by Rev. Jill Howard
What if I were to tell you that my introduction to the idea that women do not have a voice or place in leadership came from the church?
When I was a senior in high school, I had a crisis of faith. I was a Jewish teenager living in East Tennessee and began to question who this Jesus person is and if he was worth following. As a result of this, I started attending a church with a friend of mine. This particular congregation and denomination did not allow women to even approach the chancel area to make an announcement. Women in any leadership position were not permitted. I grew up in a household where my sister and I were raised to be strong, independent women. My mother was a physician and always told us that we could do whatever it was we aspired to do. Our temple also had a female rabbi! I had no idea that there were places in the United States today where women were not allowed to lead or have a voice.
Eventually, I discovered and found a home in The United Methodist Church and received a call into ministry…but at the same time, I also discovered the continuing struggle that women face in the church. I have personally been fortunate so far in my ministry that I served congregations who fully embrace women clergy and who have supported, encouraged and respected my call and vocation. However, I am also reminded of several families who have left churches I serve because I am a woman and also because I am young. In my current ministry setting in a small rural community, none of the male pastors of the other churches will work with me because I am a woman.
Are we there yet in terms of full participation of women in the life of the church? I do not believe that we are. From a clergy perspective, we still have a long way to go. Here are some of the issues and challenges that I believe we still need to overcome in order to begin pathways to progress. As young clergy women, what makes our experiences more specific or unique on the journey of ministry? And what do we struggle with? Here is an honest look:
1) We struggle with people who don’t know what to do with women pastors, especially young ones. We have been horrified by church members making inappropriate comments about our bodies, our hair, our shoes, or the way in which we dress. We have been put in awkward situations where the way that we look has overshadowed our real pastoral ministry being taken seriously. I’ve heard stories of church members grabbing butts (while robed!) or touching pregnant bellies beneath vestments without asking. We share stories about people who have been born and raised to believe that only men should be pastors and will not give us a chance. We share stories about people making comments that they were surprised that we could do as well or even better than our male colleagues. We discern how to gracefully handle a situation in which a person will not work with a woman pastor. We laugh about the times when a person was looking for the pastor and the look of shock we received when we were introduced as such.
2) We struggle with balancing our lives, our friendships, our marriages, and our families along with ministry. Unfortunately, “social norms” still expect us as women to “do it all.” So we struggle with balancing life at home, taking care of family or children and keeping it all together in a sane way. Of course, this is nearly impossible. Many of us struggle with people who do not believe that a woman can be both “pastor” and “mom” and/or “wife.”
3) We struggle to break through the glass ceiling. Many times, in silence, we struggle with men in authority positions in our own denominational structures who do not take us seriously. Oftentimes, we see our male colleagues receive glowing appointments, while only a small handful of women are in similar leadership positions. We realize that the “good ole boys club” is alive and well in many places.
4) We worry about our congregations. And we love them with our whole selves. This especially includes the times when ministry is challenging and our people are struggling. We also struggle and support one another when we are put into ministry situations that are abusive or unhealthy. We pray for the church often, and we pray for what is broken to be fixed. We fuss over and pray for patience over the petty issues that ministry and people of the church bring our way. We worry about and pray for broken systems and relationships. We pray for and work for grace.
5) We struggle with life choices: Do I get married? Do I stay single? Do I stay in this congregation? Do I want to pursue more education? Do we decide to have children? Everyone struggles with these issues of course. BUT, as clergy women, we live in a fish bowl. Everyone is waiting to see what we will choose and looking on, wondering if we will meet particular expectations, whether we know about them or not.
6) Last but certainly not least, we are concerned for the future of the church. We come from all denominations, places and backgrounds. Yet we all feel the call to serve the church, to care for others, and have promised to love the church, to love God, even in the midst of the ups and downs, the let downs, the challenges, and the uncertain future that opens up ahead of us. We have much work to do. We have much work to do as clergy women to educate people that yes, women are just as effective as men in ministry. Yes, we have much to offer. Yes, we possess the gifts, talents, knowledge, and discernment to make a difference in the church and in the world. We love the church. We love the people of the church. We love God. We are here to serve.
Are we there yet when it comes to full participation of women in the church? Not quite, but there is hope and progress. Just as Jesus first appeared to the women after his resurrection and told them to preach the good news, so it is up to us to keep preaching, leading, and serving despite the obstacles we face. I have great hope for the future and so should you!
Rev. Jill Howard currently serves as pastor of Morgantown United Methodist Church in Morgantown, IN. She and her husband, Corey, are expecting their first child in January. Jill enjoys singing, theater, movies and being with family and friends. Her passions in ministry include teaching, preaching and walking alongside people on their journey of faith. She blogs regularly at revjillhoward.wordpress.com.