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Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Discussion-- "A Church of Her Own" by Sarah Sentilles

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?


  1. I couldn't even finish the book it made me so depressed.

    I am part of a liberal denomination however our polity puts all the power into the local churches. So we do have a number of conservative congregations within our denomination so that makes the search and call process difficult and rife with potential landmines.

    Basically, all the full time, large churches go to men and we women pick up the small, halftime positions. There was one congregation in my conference where the head of the search committee apologized to the church for not finding a man to fill their position and they are stuck with a woman.

    I do have hope for the generation that is currently in high school. They don't have the same hangups on gender, race and sexual orientation that the mainstream still struggles with. If this generation would just stick around past confirmation, I feel that there is hope for change in the church.

  2. I have to disagree with God_Guurrlll, though we are from the same denomination. What she describes varies from one Conference to another. In Maine in the UCC, a large church is anything above 300 members and none of our churches is much over 800 at this point. We have roughly a dozen in that category throughout the state. Four are currently led by women pastors, another in the midst of an interim, was most recently pastored by a woman. I'm doing an interim at one of the larger churches, where the most recent settled staff configuration was two women as Senior and Associate. Our polity based in local autonomy does mean that the local church is sometimes slower to progress, but at least in Maine, half our larger churches have called women as Senior or Lead pastor.

    I didn't have the experience of working as an Associate until doing it now as an Interim, which is very different, but I think the truth is that in denominations where salary (and therefore pension) are rated to church size, it's always going to seem like success to be in a larger church. All of us, women and men, will come to see those jobs as some sort of pinnacle of security or a place of having arrived. In reality, however, not all pastors are suited to be heads of staff. Not all pastors are suited to be mentors. I'm not sure that's an exclusively gendered challenge.

    The greater difficulty for me professionally is being geographically tied, and I know I am not unique among women in having that limitation. If you take family situation into consideration in your call process, you may not have the freedom to do what men traditionally did, which is to uproot the family in favor of the job. And maybe that's a good thing for everyone, a move toward a new model of finding the expression of our calling. I'm going to try to err on the side of the hope after much thrashing about over this question.

  3. ((((God_Guurlll)))) Well, I admit I might not have finished the book if I wasn't needing to lead this study! I am surprised--maybe I was naive--that the same kind of sexism occurs across denominational lines. Perhaps that is partly because of the four UCC churches in my area, three of them were pastored by wonderful women. Of course, thinking about it, the large one has a male pastor. The three women pastored small ones, like me. I too have hope for the next generation. Even in more conservative denoms like mine. They just don't have the same mind set...hallelujah!

    SB, I'm glad your experience has been more positive. And I did find myself thinking as I read that some of the issues raised (like the horrid experiences of the associates) could be about issues other than gender. Not that I don't think that probably played a part. I like this, "I'm going to try to err on the side of the hope after much thrashing about over this question." Me too, though it is difficult. But maybe I'd better stop thinking that the solution is to jump ship...speaking of which, I am off to my office job, and I'll check back at lunch.

  4. Singing Owl, knowing you (a little), I was (a little) surprised that you were leading this particular book.

    I saw it in the local Barnes and Noble, and read around in it, but found myself having many different and conflicting feelings. It was in hardcover at the time, and I was trying not to buy hardcover books, so I didn't buy it.

    It's still early where I am, so I'm not up for an extended comment yet.

    I would like to say that I'm somewhere between God_Guurrlll and Songbird on this.

    On social justice issues, I do think that social justice is really important work, but I somehow can't reduce the gospel to social justice (now that sentence doesn't seem quite right, either).

    I can't imagine why a woman (or anyone, for that matter) would want to be a pastor if they weren't a Christian, although I understand that our various denominations define Christianity differently.

    ...I am an associate, and while there are some challenges inherent in the position per se, I would say that all associates do not experience the level of dysfunction that she relates (as I remember what I read). A couple of male senior pastors I know mentored female associates into sr. positions themselves.

