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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ask the Matriarch - Being a Woman and a Pastor Among Men

Here's our question for the week...along with no fewer than 5 responses!

Dear Matriarchs:

I am a "mature" second career minister in a small family sized city parish. I am also the first woman minister. Although I haven't experienced any negative feedback, I have noticed that the men in the parish simply don't seem to know how to relate to me. And to be totally honest, I'm not sure how to relate to them. I took this call after experiencing a very public and humiliating marriage failure. The experience has left me shell shocked and with a rather jaundiced opinion of men which I suspect is likely adding to the awkwardness of relating to the men in the parish. After 20+ years of marriage, I simply don't know how to relate to men in this capacity. When I was married, my partner would always "pave the way" for me, initiating conversations and often guiding them.

As a result of this awkwardness, the ministry to the men in the parish (which, in the past has been quite vital in the past) has ground to a halt. There are a couple of the men that I relate well to, and recently I asked one of them to see if he could work to gather the men together again. He has set up a men's breakfast for a Saturday morning not too far in the future, and although I offered to cook, he told me that part of the fun and fellowship comes about as the men prepare their own breakfast. Which I can understand. When we spoke about the spiritual aspect of the morning, I didn't get a whole lot of direction, although he indicated that it was something they wanted. I didn't offer to come in to do it because I felt (maybe wrongly) that the men would want to hear a male voice (after all they get to hear me every Sunday morning). I offered to invite a male colleague, but that may be difficult, given the time constraints.

What do you all think? do I provide materials? (if so, do you have suggestions), do I find a male colleague do I "drop in".....

The Lady Father

Terri, blogging at SeekingAuthenticVoice, writes:

I am so sorry you have had this sad, public, humiliating experience. Learning to retrust yourself and others (men) is a difficult process. I commend you for your ability to articulate this concern and face into it so openly. It sounds as if you are doing some good work toward healing? If it were me I might find myself a male spiritual director and a male therapist to help me relearn to trust myself, trust male voices and to understand men a little better.

In terms of this event, if you can manage your anxiety well enough, it could be a good relearning process for you and an opening for the men to see you in a more trusting place. I would create a reflection that meets men in areas they can relate too. So for example, I might build a reflection off of the movie, Moneyball. It is filled with a number of concerns: winning, competition, personal integrity, family and love of children. It seems this might give you a way to anchor a spiritual reflection building off of imagery that men can relate too, keeping the subject matter not too personal for you, but also allowing you room to flex your leadership and spiritual muscles a bit. If Moneyball doesn't appeal to you, you could use another movie about sports (A River Runs Through It, about fly-fishing and a Presbyterian minister and his sons).

That said, it is awkward, even in the best of circumstances, for men to become comfortable with women in positions of leadership, particularly when it is their first experience of it. But it is possible for this to be a good process for all of you. Down the road, bringing in outside speakers who can talk about the differences in leadership styles, might be a way for each of you to learn. Or inviting your vestry/leadership to read a couple of books together on leadership styles might be useful. (Alban Institute has many options). Also, finding a consultant such as Jim Gettel of Middle Voice might offer an outside voice to help guide you and the leadership through the early days of this new leadership. Jim helped me through a very challenging leadership dilemma and I highly recommend him.

I do hope that this becomes a source of healing and renewed wholeness for you. It seems as if it could be a wonderful opportunity. And, putting in place some support systems for you, may be a healthy means toward this. Having trusted men, outside the congregation, with whom you can process your anxiety, may help.

I will hold you in prayer during this time.


Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness, offers this:

Dear Lady Father,

I can relate to the awkwardness. While I was not in the first wave of ordained women, I have always been 'the first woman' in every parish I served. I am now in a diocese where women have been prohibited until just 2 years ago.

1. I think you need to deal with your own 'stuff' re. the marriage break-up. That may be coloring how you relate to the parish. But go easy on yourself. We all have our baggage in our work. I really don't think that this is a problem of being a woman, however.

