“I am not a woman, so I don’t have bad days,” Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said in an interview. Like you, I read that statement and balk. What right does he have to make such blanket statements about an entire gender, let alone debilitate women to mere stereotype?
Nevertheless, an interesting phenomenon happens when I enter church territory―I step into minimalist views of myself because of my sex. According to a 2015 Huffington Post article, it is something every single woman does, or has done, without realizing it.
“We have all learned,” writer Gretchen Kelly states, “either by instinct or by trial and error, how to minimize a situation that makes us uncomfortable.” She goes on to say that all women have learned how to avoid angering others, how to ignore offensive comments and inappropriate come-ons, and how to swallow our anger when someone belittles us. I often adhere to a “pick and choose your battles” approach to life, not needing to fight or drum up tension for each and every little―or not so little―slight I encounter. We choose not to fight those battles we find ourselves facing on a daily basis, and by doing so, ultimately minimize who we are as image bearers. For many women who serve in leadership positions in the church, however, there comes a point at which we don’t―we can’t―negate the God-given image present in every single one of us.
Whether we ascribe to a complementarian or an egalitarian viewpoint, a progressive or conservative political stance, a high or a low view of ecclesiastical authority, we must push secondary beliefs to the side in order to adhere to the highest belief―Jesus believes women more than capable and worthy of equality. The instances of which Kelly speaks are not limited to the corporate workplace or public sphere―they happen just as often within the walls of ministry. Therefore, we must not disregard her assertions simply because they are not under biblical authority. Instead, we must come to a bottom-line understanding for how we, as women leaders in the church, can move forward in conversation around this tendency to minimize who we are.
The Choice to Minimize
Years ago, after serving as the director of a non-profit outreach organization as a single woman, I found myself delighted to attend the national convention with my husband. I could finally introduce him to the world I had been entrenched in, as well as to the numerous people I had encountered along the way. My excitement waned when acquaintance after acquaintance assumed him the staff person and me the staff spouse―simply and solely because he was a man.
In the moment, it was as if I had been rendered mute. Caught off-guard by the interaction, I could not quickly think of a witty reply, or even a clarifying retort to offer the ignorant assumption.
Kelly states that in situations like this, women immediately engage in a mental checklist to assess the situation and whether we’d like to call out the problem. Almost every time, our response is minimizing in nature, not wanting to engage in confrontation—something we could do on a daily basis. But Kelly writes, “I’m starting to realize that just shrugging it off and not making a big deal about it is not going to help anyone.”
Have you ever had an experience like mine? Have you ever shrugged off sexist remarks from your male coworkers, because you felt as though you had no other choice? Have you ever felt disqualified as you attempt to find a balance between home and work, between fidelity to your spouse and fidelity to your calling?
Oftentimes, I am able to think of the perfect retort―it just comes 12 hours after the fact. In the moment, however, it feels as though my tongue is tied, my brain frozen in hurt and disbelief. Lying in bed before I fall asleep, I search for peace by praying the consolations and desolations of my day: It’s frustrating that my husband had to respond first, in order for the other person to acknowledge my role. Jesus, you believed women equal to men; when will this equality come to fruition in the church today?
Tell Your Story—and Listen to Others’
In light of this, how are we to respond? How are we, as women leaders, to react in the moment―and beyond―when assumptions, inappropriate gestures, and blatant stereotypes occur?
I think we can follow Kelly’s leadership and exhortation to her audience―we, as women leaders in the church, can begin telling our stories and listening to the stories of each other. “Listen because your reality is not the same as hers,” she writes (albeit to men who might be reading her article). “Listen because her concerns are valid and not exaggerated or inflated.” Engage in the art, in the practice, in the discipline, and in the encouragement of listening, especially to the women around you. Lean back so you might tell the stories that have changed you, and lean in―ever more deeply―so you might hear the stories your sisters share in return.
If no one is telling their stories about the secret things that have happened to them, where then are we to hear the stories that really, truly matter?
Listening, of course, is nothing new for Christians. The word “listen” is found 352 times in Scripture. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded not only to shema, but also to obey. When the Lord came to Samuel in the night and called out his name, what was Samuel’s response? “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10). Samuel’s response to God was attentive and action-oriented; through active listening, the prophet helped shape the trajectory of the story of God’s people.
Likewise, “listen” (or akroatérion in Greek) is found 29 times in the Gospels, its definition meaning “a place of audience, or listening.” One cannot read the first four books of the New Testament without noticing how Jesus listened to strangers, friends, and foes. He listened to perspectives different from his own, as evidenced by his interaction with the woman at the well. He listened to the Father, in silence, without interruption, and, as a boy, he listened and asked questions of his teachers.
Then, he encouraged those who had ears to hear to do the same―he encouraged them to simply listen. Just as Christ reminded his followers then to partake in the act of listening, he directs us to do the same.
By listening, we are changed. By listening, we gain empathy. By listening, the stories of minimization, sexism, and the like, are not only revealed but also given permission to bravely face the light of day, even changing the trajectory of the world around us. When women leaders in the church simultaneously begin to listen and tell their stories, we will begin to see threads of change ushered into the kingdom.
Therefore, we listen to the stories of other women leaders who have been minimized based on gender―and together, we stand by one another to bring gender equality to the Christian workplace, too.
We listen to the stories of other women leaders who have chuckled and brushed off sexist commentary, in an effort to fit in with the boys―and together, we devise new ways to make conversation inclusive for everyone.
We listen to the stories of other women leaders who have experienced abuse, rape, and assault―and together, we seek to change the experience of women both in the church and in the public sphere.
Most of all, we listen because Jesus modeled this for us and implored us to do the same. Without “buts,” excuses, or a litany of arguments, we just listen. We enter into conversation. We offer a biblical response, if necessary. And we move forward in and with change, bringing our full selves—not a minimized version—to the table.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from Seattle, Washington. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and co-host of Shalom in the City's monthly book club podcast. She holds a Master’s of Theology (Fuller Seminary), and can be found on her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.