  5. Wow, I am going to have to read this book. Very fascinating summary, Singing Owl, and reactions from everyone else.

    Independent Catholicism, while obviously ahead of the RC church in actually having ordained women, is as sexist as anywhere else....Especially if you get to my level as one of the few women bishops. I am very happy with my new jurisdiction and have experienced some good awareness already by some of the men and openness to my feminist perspectives when well presented to those who are newer to the concepts. And thus far no real hostility, which is a pleasant change from the past. But women are still a token presence in overall clergy and esp. at the episcopal level where we are two among a dozen or more. And a recent major liturgy and sacraments committee has me as the token female and about five men (all white IIRC) -- some with great background (though none as much as mine, including the chair)-- and at least one with, to my knowledge, very little, and way less than a woman on staff with me.

    Whew, thanks for listening--I was just reflecting on that issue yesterday and have realized that it's not safe to blog at my anonymous but easily recognizable place.

    In scoping the Presby options in town (my husband's tradition) we found the standard male senior, female associate arrangement at the ones near us--even in one case where the associate was longer trained and ordained than the second career male HOS, and as far as I could see way more theologically and spiritually insightful.

  6. I didn't read this book and was feeling glad, but now I will have to. Thanks to SO for leading this...a book which might have been difficult for any of us, no matter our leanings.

    Off the specific topic a little, on the quote from SO in her post:

    "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."

    That is the opinion of *one person* and must be seen as such! There are also men in my denomination (some v. famous) who feel the same way, and I am sure there are other women who'd agree with the person quoted. I am also entirely certain that this position does not speak for all feminist ministers (whether women OR men!) I know some of them.

    I am a liberal and feminist woman in lay ministry, with Christ as the center of my theology....and I see social justice as INELUCTABLY bound with that.

    Recently I was with a respected senior member of my family (a religious conservative) who, when he heard that another family member was working on a social justice task force at her church, said, dismissively "Hmmm. That's a new one on me."

    As if social justice were recently invented? As if Jesus didn't call us to break the bonds of oppression?

    I'm personally terribly disillusioned with the institutional church, but remain committed to working through those issues from within the system. A great part of that pain and anger is indeed caused by the treatment of women in my extremely conservative diocese, in my extremely unpredictable denomination.

    Thanks for this frank discussion of the tough issues. I love you folks for your willingness to engage! (and for other reasons...)

  7. I read this over a year ago, so my memory may be failing me. But I found myself thinking that the author's anger had far too much of an impact on the book. I suspected that she went for the worst stories, and left the stories of justice and equality unreported. That isn't to say that I disbelieve these women who have experienced sexism in the church. I just know - firsthand and from the many, many clergywomen I relate to as friends and colleagues - that there is a lot more to the story.

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  9. Thanks, Mary Beth, for your comment. There certainly seems to be a subtext, and I don't know if that's from the book or just because we have different traditions in this group, suggesting that liberals aren't actually Christians. I should hope I don't have to argue my bona fides here.

  10. I started the book but did not finish it. I would agree that the author's anger simmers to the surface in places, but it seemed to me that those were legitimate issues to be angry about.

    I guess for me, it was a bit too close to home in so many ways. Even in my uber-liberal UCCan, the truth is that while more than half of new ordinands every year are women, those women will continue to make 70 cents that their male colleagues make.

    The church as a denomination has a set pay scale, so it's not an institutional thing. Also, we have no designations of Senior and Associate Pastor. If you're ordained, you're ordained, period. You are equal to any other ordained clergy regardless of years of experience.

    The reason for the pay differential is exactly what the author mentioned - location, location, location. Typically, male clergy will apply for positions in the big downtown churches in large cities and will lobby search committees for huge increases over and above the required minimum pay scale - even "hiring bonuses" the way athletes bargain.

    Women (and I don't want to generalize, but it IS the reality) often take the three to four point pastoral charges in Upper Rubber Boot Saskatchewan because they see the pastoral need there that is not being met. They take the position, along with the minimum salary requirement because they feel called to fill these large gaps in pastoral presence.

    Just my two cents for now. I'll check in again later. Now, we're on our way to eye exams and flu shots.

  11. Just checking in quickly here. Please don't think I am questioning ANYBODY'S Christianity! Not my call!

    I'll try to clarify what I was talking about later when I have a bit more time.

    Sorry if I was not clear enough about that, deasr friends!

