Orthodox Christian Concerns: A Lament for Our Millennial Daughters

Orthodox Christian Concerns: A Lament for Our Millennial Daughters January 16, 2015

By Jennifer Nahas.

What is best about the Orthodox Church—holding true to early teachings and traditions—also presents its greatest challenge: making sure tradition doesn’t trump appropriate treatment of others. While many prize the richness of the Orthodox Church, our traditions can lead to exclusion of some from fully participating in the community of Christ.  It’s a fine line, preserving ancient rites without marginalizing particular groups, within a patriarchal structure, and is ripe for discussion, particularly as it pertains to women.

Many Orthodox Christians immigrated to this country in the early 20th century, at a time when the United States experienced unprecedented social, economic, and technological change.  The last forty-five years have especially afforded women immense opportunities; the Orthodox Church, however, somewhat secluded from secular society, has been slow to distinguish between those customs or traditions that reflect Christ’s teachings and those that result merely in differential treatment of women and men.  As a result, Church culture treats women differently depending upon whether they are single/married, parenting/childless, or at-home/working.  By maintaining outdated assumptions about women as wife and mother, Church leaders have created a culture difficult for young women to reconcile, for they live secular, modern-day lives with expanded opportunities, but are diminished as Orthodox Christians.

Church leaders, most familiar with their ‘boomer’ moms and sisters, may be unaware of how radically different life is for a millennial young woman.  Unlike 3rd-generation Orthodox women, our daughters don’t have memories of grandparents settling in a new country, building bedrock church communities.  They don’t have, or crave, the ethnic glue that held communities together, but rather seek Churches that are not ethnocentric as they are fully integrated into present-day society. They graduate college having had equal access to social groups, athletics, and academics; they rock the boat, assume their place at the table, and are accustomed to being heard and being successful. Some describe these young women as aggressive, disrespectful, and unladylike; instead, why not regard them as talented, discerning, and energetic?

This shift has had a huge impact on work, marriage, and family choices.  Millennials delay marriage to pay off college loans before joining incomes. They seek relationships with people who affirm their passions and talents, which often result in blended religious marriages.  For those who marry, children are not a given, with an increasing number choosing to be childless; and some remain single, finding rewards in pursuing professional endeavors. Universally, these young women are in the workforce, in traditional and nontraditional ways:  some work part-time in hourly wage jobs, others run at-home businesses, while others climb corporate ladders, serve on boards and hold public office.

Our millennial daughters are celebrated in the workplace but diminished as parishioners in Orthodox Churches. For some, Orthodox traditions have scarred them as teenagers—they cried when they couldn’t serve alongside their brothers at the altar, might have sat bewildered if confined to sitting on one side of the Church, and felt marginalized if they weren’t allowed to read the epistle or sing with the chanters.

For them, in this modern time, it’s unimaginable that mere biology preempts full participation in Church alongside their brothers.   And this belittlement continues as they emerge into adult years as Church members.  Our daughters are ridiculed for the way they look. They might be told to put on a skirt, cover their shoulders, cover their heads and uncross their legs, and they question why these standards apply only to women.  They have been tapped on the shoulder in the communion line and asked if they are menstruating.  They are defined as a possible mate and offspring-bearer for the seminarian, an uncle, or a son.  And, they are told subtly and overtly, that only two meaningful life choices await them:  marriage or monastery.

Marriage and monastic living are indeed high callings, but not the only way for our daughters to live out their Christ-centered vocation. By solely defining them as mate and offspring-bearer puts them in a box and does not honor their potential contributions.  Our daughters are changing the world as lawyers, teachers, actresses, and scientists. The church needs to focus on what they are doing presently and see how their talents can be used in Church ministries.

