Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What's being a woman got to do with it?

I have had a lot on my mind around the matter of my ministry, my gender, and my age. After reading this blog post, I think that I have finally internalized my feelings enough to verbalize them.

Reading the post about Anna Howard Shaw, I was reminded of all the things that women have had to endure for the sake of ministry, especially ordination. I am so thankful to have strong women like Anna who have blazed the trails so that I don't have so many trails to blaze of my own. Especially in working with the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women I have had the privilege and the pleasure of getting to know some of the most capable and wonderful women in the United Methodist Church. I am so proud to count myself as a colleauge, but moreso as a sister in Christ to each and every one of these women.

In working towards my own ordination, I have heard a variety of advice from many people. Some of it is quality, tidbits that I will
never forget. Some is comical. I understand that it came out of their experience, but internally I can't help but chuckle. Then there is the infuriating advice. The advice that is completely unmerited and unwanted.

The first advice I can think of from the unmerited and unwanted advice happened before a class in a casual conversation. I was speaking with an older (meaning older than myself) male classmate who is currently serving a church as a student pastor. When I told him that I would be taking a congregation of my own as a student pastor in the fall, he "so graciously" warned me about finding an older (again, meaning older than myself) woman to be a mentor, so that I could talk over the specific challenges that young women have in the ministry, especially in rural congregations.

Now, I know that some rural congregations are still not keen on the idea of having female pastors, and that some rural congregations are composed primarily of older adults. But I was very frustrated by his assumption that I would automatically face challenges that would require me to have a mentor just to talk about those specific issues. I think I was more frustrated by his assumptions of the people that I would be in ministry with. It was so unfair of him to assume that they would be old people who wouldn't respect the authority of a young, capable, woman. I know that my classmate was speaking out of protection for me, but I left the conversation feeling frustrated and belittled.

I have another colleague who I email with quite frequently regarding ministry. We share stories and experiences, frustrations and triumphs, and many other things. When this person (gender left neutral on purpose) asked me how my first few weeks at my new church went, this person was suprised that I haven't had any major issues. I told this person how people readily and willingly address me as Pastor Anna (even though it still freaks me out a little), how they ask and seriously consider my advice, and how they respect my decisions.

An example of this is that the church secretary has served as the food pantry coordinator for years. Each year she must sign a contract with the foodbank that provides our food pantry with many staple items. This contract requires the signature of the pastor, after the pastor has reviewed the contract points. I reviewd the contract, and a few of the points were not being fulfilled by our church's foodbank. It was not as a specific oversight of any one person, but I told the church secretary that I didn't feel comfortable signing this contract until the policies of the church's foodbank had been revised accordingly. The next day, new policies were set in place and the church secretary thanked me for reading the entirety of the contract before I signed. She (though she has done it "her" way for years and years) had no problem with my methods.

Yes, I am young. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am
qualified and capable. Yes, my church members recognize all of these points and respect me for all of them. I have had no problems thus far regarding my age and gender. Does that mean I will never have problems? Probably not.

Does being warned about problems and conflicts in advance prepare us? Perhaps... but often I think those warnings turn us on to problems and conflicts that we may not have pegged as happening because of a certain factor. I liken it to the dentist. When the dentist says, "I am going to give you this injection, you may feel a pinch and a sting," you anticipate that pinching and stinging. But if you don't know what is coming, you experience the injection just as it is, without having any notions of how it will feel.

For some people, that not knowing what you will experience is scary. I recognize that very fully. The way I function, however, is that I would like to experience everything without having my mind set on a situation or outcome in the beginning. I prefer to reflect more after the experience. My preference is no better than others, but I wonder if other young, capable women have experienced the same feelings as I have.


Jenni said...

I know the feeling quite well. There are always those few that still don't see women as equals.
I think the worst "advice" I have had has come from a relative. I was told there was no way that I could be a double major and still be a good wife. In front of students none the less. This same person told me she would never go to a church where the senior pastor was a woman with children because of how hard it would be. That there was no way that a woman could take care of her children and a church. It's actually something I struggle with every time I see her. But I know I am on the path I am suppose to be, even though it isn't what I had planned or easy. I support you and know you are going to do what you are called to.

Diane said...

Amen, Anna! I love your thoughtful, reflective commentaries!

Michele said...

KLM said it best... don't make your experience my experience. just because it happened before / to you / to your late aunt edna's cousin's dog walker, that does not mean it will happen to me. i feel like these comments have paralleled in my life when people make "just you wait" comments in reference to children or marriage. my thought is, "i know. i have been waiting. i chose this." same with ministry... we've heard the horror stories. and though there's calling involved, we did say "yes".

i have also had similar moments in dealing with the trailblazers (i almost specified with "lady trailblazers" but thought it sounded like a WNBA team). i'm so grateful that they fought battles so that i don't have to. but because they fought those battles, i don't have to, so i sometimes find it just hard to relate. it doesn't lessen their experience, it just means i don't share it, that's all.

good thoughts anna.

Kristen Wall-Love said...

Anna, thanks for posting this. I agree that sometimes (like the dentist) the anticipation of pain/hardship is worse than the actual event-and sometimes it makes it a lot worse due to pre-conceived notions. It has the potential to make us suspicious and paranoid to a degree, but on the other hand, it is good to not walk into a situation completely blind. But, sometimes blind faith is a good thing! Peace.