Clergywomen aren't equal; now what?

October 13th, 2015

Last week, Jared Mauldin’s public letter to his women engineering classmates went viral. In it, he claims that women and men are not equal, not due to their ability but because of the opportunities and discrimination that women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have faced. He closes his letter by saying that women engineers have already conquered more to be in the engineering field than he will ever face. The Reverend Jeremy Smith, a United Methodist pastor and blogger, was inspired to respond with his own version, addressed to clergywomen.

I’m always grateful for men who recognize even in denominations that ordain women, we are still unequal. It is for these reasons that clergywomen often gather together for solidarity and encouragement without men, even as our male colleagues protest that it is “unfair,” that they don’t have a clergy men’s group, failing to realize for much of church history all of the clergy was a men’s-only group.              

The patriarchy, like its close cousin racism, is slippery and always changing. Allowing equal access to ordination for women does not automatically mean equal opportunity. Just because many of our denominations ordain women, we cannot rest on our equality laurels. Even growing up in a family that supported me no matter my dreams and a church where I was exposed to women clergy at a young age, I have still encountered a surprising amount of sexism. Unlike a previous generation of clergywomen who had to fight tooth and nail just to get ordained, modern-day sexism for the most part has moved underground. Sexism in the church today has shape-shifted enough that those on the receiving end might doubt whether or not a remark or an encounter was even sexist. These micro-aggressions still keep women from pursuing opportunities and living into their God-given callings.

I am exceedingly thankful for the first generation of clergywomen who were so assured of their calling that they stood their ground and fought the institutions that sought to exclude them and diminish their gifts. I am thankful for the women who were the first to serve at churches and changed hearts and minds in the process. The task for my generation of clergywomen and the men who support and affirm our ministry is about equality of opportunity, particularly at the highest levels of our church structures.

Equal opportunities cannot be achieved in a church where qualities of leadership are predominantly attached to men, particularly white, middle-aged, married men. God grants all sorts of people the gifts of leadership and administration without regard to gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or physical ability, but that diversity is rarely represented in our church structures. Patriarchal and racist systems prevent gifted leaders from getting the opportunities that would help them access the highest levels of leadership.

During a meeting with a bishop for my ordination process, I was asked how my then-fiancé and I would manage raising a family with both of us potentially in very demanding vocations. Despite the myriad assumptions embedded in that question, I do not know if my male colleagues were asked a similar question, but I suspect that they were not. As Jeremy Smith mentions, clergy women and men are not equal. The question that demands an answer is: So what are we going to do about it?

Recognition of inequality, of the persistence of sexism and racism in the church, is the first step. Then we must confess and repent of our sins, the ways in which we diminish and discount God’s gifted leaders due to their gender, race or sexual orientation. True repentance requires a transformation in our collective minds and hearts. Simply recognizing the situation and finding it regrettable is no longer enough. As a church, if we are to be committed to true equality, we must change our behavior in calling pastors for large congregations, in electing bishops and in the ordination process. Then equal access might also mean equal opportunity.

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