It Finally Bothered Me

For some reason, growing up I was never bothered by the fact that our pastors were always male. And the ushers. And the elders. For some reason, that just seemed, well, normal. And natural. It was just how things were, and I never even thought of them being any other way.

I began belief hopping when I realized that I had too much respect for my own ability to think and reason and come to conclusions to simply sublimate all of that and obey my father. I couldn’t do it. Suddenly, I couldn’t let my father choose my beliefs or my faith or my spouse. And so my journey out of patriarchy started not with the gender of the pastor or the ushers or the elders, but with me. 

When I became Catholic, it only seemed normal to me that priests were all male. Why would they not be? Even as I came to adopt the label “feminist” the fact that priests were universally male didn’t bother me. Because, well, that still felt normal. And shortly thereafter I left Catholicism, and since then I haven’t really thought about the gender of the clergy, or of ushers or elders.

But the last time I visited my parents, something changed. I went to church with them as I usually do, just out of respect, and when the ushers came up to distribute communion it suddenly felt all wrong. I looked at the eight or so well-dressed men, and my stomach turned over. And for some reason, this felt like a milestone.

The patriarchal gender order, both in the family and in the church, may have been normal for me as a child, but I have now been living in the mainstream world and embracing feminism for long enough that that gender order no longer seems “normal.”

Instead, it makes my stomach turn over.

And now I get it. I get the anger feminist Christians feel as they are told by male Christian leader after male Christian leader that their role is to follow.

As I watched the ushers I felt distinctly that something was missing. The women. I looked at the ushers and felt invisible because I did not see myself there.  And suddenly I knew what egalitarian evangelical women feel as they listen to male pastor after male pastor and what egalitarian Catholic women feel when they see male priest after male priest cycle in and out of their parishes.

It was something that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t felt before.

But now I do.

And I’m glad that I do, because now I feel that I can truly stand in spirit alongside my feminist sisters of whatever denomination and truly from the bottom of my heart wish them luck as they seek to bring gender equality to a religion that has for so long been patriocentric.

On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
On Indiana
A Matter of Patriarchy
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Contrarian

    I bet there were women in the choir singing, and women bouncing babies, and women in the nursery, though, weren’t there? “Not invisible, just in a place dictated by correct gender roles.”

    • Blue Camas

      Would not be sure about choir – I have read of some churches that don’t allow women in the choir either.

  • jay

    Indeed! This was my path, too. I had been working as a teacher for a number of years and treated with respect from male colleagues and male students and went to my parents church where I was ignored as a female. Men would greet my husband and their eyes would just go right over me. When I was growing up and early in my marriage, this was normal. But after having seen respect, I realized how disrespectful they were to me. It was part of my leaving the faith.

  • Anna

    Libby Anne I have a queston for you about the idea of attending church out of respect. My mother is religious (conservative denomination but not fundamentalist), I was raised in the church and for a long time felt very loved there. Now I’m questioning and when I try to go to church with her to make her happy, I end up feeling rather angry at the sermon, the things implied in songs, the childen’s message, etc. I feel like I want to debate these people who used to feel like family and scold the pastor for focusing on all the wrong things. How do you keep your cool when the whole service is “wrong” and even hurtful in your eyes? It hurts my mom that I won’t go with her, but I just can’t find a way to stomach it.

  • Nimue

    Growing up conservative Christian, I remember being pissed about the MEN MEN MEN leading everything while women are invisible since at least the age of 5. I currently attend an Anglican church, because they seem to actually respect women.

  • ArachneS

    I remember a faint feeling of unfairness that the boys do everything in church when I was a kid. I think this was because we used to play “mass” and the boys would tell us we couldn’t play the priest or servers because we were girls(we played those roles anyway… siblings didn’t have that much authority in play) and that the girls were just in charge of the “altar guild” which was basically keeping the altar decorated with flowers and linens. Well, in tridentine catholic mass, the priests and the servers do EVERYthing(aka the “fun parts”). What was the point of us girls playing mass if it was just going to be like going to church?

  • Melissa@Permission to Live

    I am still surprised when we attend the Unitarian church in our area and the women participate fully in leading, when a woman gets up to preach and no men get up and walk out. Women breastfeed during the service, take the offering, lead parts of the service interchangeably with men. Guys there talk to me like I am any other person, it really shouldn’t surprise me, but it does because I have NEVER experienced anything like it. I wonder what it would be like to grow up in a church where women truly are equal.

  • Julie42

    The worst part is that once that feeling is there, it never goes away. I wish I could look at something like that and acknowledge my disapproval, but still be comfortable with it for the moment as someone else’s tradition. But I just can’t. It completely disgusts me.
    My sister converted to Orthodox Christianity and we had a conversation about how they don’t allow female priests. I was trying to explain to her why that was horrible and sexist, but she wouldn’t see it. She kept saying that they still honor women, but it’s not the woman’s role. She said she probably wouldn’t want to go to a church with a female priest. I hat talking to her about it because I don’t understand how she could possibly be okay with it when I feel so disgusted by it. I guess it just hasn’t hit her yet. She’s always been very okay with her gender role.

