Sustaining Women Clergy: A Call to Action

4 comments Written on May 27th, 2015     
Filed under: Testimonies and Stories
Corrie Gustafson is an ordained Covenant pastor and the Pacific Southwest liaison for Advocates for Covenant Clergy Women (ACCW). She currently serves as the Pastor to Women at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California. She blogs regularly at http://pastorwithapurse.com

Gustafson, Corrie_crLast month I attended the Pacific Southwest Conference annual meeting and there I hosted a gathering for clergy women. 15 women showed up, among them chaplains, staff pastors, senior pastors, bivocational ministers, non-profit leaders, and conference staff. We had a time of open sharing framed by this question: where do you see the ink of the Holy Spirit in your ministry?

I’ve attended many such gatherings over the years, and now hosted a handful. I’ve learned that camaraderie among women clergy is a critical force in sustaining our ministry in the church and the world. It’s incredibly encouraging to both testify to and bear witness to God’s work through women with such diverse calls and gifts.

Despite the many inspiring stories, there’s always a sobering element to our meetings. I’ve never been to a gathering of Covenant clergy women that was unburdened by a story, or stories, of pain. Like the story of a staff pastor who resigned because she was bullied by her senior pastor. Or the testimony of a pastor who serves her church faithfully and her efforts are bearing rich fruit, but she is paid significantly less than her male colleagues of the same experience and education level. Or a pastor who bravely took a call to lead a struggling church (a call declined by several male candidates) and the slow climb to congregational health is blamed on her perceived “lack of experience.”

Just a few years ago I was the one sharing a painful story at a conference gathering. I was open to call from 2010 through 2014. During that time I spent 19 months unemployed. When I was working in ministry, it was very part time or in short contract positions. With 8 years of theological education and as many years of ministry experience, I was living on the poverty line, eligible for government assistance. And while I was busy applying to hundreds of jobs, preparing for interviews, and trying to process all the rejection in a healthy way, I watched some of my male friends get recruited for jobs they hadn’t applied for, and heard others complain about how hard it was to choose between the two churches that wanted them.

Those were my desert years, a time of stark contrast when I felt near to God and resolved to follow his call, but also lost and alone. I remember reflecting with a friend about my seminary training, saying, “My professors and mentors told me how difficult ministry would be, but no one ever prepared me for this.” By this I meant the spirit-breaking pain of rejection, isolation, and discrimination; of being poor and powerless in ministry.

In sharing these stories, I do not want to minimize the very real struggles that my brothers in ministry face. Ministry is difficult no matter your gender and being male does not automatically pave smooth steps to the pulpit. As pastors, the cross we bear is heavy, even in healthy congregations and contexts. Pain is an inevitable part of a life of ministry. But if you’ll allow me the latitude to generalize based on stories gathered from across the country over 12 years of ministry, I believe that ministry is especially challenging for women.

One of the great dangers for women clergy is that pain can become our dominant story. When difficulties stack up quickly and leave us feeling smashed or hemmed in, you can imagine how hard it is to hold onto hope or scrape together a positive attitude. The truth is that God is good all the time. God advocates for us always, when we are strong and when we are exhausted. God is working through us in everyday moments to expand and strengthen his kingdom. God is in this with us, even when feel aimless. But when we are in pain, it’s just so hard to believe that truth. To use it as fuel for ministry. To have the eyes to see God in the everyday.

Pain should not be the dominant story for so many of our women clergy! I hope you believe that with me. I hope the stories I’ve mentioned stir your soul. But I confess that I want more than your empathy – I want your discontent. I want these stories of pain to spark a fire under you that cannot be easily banked. I want to move you to action because the truth is, my sisters and I in ACCW cannot prevent or combat this pain alone. We need your voice added to ours. We need your feet in the sand beside us as we trudge toward the promised land of equality.

If you care about the health of the women ministers you know, and the ones you don’t, then put yourself in action! If you’re not sure what to do, here are some ways to begin.

  1. Go hear her story – Are there women in your pastor cluster or serving in your area? Invite them to coffee or lunch and specifically ask them to share the real and raw story of what it is like to be a woman in ministry. Not all will have stories of great struggle or pain, but many will. Listen well with a heart to believe her. Ask good questions, like if she feels well supported in her ministry and what would help her thrive. Notice how her story moves you, raises questions, or motivates you. And after you do all this, pray about how you might be part of her support network. How might you take part in sustaining her soul so that her ministry can bear fruit?
  2. Stir up your circle of influence – Where do you have influence? In a congregation, on a church or non-profit board, at a regional or national level? How can you raise awareness of the needs of women ministers in your context? How might you and your people actually meet those needs? When decisions and plans are being made for the future, think critically about what roadblocks might arise for women leaders. How can you shift plans to erase such roadblocks? Don’t just answer these questions; make the answers into action steps.
  3. Help her focus on hope – If you have a trusting relationship with a woman in ministry, you are in a critical position to sustain her. When ministry heats up and struggles threaten to overwhelm, how can you help her focus on hope rather than the pain? Without minimizing her struggle, remind her look for the moments when God shows up. Help her hold onto the truth of God’s character and gospel. And if she can’t see any hope, get a shovel and dig for it through prayer.
  4. Pray for change – This one might seem like a given, but how many of us regularly pray for greater gender equality in every sphere of God’s kingdom? I wonder what would happen in our churches, and in our denomination, if even 20 more people added this concern to their prayer list. I marvel at the fact that 2,000 years ago on Pentecost God poured the Spirit out on both men and women, commissioning them to be his kingdom in the world, and yet today so many women feel powerless and voiceless in the church! Prayer is a powerful change agent; let’s make it a priority.

I’ve said enough. My ideas are just a shortlist of all we can do to sustain women clergy. If you have other advocacy suggestions, please leave them in the comments section. Share this article in social media inviting more suggestions, and let’s stir up a firestorm of advocacy together.

 

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    4 comments “Sustaining Women Clergy: A Call to Action”

    Great word, Corrie!  Thanks for giving some practical and thoughtful advice for people to help us move into a new day. The BGE Commission is committed to spurring action on this, which is the motivation behind the Deborah Project. http://www.covchurch.org/resources/develop-a-deborah/ 

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    Corrie, this is such an excellent essay. I appreciate the way you remind us not to minimize the pain women carry yet provide practical advice for helping them navigate these difficult waters. Excited about the Deborah Project and looking forward to the change that is on the horizon!

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    Thanks Corrie for sharing your journey and the ways in which advocates can support, encourage and become companions of women clergy who are on their journey of call. I’d like to add to your list by asking our brothers who have women on staff to review their ministry portfolio and to make the adjustments necessary to be fair employers and pay women clergy who are serving faithfully without pay. To hold credentials within the ministerium these women need to be paid for the ministry they offer in their local churches. I have heard of far too many women who have been called by their local church but are not paid a salary. This too is a journey of suffering and pain. We can do better and we should do better. Catherine

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