  12. PS One more thing before I go for now. I think an interesting thing that has happened in the more conservative wing of the church is that (AT LONG LAST) we are coming out and saying--well some are--that a gospel that does nothing about the poor, the neglected, disenfranchised is not the Kingdom Jesus spoke of. Remember those widows and orphans and prisoners, etc? There was a great quote somewhere in the book about that. Maybe I can find it and post it here. As I said, there was just...too much to digest really.

    As for this, "On social justice issues, I do think that social justice is really important work, but I somehow can't reduce the gospel to social justice (now that sentence doesn't seem quite right, either)." That is what I meant. NOT all, but some of what was in the book seemed to do that. I know, perhaps it is just me. THis is exactly why I wish there were more dialog between "liberals" and "conservatives" in the church world (I hate those labels). None of us get it all even close to right!

    And I totally agree with "I can't imagine why a woman (or anyone, for that matter) would want to be a pastor if they weren't a Christian although I understand that our various denominations define Christianity differently" I say NO KIDDING? WHY would anyone put themselves through it? But some of the women interviewed called themselves ministers but did not call themselves Christians.

    And I'm not using the word in any narrow sort of way, ("like have you said a sinner's prayer?....bleeech!)

    Frankly, I was amazed. Easier to be a social worker. (Not saying that is an easy job either, but pasatoring is the hardest thing I can imagine, really, and the best.)

    Okay, I really gotta go!

  13. I read this last year and blogged (briefly) about it.

    I have definitely had some mild sexism experiences in the church, but nothing like what she describes. And I do believe that social justice is a part of the gospel, because justice IS good news and because justice is the foundation for peace, and together they will be the key things in the kingdom of God. I am a Christian (and I believe it's important to talk about jesus!) and I KNOW I'm a liberal...and I believe it's possible to be a liberal evangelical because I want to share GOOD justice and peace and love (an action, not a feeling).

    I want this book to have more balance, but it doesn't. I'm hopeful it has/will open eyes about sexism still rampant in the church, but also hopeful that someone will look for stories of women being treated well. They have to be out there--right? right?

  14. Teri, I think that is why I was wondering where the author found her interview subjects. Did she advertize for "angry, mistreated, women ministers?" (Tongue mostly in cheek here.)

    I MUST GET OFF THIS COMPUTER. I'd love to have this conversation in person with all of you!

  15. I haven't read the book, but I have enjoyed your comments and will venture by the local library as soon as I finish reading the novel "Pope Joan". I, too, am a UCC pastor (in the South) and have served on Conference staff helping churches find their next pastor. It is interesting to hear churches who think they do not want a woman pastor move to the place of realizing that a dedicated pastor is a dedicated pastor...regardless of gender.
    I attended a Southern Baptist Seminary and was ordained by a Southern Baptist church (I am certain much to the chagrin of the current denomination). There are horror stories out there and there are, and I am sure there will be more, beautiful stories of nurture and encouragement, as well as acceptance and affirmation of women in ministry. We are part of a profession that was known as a white collar profession that is quickly becoming a "pink" collar profession.

  16. Beth, that comment made me smile.

    And Sophia, I thought of you many times while reading the book and wished I could get your thoughts. The chapter on RCs was particularly moving to me.

  17. The Rev. Dr. Wil GafneyOctober 26, 2009 at 5:23 PM

    I too am hopeful about the next generation and the young adults who are rising to power. As a sem prof I have access to the stories of women (and men) from a dozen denominations, if not more. Sexism and racism are everywhere, including and particularly in the most liberal spaces. Here's a hateful letter one of our students received and her response to it.
    Lastly, I have found the sexism in the black church - including black churches in white denominations - to be particularly painful and recalcitrant, but thankfully not omnipresent.

  18. quickly just want to say a couple of things, one about liberals not being Christians. Not sure where this comes from. I pretty much think that people who wanted to get ordained and serve are Christians, whether "liberal" or "conservative."

    but there was a comment back there somewhere that I was responding to.

    also: yes, there is a lot of sexism and racism still in the church, and it's not limited to conservative denominations.

