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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - How Can This Still Be Going On Edition

Our last question this year...a reminder that as women in ministry and women preparing for ministry, we still face double standards...

Recently I underwent the candidacy committee's interview--and though it was not for my entrance decision, I wondered about how differently women are treated by their board/candidacy committee/presbytery (if that is the right term). One of the questions they asked was how could I forsake my vocation of motherhood for seminary. The member said that he had had a recent experience of a seminary student being overwhelmed by family needs and could not pay attention in class. Is this a question for both female and male candidates?

My pastor made it clear to me also that it was acceptable to be divorced once, but if that happened with my second marriage that I should not bother asking to enter seminary, that no church accepts and calls a woman twice divorced. Just out of curiosity, what are some experiences women have had about that subject. Not that my husband and I are divorcing, just something about the way this was addressed kind of seemed weird to me. Why would that call into question the discernment process?

Thank you for being such an open, accepting and loving group of women and for taking on so many questions. I love reading the answers and wish there were a book of this wisdom available.

Terri offers the following:

Let me take a moment for a deep breath. Ok. I am fairly certain that if this were an interview for a corporate job this line of questioning would be illegal. At the very least they are profoundly inappropriate questions, even for the church. I can’t imagine them asking a man “how he could forsake his vocation to fatherhood for seminary.”

When I attended seminary, after being a stay at home mom for 6 years, my husband and I worked out a co-parenting schedule. This required him to really step up his role as a father, but it was good for him and the children (our kids were 4 and 8 when I started seminary). The tragedy here is that that woman clearly had little or no help from her husband or partner or other family or friends. And apparently she received little compassion from faculty. Not only is she being judged for being tired BUT they are projecting her experience onto you as if you, or any other woman, would have the same experience.

Seminary is exhausting. It’s is more exhausting for people who have children. It is especially exhausting for women who are moms. But we make it work. It helps when we have families that work with us and help.

Secondly, I do know that in my tradition (Episcopal) clergy, both men and women, have added challenges if they have been divorced and remarried multiple times (more than twice). I know of one person who was challenged for being in his third marriage. Multiple divorces and remarriage need to be taken on a case by case basis to understand the situation. But again it seems to me that your pastor is projecting onto you issues and concerns that are his concerns not yours. He has no cause to think that you are headed for another divorce and it was just odd of him to say this at this time.

In both cases I think these questions, and their inappropriate nature, point to the general anxiety and ambivalence church members still have toward the ordination and leadership of women. A good clue into their inappropriateness is the way they made YOU feel. In the course of your ministry there will be other occasions when you will experience similar inappropriate queries. The best response is a non-anxious confident reply that assuages their bias, which it seems you have already done. Blessings on you as continue this discernment. Trust the Holy Spirit, she will have your back.

Terri blogging at seekingauthenticvoice

And Muthah+ replies:

Ohhhh, darn! I had hoped that that kind of stuff didn't go on any more. All I can tell you is that whoever is in charge of your candidacy committee should be told that that questions of that ilk are WAY out of line. Talk to a woman pastor in your diocese, synod or conference and ask her to say something to those in charge. It would not be permitted in the secular world and those questions should not be allowed in our lives either. It is patriarchal and demeaning.

THAT SAID: It is always wise to have answers to such questions in one's back pocket because what they are saying is that they are afraid that you can't manage. Sometimes, jokingly reminding folks that women can multitask better than men helps if you can be real and lighthearted at the same time. Whatever you do, don't get angry; they don't do well with that! You need to help them be not afraid. Despite your avuncular pastor, guys can get positions as pastors when they have been divorced several times and even become bishops or synod officers. I know women pastors who have been divorced and remarried several times and pastor large and influential churches. If you can show that you learned something from the dissolution of your last marriage, and can speak succinctly about it, committees usually weigh that to your advantage.

The most important thing that you can offer the ministry is for you to step out in the confidence and integrity of your call. That will speak to any interviewing committee. If you know yourself to be called by God to be about the ministry for which you are presenting yourself, all that interviewing committees want to know is are you confident in your ability and your call by God and the Church.

Muthah+ blogging at stone of witness

Let's hear from more of you in the RevGals community. Use the "Post a Comment" box to add your thoughts. And to all, a blessed and hope-filled new year!

