It’s true that ministry is hard. It’s true that ministry takes sacrifice. But ministry shouldn’t hurt.
We teach young women the same concept in romance: love shouldn’t hurt. We say if a man says he loves you but hits you or treats you badly emotionally or psychologically, then it isn’t love at all.
It’s the same with ministry. If you find yourself in a ministerial setting where you’re taking a pounding from the congregation, the senior staff, or the denomination, it isn’t ministry at all.
We don’t tell female clergy this enough, so hear it from me now.
It’s the elephant in the room: women in ministry often aren’t treated well. In fact, the church sometimes acts like an abusive boyfriend. The tales of abuse are as shocking as they are numerous.
Tales of violence. I know a female minister who endured inappropriate comments about her clothing, her body, and her sexuality. Another woman I know experienced inappropriate touching in the receiving line after the benediction every Sunday—members getting just a little too close, hugging just a little too long.
Tales of bullying. I know a woman who was attempting to run a leadership meeting but couldn’t get through the meeting because a hostile trustee openly and aggressively undermined her authority as pastor. I’ve heard from a woman who was trapped in her office as the senior minister yelled at her until she was nearly faint with fear, pain, and grief.
Tales of disrespect. I know a minister who was denied the opportunity to serve Communion—even though she was fully ordained—simply because she was a woman. Another woman I know is paid least of anyone on her church’s executive ministry team, even though she has the most experience.
Unfortunately, I could go on and on lifting up the abuses that women in ministry face in the church. It shouldn’t be this way.
Why Does This Happen?
If one in five seminarians is female, if more and more women are serving in full-time professional ministry, why are women in ministry facing such abuse?
The answer is twofold. First of all, women get trapped in abusive ministerial environments because of bad theology. Pastoral leadership is a vocation that is steeped in the language of divine calling. We do not choose pastoral ministry—we are called by God into pastoral ministry. So even if the ministerial position causes pain, harm, or abuse, women in ministry often rationalize it by telling themselves that God must have called them to the pain, harm, or abuse. Moreover, women in ministry may normalize pain and abuse by equating it with the suffering of Christ. They rationalize: “I’m hurting, so I must be doing something right. I must be like Christ.”
And just as women with abusive boyfriends find it difficult to separate love from pain, women in ministry often find it difficult to separate calling from hurt and abuse. This is bad theology. God does not affirm or support violence, corruption, or coercion. He is the God of peace, love, and justice. If peace, love, and justice are not present in your ministerial position, then it’s not of God.
The second reason women get trapped in abusive ministerial environments has to do with fear. The fear of being disliked makes many women smile and say that everything is okay when it’s not. The fear of failure makes many women muscle through even the worst situations so that others won’t say she wasn’t cut out for ministry. The fear of dispensability makes many women endure the covert and overt messages that tell them that they can be replaced at any moment with a more benign, amiable woman. The fear of not being able to find another ministry position makes many women willing to serve regardless of negative circumstances, encouraging the mindset: “I’m just happy to be here.” These fears can consume women in ministry, keeping them in abusive environments for far too long.
Change Your Situation
If you find yourself in an unhealthy ministry environment, what can you do? Don’t endure the abuse—God does not ordain this sort of oppression. Don’t quit pursuing ministry—God does not make mistakes with whom he calls into ministry.
Instead, we must recreate the relationship between the church and women in ministry. To recreate this relationship, there are three things you can do:
- Believe in your calling. If God has called you into ministry, you have to believe it. Believing in your calling will make you bolder, stronger, and less afraid. When God calls you, no one can take that calling from you.
- Hold fast to your value. If you have been appointed or hired for a pastoral position, believe that the gifts that you bring with you are valuable. Believe that the church is made better because you are there to serve. You are not dispensable. The church would not be the same without you.
- Advocate for yourself. Learn to speak up about your compensation, your job description, your support staff, and other elements of employment that are often hard to discuss. These necessary conversations have the power to create a healthy ministry environment both for you and your coworkers. You’ll also need to speak up when someone is disrespecting you. Say, “You are not allowed to treat me this way or talk to me this way. I am a child of God and a minister of the gospel.” Say it again and again until others hear you and this truth rests in your heart.
Being called into pastoral ministry is a beautiful gift from God. You get to spend the whole day helping others see God in every moment in life, both great and small, happy and sad. Ministry is beautiful, taxing, and, yes, hard. But ministry shouldn’t hurt.
Tiffany Thomas is a native of Columbus, Ohio. She earned her BA from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She pursued her MDiv from Duke University. She is currently serving as senior pastor of South Tryon Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.