Feminism, Social Issues, Theology

hoping to help bring change at church, part four

church building

As I mentioned earlier in this series, my partner and I have solid relationships with many people involved with our church’s leadership– both pastors and staff members. I’m grateful for those relationships, and for the trust we have, and not just because it’s enabling us to approach them with some of our concerns, but because this is the first time in my life I’ve ever been taken seriously by church leadership. It’s probably at least connected to being fully an “adult”: I’m married and attending a church where no one’s ever met my parents . . . but I also believe it’s because this church is actually different than other churches I’ve attended.

When I first found out that women weren’t allowed to serve on the elder board here, I was surprised. Shocked, really. I’d heard women teach in the main service, I’d seen women consistently teach  adult-level classes, and I knew that they had several women on staff– one as a pastor. To hear that they could do everything except serve as elder puzzled me. After I’d attended for a few months, I was sitting in a “get to know our church!” meeting, and when a woman next to me asked what their stance was toward women, the response included the word “forbidden.”

That . . . bothered me. I wasn’t expecting to hear that. Not here.

So, my partner and I reached out to a man we’d been working with for over six months and who served on the elder board, asking what the church’s official position was. What we eventually heard back was that they believed in compromise: that women could serve in every leadership position except elder. It was a divisive, contentious issue, they said, and since they hold to “in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” they didn’t want to “take sides.” This seemed the best way to do that.

Well.

You all know me– you can imagine that went over about as well as a lead balloon.

After several more months, after carefully watching and observing as much as I could, after interacting with as many people as I could find and talk to, and after doing as much research as I could, I realized that this church, as amazing as it is, had a serious problem with their view of women, and it was everywhere. It was in how the pastor addressed women in his sermons, how I was treated, how leaders engaged with women during volunteer meetings. It was in all the books they recommend for married couples, it was in listening to the people who led the married Bible studies, in hearing what the topic recommendations were for the women’s studies, and in hearing men talk about the women in their church, occasionally their wives.

No one knew to uplift and recognize women because it wasn’t happening.

The church leaders had decided that having women involved was nice, but not necessary. And it was affecting everything.

Which was why my partner and I eventually reached out to the same elder again; this time, though, instead of simply asking for this church’s position, we would be explaining our own.

~~~~~~~~~~

The same day that I heard that women were “forbidden” from serving as elders, something else also happened. Handsome literally poked and prodded me until I spoke with one of our pastors– the man currently in charge of the youth program. I’d been ranting and raving about the messages young women receive from church and American culture about sex and “purity.” Handsome is always of the opinion that if you could be doing something . . . well, then, you should be doing something. I’d mentioned, rather off the cuff, that I’d like to talk to the teenagers at our church about sex, consent, agency, autonomy, etc, and he thought it sounded like a fantastic idea.

So did the youth pastor, coincidentally.

That’s how I ended up filling out a survey and giving the church my information for a background check, and why I ended up sitting in a classroom awkwardly listening to a lesson on the 10 Commandments (note: it was actually an incredible lesson), blinking sleepily under fluorescent lights, and hearing the bantering back-and-forth of teenagers. The youth pastor suggested that I get to know the kids before I come blustering into their lives shouting about vaginas and penises. Seemed like a good idea. I’m going to keep going to their class, hopefully become a familiar face, and be talking with the pastor about my lesson.

It’s an exciting process, and I’m looking forward to being able to share some of my story and talk to them about something powerful enough to change their life.

~~~~~~~~~~

Handsome and I invited the elder to our home so we could talk, and I was nervous as all get-out for the entire day. In the hour before he arrived I thought I was going to be sick half a dozen times. I reached out to twitter, and everyone was amazing and supportive. Just so you know, hearing eshet chayil gets me RIGHT IN THE FEELS.

Once we’d all settled in after I had a really hard time engaging in the small talk (apparently, small talk is impossible for me when I’m nervous), we actually managed to have a conversation. The elder explained more about how the board functioned– what they do, what they don’t do. When Handsome and I started opening up about our concerns, he listened, but he also engaged with us, occasionally clarifying for himself something we’d said, other times explaining more about the elder board in order to ease our concerns some. I was able to get through more of what I was thinking than I’d ever thought possible– I had carefully honed my argument down to the bare minimum, but I was really able to open up to this elder and express most of what’s in my heart.

What happened that night is something I’ve seen play out many times during my first year on the internet. I know that The IntraWebs can be a messy, confusing, infuriating place most of the time, but I’ve been in small corners that feel more like living rooms. I’ve seen people disagree– sometimes heatedly– and come out on the other side . . . better. Sometimes, all an interaction meant was that you could articulate an idea better since it had been put against opposition. Other times, we all came together to overcome a communication barrier. Sometimes we learned– and sometimes the learning was painful.

This conversation was like that. It was people, believers, sitting down together and trying to figure out what we can do. It was good. It left me feeling very hopeful, and it ended with a promise that we’d get to address the elder board.

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  • That’s such a great story 🙂 love how walls can come down, even if it takes time

  • This is really cool, Samantha. It’s really cool to see the way you’re attempting to patiently change and love the church around you. I know it’s hard when there’s obvious things you don’t agree with, but I really admire that you’re trying to voice your opinions in a loving, logical way and not just in anger and hatred, you know? It’s really hard to do that. But I think the BEST way we can enact change is to voice opinions humbly, gracefully, lovingly, intelligently. And they might not listen, and then you move on. But at least you know you did the right thing in the way you handle people and situations.

  • That’s fantastic to hear!

  • That was just amazing to read. I admire your courage in trying to change this church’s attitude. I hope you succeed. Just the attempt is worth a raised tankard.

  • Momma Tee

    Change happens in relationship. So happy you are forging relationships.

  • Hi Samantha – I am glad that you and your partner have an open dialogue with your church. At a former church of mine, women were able to teach co-ed adult classes, head committees and even serve as deacons! However, they were not allowed to serve as elders and I wonder if women could even be ordained under that denomination. My current church, Grace Chicago Church , transitioned to the Reformed Church in America a few years ago and women can preach and serve as deacons and elders. Blessings to you and I look forward to being a regular visitor to your blog!

  • Whoops – Sorry, I didn’t know about the link thing until AFTER I read your rules. Hope you enjoyed reading my comment anyways! For you and for all, I would be more than happy to meet you if you come visit my church!

  • Yay! That is awesome, can you come talk to my former church? I definitely understand the building relationships in order to make change. I see a barrier to that relationship inducing change, in the way that some male church leaders avoid contact with women due to over sexualizing them or being afraid of appearances. It’s frustrating, I’ve seen this in my dad’s elder group.

  • Stephanie

    I’m so glad that you are seeing signs of openness.

  • Good.

  • Goodness. I am so interested in hearing about your journey through this… I am feeling like a similar one is in my future with my church. I need to get my own personal convictions figured out more specifically first though. I hope and pray that someday soon women can be completely affirmed and church can be a safe place instead of a danger zone.

    Thank you for sharing your story!