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May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. It's helpful to me to remember that some people are uncomfortable with any kind of change, and the advent of women in the pulpit may have happened in their denomination (or in their area) in their own lifetime.

    Short story: In my current church, the majority of the call committee was strongly against calling a woman because the last pastor, also a woman, had been unable to handle the physical requirements of a mountain church (shoveling the snow, keeping the fire going, etc.) I was offended by the implications until an ally shared with me that the woman who was fueling those concerns was the one whose husband had been called, sometimes several times a day, to help with tasks this woman (who does seem to have been extremely helpless) just couldn't manage. The problem wasn't that they'd called a woman; it was that they'd called a city person with no experience in the rural West to an extremely challenging setting. They just needed a little help to understand that.

    So I think it's helpful to ask, "Can you be more specific about your concerns? What is it you think I may not be able to do?" Maybe they want to hear you say that you do value the institution of marriage a great deal and won't undervalue their own marriages or not bother to help them when they experience difficulties. (That's still insulting, I know, but it's a little more visceral.) Maybe they want to hear you say that you understand that combining parenthood and any vocation is challenging but that you and your husband understand that and have planned for it.

    Or maybe they just aren't on board yet with women clergy. It happens; every woman here will tell you that. People look over my head toward my husband all the time (and I often want to kick them in the shins, but that's probably not a useful response). I try to just keep conveying the truth that God would not have called me to this ministry without equipping me. Then find ways to tell them about all the talents you've been given and worked hard to develop.

  2. I had an interesting experiencw with a call committee last summer. They were quite concerned that if they called me, and my husband could not find work in the area or found work and then got offered a transfer, that I would leave them. They questioned both my husband and myself repeatedly on this point. The thing was the last pastor, who happened to be the first female they had called, left them to take a joint call with her clergy husband at a congregation wanting to hire both of them. The call committee strongly believed that she left because her husband wanted to leave.

    They opted not to call me. One of the reasons I was given was that they felt it unfair to call another woman pastor since they liked the last one so much - it would be hard for the next woman pastor to live up to reputation of the last! Really? Would they have said that to a male candidate - of course not!

    I've also encountered the opinion that having a chronically ill child
    decreases my ability to function in ministry. My choice to be a stay at home mom when my kids were preschoolers and to work part time after the youngest started school has been interpreted as a 'spotty job history with a lot of job-hopping" (even though each job was held for at least 5 years).

    The point is, fair or not, this is just something that is part of being a woman in ministry. Get your answers in line - practice what you would say if you are asked one of those female-steroetype questions. Be confident and know that God has called you to this ministry. Own your call. You have been called to be a leader in the church and that means there will be times where you challenge life-denying, God-limiting attitudes. This is one of them.

  3. I am probably going to rant here...just a warning...but the inappropriate nature of these questions really hits my hot buttons.

    First of all, in any other hiring environment, to ask about one's plans for childbearing/parenting and about one's spouse/partner's plans is ILLEGAL. Apparently those rules do not apply to churches, but the questions are still highly inappropriate. In any job one's family situation is private. Of course it will impact the one being hired, but that should not be part of the hiring situation.

    I have been a single parent most of my parenting life...I earned a BS, MS, PhD and MDiv as a single parent, and did quite well. And as far as I know, my children did not suffer. Was it hard? Of course. Did I have to make compromises? Of course. But was it possible to do without a spouse? YES. All that to say that while having family support is important, no particular family configuration in and of itself is a guaranteed barrier to success (for that matter, not a guarantee of success either.)

    It is unfortunate for women to be judged and asked unfair questions based on perceptions of one person (whose story may have been far more complicated than that board member knew.

    I am also twice-divorced. I had been divorced for the second time about 5 years when I met with the Commission on Ministry, and my marital history was a subject of discussion (as it should have been) but was not a barrier. I am grateful that the COM did take it on a case-by-case basis. Since being approved for postulancy (the first step towards ordination in my denomination) my marital history has not come up. I don't know if people in my current parish are even aware of it. I do understand that this is something that might vary by denomination since there are varying opinions about divorce, but I do hope that there is not a double-standard, and that there are not "blanket rules" that don't take individual circumstances into account.

    All that said, I agree with Muthah+ and Terri about having answers ready to diffuse those questions, since it seems inevitable that they will be asked in some form. Being calm and confident in response is probably as important as what you actually say.