Sorting out what is tradition and what is cultural attitude about women’s place will be challenging for the Orthodox Church as an institution with only males at the top.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not doable.  There are ways to bring a diversity of ideas and life experiences to the top, and mitigate the “group think” attitudes about the role of women in the Church.   To start, Church Hierarchs could launch a public campaign to bring women into all aspects of administration and leadership positions at the parish, diocesan, and archdiocese board of trustees level.  They could expand training and employment opportunities for women to serve as outreach workers in missions, teaching and preaching.  Orthodox Chaplaincy continues to thrive and can be made stronger by blessing more women who are trained to function in this manner. And as discussed for decades, allowing girls to be altar servers in our Churches sends a strong message that their service is valued.  Furthermore, re-establishing the historical female diaconate increases their capacity to serve, and allows, among other things, for women-to-women pastoral counseling, a ministry that is still needed in our churches today.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we focus on Galatians 3:28, the Orthodox Church would align Church culture to Christ’s teachings, help the Church sort out what is tradition and what is a cultural attitude and ensure our young, talented women are fully engaged and participating as members of Christ’s Church without shame, marginalization or harassment.  Launching an effort to address these attitudes and bring women into administration and ministerial positions can re-shape culture, build up the Body of Christ and help young women find their spiritual home in the Orthodox Church.

Jennifer Nahas is the co-founder of Brigham Nahas Research Associates (BNRA), a Massachusetts firm specializing in evaluation research that promote success for young people in high school, college, and beyond.  She was the former Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship and is the proud mother of two millennials.


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8 responses to “Orthodox Christian Concerns: A Lament for Our Millennial Daughters”

  1. Dear Jen:
    The Orthodox Church has always been and will continue to be a patriarchal church. Women however, have always played a key role in the Orthodox Church and the church pays tremendous respect to women starting with the Holy Theotokos and Virgin Mary. I’ve been in many Orthodox Churches from different jurisdictions and in different countries and I have never seen a women treated as you allege, especially our Millennials. While I respect your efforts to encourage a greater role for women in the Church I truly believe they already have that opportunity at least from my 68 years of experience as an Orthodox Christian. Some of the old world jurisdictions may be more traditional-conservative in their perspectives but I do not believe the Orthodox Church as an institution is biased against women and their active participation in the life of the church. Your experiences seem quite different from what my family has ever experienced and I would not want your comments to adversely affect converts to our faith or those considering becoming a member of the Orthodox Church. They do not I believe, represent the general reality of life in the Orthodox Church.
    Yours in Christ, Love,
    Arthur N. Mabbett
    Parishioner of St. Mary Orthodox Church
    Cambridge, MA

  2. Dear Jen and Arthur,

    I agree with each of you, to an extent. There are two sides to the issue of how our millennial daughters are being treated in the Orthodox Church. First, there is our parish, and many others, that treat girls and boys as equals and do their best to raise strong, confident, faithful Orthodox Christians. Second, there is an element of our Church that treats girls and women very differently than boys and men.

    Our parish and many Orthodox parishes are very inclusive of women, including our young women and our millennial daughters. My husband and I and our family came to St. Mary’s when our three children, one girl and two boys, were still young and they have been raised in the loving
    embrace of our priest and our parish family. We couldn’t be happier with our decision to come to St. Mary’s. My children participate in church school, two sing in the choir, one serves in the altar, they are readers, they participate in Teen SOYO, they all read and sleep in the church on Good Friday, they’ve done Bible Bowl and the oratorical contest, and they have all served as acolytes. And, they do all of this with a wonderful group of kids, male and female, from incredibly diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. These kids and their teachers and mentors within our parish (and I’m sure others), are an example of what’s best in the Orthodox Church, and for that matter, the world.

    Our teenagers have great role models at St. Mary’s. To my knowledge the girls have never received differential treatment. The young adults, both men and woman, who step up to the plate to work with our teens, giving of their time, effort, and love, are wonderful, and I am grateful to them all. For that matter, there are many not-so-young men and women at St. Mary’s, who have been positive role models, mentors and friends to my teenagers, the girl and the boys, and I can’t thank them enough!

