Women and Church Politics: Living Outside the Bubble

Shawna Songer Gaines

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Outside the Bubble

I never thought I would ever write a book about politics! But as my co-pastor husband and I led our congregation through the election season of 2012, we were confronted with the fact that there is no way to NOT be political.  We have to live with people and in communities and what happens to those people in our communities, big and small, matters. That’s why we wrote Kings and Presidents: Politics in the Kingdom of God.

Churches have political structures as well. These structures are intended to care for the people and communities living in the Kingdom of God. They ought to look different than the structures of this world. But too often we see the same kinds of power dynamics at work within the church that we see on the campaign trail.

And this is bad news for women in leadership in the church.  Advocating for women in ministry has never been more important. Here are my recent reflections on women and church politics:

Living Outside the Bubble

My bubble has burst. I didn’t even know it existed. And now I don’t know how to function without it.

For years I have lived in a protective bubble, bouncing from one role in the church to another, with a padded cushion keeping me from being crushed against the jagged edges of patriarchal systems that have gouged so many women in ministry.

As a student, I was encouraged, inspired, even commended for responding to my call to ministry.

Faculty and staff created a safe place for me to learn and grow. I read both church fathers and mothers. I learned the heritage of my Wesleyan roots and poured over the stories of the women on whose shoulders I stand. I prepared myself with the same curriculum as my male peers and lived within the same sphere of protection.

As a youth pastor in a mainline denomination, my predecessor was a woman.

Women in ministry was nothing new to them, in fact the church seemed thrilled to have a woman ministering with their youth, predominantly young girls. I thrived in a sphere of safety created by decades of exposure to strong women in ministry.

As a co-lead pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, I poured my whole heart into each and every day of life and service.

Together my husband and I went about the same work, the same calling, the same tasks of the office of pastor. I didn’t think much about how this partnership created a layer of insulation that warded off suspicion and resistance to my ministry. We deeply loved our congregation and felt loved and affirmed in return. Even the district in which we served added a layer of safety. Our district leadership was not only supportive of women in ministry, our leaders were related to women in ministry, namely, me.

For all these safe places in which I grew and thrived in ministry, I am so very grateful! Grateful to the brave women and men who made that possible, some who bore the brunt of those jagged edges so that I would be spared.

I’m not sure exactly when my bubble burst.

It really had little to do with me. I have been far too privileged, more than I could ever deserve. It happened little by little, as I have listened to stories of young women preparing for ministry, and second career women, risking great costs to follow God’s call.

Here’s what I have heard just in the last couple of weeks from daughters of God who are the future of the church…

“My first teacher in this course of study told me I shouldn’t be ordained, I could take his class, just not be ordained…”

“My parents won’t pay for my education if I am taking any kind of ministry or theology classes…”

“I am afraid of the pastors in my ordination interview. They don’t like to pass women…”

“I was told that the only women who make it in ministry are exceptions…”

“I just had to resign my church…”

POP!

And now I am standing here looking at a world I don’t recognize outside of the safety of that bubble.

When I moved to Nashville this summer, as my husband became a professor and I entered a season of waiting, it was an easy assumption that I would be an advocate of women in ministry. So many women have come to talk to me. As they have, I realized, I have never really been an advocate of women in ministry. I have been living behind the translucent sheen of my lovely bubble and watching as so many women have been hurt, wounded, broken, only it didn’t look so painful from my bubble.

When people used to say things like, “you must be a big advocate of women in ministry” I would say, “I’m just a pastor who happens to be a woman. I’m too busy being a woman in ministry to be much of an advocate.” I figured as long as I was doing a good job, that my life and ministry would be my advocacy. Because it should, shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t my ministry speak for itself and speak well of women pastors?

Oh, how I miss my bubble. Suddenly I feel as though I have done nothing, nothing!

So I am writing this.

If you are reading this, I assume that some of you also think of yourselves as advocates for women in ministry. Perhaps, like me, you think that your quiet support and good example will be enough to ground down a few jagged edges out there.