  19. Thanks, Singing Owl--it was the mention of the RCWPs that was one motivator for me to read it. They have some things very much in common with IC women and some not, and very interesting relationships between them and IC women, and IC clergy in general, prevail. They're good women doing good work but, how do I say it? A little diva-ish due to their high media profile at times. They also tend to be allergic to all high church/traditional liturgy stuff which I personally find it more empowering to do in a feminist way than to throw out with the bathwater....Due to pain and anger, very justified of course, but IMHO unfortunate. One of the coolest things about Synod was an all female Benediction (very traditional Eucharistic devotion) and Vespers which the tradliturgy guys trained me and a deacon/acolyte to carry out....With a way over the top Mary altar the guys set up too--when the old bishops raised their eyebrows I was quick to point out it wasn't Mother FeministLiturgy who had set it up. (Though I certainly enjoyed the Goddess worship overtones!) Not everything along the accustomed fault lines at all!

    At our recent Synod I met a good and fairly feminist guy who is a former RC priest who is friendly and supportive of the RCWPs in his town but mentioned that they, to the best of his knowledge, have driven away most of their initial congregation by overdone feminist liturgy. He was quick to interrogate me about how I would baptize and relieved to hear my espousal of the Riverside formula combining traditional and ecumenically recognized language with "One God, Mother of us all". Very interesting to me esp given my personal experiences on that score at Synod. Look forward to meeting and worshipping with those RCWPs--as well as with his ethnic Catholic parish--and comparing and contrasting when I make it to their town....

    Okay, hope this wasn't a threadjack from someone who hasn't read the book yet!

  20. Diane, and all--two seperate things kind of got put together it seems. When I said something about people who did not want to call themselves "Christians" I was not speaking of my own opinions, or any Rev Gals opinions, for that matter. I was speaking of a couple of the interviewees who told Sarah S. that THEY did not consider themselves Christians.

    There were a few, but at this moment the ones I can think of are the two women who founded what they are calling a "new religion," the Church of Craft, which apparently is a group of like-minded artists and creative people getting together to make things. They were ordained on the internet "Universal Life Church" and went from there. I found myself wishing they had not been included in the book...but that is JUST ME. How does anyone else feel about that?

    I don't have any problem calling a person a Christian who says they are one or who wants to serve as a minister in a denomination whose church would likely have a cross on the steeple! :-)

    A seperate issue was the lesbian, Black pastor (sorry not to refer to her by name, but I am at work and the book is at home) who made the comment about SOME feminist theologians having theology that was not "thick enough." She did not say "all."

    I did not in any way intend to add to the conversation that happens among some people about "who is a real Christian."

    I really dislike putting people of faith in boxes, though I know we likely all do it at least sometimes. I hope no one thinks I want to do that. I don't want others to do it to me, either. And I admit, I avoided talking about a few comments in the book that I found offensive and stereotypical towards "conservatives."

    I don't know which I am! It depends on who I am standing next to...and as for any of you I will stand next to you and link arms any time. I want to be a follower of Jesus. How that looks...changes sometimes.

    I hope that clarifies a bit.

    Heading home now.

    If you want to buy the book, just know that it is without doubt written by a woman who is angry and grieving. I understand that--but I admit I was expecting something altogether different, and much broader in perspective, than this book turned out to be.

  21. I have been fortunate but did experience some of the 'associate' problems even tho my position wasn't designed to be an associate. I think many of us balance good with the bad but some seem to get more of the bad than others.
    A remark I'll share:
    I had a conversation with my then colleague about churches who off-the-record, tell the District not to send profiles of females to their search committee. As i complained my colleague said, "Don't be one of those women who go around with a chip on their shoulder."
    I was only partly surprised. Sexism is seen by many mid-to young aged people as a thing of the past. We've done just enough as a society to pretend its all equal now. It pushes much-needed conversation to the background and makes 'us' one of 'those' women.

