This is the first of four guest posts from Janine Giordano, a graduate student and ESN member from the University of Illinois, on the topic of cultivating your voice and finding your audience while in graduate school. When she is not teaching, she spends most of her time working on her dissertation, Between Religion and Politics: The Working Class Religious Left, 1886-1936.
I exchanged Facebook posts recently with a Christian friend who is an excellent scholar and an excellent union organizer. Her father is a prominent pastor, and she obviously has very similar gifts in shepherding and public speaking. She can move a crowd to cheer at a rally for higher education in a way that seasoned pastors usually only dream for, and she is always, quite naturally, bringing new leaders into the fold. It has always bemused me that her church, like mine, would never permit her a place in the pulpit. Kerry and I have had many discussions of gender and the Church; they usually climax in a fiery exchange of affirmations for the other’s frustration with American churches’ unwillingness to recognize women as fully gifted people.
We usually remind each other that we are not alone and we ought to keep up the fight, but it had been a long time since we spoke, and this time it was different. I began my jeremiad as usual, but she sighed—with understanding but an air of more hope than I expected, even craved—that she had pretty much found other megaphones these days. In the past several months, Kerry has successfully worked with our city government to make some changes in criminal justice protocols; she has led our graduate student union to a better contract—both as our rallying speechmaker and as our lead negotiator with the University of Illinois. She is even working now on getting the police in town to get a better work contract of their own. This time, her affirmation to me was not to keep on fighting my church but to find another. She even pointed out a suggestion.
I looked at this last message in disbelief. “Join another church?” I wondered as I brushed my teeth. Last year I finally left my church of four years after fighting a long, losing battle for the opportunity to teach adult Sunday School. I wanted to engage the adults in my church with the history of the Christianity in the United States so very badly, and kept thinking that if I exposed more and more of the hypocrisy of their rules (for example, that I could teach Religious History at the local seminary, or the local university, that I could sing my message at church, that I could teach the same content to ANY of them if they were under thirteen, by their own rules!) then they would change their convictions about me, even if not about all womankind.
About a year ago, I finally requested a meeting with the Elder Board to discuss some of this, but cancelled the appointment and never returned to the church when the head elder told me by email that I should know ahead of time that nothing about anything we would discuss at the meeting would change their minds. I wrote them back a short email, telling them that I’m getting married and leaving the church. I considered writing something more snide: “If I get married, and my husband taught my course, would you permit the course material?” But they were tired of my commentary, and I was tired of acting like a rebellious teenager. My new church welcomes women to teach Sunday School. So, Kerry’s suggestion to join another, more activist body of believers came a bit late. I had become comfortable, finally, as a woman in the church. And that was no small feat.
But the heart of her suggestion still rung in my mind. In the few years since we had last talked frankly with one another, Kerry had blossomed as a teacher and leader in all sorts of secular venues. She teaches a history course through a special program offered for adults under the poverty line. She works with an interracial citizens group on undoing the environmental hazards common to the North side of town—all while working on her dissertation about the history African American church and the Black Power movement in a small town in Southern Illinois. Now, to Kerry these arenas are not just secular venues. Her commitment to social justice derives from her Christian conviction that all people were equal and loved by God, and no person had the right to trample on others just because they could. She lived out the “Christian Socialism” that I only studied. When religious groups didn’t appreciate her, she found others who welcomed her help.
I stared at her new kind of encouragement on my screen, wondering if I secretly derived pleasure from self-pity, and asking myself the hard question of why I, too, had not sought other venues to express my convictions. “The issues that are most dear to me are different from the ones that drive you,” I wrote slowly, trying to make sure I really believed what I was saying. After all, this was on Facebook, and everyone we both knew might be reading this. “It is the CHURCH that I care passionately about,” I began to type. “I am sick of Church leaders and Church historians denying the fact that people like you are working on behalf of the Church. I’m tired of ‘Church History’ being something outside of the history of the history of Christian women, simply because we can’t find a megaphone in the church.”
