I’m not complaining. I have the best job in the world. I spend time with wonderful people who have incredible stories to share. I get to write, and read, like, a lot. I get to break bread in all sorts of settings and call it blessed. I set my own schedule, within reason. I go on trips. I talk about Jesus. I share with people the fullest and most joyful moments of their lives. And when an earthly life has ended, I draw a thread of narrative to bring meaning from it all, and point it all back to the holy. What could possibly be better?
That said… I’m going to speak a truth that may sound like whining, but is really just a truth of my life that, some days, cannot be ignored. Women who do what I do still have a battle to fight, and it is a chore that does not come with any other job description, that i’m aware of. We still have to defend our right to be here.
It is no longer socially acceptable to walk up to a female physician and demand, “who certified you? Who said that you could practice medicine?” Sure, a person can insist to see a male doctor instead, if one is in-house. But it’s no longer a challenge on, like, an existential level. If you’re bleeding to death, and the only doctor around is a girl, I don’t reckon many patients are going to haggle over the technicalities of anataomy.
I don’t mean to diminish the rampant gender inequality that still plagues the supposedly modern world. Women are appallingly under-represented in the sciences, in government, in lead roles in our major corporations, and basically anywhere there’s appearance of power. But that is a conversation for another day–or rather, for every day. For now, I am talking about the one role where people still feel entitled to say, “girls can’t do that.” Like, say it out loud, without flinching.
Every woman pastor I know could write a book and fill it with the sad, stupid, hurtful and/or plain oblivious things that people say to them. Here are a few of mine–then we’ll talk about the best way to respond, k?
–“This is Erin. Her husband’s the Pastor at that church over on Happy Valley Road.” (Yes. More than once, this has happened to me.)
–“I have a few questions about your church. Who’s the pastor?” 9 times out of 10, that turns out to be the only question they had, after all.
–“The last pastor I met here was a man…Is he your husband?” (Note: that pastor was here 10 years ago, and is old enough to be my dad. So, yeah, sure, we must be married. BTW, I was pregnant when this one happened. One of my awesome church folks thinks I should have responded: “Yes, he is, and look what he did to me. Have you seen him lately?”)
–Comment left on a particularly controversial blog post: “This is why women and youngsters don’t belong in the pulpit!!!”
–This one from the funeral director who was in charge of a service that i was conducting. “I don’t believe that women can be pastors. If you read your Bible, that is. That’s what it says.” Ah, yes, the Bible card. Like I’ve never read it. (Also, something about ‘read your Bible’ sounds so much more confrontational than a simple ‘read THE Bible.” Why is that?)
–And this one, my favorite, though perhaps the most disturbing. The guy who remodeled our sanctuary last year, came by my office pretty much every day he was here–which was awesome–to ask me, again, “So, you’re the pastor here?” Or, just to be clear, “You’re the main pastor here?” Or, in case he really misunderstood, “You preach? On Sunday morning, you preach?” And then there was, “I saw people here this morning for a class. Is that a Bible study class? Are you teaching them the Bible? Because that’s a big job. That’s a lot of responsibility.”
And this whole period of engagement wrapped up nicely when the sanctuary was done, and he showed me our beautifully stained and textured concrete… and remarked that i probably shouldn’t wear high-heeled shoes to walk on the chancel, because it would tear up the floor.
I believe what he meant was, I shouldn’t be a girl and walk on the chancel, because it would tear up his tiny little world.
It would be easy to dwell in these moments; to live with a slow burning rage, or a crippling sadness. And sadly, some of us do. But staying too long in that place does not help us to honor the calling we’ve answered. Better for the soul, and the world, really, the laugh it off with some trusted colleagues and move on.
While I’ve had many an awkward airplane flight and/or manicure because I made the mistake of mentioning what I do, people are, on the whole, lovely and kind and engaging. I stand by that, for all that some folks work to make me think otherwise.
However, I do have to check myself. Because my impulse in these situatons, almost always, is to defend. To articulate a brilliant biblical/theological argument that will justify my being here; not in my language, but in theirs. Or else, I find their shock and dismay so off-putting, that I must fight the urge to comfort them. Like, “there, there, it’s ok. We’ll find you a church where only the boys talk, where Jesus is white, and where the prayer chain works like the Sear’s catalog. Let me give you a phone number…”
But what I learned a long time ago–and what I hope my sisters in ministry are learning too–is that no publication-worthy appologetic for lady preachers is going to change the minds and hearts of those who refuse to hear. You might have a dozen verses of scripture for every one of their’s, but the thing is, we are better than that. We do not believe in shredding apart the gospel in order to prove our point–or more importantly, the prove our worth. And the thing is, we don’t have to. We are called by God and ordained by the church, and that should be good enough for anybody who’s asking.
And yes, there will be those who are genuinely curious, honestly engaging, and might even disagree with your position, yet still find interest in you, as a person, and wish to hear your story. I’m trying to discern, with grace and dignity, the people who just want to shame and silence me, from the ones who are really up for a conversation. It is hard sometimes, but the alternative is to write off everyone else as ‘other,’ a spiritually dangerous practice in any time and place.
What I can do–what we can all do–is to serve, unapologetically, in the roles to which we are called. We can do it well, not to prove our worth to strangers, but to honor those who support and encourage us; those who vouched for us when we took our vows, and who show up to hear us preach, every Sunday of the world; and most importantly, those faithful women who paved a way for us, whatever resistance they met.
And that is probably my best response to those who, for whatever argument I could make for my calling, will never see past my shoes: “If you’ve said your piece, I’ll be going now. I’ve got work to do.”
We’ve got work to do, ladies. Good folks believe in us. And the next girls are counting on it.