It was the last Sunday in Advent and I was making my way through the happy jostle of people lining up for the post-Christmas Cantata potluck at my church. I had my sights set on a cookie from a rapidly dwindling pile when a light tug on my arm turned my attention to a small, older woman. “You just don’t know,” she said. “You just don’t know what your voice meant to me. Hearing the words of Scripture come from a woman’s voice . . .” she trailed off. “You just don’t know.”
I was working as an intern at the church for my seminary education. As part of my involvement in the church, the music minister had asked me if I would do the narration for the very popular annual Christmas Cantata. Previously, the narration had always been performed by an older gentleman with a rich baritone. It wasn’t anything extraordinary; just selections from Mary’s Magnificat and some imaginative first-person reflections from other biblical characters. But when the woman came to speak to me afterwards, she had tears in her eyes. She was one of several people—primarily older women—who approached me later to tell me how affected they were by my performance.
It’s not false modesty that leads me to conclude that these women weren’t moved to tears by my exceptional reading ability. Rather, in my reading of Scripture in the “sacred space” of the church’s pulpit, they heard themselves in the gospel story.
Women have been ordained in my denomination, the United Methodist Church, for over fifty years. Our polity flows from a theology of equality, freedom, humility, and liberation. With the Apostle Paul, we proudly assert that, in Christ, there is no male or female. However, in practice, we too often fall woefully short of this goal. When some of us can spend most of our lives in church without ever seeing a woman in the pulpit, or hearing a woman’s voice proclaim the gospel in worship, we have to ask, “What are we doing wrong?”
All too often, we fall into the habit of letting our service in the church remain gender-stereotyped. Men are ushers, women are nursery-workers. Women oversee the church dinners and the Sunday morning coffee table; men mow the lawn and organize the softball league. As leaders, we are often so grateful for volunteers for these jobs—any volunteers—that we fail to ask whether or not our people are being both challenged to diversity and supported in trying out new forms of ministry.
This has profound implications for how we understand ministry, and how we enact the Kingdom on earth. Preaching passionate social justice or using non-gendered language in worship isn’t enough. Truly inclusive worship fully engages a wide variety of different types of people, in a multiplicity of ways. Good leadership inspires people to be involved in the work of the church. Better leadership pushes them to continually re-evaluate God’s call on their lives and how that fits into the wider mission of the Church.
The Rev. Dr. Margot Kässmann, former bishop of the Protestant Church in Germany, speaking during a presentation on women in ministry, interpreted the Matthean parable of the workers in the vineyard. “What would it look like,” she challenged the audience, “If we pictured the field full of men and women, and even children, working there?”
People, especially those historically left out, need to see and hear themselves reflected in worship and church leadership. One may know intellectually that all forms of ministry are open to her, but until she actually sees it modeled, it isn’t a real option. This principle is especially true for women and girls discerning the call to ordained ministry. The repeated absence of women’s voices in worship leadership is another way of saying, “This is not really your place.” This is a lesson learned not only by the women and girls in the congregation, but by the men and boys as well. What might it mean for both men and women, for example, to take communion from a woman’s hand? To hear, “This is my body, broken for you,” from a woman’s voice?
Keri Olsen, 26, recent graduate of Candler School of Theology and a candidate for deacon’s orders, credits strong female leadership with helping her in discerning her call to ministry. “For most of my childhood and teenage years my home church was served by co-ministers, male and female. In college, our university chaplain was a woman. After graduating college it was a female minister who encouraged and supported my decision to attend seminary and pursue ministry. These experiences with great female ministers and communities that appreciated them gave me confidence in my call to ministry and in the unique perspective and gifts I might bring to that ministry as a woman.”
While the rise of women in the clergy has drawn attention to the role of gender stereotyping in the church, this stereotyping is not the only problem. Through tradition and habit, our churches often reflect cultural and social norms outside our doors. We don’t really believe that men are less capable of fulfilling caretaking roles with small children, so why is there a paucity of male nursery workers and Sunday school teachers? Fear of gender-stereotyped reprisal—“Boys don’t do that”—limits our boys and men in the exploration of God’s call to ministry in their lives. Children, especially, need to see both men and women model Christian virtues. This includes seeing men demonstrate sacrificial love in traditionally “feminine” ways such as serving food and teaching Sunday school; and seeing women demonstrate strength in traditionally “masculine” ways such as ushering and preaching.
If we are to be different from the world in Spirit-empowered ways, we must continually explore new ways to model God’s “Kin-dom” to the world. Our participation in ministry is one of the ways that we worship. If worship has the power to be transformative, then we must believe that the entire community has a part to play in it. Our churches can and should mirror God’s familial vision for humanity, reaching into our communities to encompass and fully empower all.