It won’t surprise you when I say that I am a sucker for any new book on gender and faith. I mean, I’m really an easy sell. And so I picked up Emboldened, by First Church of the Nazarene of Pasadena’s Senior Pastor Tara Beth Leach, with eager anticipation.
As it turns out, that anticipation was well-founded. There’s much to affirm about Emboldened. For instance, because of its relentless and heartfelt affirmation of women in leadership, I’m going to give a copy to each of the women on my staff team. And I love how Leach chooses to frame the conversation about women in leadership around mission, with justice as a part of that larger concept. And for me the final 2 chapters, with their compelling vision for an emboldened church releasing women and men to use their gifts in pursuit of God’s mission, is worth the price of the whole book.
These things noted, I read Emboldened with Tertullian in mind. That is, my question was what Emboldened have to say to men like me. I think Leach has at least 5 challenges for today’s male ecclesiastical gatekeepers.
Challenge #1: Listen and learn. Part 1 of Emboldened is written for women, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a goldmine of learning for Kingdom brothers like me. There are lots of things that need changing about how we are doing church in terms of gender equality, but it must start with listening and learning. It’s a privilege to be trusted with the all-too-common difficult stories of women in today’s church; we would do well to read Emboldened with reverence, care, and with a heart eager to learn.
Challenge #2: Embrace some new faith heroines. Growing up, the vast majority of my faith heroes were male. You know, King David, the Apostle Paul, Billy Graham, etc., etc. Over the years, I’ve been able to diversify my biblical and extra-biblical mentors, to include women and people of color. Need a similar experience? Leach has you covered. Read chapter 1 to get to know Mary Magdalene, Marcella, Teresa of Ávila, Maria Woodworth-Etter, Patricia Gundry, and Tara Beth Leach herself.
Challenge #3: You can’t do it all. In my leadership, I aspire to intentionally mentor and empower women into leadership. Leach definitely affirms male mentorship, but she simultaneously notes that it’s not enough. That is, up-and-coming women need female mentors in their lives as well. Why? Because men like me “will never fully understand the bumps, setbacks, and pushbacks women in ministry face (pg. 90).” You know what? That’s true. And it’s OK. And for men like me who want to fix everything, preferably in the next 10 minutes or less, it’s good to be reminded that we can’t do it all. One of my application points is to ask the women that I’m leading if they have female mentors in their lives.
Challenge #4: Teach the Bible. Leach is clear that Emboldened is not a theological defense of women in leadership. And while I might wish that we’d had a chance to hear her exposit some of the so-called “problem texts” (maybe in the next book?!?), there is a clear call for pastors to proactively teach egalitarian theology in their contexts. Here’s Leach: “men who embolden women don’t wait before it’s too late to paint the kingdom vision for women in the church; they do it as if it’s second nature. Men who embolden women paint the kingdom vision for women in the church with such vigor, color, and beauty that women in the pews imagine a world in which they are invited to the table to use their gifts and soar with great freedom. (pg. 167)” Amen, and this motivates me to continue to press into the discipline of study, in order to know the Scriptures better, and it challenges me to continue to plan teaching slots in my yearly calendar.
Challenge #5: Take risks. In the forward, Scot McKnight, one of Leach’s mentors, writes: “males on the platform (ie. in church leadership) need to slide over and give women a place (pg. 2).” Long-time readers of Challenging Tertullian won’t be surprised to know that I highlighted the heck out of that snippet. Indeed, men, we are called to take risks to advance women into greater leadership in the church, and that could well mean stepping to the side. For a benediction, here’s Leach’s charge:
“Brothers in Christ, it can be risky to embolden your sister in Christ. You might be ridiculed. You might cause uproar. You might see people leave your church. You might see pastors leave your denomination. You might lose some of your biggest givers. How much longer will you be a slave to fear? When will you start bringing women before your congregations and faithfully proclaim that the bride of Christ will continue to limp along until we embolden gifted, called, and anointed women in our midst (pgs. 161-2)?”
Men, do yourself, and your sisters, a favor. Pick up and read a copy of Emboldened.
You’ve got to love it when your doctoral syllabus includes a novel.
In my case, year 3’s syllabus brought with it the welcome news that I was to read The Boys in the Boat, as a leadership case study. Wow. What a read. The Boys in the Boat is the story of the 1936 Olympic gold medal winning University of Washington crew team. It’s a story of perseverance, valor and, yes, leadership.
