The writer of Ecclesiastes wasn’t kidding when s/he wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” Lots of social ills are certainly on the run these days, but often times they don’t really go away, they simply change form. In our concluding post for Women’s History Month, LSTC Senior and Candidate for Ordained Ministry Marissa Tweed writes about for this week’s piece, her thoughts set upon the back drop of her mother and grandmother. Women’s ordination is a great thing yes, but don’t think for a second that sexism is over. It isn’t – so we must be vigilant. So again, friends, read and share – and keep vigilant. We ain’t out of this yet.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
The ELCA and its predecessor bodies have been ordaining women for over 45 years. This is certainly something to recognize and celebrate. In fact, the ELCA has made significant progress in the support and encouragement of women’s leadership throughout the past several decades: currently, 25% of rostered clergy in the ELCA are women and the number of women and men preparing for ministry at an ELCA seminary is about equal. Furthermore, as of 2015, six of the 65 elected synodical bishops in the ELCA are women and more women are serving as senior pastors than 15 years ago.
We have come a long way and there is much to celebrate!
Especially during Women’s History Month, it is important to celebrate how far we have come, recognize the long road it has taken to reach this point, and acknowledge that there is still work to be done.
I think about the women of faith in my own family and how each generation has had vastly different experiences in terms of how their leadership in the church was received. For instance, as a young girl my grandmother deeply wanted to serve as an acolyte at her Lutheran church home. She eagerly asked to serve, but she was told bluntly, “You can’t be an acolyte—you’re a girl.” My grandma couldn’t understand how or why her gender determined whether or not she was fit to be an acolyte. It caused her significant pain and frustration. Throughout her life she experienced countless cases of sexism in the workplace (everything from inappropriate advances from men, to being refused jobs she was obviously qualified for, and even losing her job when her pregnancy began to show), but for that discrimination to happen to her in the context of Christian community was almost too much to bear.
Fast forward a couple decades. My mom, on the other hand, was able to serve as an acolyte and as a Sunday School and VBS teacher. When she was in college she even had the privilege of taking/leading the church’s youth group to attend the Lutheran Church in America’s National Youth Gathering. Throughout her time in church, and partly due to those leadership opportunities my mom had, she began to feel a call to ministry.
However, when my mom, who will celebrate her 30th anniversary of ordination in the ELCA next year, met with her candidacy committee for the first time she encountered resistance–albeit a different type of resistance than my grandmother experienced, but just as demeaning.
My mom was told by an individual on the candidacy committee, “You’re too pretty to go to seminary.” Too pretty to go to seminary. Pretty’s got nothing to do with it…unless you assume young, pretty women only go to seminary to search for a “respectable” husband. My mom remembers driving home from the candidacy meeting thinking to herself, “I guess they don’t want me, they’re not taking me seriously.” But in her words, “That seemed to be the church system then.”
Fast forward another couple of decades and I am preparing for my own ordination in the ELCA. I have been not only allowed, but encouraged to serve as an acolyte, Sunday school teacher, and worship leader while growing up in the Lutheran church. I have been taught that I bring unique gifts to ministry through my experience as a woman. I have countless women of faith in leadership roles in the church (including my mother) whom I look up to, learn from, and respect. Additionally, I have the privilege of not thinking about my gender in the classroom (similar to my white privilege of “not thinking” about my race on a daily basis) because there are just as many women as there are men in my MDiv class in seminary.
And yet…I too have encountered a variety of sexist micro-aggressions when it’s come to my leadership role in the church. For example, I visited an ELCA congregation during my time in seminary and a well-meaning individual came up to me and exclaimed, “Oh I’ve heard about you! You’re going to be a lady-pastor!” Or during a church trip when a male pastor “joked” with me, “Glad to see you in the kitchen where you belong.” Certainly I have not experienced the same degree of blatant sexism that my grandmother experienced in the church, or the more nuanced, yet still obvious sexism that my mother experienced with her candidacy committee, but…
…it’s still not gone.
In talking with some of my colleagues in ministry who are also young women it is apparent to me that this is not solely my individual experience. Through hearing their stories it seems that sexism toward women clergy still lurks under the surface in the walls of our churches. Sometimes it takes shape in the off-hand comments about what we wear (in or out of the pulpit) or quick assumptions that we want to specialize in youth/family ministry. Other times it can be more disastrous such as judgments about women’s responsibilities outside of the church. In Edward Lehman’s 2002 review of major studies on clergywomen for Pulpit & Pew, Lehman discovered that single women without children found they had little time for any sort of social life because their congregations assumed that, since there was no family, the women would have no competing interests. In any of these cases, subtle sexist remarks or assumptions can be confusing, hurtful, and damaging to the women who experience them.
I want to acknowledge that up to this point I have not mentioned the additional layers of discrimination that my sisters of color experience within the context of church leadership. The experience of intersectionality is a whole additional (important!) topic worthy of its own post. The perspective I want to offer here is simply that the ELCA, and indeed several religious bodies/denominations across the country, has made significant progress in the vision and support of women’s leadership in the church, but there is still work to be done. The ELCA acknowledges, “Sexism is still a systemic sin that demands thoughtful theological attention and active transformation by this church.” I find hope in how far we have come (as illustrated by the stories even in my family’s history alone), but I know there is more yet to do.
So what can you do? Support women clergy. Be mindful of comments or jokes, no matter how well-intentioned, that are grounded in cultural gender roles and can “sting.” Reach out to girls and young women who may be thinking about the ministry or offer encouragement and support when you see gifts for vocational ministry in them. Theologically respond to sexism in an individual or group bible study (see resources below). Educate for Justice. Advocate for change. Lead into the future. And trust that God is with you every step of the way.
What can you do?
Educate for justice.
- understand patriarchy and sexism
- analyze church and society in terms of the effects of patriarchy on all people
Advocate for change.
- call for changes in church practices and interpretations, as well as social policy and practice, to support and reflect the full humanity of all people
Lead into the future.
- challenge societal, theological and ecclesial practices that are patriarchal
- work with a variety of women and men, girls and boys to create change that leads to justice for women
Use Justice for Women program resources for individual and group study and action.
Justice for Women program resources may be found here.
For those who would like some more specifically Lutheran women’s history, check out this article on Seven Influential Lutheran Women.
Marissa Tweed is a senior MDiv student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She enjoys teaching fitness, trying new foods, and spending time with her fiancé. Marissa feels called to parish ministry and hopes to begin serving in a congregation after graduating from LSTC.
 Elizabeth Platz and Barbara Andrews were ordained in 1970 in predecessor bodies of this church. http://www.elca.org/en/LivingLutheran/Seeds/2013/03/~/link.aspx?_id=BCA26C5E0D4B4976B0DDC230AD8916F1&_z=z#sthash.De2Jq36Z.dpuf
 The concept of microaggressions was originally developed in a racial context to discuss “the everyday insults, indignities, and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” See more here http://www.xojane.com/issues/everyday-sexism-chronicles-those-small-but-meaningful-acts-of-casual-sexism
 Intersectionality: multiple oppressions experienced; a combination of racism and sexism. See more here http://isreview.org/issue/91/black-feminism-and-intersectionality