    May the Holy Spirit have your back as you continue on this journey.

  4. Oh *&^%$#! Ahem. Words fail me. Thank you, Suzy, for such a grace-filled comment. I probably needed to hear that myself, since I am fairly sure that gender has played a significant part in me being in a secular job over a year after leaving my last pastorate--but this isn't about me.

    I see the two issues a bit differently. Gender is something we are born to, divorce is not. The divorce questions might (or might not) be the same for males as for females--depending on the situation. I know, I'm from perhaps one of the most conservate denoms on the divorce issue, but the fact remains that (sadly) it is only in the last few years that policy has relaxed even a little for divorced persons. I never liked the previous policy, and I am not thrilled with the new one--tho it is a start--but I'm just wondering if this is a denominational stance?

    As for the other stuff...just sad. I can't add to the wise words already posted here, but I long for the day when they would seeem just impossibly arcane.


  5. I love this question, and all that underlies it (although the situation DOES make my blood boil) because I think it reminds us of the interesting opportunity we have as pastors and women to help our congregations grow in their understanding of what it means for all of us to use our gifts.

    In thinking women in leadership, it is important to remember that it does shift the balance of power/responsibility in ways that are sometimes hard to understand except in hindsite. For example, only men were ushers when I arrived (a purposeful choice) but since I came, there are now women ushers too. I like this in theory, but in practice it means that several men are less frequent attenders than they used to be just because they dont have a job to do on Sunday morning.

    I dont think it helps much to say "there is no difference between a male and female pastor" because there just is - whether that pastor is married, divorced, childless or whatever, how we are perceived by others and how we perceive ourselves is based a lot on our gender.

    The thing is to be confident, to project that confidence, and to look for the fear or grief under the kind of questions you ask here.

    In the question of divorce, for example, it might help to turn it into a question of your pastor directly (depending on the kind of relationship you have, of course) "Sounds like divorce is something of hot button issue for you - wonder why that is?" Because, he could have just easily said the same thing about pastors who drink wine after work, get tattoos or go to Disney instead of a retreat center on their vacation, but he chose the divorce thing. The question really is, why?

    What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that providing openings to help others see what your ministry as a woman brings up for them will be a growth experience for them, as well as for you.

    )h, and my word verification is "calmon" which is pretty much the best mantra I can think of in this situation.

  6. It sad to note that there is a backlash toward female clergy these days. It is sadder to note that it is taking place among our peers and those in charge.

    It sad to read this woman's story and the one within her story.

  7. RevDrMom- thank you for your rant. You are so right - single women/parents are also fully capable of raising children and going to school and doing ministry as ordained persons. In typical fashion for me I limited my response to the example given and didn't expand it to others that I know, like you, who have successfully single parented. Thank you for pointing this out...

  8. As a person getting divorced for the second time, I'll admit to wondering what this will mean for my professional future. I'm sort of hoping the second marriage will fade into oblivion since my husband was not a factor in my ministry, and we had no children together.
    And as far as women doing ministry with children, there's no question it presents some challenges. My kids are older now (mostly grown), so it's not a big impact day to day, but with younger children, I found a call that really matched up well with our family situation. In other words, I weighed both aspects of the dual calling to ministry and motherhood. I'm still doing it now, having responded to a call that really was the best choice for the one child still at home. It's still a call, clearly. I believe the Holy Spirit does sort these things out, and I also believe we can be useful to God in more than one place.
    I spent a long time feeling I had "Mommy tracked" myself in a way that was pretty discouraging, but as I near the point when all the children will be out of the house, I'm not regretful at all. I've done interesting work and will have another dozen years to live my professional life, at least, after the youngest leaves for college.
    So I guess I would say this about the dual calling, if someone asked: "I trust God's wisdom in this. I hope you will, too."

  9. Thank you all for your wisdom on this matter. I can tell that I took it much too personally...and started examining myself for the criticism.

    I made a mistake in my question in that I was talking with the candidacy committee, not a call. I am only considering seminary and being scrutinized as part of that process.

    And my pastor is a woman. Juniper, you were right in saying that I should see why that's a hot button for her.

    Thank you all for your support. I'm sorry I'm late in finding this. I was very grateful for the topic headings.

    I think 'ask the matriarch' could be a book! Surely it is more down to earth advice from other women than any I've received from in real life friends.


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