  22. I haven’t read the book, and I am not in the US. As a newish [ 3 years out of college] ordained minister, I often feel blessed that I have had great mentors and support. The denomination I am part of has a set pay scale, which doesn’t vary depending on the size of the congregation, it is possible to pay above stipend, but I think not many congregations do. And as a Minister you get paid stipend in a rural setting or the city. Most of our congregations are one minister placements, or one minister with multiple congregations. We don’t have a senior pastor designation, which can be wonderful or messy from my lay experience of being in a congregation with a ministry team.
    I am still in ministry with my first congregation, and they loved me before I arrived. Not to say there aren’t some difficult patches and relationships, but it isn’t gender based. I realise I am extremely fortunate!
    While my experience with the denomination has been positive, there are some women who have different stories. Though the stories I hear from people trained recently and in training are much more positive than negative..
    Ecumenically I find the situation much more difficult. Locally, I am the only ordained woman in ministry, and the local congregations [other than where I am in placement] are quite conservative, and some don’t have female lay leaders [elders etc].

  23. TRDWG, I just went to the blog post you alluded to. I find myself feeling a little sick to my stomach. I thought I was past those kind of feelings about this a long time ago. I guess not.

    I suppose I'm feeling a bit raw about all of this since gender is the largest single reason that I am very unsure what my future holds.

    I have hope...but not a lot for myself. For my daughter and granddaughter, yes.

    Which reminds me, I forgot to share here at Rev Gals that my daughter just passed her ordination exam. I rejoice in that, but I grieve for some of the *&^*$ she had to endure even during the interview process.

    One thing that did happen to me as I read this book was that I started pondering (once again) what a church of MY own would look like. I know, but I don't know if anyone would be in it with me! ;-)

    Long day for me. I'm heading to the recliner with a cup of tea. I'll pray for all of you, for Sarah Sentilles, for myself, for God's love and grace and beauty to overcome the darkness.

    Love you, Rev Gals, for being here. Various ones of you have blessed me in ways I can't even express.

    Thanks SB, for all you do here, and for helping to create a space of our own on the web.

  24. I read this book during a difficult place in my seminary career. I was interning at a church which was promising me an associate's posiiton upon graduation. I was assured that women in the pulpit were not only wanted, but that I preached just like someone who was exactly what they were looking for. In 2.5 years, I preached 2 times. When I graduated, I was offered a secretarial position, with hospital visitation (because none of the other pastors staff wanted to do it.)

    I am now working at a lifecare facility. It is corporate, not liturgical in its organization. I would rather be in a church. But I am not going to sacrifice my integrity to move up the church ladder.

    So in short. Yes. This is my life. I could have written a chapter in this book.

  25. I am definitely among those who have seen the prejudice against women leading larger churches. I'm in the nondenominational side of church life, more towards the conservative side (though I am proud to wear the label "progressive"!!)

    What I have seen is that in these churches, that the men are in positions which are "pastoral" and the women are in positions which are "directors" or "administrators" -- even though they are teaching, leading and caring for teams of volunteers, children, etc. Makes. me. nuts.

    I did read this book - I found the author's anger a little over-the-top. However, as someone who has faced some degree of prejudice and double-speak in terms of opportunity, I understand where her anger is coming from.

    I am working very hard with my spiritual director to name prejudice for what it is, and then to proclaim God's forgiveness for my attitudes, and to extend God's forgiveness towards others. I guess I would like to see a more reconciling spirit in this book.

    Lord willing, perhaps my journey will be in a book which is written in that Spirit.

    I will find my book and make some quotes/comments...


  26. Over 24 years, I've worked as an ordained associate with 3 men and as intern with a 4th (different churches), and aside from the occasional bumps in any working relationship, all have been wonderful. The rectors treated me with respect, saw to it that I was paid as well as a man in the same job would've been, and refused to allow any sexism demonstrated by parishioners to gain a foothold. I work with a new rector now, a woman, and everything points to our having an excellent relationship as well. I consider myself blessed by these experiences, but I also think they are good evidence that not all associates who are female are undervalued side-kicks.

    I am an associate now by choice. I was vicar of a congregation, had a good ministry there, and chose to step onto another path while raising my children. The fact is, I've realized that I really like being in an assistant's position; it suits my gifts better. However, I know there are plenty of people who insist upon seeing it as a step down from the supposedly one desirable career track!

    When I went through the ordination process (in the Episcopal Church), there was some blatant sexism. I was 21, and there was also some blatant age discrimination. And, on the other hand, there were generous and caring people who encouraged and supported me. I paid more attention to them, and ultimately found the process to be trying but not devastating. Again, while I don't doubt the author's stories, I don't think they are the whole story.