The words on the computer screen convicted me. No, Kerry was part of the church, whether or not she had the official blessing of her congregation. I retracted, and began again, “What I yearn for is the process of helping people find their voice—as an activist goal—much more than the immediate results. I like initiating forums and starting conversations.” I have wondered if I have the spiritual gift of confrontation.
So thankful that Mike Hickerson, another of my Facebook friends, read this exchange and gave me an opportunity to share with all of you this month, I’d now like to hear from all of you.
Where did you find your megaphone? Who gave it to you, and how do you like it?
Photo credit: richardmasoner via Flickr
Read Part 2, “On Fitting-In With the Scholarship.”
About the author:
I'm a graduate student in History at the University of Illinois. I'm currently working on a dissertation, _Between Religion and Politics: the Working Class Religious Left, 1886-1936_.
I really enjoyed reading this, and just wanted to say that I only wish I had the spiritual gift of confrontation. If I weren’t so passive aggressively non-confrontational, I perhaps would have an answer to “What is my megaphone?”
I am blessed not to have had my natural leadership tendencies stifled as a young Christian woman. My churches have always embraced my curiosity and my initiative, and in fact I will be one of several such women honored Friday evening at the Church Women United meeting here in town. However, I know that that first church was so welcoming because all the people who were not comfortable with the female pastor under whom I grew up had already left the congregation. (What century is it, any way??) I am glad you were finally able to find a nurturing church home. It is after all our responsibility to cultivate the talents we have been given, whether in a conventional church setting or out. Kudos to you and Kerry for all you have and are and continue to do.
Thoughtful article, thanks! I found myself in a similar situation with an organization that does affirm women. It was also a place where I didn’t have a voice, but did have a God-affirmed ability to teach. After struggling with this for years, I asked exactly who I was asking permission from? From then on, I looked outside of my organization for opportunities to teach and didn’t give my organization the same power they once had on me. The opportunities are coming, thanks be to God.
I’m currently in the elder selection process with my church, who only 8 years ago, voted to have women elders! I deliberately chose this church 4 years ago because of their stance on women. I’m so thankful for my church.
Thanks, Janine for your thought provoking comments. I think it is an important realization that Kerry and you and I and all the rest of us (men included) are the church, the body of Christ as a collection of Christ-followers not a collection of institutional rules. I am thankful for your passion and calling us female members of the church onto bigger things.
Janine, thank you for your thought-provoking article. It is the story of how you and Kerry struggled to find, and eventually gradually found, a “megaphone”, or an environment in which you can teach and exercise authority over adult men and women.
One thing I missed in your article was a grounding in the absolute truth of God and His Word. The thrust of what you were saying seemed to be: “Of course everyone knows that women should be allowed to take equal roles in church as men – it’s the century we live in – anything other would devalue women.”
I’m sure you have pondered the relevant Bible passages before, such as 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, 1 Timothy 2, Titus 2, 1 Peter 3, etc. Probably you have discussed these with the previous church elders that you wrote about.
If so, and if the Bible clearly supports your vision of women teaching in the church, why not build your stance explicitly upon the Bible? When the apostle Paul prohibited women from teaching and preaching in the church and gave them the role of motherhood and female mentoring instead, was he not valuing women and giving them the beautiful call to a role that God designed them for? When Jesus consciously and explicitly submitted to His Father, was his value not even more powerfully apparent?
Surely it is more important for us to build our lives on God’s Word, which never changes and is completely true, rather than the changing whims of culture and society. It seems to me that what God thinks about something is more important than what society thinks.
If we believe certain things because the Bible teaches them and society never affords us a megaphone because of our beliefs, it’s only another 50 or 60 years that we have left to endure here, and then we get to spend eternity with God. What will He say about us? Surely that is what matters most.
