Whose Voice is Missing?

“Hey, Laurie, what’s up with the feature in the paper, ‘Is Religion Sexist?  Panelists Discuss Gender Imbalance in the Church.’ You’ve got to be kidding!  Did you see this article by the Ethics and Religion Talk Panel and that great stock picture of you?  There are all men on the panel, and they didn’t quote you!”  Click here to read the article.

My curiosity piqued by my friend’s email, I found the Religion Section of the October 18 Grand Rapids Press.  There was the article on the front page along with a prominent color photo from 2006 when I served in a previous church.  The Ethics and Religion Talk feature is compiled and written by David Krishef, rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, with readers submitting questions and panelists weighing in on their perspectives.

Since August Krishef and his panel have tackled lively and timely issues such as birth control, marijuana, how to respond to a beggar on the street, depicting God in art, and organ donation.  When the MLive group of Michigan newspapers announced this new interactive feature, however, critics immediately pointed out that the panel included 6 male clergy.  In response the panel added a woman from the Catholic Church, which still does not represent gender equity, especially since that voice comes from a church which does not permit women clergy.  Furthermore, this lone voice for women was not even included in the article.

I have never fashioned myself to be a crusader for women’s rights, although many things were off limits during my formative years simply because I was a girl.  Over 30 years of ministry my primary goals have been excellence, faithfulness, and the kind of spiritual depth and leadership that creates healthy and vital churches.  I’ve always believed that competence speaks for itself.  At the same time I realize that there are still networks of power and status that shut women out of the highest levels of leadership.

Like other women I am acquainted with sexism in the church.  When I shared my call to ministry with my pastor’s wife when I was in graduate school, she said, “If all potential women pastors were like you, I’d support women in the ministry.  But they’re not, so we can’t allow any women to be pastors.”  I was among the first women ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church, but all of the clergy in the Eastern District Conference boycotted my ordination service.  Eventually transferring my ordination credentials to The United Methodist Church opened many more doors to me as a woman, yet sexist attitudes lingered.

I’ve had families leave one of the churches I served simply because I was a woman, never even giving me a chance.  I’ve heard every argument under the sun for why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors.  I’ve seen women clergy receive lower pay than men of equal ability and be passed over for larger churches for no apparent reason.  My clothes, shoes, hair, and parenting have been freely critiqued.

At the same time I have been blessed beyond measure by countless parishioners who believe that both women and men are called by God into the professional ministry and are gifted with spiritual leadership.  Effective and amazing transformation takes place when clergy and laity, men and women, partner as laborers in the field of God’s kingdom.  I thank God for congregations who do not stereotype women clergy any more than they do male clergy.

I was surprised by the October 18 Ethics and Religion feature in the Grand Rapids Press but not because of the content.  Yes, I disagreed with Rabbi Krishef when he said, “I have to point out that it is the repressive political system – one not open to religious freedom – rather than a repressive religious tradition that has created the oppression (of women).”  I and countless other women have personally experienced repressive religious traditions.

I also took issue with Rev. Christian, who quoted Galatians 3:28, “There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ.”  Then he stated, “Some churches, including ours, disagree regarding women as senior pastors, but not as pastors.”  What is the difference between a pastor and a senior pastor anyway?  If it’s authority, how is the authority of women senior pastors not acceptable while the authority of “ordinary” women pastors is?  And if it’s age, then I guess I qualify as a senior pastor because AARP’s been wooing me for a while.

Rev. Christian’s statement, “In creation, God saved the best for last: women,” strikes me as a sexist statement in itself.  There is no best and worst in God’s kingdom.  We are all equal in God’s sight.  Furthermore, his quote, “There is a godly order in the home, but not for suppression,” highlights the immense gulf that still exists in the perception of women’s roles among Christian groups today.

It’s healthy to agree to disagree and still respect and honor one another.  However, beyond the content of the article, it was the publishing process itself that was troublesome.  Despite a disclaimer with an excuse for why all 3 panelists were male, how could an article about women in religious leadership exclude the voice of women themselves?  The panel’s good intentions are not in question, but the absence of women’s voices is indicative of institutional sexism.

The Press reporter and panel convener could not find even one woman to express her views on this matter, yet a stock photo of a woman pastor was evidently available.  I’ve lived in Grand Rapids for the past 19 years and am readily accessible by phone or email, yet I was never contacted.  Was my picture deemed more important than my words?  If so, what does that say about gender imbalance in the church?  A number of people commented about the article, asking incredulously, “We saw your picture and were eager to read what you had to say about the issue, but there was nothing.  Don’t you think that’s strange?”

My picture was there, but I was invisible, along with the many other women clergy in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area.  The United Methodist Church itself has at least 2 dozen clergywomen within the reading audience of the Grand Rapids Press, yet no one from the Press or the panel thought about publishing a current picture and hearing from a current woman pastor.  Are only males eligible to speak about female leadership in the church?

It was particularly telling that of the 20 online comments about the article, not one reader decried either the lack of women’s voices on the panel or the fact that the woman whose picture accompanied the article was never quoted.  Rather, they all focused on their own opinions about what the Bible says regarding women’s leadership in various religions and in our world.

The article, “Is Religion Sexist?” is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink the “isms,” those exclusionary and discriminatory practices that have limited the richness of the God-given gifts that abound in our world.

  • Can we talk about racism with integrity without hearing directly from African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups?
  • Can we talk about immigration with understanding without soliciting the experiences of immigrants themselves, documented or undocumented?
  • Can we talk about other religions with respect without listening to the voices of the people who practice those religions?
  • Can we talk about homosexuality with an open mind without having conversation with those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered?
  • Can we talk about disability issues with sensitivity without hearing from those who live with disabilities?
  • Can we talk about the poor and unemployed with compassion without engaging their stories? 

This year, 2012, is the Year of Interfaith Understanding in Grand Rapids.  In one of the churches I serve we have invited people representing diverse religious traditions to preach one Sunday a month and speak to an adult Sunday school class.  We’ve learned about Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, Quakerism, Native American spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Our horizons have been broadened, and we have learned much.  But more important, we have discovered how condescending it can be to talk about anyone without inviting them to the table and allowing them to speak for themselves.

Whose voice is missing at your table?

From whom do our congregations need to hear in order to understand the fullness of religious expression in our world? 

Will you resist making assumptions about others without talking directly with them?

Can you enlarge your borders to include those who can teach you?

I have been silenced before, and I will likely be silenced again.  But this time I speak out not for myself but for my children and grandchildren and all of God’s children in our world.  I speak out for the voiceless, the invisible, the rejected, the forgotten, the abused, the dismissed, the victimized, and all the Lazarus’ of this world who eat the scraps from their master’s table.

May the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead guide our living and serving, “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”