    As my children have grown into young adults (15, 17 and 19), they have participated in many Orthodox camps, institutes, weekends and other events including Antiochian Village, Sacred Music Institute, YES Weekends, Project Mexico and more. Through these experiences they and I have met many Orthodox teenagers from all across the country. This is where the rub of the treatment of girls that Jen writes about has come into play for our family. I will let my daughter speak for herself (and my sons for that matter), but as I have been a participant in many of these programs with my kids, I can share what I have encountered.

    I have met girls and young women who are being taught that they should be looking for an Orthodox husband with whom they will have children and that they should not be concerned with college or a career. Really, it has been drilled into them by priests and religious education teachers, that their husband will provide and they must raise the kids and that they will be happy with that life. Apparently, there is the alternative of becoming a nun or a nurse or maybe a social worker. One young woman I know was told by an Orthodox priest, whom she had only just met, that her plan to pursue a theater degree in college was decadent, and she must switch to something like social work. I have seen young women scrambling to find something with which to cover their heads before entering church because
    they have been taught that it’s a sin to enter the church with a bare head. Young women have told me their priests have taught them that dating is a bad thing, that they must “save” themselves for their husbands. They’re not talking about premarital sex, they’re talking handholding, kissing, and personal conversations, the relational stuff that helps most young people determine if they might want to spend their lives together as husband and wife. This stuff is really happening!

    My grandfather was an Orthodox priest who emigrated from Russia around 1920. His wife died quite young and he was left to raise his six children to adulthood on his own. He insisted that each of them, five of whom were girls, get a college education and start a career before they married. Having been raised by my Mother, the oldest of that clan, there was never any question of my attending college, nor do I remember any gender bias within my Orthodox upbringing (except of course, that only the boys could serve in the altar). In fact, for me personally, this negative treatment of girls in the Orthodox Church, is something I have only become aware of as my children have become teenagers. I don’t understand why it is happening now or what the genesis of this girls-only-as-wives-and-mothers mentality is, but it’s real and it’s happening in some Orthodox churches. It would behoove us, at the very least, to be aware of these facts as we raise our children and participate in our Orthodox faith.

    Kera Dalton
    Parishioner of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church
    Cambridge, MA

  3. Dear Kara:
    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you find St. Mary’s to be an inclusive parish. We’re glad to have you as members of the church. We’re very inclusive because of the progressive nature of our parents and grandparents who came from Damascus, Syria and also of our clergy.
    Every faith has some clergy and parishioners who may be either overly liberal or conservative in their beliefs. We all have different perspectives. We must however, put any issue in perspective. Since some of the clergy from certain jurisdictions may be trained and come from their “old country” Church, they may not be western educated and thus, may be much more conservative in their beliefs. If their parish is thus impacted as has been alleged regarding our young women, then they’ll either morph in their beliefs or their affected parishioners will leave. I expect that only a small number of parishes in America and Canada are so impacted. We don’t want to infer however, that the Church as a whole denigrates women. It doesn’t!
    The sooner we have a united American Orthodox Church the better as these types of issues will be dealt with locally and we in America will help to further grow the Orthodox Christian faith around the world.
    God bless you and your family.

  4. Dear Jenny,

    Thank you so much for sharing this insightful and inspiring article. You have mentioned so many issues that I have been questioning about the Orthodox Church in this society and in different cultures. Believe it or not, this is also an issue in Ethiopia that so many young people leave the church to other denominations where they are better accepted and heard. Me personally and others from my age group experienced a lot of negativity on how we “carry” ourselves and for being forward thinking which is a very western thing to do.

    Even very recently, when I decided going back to school, my first choice was to study theology but I was convinced that I might not have a voice or a place in the church. Especially, it is difficult if you are a foreigner who speaks with heavy accent let alone being black and woman. I am not only speaking of the church but in every place I go, it’s a challenge both in professional and personal level.