But I am feeling awfully bold outside my bubble, so may I suggest that perhaps you are not the advocate you think you are. Perhaps you live in a bubble of maleness, or whiteness, or family, or education, or just ignorance. Hey, I’ve been there!

I wish I could play for you all the conversations I have had these last few weeks. Talented, passionate, gifted women with a lifetime of service to pour out are bumping into the hardheartedness of our church structures. And not only women, I have heard from brothers and sisters of ethnic minorities who are desperate to be treated with partnership and friendship, instead of permission in isolation.  I wish I could play these stories for you as a kind of push pin to burst your bubble.

Because my bubble is gone and I don’t want it back.

You think you are an advocate of women in ministry. Is that because you think well of them? You don’t speak ill of them? Maybe you even read blogs about them. But what are you actively doing to support them?

Love is action. That’s what we believe, right? Not just thinking good thoughts or saying nice words. What have you done? Have you given up your position on that board or that council, in order to make space for someone who doesn’t look like you? Have you nominated a woman? Have you stuck your neck out for a woman, even if you got burned? Have you mentored a woman? Have you invited a woman to join your pastor’s breakfast club? Recently? Often?

There were times I had opportunity to do some of these things. And I didn’t. Because I didn’t want to stand out as a “woman” in ministry. I wanted to blend in with all the other bubbles in the room.

It hurts, to have your bubble burst. Believe me, I know.

But you haven’t heard the whole story. Listen to what the same women whose stories left me tattered had to say when it came right down to it,

“My first teacher in this course of study told me I shouldn’t be ordained, I could take his class, just not be ordained… but I know I am called to preach.”

“My parents won’t pay for my education if I am taking any kind of ministry or theology classes… So for now I am studying that on my own, talking to professors and reading books.”

“I am afraid of the pastors in my ordination interview. They don’t like to pass women… but I know other pastors who will advocate for me.”

“I was told that the only women who make it in ministry are exceptions… so I am going to be exceptional.”

“I just had to resign my church… but God is calling me into new creative forms of ministry.”

Somehow by the grace of God, the jagged edges of patriarchy in the church have not made these women hard!

If that isn’t a sign of the Spirit of God at work to call and empower women for service in the Kingdom, I don’t know what is! We need to advocate for these women, so that the church doesn’t need the glossy sheen of our privileged bubbles to look beautiful. We need to actively and relentlessly advocate for persons who don’t look like the stereotype of church leadership because Jesus burst the bubble on stereotypical leadership on a cross a long time ago.

My bubble is gone, shattered by the stories of remarkable women.

They have pulled me into a world beyond myself and my privileged experience. My love for the church is deep enough to bear a few of her jagged edges so these women can love and be loved by the church.

 

In Kings and Presidents: Politics in the Kingdom of God Shawna Songer Gaines and Tim Gaines challenge the claim that history is written exclusively by the powerful. Through a careful study of portions of 2 Kings, they note that trusting in God’s faithfulness is plenty political, and has real implications for our communities, the world, and the kind of political hope we can find in it all.  Those interested in women in the Bible will especially appreciate their attention to the stories of women. Read a sample chapter here. Shawna is also the coauthor of  A Seat at the Table: A Generation re-Imagining it’s Place in the Church and a new Bible study series, Breathe: A Sacred Space for Women.

Spanish Translation here courtesy of Evangelizadoras de los apostoles.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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14 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing your story, Shawna. I know it is painful when our bubble is burst…but there is a certain amount of freedom, huh? Seeing the truth does set us free to find what we really need and step into the life we want. I hope more bubbles are burst so women can begin to live the lives they are meant to live. Too many live stuck for too long. And what a blessing to see these women who are not hardened by their pain. These are my heroes too. Thank you for your persistence and your love for the church…we are grateful.