  27. ((((Anonymous)))) My heart is sad for you. I pray you will be a great blessing where you are, and that you will be blessed as well. Deb, I know of one very wonderful, talented, educated, clergywoman who was a pastor in all but name. She was a "director." And therefore, even tho she was a minister, she could be paid much less then the several other "pastors" (all male). Eventually this came to a head, and she was out in a very hurtful way. Makes. Me. Nuts. Too. After more than a year she is still looking for a place to serve.
    (I kind of like being a more-towards-the-conservative-side progressive as well.) I would love to see your story in a book with a reconcilling spirit. And Betsy, I rejoiced to read your comment. I know it happens...and I'd like to read those stories too.

  28. Here is something that I do agree with in her book: from Chapter Six on Language, page 129

    "Seeing a woman in the pulpit not only brings us up against our implicit or explicit assumptions about the categories "minister" and "woman," it also challenges how we think about God."

    further down...

    "Most liturgical language refers to God as male - God is called 'He," "lord," "Father," "King" - and prayers in many churches use the pronoun "he" or the words "man" or mankind" to refer to human beings. When pressed proponents of this kind of male-only, exclusive language insist that "men" is a generic, gender-neutral term. ...Insisting that "men" means everyone is a kind of double-talk: "Men" means all of us, but only men can get ordained."


    These quotes are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a problem with gender-inclusive language in some corners simply because God was always imaged as male to the patriarchal society. So what was historical context must continue as present-day context? Sentilles does, to her credit, discuss some of the alternative namings of God but admits that liturgically that pesky ol' pronoun problem keeps creeping up.

    One of the issues we wrestled with in Systematics was the issue of using the roles of God as names limits the infinity of God (God is not just Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer but is also Judge, Renewer, Savior, etc etc). We get into ontological problems in our desire to escape the limits of the English language.

    As she points out, referring to God in male-only language has stifled the perceptions of us all that a woman can speak to/for God. In discussing this with my college student and her peers, this has become a bigger issue that I think we understand. They are not willing to tolerate invisibility any more... I do pray that her generation will not be wrestling with the battles of insecurity and poor exegesis!


  29. SO, I neglected to say congratulations to your daughter; may the Spirit richly bless this new part of her ministry!

  30. Thank you so much, Singing Owl, and everyone who participated for this wonderful discussion. I love our community!

    Last not safe on my own blog vent: I blogged about overdoing a feminist liturgy and getting a well-deserved reprimand from two male archbishops....A fruitful experience about which I have few complaints overall. But one repeated refrain from the higher up man haunts me: "we are not a misogynist church and we are not a feminist church--you need to take the via media." As a church largely male but committed to changing that and very open to feminist insights, as shown by some men liking the feminist liturgy and all of them being open to a more careful presentation on expansive liturgy, I would say we are indeed a feminist church....And how tragic that one of our top leaders misunderstands the term in the common way equating it to male bashing--or to the strong anger apparently in this book and offputting to some feminists.

  31. Deb, that is one part I should have explored more. I agreed too, and I have been (sadly) pondering for two days now about how only a TINY portion of people in my church world have ever seen a woman preaching. I remember the first time I did--and what a powerful thing it was in my life.

    Sophia, I hear ya. I am a feminist. But if I said so to most of the people I know---they would totally misunderstand. I once asked my congregation if any of them was a feminist (feeling like pushing the envelope that day I guess) and not one hand went up, of course. Then I read the dictionary definition and asked again (but not to raise their hands). The facial expressions wer eloquent!

    I don't remember what I was preaching about that day...haha.

    Blessings on your day, all, and thank you for the interesting discussion. Now I need to go read something positive and uplifting.


  32. I found some valid points in the book, but overall felt like it was Sentilles working through her own ambivalence about vocation as well as the process. To me, as to other posters, it seemed like she sought out women in ministry whose worldview was congruent with her own.

    That said, sexism and ageism are alive and well in the church today, but I see glimmers of hope in my own Episcopal world. We have a woman Presiding Bishop, we have women cardinal rectors in some places (equivalent to Head Of Staff posts in other denominations), we have women in positions of leadership and power.

