real talk#4 -being a woman in ministry
over the past few months, i have been particularly struck by the ways i’ve been subtly and not so subtly formed in the church…. no, i’m not talking about spiritually but a formation of how i’ve performed and continue to perform into a kind of gendered role of both assertion and passivity.
all growing up and even well into my ministry career, the culture within many of the churches i’ve been a part of have predominantly been under some sort of strong alpha male presence and leadership. and when i say “alpha,” i mean it in such a way that is not meant to be judgmental but rather, an indication of a larger cultural reality -a reality that suggests or even demands a particular way of being for what it means to be masculine, which inevitably requires a counter balance of femininity…in other words, dominant and submissive ways of relating. and we all know that it is usually the “masculine” or “dominant” trait that pushes ahead when it comes to our understandings of success and influence. we see this operating not only in the business world and in politics, but also in the church.
for me, entering into vocational ministry at the age of 21, as a female/asian worship leader in the mid to late 90’s, i must admit, it was a battle of sorts -not so much to have the opportunity to do what i do but to be heard. all kinds of folks will hire and use your gifts for their benefit but what does it mean to be heard? to be respected? this is the gap that i have sensed for the past 13 years until perhaps just recently.
i have the wonderful privilege of serving as one of the pastors on staff here at quest church in seattle. from what i’ve gathered, a lot of people here in seattle don’t seem to want to abide by the typically set norm for the most part compared to other places i’ve lived – bikes ride the street like it’s theirs, indie artists and local bands are celebrated more so than what tends to be “popular” in the larger culture, local food and coffee shops are heralded over and against your usual chain restaurants and coffee joints, and so on. i know, i know, these are gross generalizations but coming from living 10 years in the south, these differences are quite stark to me. which makes me wonder if this way of imagining and negotiating the culture we’re so influenced by rubs off on the way we imagine ourselves and our participation within it?
all this to say, since i’ve moved to seattle just over a year ago, anytime i’ve had to teach, speak, preach in a ministry setting, i’ve begun to notice that a certain kind of persona arises out of me. i don’t really want to say that i feel “masculine” per se, but my demeanor definitely rings with a kind of assertive/authoritative confidence that suggests you better not mess with me! well, maybe it is an alpha rising out of me! i know, crazy right? there’s actually a running joke with some of my friends here that tell me i have a definite and particular booming “prayer voice” …..prayer voice?? i didn’t even realize there was such a thing! i think and believe that a lot of it has to do with the ways i’ve been formed. formation in this sense, arising out of a lack -lack of women leaders in the church as role models, lack of trust for women in ministry, lack of faith that women actually have something to contribute in addition to meeting the gender balance requirement on any given staff, lack of respect that because we’re women, we’re only concerned with and gifted for children’s ministry and fluffy women’s ministry tea gatherings. in this way, in order to counter such ill-formed images and perceptions of women in ministry, i’ve had to assert myself much more to have a place at the proverbial table so to speak -to be heard, to be respected for more than my looks and my “sensitive/motherly” gifts.
it’s formation that has arisen out of a need to be like one of the boys.
strangely, a lot of the men around me here, in my particular circles of relationships and ministry, are by no means the kind of image of the machismo-grunting-flexing-jocky males that i’m used to in ministry. it’s weird….but refreshing in such a good way! i’m just finding myself feeling, at times, out of place. i feel like i’m too assertive and perhaps a bit overwhelming to some. i find myself constantly conscious and aware of how i speak in certain contexts but when i pray and preach, i just can’t seem to pull it back! formation takes time. it’s taken me 14 years of being this way and, dare i say, performing in a particular way that has translated into who i am now in ministry.
it’s been a learning process, more about myself than anything else, i guess.
my prayer for ministry now is not so much how well or competently i perform tasks given me but rather, a lifelong promise to myself and the many young women whom i will encounter for years to come. a promise of hope that prayerfully, through the witness of my life, many young women will see and know that they too have something significant to offer this world.