Recently, I attended a lecture for church leaders on methods and practices of pastoral counseling. About halfway through the training, the instructor began speaking on the ways in which a pastoral counselor should dress when meeting with a parishioner. He showed a picture of Marilyn Monroe as an example of how women should not look, then instructed the women in the room on what they should wear, how they should do their hair, and how they should conduct themselves in order to prevent (male) parishioners from experiencing sexual temptation. The men in the class were not given a similar charge—rather, the men were given tips on what to do when experiencing sexual advances from female parishioners.
This occurred in a setting that supports and advocates for egalitarianism in the church. The lecture was attended by both male and female leaders, and the instructor knew that both sexes were acting as leaders in some capacity in their church contexts. Despite this, the training continued in this way—a barrage of microaggressions against women that made us feel small, silenced, and invisible.
Microaggressions are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Psychology Today provides these examples of what microaggressions against women look like (for those looking to learn more I highly recommend their article on this topic, which also addresses microaggressions against people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and more, linked here).
• An assertive female manager is labeled as a “bitch,” while her male counterpart is described as “a forceful leader.” (Hidden message: Women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.)
• Whistles or catcalls are heard from men as a woman walks down the street. (Hidden message: Your body/appearance is for the enjoyment of men. You are a sex object.)
After the training was over, I spoke with a few of the other women in the class in order to determine whether it was “just me” or if they felt similarly. Some responses, paraphrased, are below:
“I felt like what he was saying was sexist, but then I thought maybe I was overreacting.”
“When he started talking about women like that I started feeling this sense of shame, and that made me not want to speak up.”
“I knew what he was saying was sexist, but I also knew that he probably didn’t mean it that way, so I didn’t want to say anything and make him feel bad.”
“This experience has given me a glimpse of what it will be like to be a female pastor—I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a pastor before, but now I’m REALLY sure I don’t want to be a pastor.”
The curious thing about all of this was that, from personal interactions with the instructor, it seemed that he actually approved of female leadership in the church. To this day, I am unsure whether he realized that the way he was presenting his material was sexist. I learned something important that day, however: even in settings that espouse egalitarianism in the church, sexism still happens.
In a way, microaggressions, when identified properly, are useful in that they expose deeply-rooted prejudices often veiled behind a veneer of equality. Microaggressions are often prefaced by, “I’m not sexist but…” or “I’m not racist, but…” They are unique in that they are sometimes very subtle. Those who experience them often wonder whether they are overreacting, which causes feelings of confusion, angst, shame, guilt, and victimization. I once heard microaggressions described as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” They are so slight that unless one becomes adept at identifying them, they may go unnoticed—but eventually, those tiny cuts amalgamate into one giant, gaping wound.
I have experienced many kinds of microaggressions as a woman, but I thought I would leave space for some of my female friends—all seminarians, pastors, and/or church leaders—to provide some examples of how they have experienced sexism and microaggressions in their seminary or church contexts. The purpose of sharing these stories is to highlight the fact that even when an individual might not intend to perpetuate sexism, our society and religious history have shaped us in such a way that sexism is often inevitable unless we work to intentionally dismantle the ideologies that influence our actions. Sharing these stories is not for the purpose of causing guilt or shame—rather, the purpose is simply to raise awareness.
My personal hope is that as women can begin to share the experiences that we’ve had, it will create more opportunities for us to identify and confront sexism and microaggressions in our particular contexts. A big thank you to the women who contributed their personal stories for this post—it gives me hope that the women in these stories are pastors and leaders, and that God has given them strength to pursue their calling despite the obstacles they have faced.
While in seminary I guest-preached at our church. My mother came with us to church that day and afterwards she and I drove together to lunch. She does not support women in pastoral leadership and so, even though she supported me by coming to church, she then started asking me why I wanted to preach and how my preaching that morning was any different than standing up in front of people when I was in high school theater. Wasn’t this just a performance too? Did I need to be in front of people like that? I tried to explain to her how preaching was different than a theatrical performance, all the while thinking of all the times she had heard my husband preach with no questions asked. She totally accepted that my husband had God’s call on his life to be a pastor without question, but my first chance to guest preach was met with questions about my motivation and my right to be there. Honestly, it made me more determined to speak out in public leadership in the church. Women are very underrepresented in the pulpit and I think that that contributes to an attitude of suspicion and a hesitation to consciously support women in ministry. I think that the more opportunities our congregations have to see women in leadership, the more likely they will be to accept women’s right to be there.
