. When men co-opt an idea that came from a female, you must do the work of reassigning the insight. When you learn of a pay gap, it is your responsibility to address it. When female clergy are outtalked or overtalked, it is your responsibility to name the imbalance. Read the sermons, theology, and books of women. Refuse to cite or purchase the books of men who exclude women from pulpit ministry.
Women are addressing this as we always have – constant negotiation between having to get the job done and speaking out against what is intolerable. In the meantime, we create spaces where women can begin to speak the truth of our power to one another. For now, it is what we have.