I sat watching the evening news and felt an awkward, uncertain connection with Gwyneth Paltrow. And Rose McGowan. And Andrea Constand. I have never met them, but I felt connected just the same. These women have chosen to rise and confront sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of controlling men. We now know the men’s names, too. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacey are included in a long list of predators. Every media outlet has spawned discussion and outrage at the unfair treatment of women who have been victimized and made fearful to speak out. I have struggled through my own inarticulate feelings about women who have used objectification to further their careers while making public outcries against those who have objectified them.
At first, in my self-righteousness, I viewed these accusations as a casualty of the industry and wondered why these women refused to simply walk away. Far worse, I dismissed the claims as an opportunity for financial gain. My disdain for what I often believed to be fabricated stories was evident in my incessant eye-rolling and the quickdraw for the remote. Changing the channel helped dissipate any remaining conviction.
But then there were more. Stories of molestation and sexual abuse began creeping their way out of shadowed nooks and crannies. As Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of FOX News, was reeling from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by news anchor and former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, additional reports began flooding from other news stations where men degraded peers. Millions watched NBC News co-anchor, Samantha Guthrie, fight a losing battle with her own emotions as she spoke of the dismissal of her work partner Matt Lauer under harassment allegations. Drama arose from the offices of politicians where closed doors hid a multitude of sins. From US Senator Al Franken to former president George H.W. Bush, rumors of inappropriate speech and actions filled our homes through our electronic devices. Narratives drifted from the private hotel rooms of men who abused their power and thought no one would ever find out. But we did find out—in a very public way.
I’m sure there are some manufactured scenarios that have made their way to our TV screens, but I am certain that there are far more truths to be told. Sadly, I am convinced that similar stories will emerge. Women are gathering support from each other as one by one they stammer through their stories. Each story is different, yet the same. Each victim waits in an invisible line as she garners the courage to say the words that have been choking the life out of her for years: I was fondled. I was groped. I was raped.
I don’t know what it is like to utter those words. For reasons I may never understand, there has never been a moment in my life that required such bravery; yet in some inexplicable way, I can identify with these women who have fought for their careers despite the agonizing fear to confront these rogues that controlled them day after indescribable day. I never stood on trial and watched my life play out as every crude detail was broadcast on cable television. What I suffered is far less traumatic than the pain these abused women have endured most of their lives. But I don’t think these women would judge me for my thoughts some days. I would like to think they understand when I admit that I am a casualty of sanctified sexism--what could be defined as emotional and verbal abuse from church leaders who have given moral sanction to their boorish behavior.
This behavior has exhibited itself in various forms, none of which are becoming to a Christian. At first, I didn’t really notice it. When I was overlooked to preach in the staff’s absence, I contributed it to my inexperience as a pastor-until it became a pattern to have laypeople speak during the worship services. On other occasions, I spent hours making hospital and home visits to help ease the schedules of an already overworked staff only to find that male pastors were being sent behind me because, in their words, “I didn’t count.” I wept silently in the pew as laypeople assisted with communion services, prayer meetings, and Bible studies. I was happy that others were using their gifts and Kingdom work was being accomplished, but I was growing impatient waiting for my turn behind the men who were being celebrated for gladly stepping in and filling the gap.
The few opportunities I was given to lead were obligatory at best, but I worked with excellence believing that I would have to prove myself worthy of leadership. Yet, every opportunity to head an event was met with opposition and “concern” of a secret nature. The concerns were not being communicated to me. The congregation began asking why I wasn’t being allowed to do more in the church as an ordained minister. Then I realized the ugly truth. The only “concern” was that I was a woman and that I was trying to usurp the authority of men.
I believe I am not alone. And I feel the need to speak of it now. I am a female pastor and I speak to raise awareness in our protestant denominations that there are qualified female leaders in our churches whose gifts and callings are undermined by senior male pastors. There are some of us who are hired to put the church in a progressive light, yet never allowed to soar in leadership as God intended. There are women who are suppressed into thinking that their ideas are small and their influence smaller. We wait in our own invisible line that often leads to nowhere while we muster the courage to hopefully one day reveal the words we hear at our jobs:
You’re not really a pastor; we just wanted to hire your husband and you came with the package. You’d be better equipped to teach women.
You’re a mom; we need your expertise in the children’s department.
These things that are said are minute when compared to those which are not articulated. Our authority is whittled away as we are looked over to speak, preach, or administer the sacraments. So, to “earn our keep” we do what we are asked to do. We hand out bulletins, we teach women, we help in the nursery, and we head up fellowship dinners. We settle for less pay. We ride to district events alone because we are not invited to carpool with the male staff. We sit in respectful silence as church leaders around our table make inappropriate remarks about women trying to do men’s work, because to speak out would place us in the category of the arrogant or bitter.
Certainly, this is not the case for many of our female leaders, and for this I am grateful. We have far more godly men who are recognizing the roles of women in ministry and are encouraging in their support. I wish I could say this discriminatory philosophy was not true for any of our male pastors, but I know differently. The struggle women leaders have is real and it is sometimes debilitating. We can speak up, but to whom? We have been forced to find our voice somewhere between the verses of Scripture that tell us to “turn the other cheek” and those words which compel us to act differently: “if someone is caught in sin, restore him gently.” Yes, this unholy behavior forced upon women is sin. To belittle, demean, or suppress another human being is sin. We have all been created with immense value and should be treated with respect. This is biblical and our church leaders should know it.
The battle in my mind wages around a choice: do I speak up and risk losing my ministry? Or do I stay silent and “safe”? This is the dilemma that we face. This is a crucial time for women as they are being empowered to speak up against their sexual predators. Women are being heard and the consequences for men who behave in this way are steep. But, to blow the whistle on well-respected men of God in our denominations because of misogynous attitudes is an entirely different thing. Although this behavior is ungodly, it is not a criminal act. These attitudes are contrary to the values that God places on every being that He has created, but there is little recourse for the women who sit under the leadership of these men.
My hope for us as Christian organizations is that we will find a solution for these women. Just as there is zero tolerance for sexual misconduct in the workplace, our denominational leaders should not tolerate chauvinistic perspectives from men who feel privileged to usurp the authority of women who have been called by God to minister in leadership positions. This mentality should not only sadden us, but it should move us to action. By allowing these attitudes to fester in the church, we are enabling the enemy to divide and destroy Kingdom work. I pray for strength to confront injustice and to no longer be content to say, let’s just leave this church and let God take care of it. Perhaps God wants to come alongside us and help us find a way to take care of it because it not only affects our job, it affects a much higher Call.
Given the sensitive nature of this story, the author has requested anonymity.