When I preach the comments that are made about my sermons have little to do with what I have said and more about what I am wearing/how I look. These comments 80% of the time come from men. My first experience with sexism happened like this: I had just finished preaching for the first time. I was wearing my robe and I was waiting at the back of the sanctuary to greet people as they came out. The first 3 people out the door were women, each of whom said I was inspirational and could easily relate to what I was talking about. Then came the first man. He said to me, “I couldn’t pay attention to what you were saying because I was so distracted by what you were wearing. I can see you are wearing some kind of bright colorful top underneath your robe, maybe, if you preach again, you should consider not wearing bright colors.” I smiled and thanked him for coming, and moved on to the next person, a woman, who again talked about what I had to say and how she found a greater appreciation for the woman I preached about. After her was another man, he said “Good sermon. Did you know you touched your hair 23 times? You should have pulled your hair back. It was very distracting, and probably not the best thing to do leaving it down, if you want to be taken seriously as a preacher.” A few other people congratulated me, and a few more comments were made about how I looked in my robe, and my hair. I’ve noticed since then, I get a lot of comments about how I look whereas the male pastors do not get those comments.
During my first seminary class (a four day intensive) I was having lunch with classmates who decided that I was the “mom” of the group (FYI, I am not a mother). This label has followed me ever since. While they may mean it as a way of acknowledging my care for them, it also asserts that the only caring feminine role is that of “mother.” In a place that trains ministers, those who love their neighbor with a sacrificial (some might say motherly) love, why would we not call the loving amongst us pastor, minister or simply resist the urge to assign labels beyond the person’s name? It’s good to acknowledge the gifts we cherish in our friends but sometimes our labels point to the fact that we simply do not have space for these people we claim to cherish. We are telling them to get back in their place.
My first year in seminary, I was part of a required small group that met once a week. I was one of four women and there were two men, one of which was the leader. His facilitation style felt somewhat harsh, dominating and confrontational to me and, I found out later, was bothering the other women as well. One meeting, he was absent from the group and when he asked the other man, whom he had a class with later that week, how the group’s time went, the other man said that we were all “clucking like hens” the whole time. When it was his turn to share each session, he would make deprecating remarks about his ex-girlfriend, which the leader did not seem to be aware were making the women in the group uncomfortable. I finally attempted to address some of these issues with the leader, asking if we could spend just one session talking about group dynamics and how things were going. He refused to do so, saying it was “outside the model of the group,” and made me pray for the other man out loud in order to help me forgive “whatever” he had done wrong. I did not feel safe enough to continue participating in the group so I withdrew.
I work as the Student Ministries Director at my church. A few months ago it became necessary for us to change the format of our Winter Camp. I had the idea of gathering with other local churches, renting a camp, and putting on our own retreat. I spoke with a group of men who were also local youth leaders and asked them if they’d be interested. They said they’d think about it and then get back to me. About a month later I found out that they had met together without me and planned out what they wanted to do. They then contacted me via email and said, “We planned this whole thing out and here’s our invitation for you to join.” They didn’t want my input or thoughts. I also found myself struggling to voice my thoughts and opinions. I was really concerned with being viewed as a “Bitch” or “Bossy.”
My second year in seminary I was the only woman in a class with 8 men and a male teacher. I began to notice that I rarely was allowed to speak in class. The guys would jump in, cut one another off, and I would raise my hand just to be able to speak.The professor usually would say at the end of class: “let’s end the class by giving [narrator] the last word, as she’s been so good sitting quietly there waiting her turn.” I didn’t really know how to address this situation, but towards the end of the class we were discussing a book and one of the guys brought up the fact that the male author never used inclusive language, and he thought because of this that the author lost credibility in what he was saying. This provided me an opportunity to bring up the fact that just because someone is being unintentionally sexist, does not mean we cannot find worth in what they are saying. The guy pushed back on what I had said, so I pointed out that for almost a year the guys in this class had been unintentionally sexist towards me by “allowing” me the last 2 minutes of class to share my opinions, after I had sat so quietly waiting my turn. I asked “should I not give you credit for your opinions because you have perpetuated the idea that a woman should sit quietly and wait her turn?” When I pointed out that no one seemed to have an issue with me as a woman not being able to have input in the class, the guys got quiet. Then the conversation moved on. After class was over, one guy came over to me and said, “Any time you have an opinion or a thought, you just get your hand up in the air and we’ll call on you if there’s time.”