    And yet...and yet...some older women are viewed as "church ladies who ran out of things to do in the parish " - I kid you not, I actually heard this opinion expressed by a younger male colleague - and some younger priests, both male and female, are slotted into the traditional "young assistant does youth work" position, even though it may not be where their strengths lie.

    Parishes (or senior clergy) have a particular model of leadership in their minds when they call takes a very thoughtful leader to break out of the traditional mold. I am grateful to be seeing some of this, but there is much work to be done. This is particularly true of calling assistant/associate clergy, which seems to be mired in the land of secrecy and old-boy networking (but that's my own pet hobbyhorse, so ignore me while I ride away).

    As for the difficulty of the process, in our denomination it is unevenly administered. Some folks had to leap through flaming hoops. Some folks had virtually no process to speak of. (My process was rather long and impersonal, but not bad, all in all.) When I got to seminiary, I found that some folks were deeply troubled, and should have been screened out until they had found some personal healing, IMHO, but weren't. The contrast: in my husband's denomination, there is very little upfront process, but people only get ordained if they have been called to a those with problems sometimes end up in small rural churches where there are limited resources to help them.

    And as for social justice being viewed in some quarters as liberal rather than Christian...Jesus weeps! That's what I call thin theology.

    Just sayin'.

  33. I read the book about two months ago and had mixed feelings about it. I think the stories mirror those found in many professions that are or were male dominated. I am a lawyer and as a youngster at the bar I received kindness and understanding from women who had gone through similar experiences. I was disappointed that the book didn't include more about pentecostal denominations. That said, I think the book is a valuable contribution to my collection. There aren't many books about women in the pulpit.

  34. Hi all,

    This is an interesting discussion to read from Australia, where there is substantially less denominational variety. Many of you will know that the Presbyterian Church of Australia is infamously one of the few denominations ever to embrace the ordination of women and then revoke the decision. Absolutely appalling.

    In my deeply beloved Anglican tradition, there are of course overt cases of sexism - a particular diocese (not my own, clearly) in this country would be famous for it - but as far as my own diocese goes, the remnants of both conservative evangelical and conservative catholic opposition to the minstry of women are disappearing (though remain in parts, of course). I have had to jump through a good many hoops during my training, but that has been entirely because I was the first (and only) student through a brand new degree and new formation programme in a new location - the same would have been expected of a male ordinand. If (God willing) I am ordained early next year, the balance of male to female candidates will still be relatively balanced. On a side note, there is at long last an even balance between males and females in our Cathedral Canonry, who are each most gifted and capable priests.

    I would be interested to read this book - I have often been amazed and humbled by the female clergy who have mentored me. Many of them underwent enormous struggle to have their vocations recognised and to be accepted into Holy Orders. And yet, I have yet to come across any bitterness or entitlement because of that struggle, much less that awful tendency of training establishments to imply 'it was hard for us, so we'll make it hard for you'.

    Singing Owl - congratulations to your daughter! It is a most gruelling thing to hold out ones heart (and brain) to be taken out and examined under a microscope, while a precious vocation hangs in the balance. Well done her.

  35. Coming to the conversation very late... but I'm glad to have found it. I was given this book by the local newspaper a couple years ago, so that I could review it for them. I never did.

    I found that there were lots of things I wanted to critique, but the vast and varied audience of a newspaper review was not an audience I could trust not to mis-interpret my points. It was an odd position to be in.

    She is definitely angry. And for good reason. The chapter on associates, especially, was very hard to take.

    But the anger also made it hard to take her very seriously. (As did the inclusion of the Church of Craft. I'm with you on that one, Song Bird. It was interesting and sounded cool, but what did it have to do with anything? Perhaps an addendum or side bar?)

    Anyway, I do think things are changing. I also think it's very hard to separate gender from all the other things congregations and colleagues react against in a particular individual. Which is not to diminish the impact of sexism, just to say that it's complicated.

    Thanks for all the insights!

  36. haven't read this ... but enjoyed songbird's introduction at least. Thanks for that.

    Now my thesis is written I hope to stop by at RevGals a bit more often again ...


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