    I love my faith, the Orthodox way. As beautiful as it is, I believe it should consider the ever-changing world around us, it’s one of the things that teenage girls like my sister might call very backward. Some of them may not understand the essence but it’s the lack of education about the faith that makes them confused. I am saying this because growing up, I learned a lot about my faith by reading and researching for myself instead of from the church. If a lot of times spend in teaching the youngsters instead of the criticism about how to dress, how to behave and if we’re free from ritual impurity, our church would have been a nurturing place for all. I have witnessed many of my friends departing form the Orthodox Church because of this constant nagging and this makes me sad as I see it a loss from both sides.

    I feel lucky to be part of St. Mary’s parish, we have better perspective here being around colleges and our clergy is very aware of the diversity of its congregation. I sometimes ask myself if we had a different priest, would it be the same? Your article touched all the possible scenarios that we need to change; I wish that it reached to many important places. Glad that you put it in your words what so many of us feel. Maybe someday the future generation will see some changes in the coming few centuries (we know how the church makes its decisions) but when the time comes, I hope somebody will point out that this Orthodox woman called, Jennifer Nahas had this amazing idea years and years ago…

    Your sister in Christ,

    Tenbit Mitiku

  5. A woman for you to meet is Maria Hamilton Abegunde who is now a post-doctoral fellow and visiting lecturer at Indiana University.

  6. Women have not and are not put down in the church, we have ceased to understand our role in it.

    As far as serving goes, each and every one of us, priest or not, is part of the royal priesthood. You and I know full well the priest cannot serve Divine Liturgy alone, it is the work of the people. As far as being in the altar goes, no one who has no purpose is allowed there. It was pointed out to me recently that one could say a woman is the closest she will ever be to God when she gives birth because she is producing a human life. God does that. A man is closest to God when a priest offers the divine sacrifice of communion. Not all women will be mothers and not all men will be priests, but this is the balance.

    Another point, the function of the Deaconess had much to do with the fact that generally speaking only adults were being baptized at the time. Having a man baptize a woman—naked, the covering of oil and chrysm–would not be acceptable. When the function of the deaconess ceased, the practice ceased.

    As far as getting more women into roles go–there is nothing that prohibits this in the first place, short of perhaps having an MDiv. However, as we know, several of the prominent seminaries allow for women to study, so this is a non-issue. We have women theologians, professors of seminary, missionaries, etc.

    Last, and most importantly, it’s not about “I am woman, hear me roar” it should be about, “I am a member of a church community, what do I have to offer from my talents?” Yes women are educated and working in high-power roles, and I am so fortunate to know several women in high powered positions in their secular lives who also take the reigns in a variety of ways on Orthodox boards. Dr. Gayle Woloshack and Donna and Darlene Haddad would be three examples. This is not up to the hierarchs, this is up to smart, strong women taking the initiative to say, “the church matters enough for me to get involved at this level”

    The problem with the millennial generation lies in the lack of education to ALL of our church members. About the church’s history, the role of the people, our teachings, etc.

  7. Arthur you wrote above: “The Orthodox Church has always been and will continue to be a patriarchal church.” What do you mean by this? That women will never be a vital part of the church? What about “sobornost” and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all Christians. What about the inclusion of women in the governance structures of the church?

  8. Marianna please be aware that your comment above :Another point, the function of the Deaconess had much to do with the fact that generally speaking only adults were being baptized at the time. Having a man baptize a woman—naked, the covering of oil and chrysm–would not be acceptable. When the function of the deaconess ceased, the practice ceased.” is not only incorrect but is being repeated over and over again by people who are against the role of deaconesses in our church today. Deaconesses existed until the 12 century and participated in the liturgical rites in such important Orthodox places of worship as Hagia Sofia. They had a liturgical role in the worship of the church not just helping adult female converts be baptised in the early church. The ministry of deaconesses in the church is mentioned as early as the New Testament. I encourage all to read the scholarship of Prof. Valerie Karras and other important women Orthodox scholars.