And, along the way, I learned a lot about crew. Like more than I would ever need to know. About the boat. About technique. And about what goes into a regatta.
I also learned about something called “swing.” Swing is what happens when the crew team is utterly in sync. When it’s in swing, the boat is operating at optimum level. Predictably, swing is rare and it can be elusive, and it only happens after plenty of training, practice and team-building.
One passage in particular captured for me the idea of swing:
“Bobby Moch set the varsity boys to rowing at a leisurely twenty-two or twenty-three. Joe and his crewmates chatted softly with the boys in the other two boats. But they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady. Soon, in fact, they had pulled so far ahead that they could not even hear the boys in the other boats. And then, one by one, they realized that they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were along together in a realm of silence and darkness. Years later, as old men, they all remembered the moment. Bobby Moch recalled, “You couldn’t hear anything except for the oars going in the water…it’d be a ‘zep’ and that’s all you could hear…the oarlocks didn’t even rattle on the release.” They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in the black void among the stars, just as Pocock had said they might. And it was beautiful.”
Imagine having a team moment, really only a matter of minutes, be so perfect that the entire group could remember it distinctly some 40 years later!
In my doctoral research, I’ve been using the term “flourishing” to describe the brand of male/female partnerships I’m looking to help form in my organization. “Flourishing” seems a lot like “swing” to me.
And while I don’t (yet) know exactly what goes into achieving swing in the context of inter-gender partnerships in InterVarsity, I do know this:
When we find it, it’ll be beautiful.
Learning from Sacagawea
Partly in preparation for year three of my program (it’s on the syllabus!), and partly because good friends have issued hearty recommendations, I recently picked up and read a book on the topic of adaptive leadership called Canoeing the Mountains, by Fuller’s Tod Bolsinger.
The book borrows its guiding theme from the 19th century journey of Lewis and Clark. Commissioned by President Jefferson to pursue a water route to the continent’s west coast, Lewis and Clark gathered up a corps of men and off they went. Why canoes? Because they figured that when they hit the continental midpoint, they’d simply be able to load up in the boats and float down to the Pacific.
So, imagine their surprise when they looked up one day and saw:
The snow-capped Rockies.
Hence, the importance of adaptive leadership. For Lewis and Clark, it was time to ditch the canoes and see about rustling up some horses.
To be sure, the book is a worthwhile read for anyone who is trying to guide a community through uncertain circumstances. In particular, I found Bolsinger’s four-fold framework for how to lead in the midst of change helpful. You should read the book, but here it is: start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.
But of all of the helpful passages in the book, one chapter, entitled “How a Nursing Mother Saved America,” caught my eye. No surprise there, right?
The chapter told the story of Sacagawea, the teenage mother-to-be who joined the corps alongside her interpreter husband. Lauded by Lewis for her “fortitude and resolution,” among other things Sacagawea did translation work, she negotiated with the Shoshone for horses, and she guided the corps through the (to them, but not to her) unknown territories. Indeed, Clark eventually praised Sacagawea as the “pilot” for the expedition.
In sharing Sacagawea’s story, Bolsinger was doing more than celebrating the pioneering achievement of a remarkable woman, though Sacagawea’s valor and industry are certainly praiseworthy.
Instead, Bolsinger was making a larger point, about the relationship between those on the margins and people in power. Specifically, for Bolsinger, in the midst of the shifting seas that the American church finds itself in, it’s critical that those in power learn from those on the margins. He writes:
“The key point here is that for lasting cultural change to occur (even within an institution) those in the center and those outside of the center must be truly engaged and valued in decision-making processes. The interaction of the margins and the center creates new possibilities. The combination of ideas and relationships, the sharing of experiences and especially the valuing of perspective come from a lifetime of living in uncharted territory that is needed for Christendom-trained leaders to move into uncharted territory. When the center engages the insights from the margins, the center comes alive and moves toward the future.”
From time to time, people will ask me about why I think it’s a good thing for men to release power to women.
Frankly, I think there are several reasons (here you go), but a critical one is captured in the story of Sacagawea’s leadership among the Lewis and Clark expedition:
The church will be better equipped to reach the world as it embraces the voices of those on the margins. And given our Tertullianized history, that means creating channels for women to use their voices and to lead.
Simply put, it’s about the mission. We’ll be better able to fulfill our mission if we devise new ways for men and women to equally share power.
