Friday, June 29, 2007

"Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"

Today is the Feast of St. Peter and Paul, and the tenth anniversary of my ordination.

I wish I could also say it marked the completion of my tenth year of gospel ministry. But things haven't worked out that way since that evening when the presbyters laid hands on me in my home church and I was ordained a Minister of the Word and Sacrament.
My ministry has been marked by some success, some failure, and much interruption. In that I am told that I am following a usual course for women in ministry. A friend and colleague in my current presbytery did her Doctor of Ministry thesis on the rate of continuance of ordained women in full time parish ministry as of ten years after their ordinations. Her research demonstrated that the percentage is very low.

There are some who would say that that attrition is only right and proper and can be put down to the realization, by congregations or by the ordained women themselves, that females ought not to be ministers of the Christian faith.

But the real reasons are less heroic.

Sometimes women voluntarily abandon the Gospel plow for the same reasons men do: poor health, family issues, frustration, financial problems.

And as with male pastors, some women leave the ministry because their ministry temporarily or permanently has left them. Intradenominational conflicts, creeping congregationalism in connectional church bodies, modern individualism, the market mentality, and a lack of appreciation for the pastor's efforts and duties all lead pastors of both sexes to be fired or forced to resign without substantial cause. Some get right back into the church job search, some step away from pastoral work to breathe for a little while, and some give up parish ministry altogether, finding it necessary to serve Jesus Christ in some other way.

A consumerist sense of entitlement leads many churches literally to demand that their pastor be all things to all people. It doesn't matter that the pastor is faithfully and purely preaching the Gospel, reverently administering the sacraments, lovingly and conscientiously ministering pastoral care, uprightly representing the congregation in the community, and fruitfully participating in the higher bodies of the church. Anything or nothing is adequate to start a dump-the-pastor campaign. Did you not like the hymns last Sunday? Fire the pastor! Do you abhor the way your pastor combs his hair? Fire the pastor! Did the pastor wait till the day after her day off to come visit your aunt's best friend (who goes to that other church, but still--!) who had outpatient surgery to get her corns removed? Fire the pastor! After all, there's plenty more where this one came from! We'll get perfection next time!

But even where both men and women might suffer an interruption of ministry, I've noticed that with woman pastors, the ramifications of a perceived misstep are more severe and the tolerance for pastoral error is lower. Women pastors, especially those who are single, are expected to be both pastor and pastor's wife. Woe to her if she doesn't show up with a pie for the social, though her male predecessors never did! Women pastors are more susceptible to being pushed around by strong lay leaders, and more likely to be resented if they push back. Strong doctrine coming from the mouth of a woman is frequently considered "unpastoral"--a woman should look out for people's feelings! A woman pastor can be taken as anti-man, simply by virtue or (vice?) of having gone for ordination, and grievances will accumulate that she has no idea of. And let not a clergywoman betray any unsurehandedness on a church's tiller! Too often, I have observed, it will be put down to a lack of competence, rather than to simple inexperience or to systematic problems in the congregation itself. This tendency in higher judiciaries can work against male pastors' ministries as well. But isn't there just a wee bit more temptation to swoop in and rescue the poor little woman and send her off for counselling while the congregation goes its merry way?

To be fair to my current presbytery, they pretty much had to send in the cavalry on my last fulltime charge. The church had been chewing up and spitting out (male) pastors for the past twenty years, and my only distinction was that I was the catalyst that brought things to a head. But in that, my being a woman was instrumental. Even before I took that call, the Committee on Ministry in their formal interview said, "This church hasn't had a woman pastor before. Do you think [the Clerk of Session who was also the Moderator of the Pastor Nominating Committee] might want you because he thinks that as a woman you'd be easier to manipulate?" Oh, no, no, he was a nice, upstanding guy! We were in total agreement on doctrine and church leadership! He'd never do that!

Yes, he would. If he could have gotten a little twerp of a clergyman to play Mr. Collins to his Lady Catherine de Bourgh, that would have served his purpose. But as a woman, I was seen as ideal: the powerless figurehead, with the clerk and his family as the real motive force. As a woman, I would not make trouble; I would let things go on as they had in the three years they'd been without an installed pastoral head.

But, surprise! I did not. I could not. And as I was overmatched in my clerk, the presbytery had to step in. For the record, the clerk and his family jumped ship to another denomination, and the remnant of the congregation have settled down under the hand of a part-time Stated Supply, who is-- a woman.

. . . This was not supposed to be a rant, but a reflection. So, as I look forward to a future fulltime pastorate, let me reflect on what I would do differently. Let me consider what the interview process would be like, God helping, as I offered myself to a church as a woman pastor.

I would explore with a PNC what it would mean for the church to have a woman pastor. What would be the hopes? The fears? The expectations?

I would begin as I meant to go on. If I meant to be forthright and outspoken, I would be that in the interviews. The forms of cooperation I expected from my lay leaders, I'd make known from the first. I would do my best to make sure the committee saw me, and not just what I might represent to them as a "woman pastor." I would flee the temptation to be what they wanted me to be, instead of who I am.

I would be honest about my capabilities and what I could deliver. I would not fall into the trap of promising the moon when I can only bring a good three-way lamp. On the other hand, I would be willing to be stretched and to grow.

I would, God willing, have the courage to follow up on anything that seemed doubtful. I would not let my desire for a call turn my vision distorted and rosy. As I pursued such matters, I would do so with an attitude of "we all want what's best for the church. Let's see if I would be a good person to work together with you to achieve that best."

And I would look out for what I could bring the congregation, for how I could serve them, and not be swayed by the excitement of being wanted into accepting a position that isn't really mine.

Because, let's face it, it is very "feminine" to want to avoid conflict, to want to be nice, to want to be wanted. I have to acknowledge those tendencies in myself and turn them around for good. I have to face that every pulpit committee will inevitably see me as a woman first, though for much of the past decade my attitude has been, "My gender doesn't matter. What matters is preaching and ministering the Gospel."

But our God is a God who works through incarnation. He likes it so much, He took on flesh Himself. Every ministry, even the Word of God itself, is mediated through a human being: through Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, first of all, then through His ministers. I can't pretend to be a detached intelligence, a bodiless heart! I am who I am: a woman of a particular age, of a particular time and place, of particular education, appearance, and experiences. I am perceived, rightly or wrongly, based on others' interpretations of who and what I am.

So let me be honest and aware of that, and do my part to see that my being a woman pastor really and truly undergirds my being a woman pastor, to the glory of Jesus Christ. And may the God who called me guide me as I guide His church, remembering the closing hymn of my ordination service:

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty:
Hold me with Thy powerful hand!
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my strength and shield,
Be Thou still my strength and shield.

(William Williams Pantycelyn, d. 1791)

1 comment:

Toby Brown said...

I'm late to the party, but as we've only been recently introduced, I'll say that your post is full of necessary, hard truths that we need to hear.

Whether you want to be or not, you're a pioneer. As a woman who has not sold out to the failed ideologies of gender-theology or ethnic-theology and who holds fast to the pure Gospel, you are in a small company.

But what a company it is! If it were not for my mom, I would never have gone to church before college. If it was not for my grandmother and my wife, I would not have known lifelong Christians who are strong leaders in the faith and who are also Women of God.

So, I have no problem with a woman teaching sound doctrine or leading in the church. Heck, I married one!

But I know what you have faced and I know that it is true: Sometimes being a trailblazer stinks.

We have this consolation though: if daughters like mine grow up and are called to gospel ministry, then they will have leaders such as yourself to thank for showing the way and taking the hits for the generations to come.

I think that's quite a legacy!