Micheal Hickerson says
Thanks for weighing in. I think you raise some good questions – personally, I think there is a Biblical case for women teaching and leading in the church (see, for example, Paul’s positive words about Priscilla, Junia, and “Phoebe, a deacon of the church” in Romans 16) – but this is something that churches and Christians have to come to their own conclusions about.
Since evangelical Christians tend toward individualism in our spiritual lives, I think it might be more important for evangelicals to work out an ecclesiology of submission and service before (or at least at the same time as) working out our ideas about gender roles in the church. Which, in the end, is what I think Janine is getting at: how can she use her gifts and education to love God and love her neighbor?
For the Biblical questions, might I recommend Scot McKnight’s 2008 book, The Blue Parakeet? I posted a review of it on the ESN blog a while back.
Christopher Zull says
A very thought provoking article. I obviously have not yet had the opportunity of meeting you in person, but from reading this and other various facebook posts of yours, I have developed a great respect for your intellect. I think that you have your finger on the pulse of the American Church, and you see past the veil of “tradition” into the things that really ail us as a culture. Your ambition to change these hypocrisies and bigotries inspires me. Keep striving!
I very much enjoyed your post, Janine. As a female *Catholic* I sure share many of the frustrations you have… As you may be aware, Catholics are waaay behind in the just and equal treatment of women, and so it is often a challenge to be Catholic.
I too contemplated leaving often a time. And I must say, I do hang out with Christians of all sorts, so I feel energized and encouraged that things may change. But I have long realized that things can only change from *within* the Catholic Church…! If one is educated enough, and respected enough so that her position is heard, that is… Therefore I have been educating myself — learning theology, engaging with female theologians, reading about contacting female leaders, saints etc… I am currently become really interested in preaching courses, though, ha ha, as you know women don’t give homilies, preach or officiate in Catholic churches… 😉 But I did learn this way that some of the leaders in Catholic preaching are… women. So yeah, it’s all about finding your own particular megaphone! And the message you want to share out there, loud and clear!
Janine Giordano says
Yes, it’s exciting to find that many of the people who have taught our preachers and theologians for generations have been women. Some have been nuns, some have been theology professors. Some have been mothers and sisters and “secretaries.”
Mad, where are you finding your megaphone now, as you look for another one?
Liz Hoiem says
I want to respond with my perspective on the quandary that Janine raises in a way that takes into account Tim’s concern about Biblical support for women church leaders and the personal experiences of respondents. There already exists extensive literature that makes Biblically-based arguments about whether women should speak in church, teach adults, or serve as leaders. In a short essay, I don’t think that Janine can add anything substantial to these arguments besides her personal experience, and I’m sure that she (and many other women) have already worked through these questions. Ironically, the demand that she do so repeats the very problem highlighted by her experience–i.e. that women are often required to make the very issue of their participation in the church the entire focus of their energy (or their essay), when they are really concerned with something else. Given that tendency, the question becomes whether women who feel called to serve as leaders in the church should simply find a place where their gifts are welcomed and needed, or whether they should make women in the church the focus of their service.
One of the experiences described by Janine that resonates with me is her frustration with the inconsistency of church policy. I would go further. Taking for granted that we agree the Bible is the basis for church governance, there is a suspicious leniency about, for instance, the question of not covering your head in church or getting a divorce, because these have become culturally acceptable practices. At the very least, we agree as church members that we might expostulate against but not forcefully forbid these behaviors. Why, then, do we not individually decide whether we are called, as women, to serve in the church? Considering the difference in how diverse controversial questions are handled in official church policy, it is clear that the cultural history of forbidding women to use their gifts in the public sphere informs how this matter is addressed in the church. Therefore, simply looking at the Bible and ignoring this history (or setting aside personal experience as irrelevant) ultimately puts us blindly at the mercy of our cultural heritage–precisely what Tim’s strategy seeks to avoid.
I hope that this explanation helps many people who might not have felt comfortable challenging Janine to see that perhaps we share more in common about the Biblical basis for church policies than one might think.