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The Truth About Sexism in the Church

And how to keep it from breaking you down.

The truth about sexism in the church needs to be heard, it needs to be told, and it needs to be called out. It should be devastating that you will experience sexism when it comes to your call to ministry. It should be devastating that the one institution on which you depend to be the most vocal about fighting sexism is the most resoundingly silent. It should be devastating that the one place where you might be able to escape the sexism of our culture will only make it worse. These facts could very well lead to discouragement. Why enter into ministry if you know that this is what you will face? Ministry is hard enough without having to prepare yourself for the many ways that sexism will succeed in demoralizing your position and sense of call.

Yet, these truths are not meant to be discouraging but to give rise to justified anger. Your anger will be justified and not only on the grounds of any one specific incident alone. It will be justified because the church should be so much better about dealing with sexism. The church, of all places, should not explain sexism away, sweep it under the rug, or insist it is really “not that bad.” Your anger will be justified because you will experience little to no support from those who you thought “had your back.” You will look around and say to yourself, because you can’t bring yourself to say it aloud to the bystanders, “Did you just hear that? Say something!”

Your anger will be justified because sexism is something your male colleagues will not have to deal with, and yet you have to expend energy and emotion on something that should have been addressed long ago. Your anger will be justified because you will just want the comments to stop, you will want to tell someone to shut up, and all too often you will bite your tongue, because the repercussions of responding can be worse than the initial insult. Why do we bite our tongues? Is it the result of fear? What are we afraid of? Is it not worth the effort, the “fight?” Monitoring these occasions when you choose to stay silent instead of speaking into the moment is an essential strategy for dealing with the sure reality of sexism.

The inclination will be to put aside your anger, to tell yourself to “calm down,” or convince yourself that it is an overreaction, that you are too sensitive, or that you are making “too big of a deal” about it. However, there is a difference between healthy anger and self-righteous indignation. You will have every right, every single right, to be angry, to experience hurt, and to feel—truly feel—diminished and demeaned. In fact, those are all the underlying and hoped-for goals of sexism. Those reactions are exactly the ones that sexism intends to instill deep within your soul.

While there will be sexist comments about you and directed to you that will come from people who “do not know any better” and who do not realize the effects that their comments might have, there will be others who know exactly what they are doing. They know the power that sexism has to bring you down and cause you to question your performance in ministry, but more insidiously, to get you to question your very call to ministry. These persons are not capable of telling you the truth about their feelings toward you, so they hide behind sexism. These concealed feelings will likely include the belief that you should not be in ministry (especially true if you are clergy). Because they are unable to utter this disbelief out loud, sexism becomes the means by which they can make you feel what they feel. Sexism may also mask or deflect unwanted feelings of attraction by twisting them into ridicule and degradation.

Sexism and Your Ministry

The truth about sexism in the church is that the church is not only a place where sexism is tolerated, it is actively harbored and justified. Sexism in the church lives and thrives because it can ground its reasons for uncritical acquiescence to sexism on biblical and theological bases, without even having to work particularly hard.

Undoing the rampant sexism in the church, however, is more difficult; reports of sexism are even downplayed and disbelieved, because “we all mean well” in the church. No one really means to be sexist; it is just the way it is. This excuse makes it all the more difficult for you to navigate its inevitability. It becomes harder still when you are a leader in the church, whether a pastor, a minister, clergy, or a lay employee, and so of course you would never respond so unkindly as to call out sexist comments or make someone feel bad when they did not have negative intentions. To take on sexism, the church would have to revise its script so drastically that it is simply not willing, or cannot face, the rewrites.

The truth is that sexism is harder to navigate as a woman in ministry than a woman in business because of the belief that we will accept these comments as unintentional and because we are expected to react even to unkindness with love. If we respond in such a way that our retorts are deemed unkind, we run the risk of all kinds of interpretive results: we are not very Christian, we are awfully sensitive, or we sound or look blunt (as if being blunt always had to be a bad thing). For example, a stern look is acceptable for men. For women, it’s not.

Working Through Sexism

Alertness to and negotiation of sexism in ministry demands knowledge about its many and various levels, and reflection on how and when you will go about speaking up for and against the unspeakable. To be able to traverse the complicated landscape of sexism will demand wisdom concerning the nature and function of sexism, but also honesty about its effect on you. You will need to be aware of the emotions that will surface when you are the object of sexist comments. In other words, sexism is so difficult because you not only have to figure out how to reply to its particular origin at the time, but also how to respond to your own reactions in the moment.

Sexism is insidious because it—and the people who use it—know the kinds of feelings it will bring about, typically feelings tied to insecurity, self-esteem, and shame. At the same time, the emotions and reactions that surface in the moment of being the object of sexism are as complicated as you are unique. Your feelings of insecurity could be connected to your ministry or to your intellect. Your feelings of self-esteem could be associated with your body. Your feelings of shame could be linked to past abuse. In order to diminish, but never entirely eradicate the effects of sexism, some deliberation and reflection on where you stand with regard to these particular emotional manifestations will help.

This is another truth: no matter how much we give reasons for, explain, or acknowledge sexism, it will still have an effect, and it will still catch you off guard. A comment in a moment when you are feeling vulnerable. A remark from someone you thought you could trust. And in the end, there is no explaining it or justifying it. Sexism just is. And sexism will continue to be.

Sexism, in this regard, is a manifestation of our human brokenness, our human propensity to find ways to exert power over the other and to bring down those who have the power we seek. Sexism is a manifestation of sin, with sin being defined as separation from God and the rejection of the emancipatory power of God’s love. The further away we are from the ways in which we know how God’s power works, the less capable we are of embodying power that seeks to lift up and not bring down, that acknowledges worth in the other even in the moments when we feel the most unworthy, and that is committed to the means by which the other is valued fully in all of her individuality and femininity and not as an object for the taking. Essential to unlocking your power as a woman in ministry is thinking about what it will take in your ministry to be proactive rather than reactive in moments when you are the target of sexism.

Karoline M. Lewis (Ph.D. Emory University), holds the Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. She is a regularly featured presenter and preacher at the Festival of Homiletics and a frequent contributor for numerous Christian journals and online resources, including the popular website WorkingPreacher.org where she also co-hosts the site’s weekly podcast, Sermon Brainwave, and authors the site’s weekly column, Dear Working Preacher. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. This article is excerpted from her book, She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, and is used with permission from Abingdon Press.

June20, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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