Note: This post was written nearly a year ago, but only recently submitted to the blog.
I had a new experience recently. I guess I’m a bit behind, since many people have been dealing with this for decades. But it’s new to me, and I want to share it with you.
For the first time ever, I was refused the opportunity to serve at church in a ministry I feel called to because I’m a woman.
I don’t normally label myself a feminist. I’m grateful for the opportunities available to me because feminists before me have fought for them, but that’s not a fight I feel compelled to join right now. I’m remarkably conservative, all things equal. Theologically, I suppose I’m complementarian. I hold up the stay-at-home mom as an ideal, even though that’s not who I am. I was raised in a church where women didn’t preach, pray in public, or even serve as ushers. But that was never a problem for me. I didn’t want to preach, pray, or usher. I have other gifts, and my feminine qualities have been an asset more than a hindrance in the areas God has called me to. My passion—and training—is for student ministry and small group leading. I’ve had more than two decades of experience as an undergraduate, grad student, and international student ministry volunteer. I’ve taken classes in Christian Education. My ministry experience has spilled over into my professional life, as I lead seminars and discussion groups and mentor students, now as a college professor. I am a shepherd—a pastor—but not the kind who stands in front of a church.
So here I am, attending church in a foreign country while conducting research abroad. The church has an outreach to international students at the local university, so I feel right at home. English-language small groups, international student ministry, supporting Christian students on a secular campus—it’s what I love!
As a newcomer, both to the church and to the culture, I knew it would take time to get involved. I didn’t expect a leadership role right away. Nor did I want one. My goal was to support the current leaders of the student ministry, short-term missionaries serving while the regular leaders are away. Since they’re inexperienced in small group and student ministries, I thought it was serendipitous (or providential?) that we arrived at around the same time. Small groups seemed to be an area of particular struggle for them, and I looked forward to supporting them in it.
About a month ago, after spending some time observing and getting to know people, I spoke to the leaders, volunteering to join the rotation of weekly discussion leaders and offering to serve in any way I could. Trying to be helpful, I proposed a few concrete suggestions: a Bible Study guide that I had found helpful; some ways to encourage participation of quieter group members. I didn’t hear back for some time, so yesterday I volunteered again. This time I was turned down outright. The missionary told me he was uncomfortable with a woman leading. If there were no men available, he said I could lead, but as long as the male students could do it, they should be in charge.
OUCH! In my head, I get it. This isn’t personal. It’s theology, and a theology I understand. In theory, I’m fine with it. But it’s never been applied to me before. I’m not asking to preach, or even teach, only to facilitate discussion in small groups on an occasional Sunday afternoon. No one has ever questioned my qualifications for doing this before. Even my conservative churches have been supportive. If it were about respecting the culture of my host country, I would understand. But the culture here, and this church in particular, have plenty of women in leadership, even preaching and pastoring congregations. This is not the local culture, but the culture of the individuals from overseas who happen to be in charge.
It really surprises me how much it hurts. I didn’t expect that. Since I know it’s their background, their theology, it seems it shouldn’t feel personal. I probably seem threatening to them, an articulate educated woman with teaching and ministry experience. I understand that they might be uncomfortable surrendering control. But it stings. It’s going to be really hard to go back next week.
So what do I do? There’s a part of me—a sinful part of me, I suppose—that wants to fight back. I’m actually a pretty good manipulator (I’m ashamed to admit). I could approach the pastor and meekly ask for his advice, explaining that the missionaries are struggling and volunteering graciously to assist. What could the missionaries say if I had the pastor’s blessing? Or I could ask group members to intervene on my behalf. I bet they would. I could simply start an alternative Bible Study, inviting members who seem uncomfortable with the current arrangement—those who are shy, or struggle with English, or don’t know the Bible very well. I bet it would go well, and we would all grow in our faith. Or I could simply stop going. That would be easiest. I’m not here as a missionary. No one would think much if I simply stopped coming and devoted myself to my research. Or perhaps I could e-mail the missionaries, telling them how much I was hurt and insisting again that I feel called to help. I could point out what I think they’re doing wrong, and how I could do it better. I could probably even do it politely. And it would be sincere. Psychologically, this scenario feels the most attractive to me. I want them to acknowledge that they need me and to apologize for causing me pain.
But in the long run, this isn’t about my feelings. Or their theology or leadership methods. We’re all here only temporarily, them as missionaries, me as a visiting scholar. When we leave in a few months, the group will go on. Nothing will be gained by me inciting division or undermining the leader’s authority. Probably the best example I can set is to demonstrate love even in the pain, supporting the group not as a leader, but a learner. Besides, in a few months I’ll be home where I not only can lead small groups, but I’m expected to!
But in the meantime, I’ve learned something. THIS REALLY HURT! As a scholar, trained to think rather than feel, I’ve never really understood it when people expressed how much they’ve been hurt by Christians (or for that matter, how much they’ve been hurt by me). I’ve explained over and over to Jews, Muslims, atheists, gays, liberals, and even women who have felt rejected by Christians that it’s nothing personal; it’s simply a matter of Biblical interpretation and worldview. In my teaching, I help my students to recognize, evaluate, and appreciate the influence of different faiths in our culture, and to respect other faiths, even if they don’t agree with them. I’ve viewed that as a gift, the ability to understand and mediate among groups that are often at odds.
But now the tide has turned, and I’m the one feeling left out. I’m not sure yet what this will mean for my relationship with these particular leaders. But I’ve learned something for myself. To all of those whose pain I have discounted over the years, brushing it off by explaining that it’s not personal, but simply theology: I think I get it now. I don’t apologize for what I or my fellow Christians believe, but I sure am sorry for the pain it’s caused.
(pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education.