I went to a liberal arts college for my bachelor’s degree, and while it was a great experience in many ways, I can’t count how many classes I attended where the professor asked, “Is anyone here a Christian?” Nine times out of ten I’d be the only person who’d raise their hand. I began to dread that question because my opinions or explanations were then demanded by classmates or professors:
“How could you Christians –?”
“Why do Christians think –?”
“What’s the point of –?”
It was incredibly frustrating. Because I was the token Christian, I became the example of all Christians everywhere. Imagine the incredible and unrealistic pressure of being the person called upon to represent the entirety of Christianity to a class of college students.
When I transitioned into bi-vocational ministry, I expected to experience this again with non-Christian friends and colleagues. But actually, I’ve felt this pressure mostly from Christians, especially regarding my gender. Two of the most common things I hear about being a woman in ministry are at opposite ends of the spectrum—and equally frustrating:
“Wow! That sounds hard. What does your husband think?”
“I love what you’re doing. You’re a great example to all women.”
There are nuances to these views, but I’ve heard renditions of these comments at least weekly for the last 15 years. I’m viewed either as an ungodly pariah or a saintly paragon. Of the two, though, I’d rather be considered a pariah. Being labeled a paragon has given me the most trouble.
I can’t count the number of times my accomplishments have been reflected on the whole of the female world. Someone will kindly say something like, “You’re a great model for all little girls.” All little girls? Don’t get me wrong—I know it’s meant well. I’ve lived my life trying to be faithful to my calling in different seasons: campus minister, seminary student, volunteer chaplain, small-group director, community engagement coordinator, as well as daughter, sister, wife, and mother. But to be a paragon is to be a perfect example, and while it’s meant well, it leaves me hollow.
Think of the implications for an individual required to represent a whole gender. Or ask our brothers and sisters of color what it’s like to stand in for entire races, nationalities, and ethnic groups. It flattens our complex human experiences and increases the pressure to succeed because we no longer stand for ourselves, but for everyone “like us.” Worse, there’s little space for grace when you’re considered perfect. That can leave us frozen, afraid of failure. After all, if our successes are reflected on all women, then why not our failures as well?
What’s especially odd about this dynamic is that men in leadership aren’t held to either extreme. They’re allowed to be individuals. Men who are great examples of faithfulness or leadership or intelligence are held up to all people as an example—not simply to men. Further, whether they experience success or failure, they’re held as individuals without the added pressure of representing all men.
On the other hand, there are many people for whom I am a pariah because I want to use my leadership gifts. It just happens that leadership has historically been considered masculine in the church. There was a time when I was hesitant about being a leader, as if to say, “I’d like to do this for God’s glory, but you know, only if it doesn’t make anyone around me uncomfortable.” For years I bought into the lie that God had created me somehow spiritually different than men. When I really dwelled on Galatians 3:28, however, I was challenged beyond my culture to consider the upside-down, in-breaking kingdom that Jesus established. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul. My world was further shaken by Galatians 5:22–23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” How could I mistake any gift that includes wise counsel, hospitality, truth in love, or anything else as “feminine” or “masculine” when the fruit of the Spirit is gender-neutral?
Between Pariah and Paragon
As Christians we live in the already and not yet, the time in which we are fallen, sinful creatures and yet also the great redeemed multitude in Jesus. We are all imperfect, breakable, tired, joyful, messy, beloved creatures of God. We each have something that we are uniquely gifted to do, whether or not it fits what other people think we should or ought or must do. But the only thing that matters is hearing, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” at the end (Matthew 5:23).
So instead of pariah or paragon, what about just being a person? Clean, simple, and as descriptive as needed for God’s in-breaking, in-dwelling kingdom where women no longer have to hide our talents because of disapproval or become frozen by the fear of failure. In God’s reign, we aren’t defined by past action but present love and acceptance. In this space of grace, there’s no more playing small or discounting our effort, our voices, our gifts, our mistakes, or our successes. When we’re all allowed to be the messy people we are, we open up more lives to freedom, the glory of a life fully lived for God.
But to step forward into our individual personhood requires that we throw out the old categories and the old ways, and step into the space we as women in ministry are given to inhabit, the space created by God’s grace. If you’ve felt like you were the only one held to impossible standards, take heart—you’re not alone.
When we step out into the space of grace, we embrace our calling as God-given and answerable to God only. This requires trust and perseverance because people criticize. So it might require gathering a group of like-minded women leaders around you to support and encourage each other. You could pick women who are already in leadership or women who would be effective in leadership if given the right support and love.
Truthfully, the glory of a life fully lived for God will draw criticism because while freedom is irresistible, it can also be irritating. But it will attract, and we know that both men and women need to hear and see examples of people living their best lives, dedicated to God. We, the people of God, are messy, beloved, hurried, unique, and yet we are God’s chosen voices and hands and feet in our world. God came to redeem the whole wide world and we get to help. That starts with embracing that we’re neither pariah nor paragon, but rather unique, integral, individual persons in the people of God.
Stefanie Coleman has a Master’s 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.