an improvisation on gender

I sometimes forget that I am a woman.  Okay, not really.  But forget, quite often, that I am a woman in ministry. By that I mean this: I am only me – Meredith – with the story that only I know from the inside out. I forget that my sex and gender make what I do – my exterior identity – somewhat unique, to say the least, and in many parts of the world, yet a novelty.

Many days – in fact, most days – I remember and carry that burden with honor.  There are other days, however, if I’m being honest, that it feels like a burden I’d rather shrug off, throw across the room, and stomp away in a huff.

I am coming up on two months in my first full time ministry position. Though in lots of ways this is not my first rodeo, so to speak. At a small Baptist college, I was an outspoken female in my religion classes. I went to a Presbyterian seminary, where I could listen, speak, learn, and question without feeling like my gender made me an anomaly (though my preaching class being one significant exception to that statement). Then I returned to Baptist higher education, and again felt in waves the burden of the expectation to represent and speak for all women everywhere. Didn’t they know I was just Meredith? I willingly shared what insight I brought to bear on religious experience and theology, but it would be patently and boldly erroneous for me to speak for, or anyone else to accept my perspective as universal for all women. And yet, that is the expectation.  As I started to sense my vocational calling was bigger and broader than academia, I was spoiled, and thought the battle was over. I had been fortunate beyond all calculation to be surrounded by amazing, gifted, brilliant women in seminary, and finding churches, friends, denominational support along the way that encouraged me to pursue my own calling – in and outside the classroom, in and outside congregational ministry. No one lied to me – no one told me the fight was over. But I also didn’t quite believe the amount of work yet to be done.

I am grateful, blessed, humbled, emboldened to have been called to and sent from churches that embrace women in ministry. But beyond that, these churches did not ordain me, did not call me because they wanted to make some political point, or fill a quota. They recognize Meredith – with the story that only I know from the inside out – but also with the story they are helping me write from the outside in – as a minister.

Here’s the thing: I don’t like to think of myself as “lucky” with all the connotations of randomness, but I’m feeling lucky. I know that the road has been much more difficult for others of my sisters in ministry – especially those older than me, but even for females my age and younger.

Recently on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, her husband wrote a post, and in that said this:

“If you don’t think women deal with a double standard, especially in churches, you’re probably a guy. I know because I’m a guy and for most of my life I didn’t really give that sort of thing a second thought.”

He’s right. My guess is – though, obviously, I can’t assume this is universally true – that most women who have thought about, pursued, and/or are in ministry or religious fields, understand the barriers, hurdles, walls that get in the way of feeling like we are fully accepted or acceptable as clergy persons.

And here’s where I pull out the f-word.

This is why I am a feminist. And why I believe feminism is not, and must not be dead.  As long as women serve as tokens or novelties in any given field, we aren’t there yet. I like this pithy summation: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people too.”[1] As long as I, along with other women, continue to have the feelings, expectations, abilities, and intelligence of an entire gender projected onto by others, we are not there yet.  Maybe it will take another generation or so, though the thought of continuing the struggle to convince people that I, too, can be called to ministry, that my sister can be a pastor, that my other female friends and colleagues have been called and moved by God’s spirit to preach, to pray, to offer the bread and wine at God’s table – that we have to work even harder to convince others of that is exhausting. But the truth is, it’s worth it. It’s worth every frustrating encounter, it’s worth every setback, every cold shoulder, because it’s also worth every time we will get to lay hands on each other as sisters and brothers in ministry, it’s worth every time a new congregation, person, or even denominational body can look past the anatomy, the make-up, the jewelry, the whatever, and not just see a singular female, but see a minister, a person sent out, called by, and challenged with the work of God.  Because the thing is, (and forgive me for speaking for others), we often forget that we are women. We just know that we are ourselves, and we are called.

[1] I have seen this quote attributed to several women, including Rebecca West, Gloria Naylor, and Cheris Kramarae.


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