2. Remember, in a family-sized parish you are the 'chaplain'. Until you have been there long enough for the parish to center around you (about 10 yrs.) you are an out-sider to them. It is the way that parishes that size work. Getting them to be pastor-centered would cause havoc unless the parish is growing by leaps and bounds. You will never be the pastor or rector--even if your title says so. You will always be the person that comes from outside of this relatively closed system. You can only enter this parish if one of the matriarchs or patriarchs 'adopts' you. Work on that. Once you have the approbation of one of the patriarchs you will be home free.

3. I found letting the Men's group 'cater to you' works. It may not be 'womanist' or how you would have it. But if you can make some connections by letting them treat you as 'their special person at the breakfast' it will break down some of the barriers. They want to serve their priest and you need to allow yourself to be served. You can bet that "Father Mann" would not be cooking them breakfast! And yes, it IS important for the men to carry on their ministries in the parish. Ask them how you can serve them. They WILL tell you if not in so many words. If they need a male pastor to be present to them, they will tell you.

4. If there is a man (especially if he is a patriarch) that you trust (and you also have a good relationship with his wife), he can help you breakdown any barriers. Talk it over with him and with his wife. I always found that the answers to the dynamics of a parish were to be found among the members of the parish. They may not be able to express them in social dynamics language, but they do know each other well enough that they know how to deal with them. Use the people who called you to gain insight into the congregation. ( I know that this is not the 'clean' above-board way that we would like to work in a parish, but parishes are seldom clean and above-board---ESPECIALLY SMALL ONES!

5. Also, there is a very old pamphlet on the size of parishes called Sizing Up the Congregation, by Arlin Routhage that is worth its weight in gold. That little bit of information saved my bacon on many of occasions. I am sure it is out of print, but the material is still quite relevant. Google it.

And enjoy being their 'first.' I was quite interested that President Obama called +Gene Robinson to find out what it meant to the "The First". We all have had to go through this but it is something to rejoice about. I found that there was some great freedom because I could do things that predecessors could not do because I was "the first." But also know that there will be a certain amount of anxiety about having a "first'. Know that you can only bring a certain amount of change into the parish dynamic because you provide a certain amount yourself. I knew I couldn't move the altar because just dealing with having a woman priest was enough. But I prepared them to move the altar and they did that during the interim before the next rector came.

Most of all, love your folks. Be present to them as much as possible. Be visible in their community as much as possible--go to school ball games if that is the way to assure them of your support in the community. Support the various organizations that are the glue to the town. And whatever you do--don't criticize their hometown. (I stubbed my toe once!)

Kathrynzj adds:

First, prayers for you as you continue to recover from the end of your marriage. I am continuing to recover from that as well - also public and humiliating - and encourage you, if you are not already, to get involved in a therapeutic relationship. I did the whole recovery thing solo for awhile and found that my friends, congregation and I were suffering for it.

I think as you presented it, I would let the men do their thing. They've done it in the past and so someone will be able to lead. Their understanding of how to relate to you will take time, as will your own healing and understanding of how to relate to them. Continue to touch base with the gentleman you asked to be in charge of it so he knows you still support the ministry, but give them time to build back up as a group and you time to gain your footing with the new understanding of who you are, never forgetting, of course, Whose you are. Blessings on your continued journey through sometimes painful and awkward territory.


From Jennifer, blogging at An Orientation of Heart:

You’re a brave soul to name all of the feelings and frustrations that are going on in your mind and heart!

That you’re sensing an awkwardness is a first step. That you can identify some men with whom you can relate well is another good step.

I wonder if you would feel comfortable gathering those guys and be as transparent as you feel able to be. Let them know you’d like to be supportive of a revival of the men’s ministry.

Let them know that men’s ministry doesn’t feel like one of your strengths, but that you understand that it’s been vital in the past and you’d like to encourage it to be once again.

Ask them if they would be willing to take leadership roles. Ask them to tell you about what made it great before and what they’d like to see happen in the future?

A new day is a great time to seek direction from the whole group. They may have ideas to share and are just waiting to be asked!

Then ask them: “What role (if any) would you like me to play?” Keep asking questions. Don’t assume. Be open and invite open conversation.

I know you’re anticipating that the breakfast is coming up soon, but you ask one of the guys you find approachable to lead a brief devotion.

