It was the subtitle that caught my attention and made me want to read this book. It is: "What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit." The book is disturbing, and the answer of just what happens seems incredibly elusive and complicated. Sarah earned a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard. She did begin the discernment process for ordination in the Episcopal Church, but withdrew. She is not ordained, not involved in any sort of traditional "ministry" and (at least at the time she wrote the book) not attending any church. She admits that when she began the book she was angry and only wanted to expose the hypocrisy of the institutional church.
Sarah interviewed several individuals whose stories are featured in the book. They are young, not young, married, single, White, Black gay, straight, transgendered, Christians and....a few who would not identify themselves that way. Since the writer's background is Episcopalian, the majority of her interviews were either from that denomination or the UCC. I found myself wondering how she found the women she interviewed. Their stories are humorous, heartbreaking, infuriating--and triumphant. The author does find a degree of healing from the conversations and stories she heard, and she ends on a hopeful note. Sort of.
Let me be honest from the "git-go" and confess that there were things I did not like about the book. Perhaps I will share more in the comments. At times I was perplexed, frustrated, angry, deeply sad, disturbed, impatient, irritated. I would find myself reading a passage and thinking, "Oh, come on!" and wish I had volunteered to lead the discussion on a different book. A nice, simple fun book. I got angry, and then I got depressed, and then....a paragraph, a sentence, a word would leap out at me from the page and I would be caught and held. And I would find myself pondering my own experiences, those of women I know, both theologically "conservative" and progressively "liberal." Was there a common thread?
Trying to distill my thoughts has been difficult. Sentilles divides the book into sections which are divided into chapters, each of which contains at least one powerful paragraph that deserves exploration. I borrowed the book from the library, but if it had been my own copy it would be filled with highlighted sections. I won't try to say something about every chapter, which is what I originally expected to do. There is just too much material that is difficult, challenging, potentially divisive, and potentially transformational.
The Introduction is called, The Most Sexist Hour. The sections are:
Part One: Vocation in which she discussed the "call," the ordination process, mentors, the job search, and being an associate minister.
In Part Two, Incarnation: the Body the author writes about the way language is gender-related, the special challenge that clothing choices can present to the woman minister, sexual issues, and some particular issues encountered by gay or transgendered ministers.
Part Three, Creation: Ministry has some fascinating insights into Catholic Womenpriests (one word--a new one for me), being a minister (noun) and what that has to do with ministry (verb) and concludes with a chapter describing some very non-traditional "church" gatherings created by women.
I started feeling a bit stirred up before I even read the first chapter. Here is a little from the book's introduction, The Most Sexist Hour. After describing the frustrating experience of early seminarian, Antoinette Brown, Sentilles goes on, "Brown's story sounds eerily similar to those told by the women I interviewed...Churches and seminaries and divinity schools and congregations have been doing the same thing to women for hundreds and hundreds of years. For a long time women have been filling pulpits men do not want in places men refuse to live, for salaries men will not accept...If churches have been doing similar things to women for hundreds of years, why do we continue to deny that sexism is a problem? Why do we continue to administer surveys that tell us the same thing again and again? ...Unless there is an explicit, concrete, commitment to remedy what they expose, surveys can be...dangerous...allowing us to look like we are paying attention to look like we are paying attention to discrimination without ever having to do anything about it."
What are your thoughts? Has your denomination administered such surveys? If so, did they change anything? Do more harm than good? Help? Are we talking the talk but not walking the walk?
Sentilles' description of the Episcopalian ordination process was astounding to me. In my own denomination it is altogether too easy (if one is a male) to reach that step. We need, in my opinion, to be more stringent and do more interviews and psychological tests, etc. The Episcopalian process seems to be the opposite end of the spectrum. What were your experiences? Did you find the process to be reasonable? Was it unduly intimidating? For Rev Gals, did you encounter encouragement or discouragement from leadership? Did being female make any difference in what happened?
Women senior or solo pastors are most often found in small churches, in rural areas, in "difficult" and particularly challenging parishes. As a result, many find themselves in associate pastor positions. The stories from that particular chapter horrified me. I'm not currently serving a church, and I've tried to be open to any area I might be able to express my calling, but during that chapter I tossed the book down and said to my husband, "Yow! If these stories are even partly true I NEVER want to be an associate pastor. ESPECIALLY not under a male pastor." The section on mentoring was equally distressing.
It might be difficult or too revealing to discuss that here, but if you can, tell us about associate pastor or mentor experiences. Mostly positive? Mostly negative? Sexist, or egalitarian?
I found myself clenching my jaw at more than one point! The stories in this book were all too familiar. I was surprised, since the book was exclusively about women ministers from mainline traditions (and I am not) to find this to be the case. I had assumed that it was much easier to be ordained, employed, and respected in a denomination that has a large number of women clergy (the United Methodists, for example). Nonetheless, Sentilles notes that some of the women she interviewed started out in more conservative denominations but left for more liberal ones because they were more accepting of women in church leadership. She implies that it is not possible to have a high regard for the veracity of the Bible and still be accepting of women in the pulpit, let alone be loving and accepting of those who are something other than straight heterosexuals. What do you think? Are the generally more "liberal and progressive" denominations the future of women ministers?
There was one interview (I won't say which one) with a minister who was describing her lack of acceptance by her first congregation. As I read the particulars, I found myself thinking, "Well good grief! I would have been one of the congregation members who wasn't happy with you!" If you read the book, did you find that to be the case with anyone?
I found myself wondering, "Should a few of these women have chosen another profession where they can serve people but don't have to believe much of anything and certainly don't have to affirm Christ as savior?" One minister, who is Black and a lesbian, told Sarah that much of the theology of feminist ministers is "not thick enough" and noted the absence of Christ as the center pillar, instead finding it to be justice or social issues. This reminded me of a post from Quotidian Grace a while back about an atheist being accepted as a Presbyterian church member. (She was appalled.)
So are the gospel and social justice inseparable? Two sides of the same coin? I recall a friend once saying, "What is the gospel if it does not engage society?" So what do we do with the tension of personal transformation (what the church used to call "conversions" and the need for action--for faith shown by works, to quote the Epistle of James?
I loved "Liz" who experienced worship in the Disciples of Christ and the Assemblies of God and said, "I'm excited about bridging the chasm between the two...we need progressive evangelical churches." Is it possible to bridge the chasm? (I hope so because I somehow feel I need to try to do that.)
I'd better stop here, just taking time to note that I found the statement, "There is no going back; we have already won!" to be questionable and a bit trite, but the following paragraph made me shout "YES! "
"The Roman Catholic Church can refuse the priesthood to women...Southern Baptists can tell women to submit and be silent...but it is too late. The horse has left the barn."
Any other issues or insights that stood out to you?