Growing up, my mom was a tomboy, and this fact makes me swell with pride.
While other little girls wore ribbons and dresses to accompany their mothers around town, my mom rocked her very own NASA jumpsuit. In the 60’s! This is heroic—of both my mom and my grandmother who didn’t talk her out of it.
She grew up with a large, co-ed group of close friends. In high school, she was editor of the yearbook (which turned out to be full of hilarious pranks) and quarterback of her powderpuff football team. She developed a love for cooking and started making dinner for her family by choice in high school as well. When she went to college, she reprised her role as QB in intramural games, in addition to becoming pledge mom and president of her sorority chapter.
When my parents had me, my nursery had cream walls and plaid curtains noticeably missing the color pink. My mom would be the one to teach me how to throw a perfect spiral. She did not protest to me vandalizing my Barbie dream car with black sharpie (it was far too pink without it), and she planned both my dress-up-princess birthday party and my Olympic game-themed birthday party with equal enthusiasm and attention to detail.
My mom had worked in marketing and advertising but chose to become a stay-at-home mom when I was born. She is artistic and skilled with a paint brush. She is essentially Mrs. Fix-it and was a card-carrying member of the Handyman Club of America. When my dad had drummed up enough points to earn an item out of some reward catalogue, he gave it to her to pick out something she wanted. She bypassed the jewelry and gifts and chose the Black and Decker power drill. She was stoked.
In my childhood world, tasks, interests, and opportunities were not separated by gender. I was not expected to play with dolls, wear dresses, or cook because I was a girl. I was expected to find what I loved to do, be, or wear, and pursue those things freely. Therefore, I was an avid reader, whose greatest possessions were her Mike Alstott jersey and her set of oil pastels. I was a good student, a leader, and one of the proudest moments of my young life was beating all the boys at knockout in 4th grade. I had guy friends, girl friends, and a world full of possibilities.
What did I want to be when I grow up? The answer could be anywhere from a professional athlete to an artist to an interior designer to a teacher to working in real estate to a million and a half different options. The only, and I mean only, request that I recall my mom making regarding my future was to “please, please” not marry a politician. But honestly, that’s just common sense.
My mom never ever used the word “feminist” or spoke of “gender equality”, and she still doesn’t. She didn’t talk about the systems out in the world that imposed gender roles or that didn’t value women equally. I figured, especially based on my experiences with my mom, that we were living in a time where your gender had nothing to do with the opportunities you were given. I genuinely thought those were all things of the past.
And for the most part, as a kid of the 90’s, it was true that I could pursue any career I wanted. I know now that we still have a ways to go when it comes to income equality, family leave, harassment in the workplace, and other issues that disproportionately affect women. But, setting this aside for a moment, I was taught that there was no industry or career path anymore where women are excluded just for being women.
So you can imagine my utter shock and confusion at finding that the one place still willing to disqualify you from a job explicitly because you are a woman was the church.
I vividly recall my first encounter with this idea. I was a freshman in college, and I had just declared my religion major when an acquaintance asked, “What do you want to do with that degree?” I answered, “Become a youth pastor.”
I received a confused look, followed by one of recognition. “Oh, like children’s ministry! That’s so awesome!”
“Well, sort of,” I said. “More like high school ministry! High school was a really formative time in my faith, and I’d like to teach more to that age.”
“…but…you’re a woman. Women in my church teach kids…like elementary age. I’ve never even heard of a female high school pastor! That wouldn’t fly…in my church, at least!”
I don’t remember responding because it felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. I do remember thinking, “She can’t possibly be serious.” She was.
The more friends I made who hailed from the South, the more I started to learn about the different ideas out there about women in ministry. Some friends told me that they would have no problem with a female youth pastor, but they couldn’t even fathom going to a church with a female head pastor. “That’s just…weird!”
In my years attending an Episcopalian Pre-K through 8 school, we always saw women ordained in church leadership roles. Then, when I started attending church on Sundays with my friend’s family, we went to a PCUSA church (Presbyterian Church USA), a denomination that ordains women. One of our associate pastors was a woman, and to this day, I have never heard more beautiful, moving, and eloquent prayers than those offered by Nicole.
With these two denominations serving as the core of my church experience, in addition to my power drill wielding mother, I could barely wrap my head around this view. These Christians, who I had just met, were telling me that I had heard God’s call for my life wrong. That God doesn’t call my type to that role. Must’ve been a miscommunication? They offered me some scripture to show me “how God feels about the issue”.