I noticed in my denomination we have a special Sunday where we honor the gifts and talents of men in ministry but we do not have the same for women in ministry. I pointed this out to my professor and asked why this was the case. He responded with, “I’m not really sure, but it probably has to do with the fact that we’ve been honoring women in ministry for the past 30 years, since they were allowed to become ordained, and we haven’t honored men in ministry since then.” Another time I asked why our women’s groups were required to “hold fellowship & mission events” but our men’s groups were required to “train our leaders of the future, support and encourage our pastors, lead our administrative teams, and guide the decision making of the church” and his response was “well, the men have always had that requirement as they have had the experience. Women have been in charge of the mission and fellowship of the church because that is where their gifts and talents are.”
As a single woman going into vocational ministry full-time for the first time, with a head pastor who was a white older male with three daughters, I felt like I was viewed like one of his daughters, and therefore as someone he felt the need to father. And so with that came a struggle of how to conduct business and how to communicate within the church, and it eventually dampened my voice. I would often be brought into his office and told I was too emotional, too reactionary during meetings, I was hindering the process of the group because I was too reactionary. My voice was silenced a number of times and I was tired of fighting it. I was there for five years. A lot of my process after that has been reclaiming my voice and being able to claim it proudly.
I am asked nearly every Sunday by a different person when – not if even, but when – I am having kids and sometimes even how many. Sometimes, it’s assumption, so not “When are you having kids?” but “when you have kids…” While I find this to be an offensively personal question and unmerited assumption, I had presumed that my husband was being asked it as well…until he overheard me trying to lightheartedly brush it off and change the subject and he commented, “Well, that was awkward.” I agreed and then realized that he has not once been asked this question at church. On Mother’s Day, it was repeated ad nauseam that motherhood is the hardest job in the world, to the point of making me feel broken and unworthy as a woman who has never wanted biological offspring. The youth of the church handed out a rose to each woman because, evidently, “all women are mothers in some way.” Whether we want to be or not, I guess. I even tried not to take a rose and someone chased me out of the church shouting, “Don’t forget your rose! You are special!” Because I’m a woman and therefore a mother in some way (and if not biologically now, then someday for sure)? The sermon was about the unbelievable gift God gives us in our mothers, how strong and beautiful we women are to raise children, etc. When Father’s Day rolled around, there was no mention of every man being a father and a gift (a fancy pen) was handed to each biological father; the “extras” were left on the stage and any man who wanted to get one could. The sermon was about father wounds and how God can be the father some of us may have never had. There was no consideration of those who may have mother wounds, or how God can be just as motherly as God can be fatherly. The assumption (as it seems to me) that mothers are (and should be) perfect has consequences for all women since “all women are mothers in some way,” and repeating the idea that “mothering is the hardest job in the world” not only devalues the vastly needed other work women do in the world but made me feel guilty for “not working hard enough” at my job because it was “nothing” compared to raising a child.
As I started to sense a call to seminary, I decided to ask one of my close male friends his opinion on it. He began asking questions about what I would do if I got married someday and also became a pastor, but my husband wasn’t a pastor. “Can you really have authority over your congregation if a member of your congregation has authority over you?” he asked. Then he added, “What if your husband gets a job somewhere and he says that you’re moving? You’d have to give up being a pastor, at least at that church. Is that really good for the congregation?” He pretty much made it seem like I had to choose between getting married or being a pastor—I couldn’t have both. I didn’t have a strong understanding of God’s call for women in ministry at this point, so his words caused me to really wrestle with whether pursuing ministry meant I was giving up the opportunity to be married someday. I wasn’t even sure if I ever wanted to be married, but I just remember that I felt an enormous burden to choose between the two, all before I even started classes.
To the reader: On behalf of all the women who contributed to this post, thank you for taking the time to read these narratives. I truly believe that as we begin to listen to one another’s stories, we will learn how to better serve one another, love one another, and journey together as Christian disciples.
Note: The concluding post of this series will be a “Where Do We Go From Here?” post. The bulk of this series is meant to raise awareness of sexism in the church and to highlight women’s particular experiences of it. The posts are meant to allow the reader to wade in those murky waters for awhile, because the reality is that these kinds of experiences often feel confusing and debilitating. Though we wish for a different reality, we often don’t know how to get there—and I think it’s okay to sit in that struggle for a bit. My last post will contain some practical advice from theologians doing work in reconciliation studies, as well as resources for continued learning on this topic.