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Rise Above the Double Standard

Women leaders are forced to find an impossible golden mean between too much and not enough.

In a previous ministry, I had a fairly standard and polite disagreement over email with a coworker. It wasn’t heated or contentious, just a discussion about how to use a Greek word. I copied the others from our earlier meeting to keep them in the loop.

“Tough emails, huh?” one observed hours later.

“Which ones?”

“The ones during your catfight with S—,” he said. “I’m glad I wasn’t involved.”

I laughed it off, but catfight? I reread the emails, but I was at a loss for what had made our interaction a catfight. That word stayed with me for the rest of the day. Two men had listened in to a discussion between two women and their takeaway was that we’d had a catfight.

I am a woman in ministry.

Naming the Problem

Over the last 14 years I’ve served in various leadership roles, from youth worker to college ministry intern to church planter to hospital chaplain to adjunct Christian college instructor to working for an urban church in Chicago. In every one of these positions, I’ve encountered resistance that is baffling. It’s not that I was banned from leadership, but that people weren’t comfortable with my comfort in leadership. What made it difficult was that it was far more insidious than, “You aren’t qualified for leadership because you possess female reproductive organs.” (Don’t get me wrong; I have encountered that before—over and over again.)

A blatant double standard exists in being a woman in ministry, yet the ways we encounter resistance can be so hard to call out that most of us give up on trying. Some women give up on their call to ministry altogether or are left wondering why they felt a calling that left them shredded on the inside and in doubt of their gifts and skills.

Part of this is because we have a complicated culture that both celebrates and shames women in equal measures, sometimes in the same breath. It’s a culture that tells us that women are worth what they look like or that their value is inversely proportional to how much they weigh. But it’s also a culture that tells us we can have it all—and then chastises us for either being too career-focused or a stay-at-home mom. We’re told we should be content in ourselves because we are enough and yet are constantly given ways to improve so we can be more, which is baffling.

Honestly, I don’t expect much from culture. But I expect more from the church. It should be a culture changer for equality, a refuge from the world, and a place of support and love. But often women in leadership find the opposite. They find themselves affirmed to be leaders then critiqued for leading. Be the worship leader, but run any changes by a male leader. Take over the hospitality ministry, but don’t ask men to bake. Lead a group devoted to racial reconciliation, but don’t ask to have a leading voice in the church. Plant a ministry overseas, but don’t be too vocal about our duty to human rights.

The double standard I’ve observed is that women are held to be equals but then chastised for expressing themselves in traditionally masculine ways. The double standard is apparent when women are told to contribute to a discussion, but then are told they are bossy or nagging or too aggressive about their opinions. But this isn’t limited to men; we women can also tear each other down. I’ve been guilty of this. I’m not immune to social pressure that has flipped our God-given equality for the gendered oppression of the Fall. I’ve also been guilty of thinking a woman had less to offer than her male counterparts or valuing a man’s praise or comments over a woman’s.

When Allies Perpetuate the Problem

Honestly, what troubles me the most about this is when I encounter resistance from people who profess to be allies, and who would never say that they’re against women in leadership, and yet they undercut this support with their words, attitudes, or actions—like my friend who described a female-female disagreement as a catfight. He isn’t consciously hostile toward female leadership, but his words and attitudes undercut his outward support.

Maybe you’re a woman in ministry and have had this happen to you. Or maybe you know other women who talk about this resistance, but it’s always felt vague or even unfounded. After all, your church is better than that, your attendees are more educated, and your church leadership supports female leadership. And so we often turn a blind eye to the subtler instances because women are preaching or teaching or leading—and that’s great, right?

In my ministry now, I work at a church that cares about my development as a leader. They are allies in every sense, but still sometimes my male colleagues fail to understand the contradiction female leaders find themselves in. To society, we are never enough, and yet we are sometimes too much in the church. It’s a balance that is impossible to maintain. Yet all too many of us try this hopeless task.

We women leaders are forced to find an impossible golden mean between too much and not enough. To stop this crushing pressure often means confronting our unconscious expectations about how men and women express themselves. I often wonder if a man had said the exact same thing I had in a meeting, if it would have gotten the same nonplussed reception. All too often the answer is no because we’re used to men’s voices.

Other times it’s confronting the vocabulary we use to describe assertive men versus assertive women. Men who disagree are having a typical day at the office. Women who disagree are having a catfight or tearing each other’s hair out. Men are allowed to disagree and let it go; women are not. Men who talk over someone at a meeting are expressing their opinion. Women who talk over someone in a meeting are rude. Men are expected to be assertive and loud; women are not, and are often reprimanded for doing so. The difference is stark. It’s important to be aware of the history that certain phrases or words have for women (and by extension, for other minority voices).

Bringing Change to the Church

A few days after my colleague’s comment about my catfight, I talked with him about the situation. I should have talked to him sooner, but I needed some time to process the experience. I decided to explain why his comment had hurt. It wasn’t an easy conversation, but it was enlightening for both of us. I explained how words like catfight or aggressive or nagging carry baggage for women who’ve had them hurled at us to silence us. He expressed surprise and remorse that his words had carried connotations he’d never meant or dreamed. We both came away strengthened in our working friendship.

Another male colleague upon reading a draft of this essay said that as he read, he felt uncomfortable because he was suddenly worried that he’d done this unwittingly. I was glad he expressed this because that gave me the opportunity to tell him how much I appreciated his support.

Every woman in ministry I’ve ever met, from capable church admin to small-group leader to children’s ministry leader to senior pastor has experienced this double standard. To some of our colleagues, this could seem extreme or overblown. So tell your stories. If they need more stories, then encourage them to ask another woman in church leadership about her experience. Every Christian leader wants to be the best leader she can be in the context God has placed her in, but this pressure slowly grinds us to dust.

The world already tears us down; let’s not do it inside the church. God’s kingdom is strengthened in diversity in all its many senses. If we want to represent the church well, we need to combat every insidious message that someone isn’t qualified to serve God with her gifts. For some of us, that will mean having hard conversations with our colleagues about certain words and their history of silencing women. For others, it could mean mentoring and encouraging other women leaders as they find their voices. And for still others, it might mean standing with other minority voices to combat double standards of all stripes. Most of all, remember that you aren’t alone in your struggle to be heard and valued. If you’re having trouble finding that support, start a brunch group or a book club with other women leaders—whatever you need to do to gather community around you so that when those trying moments come, you have women to lean into, women who love and support you.

Together we can question gendered vocabulary and assumptions about gendered behavior, and treat everyone the way God calls us to—as co-heirs and siblings in Christ.

Stefanie Coleman has a Masters of Divinity from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. She has worked in various roles from youth ministry leader to international church planter to Christian college adjunct instructor to her current role as the Adult Ministry Director at Community Christian Church Lincoln Square. Having lived on three continents, she can now be found in coffee shops in Chicago.

November07, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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