  • My (female) teammate and I had a recent conversation where she shared that she just didn’t understand why I am so dogged about this issue. Constantly studying, talking, and writing about it. Her experience was like yours, she grew up in an environment where it was a given and because her career was outside of ministry, she never encountered any gender discrimination topics in the church. Her bubble is getting popped. I think it is important for people who don’t live in the bubble (either because they never have or have had a “pop” moment) to have grace for those who are in it trying to understand why this matters. It’s a worldview shift which takes time.

    My other comment is that I hope that in the future, your experience will be completely common rather than on the exceptional side.

    • You are so right to bring this up! I pray all conversations around women in ministry are filled with grace. And I lean into that hope with you!

  • Hey Shawna,

    In part, I can identify with you. Although I have been ignored by some (male) leaders of the wider church, I have been privileged to lead, along with my husband as co-leaders, a church and then a church planting network in which women and men have been given all the room they can take up. Many of those women have not known the fight at all, because, as you say, we have been a bubble.

    However, I have also hosted an annual gathering for women leaders and emerging leaders for about 20 years in the UK and seen some outside of our network be strengthened and developed as leaders.

    Now I have moved back to my native Australia where I no longer have too many connections and have been shocked at the dearth of women leaders and the way women are given much responsibility with little authority.

    I would love to connect with you over this…

  • Welcome to life outside the bubble!
    Appreciate your thoughts and am very glad to hear of people treated well in ministry. Many of us are unfamiliar with total acceptance and affirmation as ministers, but God is faithful! God has always made a way for the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to be heard and seen through outside the bubble. Thanks for the recognition, apology and encouragement!

  • I was reading this in the bubble of acceptance of women in ministry, thinking of course I am an advocate of women in ministry. I have grown under the ministry of a passionate spirit-filled woman Pastor, you. But I have had other women of ministry in my 50 + years of growing as a disciple. Then you challenge me with the thought that so I say all the right words what am I really doing about it? Perhaps I need to get out of my bubble.

  • I can relate to a lot of this! Thanks for sharing!

  • Hey Shawna,

    Well said. Despite the pain, and in part because of the pain, I confess I am thankful to hear your bubble has been burst and am hopeful because of it.

    Your voice as an advocate for women in ministry and leadership will make an impact. Brace yourself for the indifference and patronizing responses you will receive, but know that the gospel is on your side.

    Thank you for sharing,
    Patti

  • I have always found the ebb and flow of ministry odd within the context of the Nazarene church. Historically women did most of the heavy lifting during it’s early development but at some point seem to have become banished almost completely from leadership roles. Today the denomination seems to be reluctantly creeping back towards some form of balance but are generally not truly open to real change. This reluctance is not limited to women in ministry but there seems to be a fear to move away from what I would refer to as cultural Christianity in general within the denomination. I know a pastor from another denomination who pastors one of the denominations largest churches but will not allow himself to be ordained because the denomination refuses to ordain his wife (co-pastor) as well. I am by no means a Biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination but it is very troubling to me that this distortion continues to exist within mainline denominations in spite of what I would see as clear movement on the part of God in regards to women in ministry. I would be interested to hear your opinions about why there has been so little movement. I believe we are beyond traditional (inaccurate) Biblical views and it has become something else entirely, bordering on evil really though I am reluctant to frame it as such. Do you already haveblogs regarding this or could you please respond. Thank you.

    0 as well.

    • Bill, I just found your comment in our spam file – sorry it didn’t show up sooner! I’ll see if Shawna can give her input on this in the next few days.

    • Bill, yes I am a Nazarene and so grateful for our heritage! We are a people who have supported and stood behind women in ministry from the very beginning. Unfortunately major societal shifts in the 50’s altered the course of women in ministry through the US and in the church of the Nazarene. Pastor Janine Metcalf of the Richland Church of the Nazarene in Richland Wa did her doctoral work looking at this shift. But as I meet more and more amazing women God has called and gifted in the Church of the Nazarene I am convinced that God is at work to revive our denomination to bless the world!

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