I was 20 years old and sat with a small group of church leaders. Sitting around a small conference table routinely covering logistics, there was nothing notable about the agenda. At the end of the meeting the pastor said with a grin on his face, “Ok…I’d like to open up the floor for you guys to ask any question you want. No question is off limits.”
We all sat there in quiet for a few moments. At first I thought that I didn’t have any questions. But by some serendipitous twist of fate, the life-altering question popped into my head and before I knew it, I was hearing myself ask, “What is this church’s stance on women in ministry? What do you believe about women being pastors?”
To this day, I’m not sure why I asked that question. I had never been overtly curious about this subject. I had grown up in the church absorbing the teaching of men as leaders and women as loving and submissive followers. It had never bothered me so I really wasn’t looking for a specific answer.
As soon as the words left my lips the room grew strangely quiet as if some one had sucked the air out of all of those present. The fluorescent lights seemed to get brighter and I squinted in embarrassment not understanding how my question had caused such instant tension. I had no idea the storm those words would create in my life so I just sat there with eager anticipation, waiting to hear a simple and straightforward answer.
What followed instead, was a heated discussion where painful words like “feminazi” and “bra-burner” and “rebellious spirit” were thrown around. At one point a male staff member [who had the word “Pastor” on his name tag] said, “If I were a woman, I wouldn’t even want to lead or be a pastor. It’s just not what a women should desire in life.” The other two women in the room said very little but one of them eventually told the group that “titles were not important to her and that the issue did not matter much to her”.
My heart was racing fast and my face was flushed. I was humiliated that I had so unknowingly asked a question that could create such a firestorm. I was angry that the men in the room were telling me what I, as a woman, should want or feel. I was outraged that the women in the room acquiesced with an air of false humility and embarrassment.
I was shocked at how the pastor refused to take a stand on the issue and how he never, not once during the conversation, looked me in the eyes. I wanted to know that he had studied this topic. I wanted to know that he had a conviction about it. And what I didn’t know then but I know so hauntingly now, is that I wanted to know that he believed in me, a woman. That he saw my raw talent and tender heart and courageous spirit and that he believed it should be shared with God’s people.
He eventually did say that this topic was not an issue he was willing to pursue because it would cause dissension within his congregation and dissension was not of God. When I pushed him to elaborate on this motivation and challenged him to seek the truth [whether it made people angry or not] he shut the conversation down and said we had to move on with our day. As the argument died down we all kind of sat there a bit bewildered as to what had just happened. Not knowing what else to say, the pastor spoke up, “Well, Rebecca. I hope this conversation was helpful.” I responded as humbly as I could muster, “Well…actually, no. I am more confused now than before I asked the question.” His response was, “I’m sorry to hear that.” And the meeting was over.
Now 15 years later, I still get a pit in my stomach when I think about that meeting. The sting of the words and insinuations has dulled but it left me with an insatiable desire to know what I believe about this. Had it not been for that meeting I may have never gone on the beautiful journey of discovering my own strengths. I may have never learned about the plight of women and girls around the world. Perhaps I would never have combed through the Bible and other books of history and seen with fresh eyes the way that patriarchy raped humanity of the female voice. Maybe I wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to feel the rage of injustice that made me want to burn down the structural violence our society has created against women. And maybe, just maybe, I would not have been introduced to the incredibly fearless women and men who speak out against this madness and speak up for those who have suffered under this oppression. My appropriate rage fueled my journey and it pushed me from the rocky cliffs of a hard heart back to the fertile valley of tenderness and compassion. The path was overgrown with words like forgiveness, mercy and grace.
I am infinitely grateful for the way that I felt in that meeting that day. So many years later I know that had I not felt so small, so insignificant, sitting there in that stark conference room I would not have experienced the true exhilaration of empowerment. The wounds inflicted are still tender but I want them to be. I don’t want to grow numb against the pain because it may dull my passion to be a voice calling out to other women and girls, “You are talented and tender and courageous! God’s people need to know you!”