Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Women’s History Month: Reflections on Female Clergy

Apparently, it has been Women’s History Month. I have to admit I had never heard of the observance until recently. A friend at church is a political science professor at a local community college and mentioned she was putting together a display on Women’s History Month at her school. The focus was the trail-blazing of women in science and in the church. Obviously those are very different disciplines, but women have faced similar professional obstacles in both. She had been interviewing our church’s pastor and deacon (both of whom are women), and asked for my thoughts as a mother of daughters in a church led by women. It was an intriguing topic and I thought it might make a good blog post.

My husband and I came from denominations that were very different culturally and theologically, but quite honestly they had in common very minimal roles for women. When we were kids, that didn't particularly bother us because I don't think any major denominations ordained women back then. I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that women might have a more prominent role. I was a very shy kid, so standing up in front of a congregation to lead worship was never appealing to me. As a result, the possibility of female clergy was not something of personal interest to me.

As an adult, I definitely believed it was a mistake to ban women from serving as clergy. There were numerous reasons for this belief, but it was not a deal breaker in determining which church I would join. Indeed, I was an active member for many years in a denomination that required clergy to be male and celibate. I disagreed with these requirements and was saddened by the minimal role to which women were relegated as a result. But it was not something on which I dwelt much. I had faith things would change over time.

But when my husband and I became parents of two daughters, we became concerned about raising our kids in that same church community. First of all, there were few opportunities for children to learn about their faith and take part in the faith community. Children were expected to sit quietly through services that they frankly did not understand or enjoy. That was our major impetus in leaving our former denomination. But secondarily, I had become concerned that that denomination did not provide strong female role models and did not seem to value the (many) contributions of its women. That didn't seem like a good environment, in which to raise our daughters.

Our family tried several different churches over the next few years and eventually joined an Episcopalian congregation last year. We chose it because it was close to our home, had a lot of activities for children, was theologically consistent with our beliefs, and had a strong social justice orientation. Serendipitously, the congregation is led by a female pastor and a female deacon. We had not sought out a female-led church. Indeed, there aren’t a lot in that category. But it has been a pleasant surprise.

They are very different individuals, but the respective styles of our pastor and deacon are quite unlike the styles of other pastors my husband and I have known. Both women are mothers of grown children. Consequently, they are very at ease with young children, who are valued as important members of our church. Both women were very prominent in Vacation Bible School last year, and were effective teachers to squirmy little ones. Our kids like them both a lot. When our pastor speaks, she has a very gentle but firm tone. Our deacon is also very approachable, and seems to have a constant and sincere smile on her face which is very welcoming—particularly to little ones. Both our pastor and deacon are very learned and helpful in answering theological questions that puzzle our family. They have also been good at tailoring answers depending on whether the question came from an adult or a child in our family. They have done a great job fielding our daughters’ tough questions including “Why did the Roman soldiers kill Jesus” and “Why was Joseph going to lie about his reason for divorcing Mary when he found out she was pregnant?” (Those were toughies!)

To be very honest, the sight of earrings dangling just above their priestly collars and ballet flats sticking out beneath the vestments did initially shock my husband and me. We'd never seen women in clerical garb, and we had to stifle some nervous giggles when we first began to attend our current church. But to our great delight, our daughters think nothing of these trivialities. Having women lead the church is second nature to them. They are still young, and they have no idea that for much of the church's history women were barred from leadership. It is exciting to me that they will grow up not feeling any limitation on their God-given potential--not in church or outside.

Indeed, in our church, there are plenty of other prominent women in addition to our two clergy. Our daughters' Sunday School teacher is an innovative, enthusiastic woman who has the children act out stories from the Bible, and on Halloween came to church dressed as Saint Martha in period costume. The music director is also female; she has an amazing range from traditional hymns to contemporary praise songs to kid-friendly music at Vacation Bible School. Finally, the current lay leader of the church (the "senior warden") is another woman who has an array of important duties to make sure the church runs smoothly; she handles everything from making sure the thermostat is set on the right temperature and getting us to process into the church in the right order for the Easter Vigil service.

It is inspiring to me that in our church our daughters have such prominent godly female role models. In past churches we attended, women were not as visible, so we would have had to search hard to find non-familial role models in our prior congregations. But to be honest, I find that I myself am also benefiting from having such female role models at our current church. I realized not long ago that I’ve actually had very few examples of female leadership in any aspect of my life. And frankly, not all of the few examples I’ve had were positive! As a 40-something adult professional, I’ve had few opportunities to witness women successfully fill positions of authority. Obviously, I’m not alone, and I think that makes it difficult for many of us to find our own successful approach to leadership. Even at my age, I feel like I’m learning a great deal by watching our pastor and deacon (and the other women in our parish) in their respective leadership roles in our church. It is a tremendous blessing!

Judges 4:1, 4-9 (Contemporary English Version)

After the death of Ehud, the Israelites again started disobeying the LORD.
Deborah the wife of Lappidoth was a prophet and a leader of Israel during those days.
She would sit under Deborah's Palm Tree between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, where Israelites would come and ask her to settle their legal cases.
One day, Barak the son of Abinoam was in Kedesh in Naphtali, and Deborah sent word for him to come and talk with her. When he arrived, she said:
I have a message for you from the LORD God of Israel! You are to get together an army of ten thousand men from the Naphtali and Zebulun tribes and lead them to Mount Tabor.
The LORD will trick Sisera into coming out to fight you at the Kishon River. Sisera will be leading King Jabin's army as usual, and they will have their chariots, but the LORD has promised to help you defeat them.
" I'm not going unless you go!" Barak told her.
" All right, I'll go!" she replied. " But I'm warning you that the LORD is going to let a woman defeat Sisera, and no one will honor you for winning the battle."

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