Yesterday, I left my house early in the morning, headed on a two hour journey, and eventually landed at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. Upon first entering the College, I was instantly greeted by several feminist theologians, doctoral students, and pastors all who were there to attend a special conference seeking to honour the courage of women who are in top leadership roles within the church. Despite the fact that I may not be as liberal as the majority of the women who attended this conference are, I still found myself leaving with a few pretty basic understandings of some of the issues women both young and old face as they traverse the often steep path of ministry. I’d like to share with you a few of the recurring thoughts that kept surfacing over the course of this one day event in hopes that it will somehow move you to begin to articulate an even deeper awareness of some of the unique challenges those of us who are female are so susceptible to.
#1: So, you’re single. You’re a woman and you’re a pastor. Now what? Although our culture is inherently shifting towards a more egalitarian approach; still, those of us who are female leaders in our churches continue to find it a struggle to have our voices heard on a daily basis. This is true of married women and single women; however, single women are at an even greater disadvantage. There is a temptation within churches to see single women as a “token”. In other words, “wow, she can do so much for us because she doesn’t have children yet!!” One young woman even shared that someone in her congregation told her “we’re going to have to keep you single so that you can keep serving us so remarkably.” Friends, do you not see anything wrong with such a statement? Should a woman truly be denied the rights of a long lasting and intimate partnership in hopes that she will continue to serve feverishly within the church? This seems like not only a recipe for bad self-care but an injustice to one of the greatest gifts God has provided us with – companionship in marriage.
#2: For women, living into our sexuality is extremely hard. While our culture is trying to advance itself (albeit still very imperfectly), our church is still severely lagging in this one area. Trust me: I, like the majority of the women who attended this conference grew up in the capital E Evangelical church. I know all about what it’s like to see different sexual standards applied to men than to women. There is still a very unfortunate concept within many churches today that women are not sexual beings at all and to express any form of sexual pleasure or even desire for sexual intimacy outside of marriage is inherently a sin. The purity standards that these churches provide women with are not only highly unattainable, but they also are largely unhealthy.
Furthermore, it is so shameful to hear stories of how sexual abuse is so prevalent even within our churches. People claiming to be sons (or daughters) of God defiling God’s princesses. Yet, what is even more gripping and shocking is the amount of women who were not even able to get their offender to take responsibility for his ravaging and savage works. As I listened to my sisters share some of their painful stories of growing up in the church as survivors of sexual abuse, I was able to see how the church has often minimized these experiences. Some of the women in the group were even blamed further or told that it was all simply a “misunderstanding”. It seems that even within churches today, we have this unfortunate and false concept that men are savage animals who cannot control themselves and therefore the onus lies on women to protect themselves and act wisely. Not so. We need to start by teaching our sons how to treat a woman and how to show respect for their sisters in Christ!
[For some gripping personal stories check out this blog: http://notwithink.blogspot.ca/2014/03/lets-talk-about-sex-and-shame-endish.html]
Another blog you may want to view is: https://christianresponse2sexualabuse.wordpress.com/
#3: Despite the fact that we are allowing more women to hold church leadership positions, they are still strongly in the minority. Looking back at my entire 7 years in the academy, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have been taught any course by a woman. The amount of times I’ve been taught a theology or Bible course by a woman comes to two. And the amount of times I’ve been taught a Bible course (or any course for that matter) by a woman who was also a visible minority comes to an astonishing 0.
What does it say about our theology when almost all of the people who are teaching Bible and theology courses are white, heterosexual, middle-aged men? What does it say about our awareness of the Kingdom of God when we fail to hear the voices of people who practice womanist, feminist, or Latina theology?
I wasn’t surprised; however, I was deeply saddened to hear the stories of so many sisters who attended this conference who still felt that their voices were not heard. Some of them are now pastors, and yet, they talk about their own need to work twice as hard as their male counterparts in order to get half of the respect. I think something is gravely wrong with this picture.
#4: We Need to Begin to Read the Bible Differently. One of the first exercises we did as a large group at this conference was to write on small pieces of paper the names of women in the Scriptures or biblical texts directly speaking to women. We were then encouraged to put it on a timeline with the positive texts at the top and the negative ones at the bottom.
We made a few discoveries. Firstly, it needs to be noted that there are very few texts devoted to women in comparison to the texts that speak of men. Secondly, there are many troubling texts in the Bible that we simply cannot ignore. What does it say about our womanhood when we read a story such as the Levite and the Concubine in Judges 19 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+19) or when we read the troubling story of Jepthah’s daughter in Judges 11 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+11)? How do we explain the inherently male hierarchy and female injustices that are directly explicit and implicit in Scripture?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to go on some male bashing trip here. We must understand that the Scriptures were written in a very patriarchal context. Nevertheless, we must find ways to address these issues that have shamed and silence women for years choosing instead to uncover a liberation theology surrounding it. We must find ways to make these texts accessible to women in our congregations in ways that bring them the dignity and respect that has often been misappropriated from them.
#5: Lastly, we need to work at providing more opportunities for female leaders to connect with one another. One of the most encouraging things for me about attending this conference was the amount of women who were under the age of thirty in attendance. I felt privileged to share lunch with a group of about 5 students from Redeemer University in Ancaster all of whom were between the ages of 20 and 23. I also noticed several women who were studying for their doctoral degrees and even had the privilege of meeting a fellow Mennonite in her mid-twenties working on her ThD. I believe that based on the amount of women in attendance and the amount of denominations that were represented at this gathering that these issues are so prevalent within the majority of our denominations. Issues of gender equality do not just touch the Mennonite, Pentecostal, or Anglican Church. They permeate the very fiber of essentially all churches.
It is my hope that the Junia’s Daughters conference will be one among many. I hope that these types of conferences will continue to take place and give women an opportunity and a venue to be heard perhaps in ways that they have never been able to be heard in before. I thank the University of Toronto and all who took part in the planning of this amazing conference for their courage to take part in such a conversation and I look forward to attending similar conferences in the future.