Would they like you to drop by? Ask them. Don’t assume.

Does the leadership have to come from outside the group? Ask them this question and any other questions you have!

As an additional thought, I’m thinking that you’ve had and will continue to have men who have pastoral needs, serve on leadership boards, attend worship, are involved in mission and more in your parish.

Sorting out how you relate to men seems like a real growing edge.

I hope your denomination provides good benefits and that you might have some willingness to seek some counseling for your own health as well as your relationships as a minister/pastor who is and will be engaged in ministry with men and women, too.

Please get some help with this. Your ministry will benefit from some therapy and direction, and your heart will heal, too.

And from Sharon, blogging at Tidings of Comfort and Joy:

Your situation takes me down a couple of familiar roads. I still remember being so surprised at how utterly lost and awkward I felt at the first wedding I officiated after the end of my 20+ year marriage. To be disoriented after such a major life trauma, especially concerning your interactions with men, is normal. I encourage you to use all the resources you can muster to work through the divorce after-effects, including counseling, spiritual direction, and support from trusted females in your life. It helped me to be around men I did trust -- relatives, friends, neighbors -- to help get back my confidence in relating appropriately to men.

As for the men's breakfast: I was the first female pastor in a congregation that had a monthly Saturday men's breakfast. They didn't want anything of a particularly spiritual nature at their meetings; they had speakers and programs, and the attendees were not all from our church. I got the distinct message that this event was for men only, but they did invite me to be the program one Saturday to introduce myself to the group. It was an interactive time together where I got to know them too. After that, I would often poke my head in while they were cooking, say hi, and leave before it could seem like I was looking for an invite. So, because you are their pastor, I think you could ask to come to one of their meetings for a little while to introduce yourself to them, to welcome them into the life of the church, and to express your ongoing desire to be supportive in any way you can. Then -- my advice: Leave that group to themselves until they ask for you.

Above all, be gentle and patient with yourself as you regain your confidence and comfort levels. This congregation called you, as you are, and is looking forward to your ministry!

Given all of these insights, I can't imagine adding more...but maybe you can! Please use the Post a Comment feature to join the conversation. And please send your questions to us at

May you live in God's amazing grace+



  1. After a traumatic revelation leading to a rather fast divorce, I understand the discomfort with relating/ministering to men. I constantly remind myself when approached for hugs, for instance, "B__ is not the person who harmed me." I really have to call on the higher mind for this, because otherwise I'm stranded in the gut reaction with its PTSD overtones. I also recommend therapy for the post-marriage identity issues. It may not be necessary to specifically work on the ministry issues; as the personal injuries heal, the ministry issues may become less prominent.
    I've been the first woman in a number of settings, and the best thing I can advise is to show you have an interest in and knowledge about the things the men in the church care about. That has been different in each place, so its entirely about context. When I did an Interim in a church that had an active handyman group called the Wednesday Wizards, I made it a point to know what they were doing, not to try to tell them how, but to show I cared about their care for the church facilities. That did a lot in winning over even the crankiest souls. With the Chair of Trustees, I showed up prepared and informed and also extended a trust that was wanting in the previous pastoral relationships. It wasn't clear that his issue was my gender, but just in case, I really focused on that relationship. I knew I had arrived when that 6'3" gentleman started calling 5' tall me "Boss."
    All the way around this situation, my heart goes out to you.

  2. Let me just add to what others have said that in my last parish I was the clergy person who attended the men's group. We had Eucharist and breakfast (and they did not want me to cook) and then some sort of book discussion or other activity and it was a wonderful experience. They had limited experience with women priests but they welcomed me whole heartedly into their midst when they realized that I was there to be be with them. So I wouldn't shut the door on participating in that kind of ministry; it could turn out to be healing for you and healthy for them.

  3. In some ways I often take my best advice from fiction: and I recall a passage (maybe more than one) in the Julia Spencer Fleming novels where her priest/detective, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, enmeshed in parish conflict and resistance, realizes that it is time for her "to be just a little SOUTHERN" in the conversation... As a case-hardened Northerner of Northerners, I found this very funny but also very appealing counsel. BLANDISH, just a little, now and then...


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