  • smrnda

    I think it’s also idiocy when these religious groups feel that women can be kept out of any leadership position and that you can trust men to fairly advocate for women on their behalf. Could we trust white people to fairly advocate for Black people in the US while keeping all Black people out of leadership positions? When nobody from your group is ever in a leadership position, your voice and your perspective has been deemed irrelevant.

    I also noticed a weird social dynamic among American Christians in terms of how gendered communication and social interaction is, but the problem there is that they take it as ‘natural’ but it’s mostly the product of socialization.

  • http:.// EEB

    When I was in Jr. High or thereabouts, my mom felt “the call” to become a pastor. She had been going to school to become a children’s pastor (a different educational/ministry track, in our church, where they train ordained elders and the unordained deacons seperately). When she sat down to tell us kids, and to basically ask if that was all right, my first thought was, “Women can do that?” I guess I had vaugly known our denomination had female pastors, but I had never met one, and our particular church growing up was very conservative because most people involved and the leadership were into the Gothard movement at the time. My parents had been supportive of me becomming a missionary, but no one had ever said anything about a woman becomming a pastor. I found out later that Mom didn’t even believe women should be pastors, until she started school and talked with her mentor about it, and believed that God was calling her to do it. (Dad was great about it…Mom says that when she tenatively asked him if it would be okay, he just said, “I always wanted to pastor’s wife.” Dad is not someone who is threatened by his wife having authority or competance, no matter how many times the people at church told him he should be.)

    It’s been a really long journey for them. Mom has had to put up with a lot of horrible stuff because of her decision. She’s been blammed for my lesbianism (because she confused my ideas of gender roles) and atheism (because she obviously didn’t preach strict literalism, and because she “emasculated my father and therefore emasculated my image of God”–yes, exact quote, followed by, “Your father was weak and only modeled God’s love, so you don’t believe in God’s power and you aren’t afraid of His wrath.” Damn skippy, and proud of it!). People have (loudly, obviously) walked out when she’s stood to preach, and at her first church (where she was preaching 3 weeks a month, usually), one man would deliberately turn his back to her every time she would preach. And the things they say! It’s astonishing the horrible things–even relatives!–feel perfectly comfortable saying to her face, or to me. Pretty much, she lets it go without much of a thought (after all, she reminds me, for most of her life she didn’t believe women should be pastors, either), but I do know that the stuff about me hits her hard…she does blame herself for me, sometimes. Which is not the most flattering thing–I’m not broken, criminy–but that’s another subject altogether.

    But we all find it funny how so many people have no idea how to handle it. She’s been asked by parishoners if she’s allowed to baptize people, or if the marriages she officiates will be legal. A frustrated car salesmen asked what he was supposed to call her–”The Reverendess? A Pastorette?”– totally serious, just trying to know what the respectful form of address was. It’s always a little amusing to watch the visitor’s eyes get really big when Mom introduces herself as the pastor. And most people do try to be polite; they’re just usually confused, flustered.

  • Rilian

    The bible very clearly indicates that women are not people. This never bothered me because I never believed the bible was a reliable source of truth.

  • Marie

    My mother is a pastor, and has been since before I was born. I’ve been lucky. We attended ELCA (liberal Lutheran) congregations in which women could play all roles. I never thought that a woman couldn’t be a pastor, or an usher, or a communion attendant. When my mother was looking for jobs, once or twice a congregation “discussed” whether they felt comfortable with a female pastor, but always came down on the side of “yes.” Though I’ve definitely had people be surprised that my mother is a pastor, or say things like, “I didn’t know women could do that,” I’ve never had anyone say to my face that she shouldn’t be a pastor, or that it’s not an appropriate role for a woman.

    I’ve always said I could never attend a church that wouldn’t allow my mother to preach, and these days I won’t even step foot in, say, an LCMS (conservative Lutheran) church. I suppose I would for a wedding or something, but never to worship, not even when visiting relatives. It doesn’t necessarily bother me that women who are otherwise in favor of equality choose to be Catholics or Baptists, but it does confuse me–I just can’t imagine voluntarily being part of a community in which I’m *explicitly* a second-class citizen.

    All of which is to say, Libby Anne, I’m glad it finally bothers you.

  • Rae

    Oh, I always felt uncomfortable with it.

    What happened was when I was 10 years old, they started letting boys my age and a couple developmentally disabled men carry the offering plates for the evening services. I thought that was a really awesome job and I wanted to do it, so I asked. And the answer I got was “That’s only a job for men” followed by something about men and authority that I started to tune out. And I was so frustrated, because it was clearly stupid and arbitrary, and the “authority” thing didn’t make any sense because that would mean that they were trusting elementary-age boys over adult women, and the “but women have different hormones that make them more emotional so they can’t make as good decisions” line of reasoning also failed to apply because if the developmentally disabled adult men in question couldn’t even read, obviously it didn’t require that many decision making skills.

    And, after having gone to a church where I finally was allowed to do that, and then going to a church where people of both genders did absolutely everything very close to equally, going back to that denomination and seeing all men just taking the offering seemed so bizarre and dissonant to me.