Put another way: if we’re going to cross the Rockies, we’re going to need to do away with Tertullian’s canoes…
Take it from Jimmy
I sure hope that when I’m almost 90, I’m as vibrant, sharp and feisty as Jimmy Carter.
Maybe you’ve seen the former president making the rounds lately promoting his new book A Call to Action? He’s gone toe to toe with Colbert, and then I really appreciated his turn on Letterman. I’ve watched a lot of Letterman in my day, but I’d never seen an interview like the one Dave did with Carter. I mean, how often do Dave and a guest talk about topics like honor killings and forced marriages?!? I found that interview to be a powerful exposition of Carter’s core message about empowering women.
Interested, I picked up a copy of A Call to Action, and I’ve been reading it over the last week. Carter’s challenge is really to religious leaders, and it’s a call to forgo the traditional interpretation of holy books where women are portrayed as second-class citizens. Because when women are second-class, and when that status is reinforced by religion, it is all too easy for them to become victims of violence.
Here’s a bit more of Carter’s thinking:
“There is a similar system of discrimination, extending far beyond a small geographical region to the entire globe; it touches every nation, perpetuating and expanding the trafficking in human slaves, body mutilation, and even legitimized murder on a massive scale. This system is based on the presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls, and it is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible, the Koran, and other sacred texts to perpetuate their claim that females are, in some basic ways, inferior to them, unqualified to serve God on equal terms. Many men disagree but remain quiet in order to enjoy the benefits of their dominant status. This false premise provides a justification for sexual discrimination in almost every realm of secular and religious life. Some men even cite this premise to justify physical punishment of women and girls.
Another factor contributing to the abuse of women and girls is an acceptance of violence, from unwarranted armed combat to the excessive and biased punishment for those who violate the law. In too many cases, we use violence as a first rather than a last resort, so that even deadly violence has become commonplace.
My own religious experiences and the testimony of courageous women from all regions and all major religions have made it clear to me that as a result of these two factors there is a pervasive denial of equal rights to women, more than half of all human beings, and this discrimination results in tangible harm to all of us, male and female.”
When you’re challenging Tertullian, it’s nice to have a former president on your side.
On The Resignation of Eve
Sometimes, despite that old saying, you really can judge a book by its cover. Such is the case with Jim Henderson’s recent book The Resignation of Eve. The main title is provocative but cryptic. But then check out the subtitle: What if Adam’s Rib is no Longer Willing to be the Church’s Backbone?
OK then. Now we’re talking.
In my last post, I looked at the clerical stranglehold that male privilege has on the church. You and I worship in a church where the vast majority of formal leadership positions are held by men.
But what about the non-titled workers in the church? What of the folks that count the offering? That run the kids ministry? That coordinate the weddings? That greet? That clean? That answer the phones?
You guessed it. Women. In an infographic on women in the church, Evangelical pollster George Barna says, “Women are the backbone of U.S. Christian churches. They are more likely than men to comprise the ranks of churchgoers, volunteers and Sunday school teachers.” Truly, women are the unheralded spine of the American church.
But here’s the problem: according to Henderson, women in the American church are resigning from the church in unprecedented numbers. And he means that in three ways.
First, women are resigning from the church. As in, they are walking away from the church and, in some cases, from God. Faced with the ecclesiastical systemic advantage awarded to men, women are leaving the church.
Second, women are resigning to the church as is. When you become resigned to something, by and large you’ve accepted it but your heart isn’t in it. For Henderson, “this kind of resignation leads a woman to appear to be present when she actually left the building years ago.”
Finally, women are re-signing. Henderson writes, “women who have re-signed either remain active in their own churches even though they disagree with the churches’ stances on women, or they intentionally plug into other churches that provide them with the opportunities they seek.”
However you slice the term “resign,” it’s tragic.
You see, male privilege in the church doesn’t just limit women in the pulpit or the church offices. It also limits them in the nursery, the choir loft and, most notably, in the pews. The bottom line is that if an unchecked male bias continues to drive women from the church in these kinds of numbers, then woe to us as we look to our future.
It doesn’t take a biology degree to know what happens to an organism if it loses its spine.
Here’s Henderson’s verdict:
“This is the resignation of Eve, and it impacts the one group whose loyalty the church can least afford to lose. The people who for the most part run the church, attend church, and pray and serve at significantly higher rates than their male counterparts. Women.”
Lord, help us to rethink the way we do church. In particular, give us the courage to build a church that empowers women, both in the clergy and in the laity.
What about you? How have you seen the resignation of eve in your church?