I was upset, but I was not equipped yet to respond. At this point, I had not yet engaged in important conversation or taken courses that would help me understand the cultures in which the Bible was written. Though I had read their verses many times before, I had placed them in a mental category of “This is saying something I consider to be weird, and I’m not sure what to do about it”. It seemed like I couldn’t put that off any longer.
I remember making phone calls to people I trusted and who had supported my ministry dreams. “Hey! So…uh…why do we ordain women? People are telling me here that they go to churches that don’t do this. I didn’t realize this was a thing, but they have verses to support them. I don’t know what to make of those verses, and I don’t know what to say in response. Help!”
My motivation at the time was to be able to defend myself. I learned that there were several verses that mentioned female leaders in the early church. I learned about the culture Paul was writing to: one that only educated men and was patriarchal in every sense. I learned that Paul actually was radically progressive for his time when he taught about mutual submission between husbands and wives (1 Corinthians 7:4). In addition, many instructions found in his letter to the Corinthian church sought to guide new believers in love and devotion to God in light of the specific culture that prevailed there up until that time. (I wrote a paper on this in college, and it was one of my favorite topics to explore. Maybe I’ll post it for you if it’s not too dry.) I learned that, in Paul’s culture, being a free Jewish male automatically meant that you had more spiritual authority and advantage (basically, it was believed that their prayers were worth more to God) than any other person. Therefore, when Paul wrote in Galatians that, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”, it was a radical statement seeking equality in Christ’s church.
However, “in order to defend myself” is a pretty lame motivation for learning more about women in ministry. I haven’t used these findings in real, face-to-face discussions of the topic. Instead, if asked about my conclusion that women belong in any and all forms of church leadership, my response always comes from what I believe in my heart about the nature of God—what my personal experience has been and how God moves so often in a way that people don’t see coming. God is beyond gender and does not only work through men. God constantly surprises us with Her inclusivity, Her love, and Her ability to use even the ragamuffins to do beautiful things here on earth.
Plus, while some people are still trying to debate and decide if women should be allowed to wear the collar, there are scores of women out there doing Kingdom work. They’re leading churches, preaching truth, throwing doors open, serving their community, seeking out the marginalized and welcoming them into a space that sees them and loves them as children of God. We don’t need to waste time trying to get a thumbs up before we get to work. Women are ministers. Period. Women don’t need permission to be in ministry, but we will gladly accept a little more respect.
So, to my female dreamers: If you’re reading this and you have felt that you have more to offer your church—if you’ve felt a calling to write, speak, teach, or serve your church in a way that some people would question or even reject, I offer you this encouragement. These are the truths I have experienced, and the words I would go back in time and tell myself. Let me empower you with words of faithfulness and encouragement. Let me affirm you in your hope that partnering with God in the work of redemption is absolutely, 100% your job, too. If support is hard to come by, then hear me:
I will keep working to set a bigger table so that we all might pull up a chair.
Jesus invited us to follow him. The church is one of the places where people following Jesus are known to gather. Therefore, the church should be one of the foremost places where all people, male or female, are encouraged to pursue big dreams of impacting this world for good, of bringing the Kingdom of God here, now. If you can help us achieve this, then you are needed here. It is our great loss if something stands in your way. And it ought to bring us great shame if that thing is theology that only values the voices of men.
The church is a great place to be if you want to serve your community in love. Part of a church’s job should be to welcome all of you who want to honor, explore, and grow the gifts that God has given you. At church, we learn to listen for God’s call and obey it. When you hear God’s call to act, lead, or serve, it lights a fire in your soul. You know it. You see that it will take a daunting amount of courage, strength, and sacrifice in order to follow that call. You are right. But the same God who called you is also faithful. Thankfully, He’s in the business of rising—even the pain and sacrifice of the crucifixion couldn’t prevent the rising. He is the outstretched arm that helps you rise, too.
When you feel that call and you show up to answer it with love, I want you to know that there are churches where you will not be turned away from leading because you are a woman. There is a place at the table for you. I will set it my damn self. If there aren’t very many people sitting at that table who look or sound like you, well then you are needed even more.
Please, come teach us what only you can. Show us how to follow Jesus with our whole hearts and live a bigger, better life of love. Come teach us, especially if what you have to share challenges us. Jesus was all about challenging people to be more generous, merciful, and compassionate. If you can help us, please come. I’m saving you a seat.
Let us live in love,