It’s the feast day of Mary Magdelene as I write this, and that seems fitting. Auspicious. Because not only was she a named disciple, she was the first preacher, the first gospel-bearer, the first one to share the Good News. Despite, or perhaps because, she was a woman.
When I was in my mid-twenties I applied for an office job at my church.
During my interview, the committee asked if I would be having children soon: I was, after all, married to a life-long member of that same congregation.
I stumbled over my answer. Never in my wildest dreams had I ever expected to be asked about my procreative prospects in a job interview before. I replied something to the effect of “Well, I don’t know, not for a while.” Despite my qualifications, the job went to a middle-aged woman.
Several years later, and not long after our first child was born, a regional youth ministry position opened up. After a lot of prayer, thought and discussion, I knew I wanted it. I knew that congregational youth ministry varied widely from congregation to congregation through the Presbytery, I knew that many churches lacked a large group of youth with which to plan activities, and I knew that my years of camp counselling and liberal arts undergrad studies would be invaluable.
Most importantly, I knew how youth ministry had been an immeasurable blessing to me in years past, and I wanted and felt called to share that same blessing with the next generation of youth.
I applied. This time I don’t recall anyone asking how long it would be before I turned my daughter into an older sister. I applied, but not before a trusted friend warned me that I shouldn’t expect much or even any support from the very congregations I was to serve. She had held this position herself for many years, and knew exactly what I was facing. I was offered and accepted the job. I has hopeful, but realistic that this job might be a bit of an uphill battle.
And uphill it was.
While my ecumenical colleagues – male and female – were welcoming, enthusiastic and excited to work with me – and I with them – the clergy within my own denomination, the leaders of the very congregations I was tasked with supporting and assisting, were reticent. Wary. At times, outright unwelcoming.
When I could get replies to my emails my motives were put under suspicion, planned activities undermined, and my faith questioned. Even the simple request to tack up a poster was met with hostility. Mostly, though, my emails fell on deaf ears – or eyes, as it were – and went unanswered.
At Presbytery meetings, meetings at which I was not permitted to speak, I was ostracized.
I sat alone. But I watched.
I watched the cadre of clergy who were, at best, ambivalent, at worst, hostile toward me chat together, moving as a clique. I watched them question the existence of my position and deface publicity material I handed them.
Not eighteen months into my employment as a youth worker I was nearly eight months pregnant with my second child and I was unwell. High blood pressure was an increasing concern and my midwife advised me to start taking it easy. Now.
So I took medical leave.
I advised my supervisory committee that I would be taking medically-indicated leave as my condition was no longer such that I could continue to work. The response I received was jarring.
The committee had deemed that a workshop should be held to help determine how my position could best serve the Presbytery and this was to be held several days from the day of my communication with them regarding my leave. How, I was asked rhetorically, will it look if you aren’t there to represent this ministry at the event?
I guess it didn’t look very good.
Less than two weeks after the workshop I got a phone call, which I received holding my week old child. My baby had been born preterm and healthy despite what had turned into a raging case of pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome (Downton Abbey fans will recall a certain maternal death two seasons back).
The call came from the convenor of my supervisory committee who spoke obtusely and never actually said the words “We’re firing you.” Instead, they allowed me to believe that my suggestions for dramatic and helpful changes to my position had been heeded. Hours later, a mass email on which I was CC’d announced that I had been informed that my position was terminated, oh and congratulations to Darlene on the birth of her new daughter.
To say I was livid would be an understatement.
Not a year later, I learned another supervisory committee struck by the Presbytery visited another new mother and camp director and fired her while she was on a ski slope with her family. To this day it has me scratching my head as to how this was a justifiable action given what I know of the circumstances of her termination.
It’s a disturbing pattern.
I have spoken to ordained women who have astonished me with tales of men questioning how these female clergy would be able to administer communion while menstruating. Truly.
I have heard from women who have informed me that men have wondered aloud what a church would do, should a female minister happen to fall pregnant while serving a congregation. The next words go unspoken but undoubtedly are: perhaps it would be easiest if we simply didn’t consider hiring a woman.
This is a pattern of misogyny that plays out in big systemic ways. But it also plays out in ways that are small and personal, though not insignificant.
I have had members of my congregation ask my name, screw up their faces in an attempt to recognize me, refer to me by my husband’s name, abuse the title “Missus” when speaking to me, or merely refer to me as my children’s mother. It’s not as though I’m new there, either. This is a congregation I joined over eleven years ago, prior to meeting and then marrying my husband – he a member since birth.
While many, perhaps most, churches are assuredly uncomfortable with unmarried or childless women and do not know where to metaphorically place those members, the place granted the married and child-bearing is decidedly limited as well.
Many church communities, to put it frankly, do not know what to do with women who are not satisfied to cook potluck dinners, organize bazaars and ferry children around. Which is not to disparage these tasks – goodness knows I do love a church pancake breakfast.
Surely, in 2014, we should be past the point where women are asked by hiring committees when they plan to start making babies. Shouldn’t we – in the church, of all places – be the kind of place that does not turn around and fire the woman who happens to bear a child?
I loved my work. For a year and a half I got to know and encourage and learn from youth.
I made some good friends among them, young adults who have grown into university and college grads with whom I continue to enjoy scintillating discourse online as they pursue their passions across the continent.
My work helped me to feed my growing family, and put shoes on my child’s feet, so to speak. All this is true, but I will never work for a church again. Not for pay.