This guest post comes from a friend of Empire Remixed, and emerges out of an extensive dialogue regarding faith, gender and feminism, especially as these relate to the scarcity of female church planters. We’re grateful for the author’s generosity, thoughtfulness and vulnerability, even as we keep her identity anonymous.
Confessions of a Church-Planter’s Daughter
“In the practice of many religions, girls’ and women’s relationship to the divine are mediated, in strictly binary terms, by men: their speech, their ways of being and their judgments.”
– Sara Chemaly, media critic and feminist writer, in response to the Hobby Lobby decision (from time.com)
It’s been a heck of a few weeks for us religious feminists. The US Supreme Court ruled that corporations like Hobby Lobby (with an Evangelical male CEO) could deny women access to birth control for religious reasons. In addition, the Mormon Church ex-communicated Mormon feminist Kate Kelly for calling for the ordination of women.
These events are sad reminders of how religious institutions, who have all the tools needed to be agents of liberation and justice, are so much further behind their secular counterparts when it comes to recognizing and fighting against gender oppression.
Personally, they are also reminders of a world I grew up in, and the effects that linger in my adult life.
The day after Kate Kelly’s excommunication, I was instantly all over the Mormon blogosphere, painfully enthralled with the case. Being a feminist, Christian seminarian, and the daughter of a conservative, Evangelical, church-planter, I felt deeply connected to her struggle.
Though I’m not Mormon and have never faced the threat of ex-communication, I have experienced the effects of a subtler yet equally damaging patriarchy that existed subconsciously in my family, school, and faith communities I have loved and called home.
I was never able to clearly pinpoint these effects, until this week when a Facebook friend of mine posted an article from The Atlantic covering the gender confidence gap study. According to years of research, women are less self-assured than men, and to achieve one’s goals, confidence matters as much as competence.
Katty Kay and Clair Shipman write:
“There is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.”
This was a major Aha! moment for me. After taking their confidence test and, not surprisingly, being diagnosed with low confidence, I started revisiting events in my upbringing with new eyes. I was able to see for the first time how the beloved men in my life — my father, my male pastors and male bible professors – shaped my imagination of who God was, what was possible and what was expected for my life.
Being a strong-willed, independent, and intelligent woman growing up in conservative Evangelical churches that my father planted with a handful of other men, I was treated much differently than my male counterparts, even those who possessed less “typically masculine” traits and giftings than I did.
Despite my passion for theology and the church, I was not encouraged in these pursuits: my ideas were easily dismissed, I was regularly interrupted, I was ridiculed, and fewer doors were opened (Metaphorically, at least. Many doors were opened chivalrously!) and more barriers were put up.
Though I always felt loved by my father, he treated me differently than my brother. Not in obvious ways (we played catch and went camping), but in the way he related to me and taught me about how I could relate to God and myself.
I was always “daddy’s little princess” – despite my aversion of the “super girly” and my independent, strong-willed, and free-thinking personality. My brother, on the other hand, an introvert, was his “buddy”, his equal, who had limitless possibilities and potential, and who held his undivided attention while working for long hours on projects together.
My mother, who was naturally the Sunday School superintendent or a ladies Bible study leader, believed that her purpose in life was to support my father. She had few ambitions or goals of her own other than to be a wife and mother, while my father had plenty.
One of these was to plant churches, which he did every ten or so years, despite his lack of theological training or pastoral experience. He was a wealthy corporate trainer though, so he knew how to “launch successful projects.” He and the other men would get together and brainstorm. The pastors they would hire were always men, the elders’ board all men. I, on the other hand, was asked every summer to co-ordinate the Vacation Bible School program for children.
In addition, at a one-year Bible college, despite having the highest grades, I was made the butt of dumb blonde jokes by my male Bible professor (in front of the class). My guy friends who laughed the loudest, and had Bs and Cs, were all encouraged and later supported to become pastors.
Despite this, when I announced to my parents that I wanted to go to a four-year Bible College instead of university, my father (then a trained pastor) discouraged it, saying there were “no jobs for women in ministry.”
Two years earlier he personally drove my brother to his Bible College and had become very emotional while dropping him off. He was so proud.
I grudgingly went instead to a liberal arts university, where I – rather ironically – met amazing Christian feminists who read the Scriptures differently. Which caused me to start questioning the practices at my church, and why I, as a woman who loved God, loved the church, couldn’t use my God-given gifts and passions to serve God and the church more.
When I questioned my male youth pastor about what Paul really meant by referring to women as the “weaker sex,” the 20-something-year-old simply challenged me to an arm wrestle.
Later while living overseas, I had to cloak a sermon that was burning inside of me in the language of “personal testimony” because I wasn’t allowed to preach, even though I had more theological training (and more badass preaching skills) than most of the men at the ex-pat church I attended.
And then there were the women – friends, mentors, pastors’ wives – who ingrained in me that my primary role was to find a husband, to throw my support behind him, and to birth his children. As a result, my entire twenties were spent trying to fight the panic of not finding the right person.
Oh the time that could have been spent focusing on my writing, teaching, reading, and artwork!
It’s been over 5 years since I left these patriarchal communities behind, and I’m now happily part of a gender-inclusive church community. In this place it is recognized that our understanding of God is mediated by language and culture, and thus we need all the voices we can get to dechiper what this means for us here and now.
But the path towards healing and increasing confidence is long and continuous. It has taken the counselling, spiritual direction, and mentorship of incredible women pastors to start me on this path, and I’ve got far to go.
Kate Kelly, my heart goes out to you. Please know that there are faith communities who value women’s voices, gifts, and skills as significant contributions. I think you are kickass and inspiring. You are always welcome here with us!