pardon me, your sexism is showing


Knocked up?

Usually a phrase reserved for teenagers and unplanned pregnancy but it seems to be the same attitude conveyed by some when they find out their female pastor is pregnant.

Recently, I received this text from a former student of mine who is now a youth pastor. In what should be one of the most exciting joyous times in life, this is on her mind:

“Do you have time to talk? I just talked with my pastor about taking my baby to camps and retreats and stuff and he said as far as he is concerned it is not an option because I won’t be able to do my job.”

As we talked she unfolded the backstory and full conversation. This is a church that officially professes to be open to women in leadership. In fact, they take pride in being progressive and welcoming. So far the church has been supportive of her and the other females on staff. But now with her baby in the picture, it seems the church has been caught off guard and is trying to figure out how to handle it.The following  have been expressed particularly regarding camps and retreats:

  • that the baby will be a distraction for both her and the youth;
  • that she will not have time to be present with youth and children if the baby is anywhere on the camp property (even with a dedicated babysitter for the week);
  • that she won’t be able to sleep in the cabins with the youth and children at camp (despite the fact she has never slept in the same room with the youth in past years at camp);
  • that she should have considered her job before becoming pregnant;
  • that breast pumps were made for weeks away from the baby during the summer;
  • that her husband should stay home from the multi-church youth retreat to take care of the baby (even when the other male youth pastors will have their wives and children at the retreat);
  • and that a baby would make it difficult for boys to relate to her and would turn them away from her leadership.

She was female when they hired her. In fact they celebrated that fact! She hasn’t hidden who she is. AND, if I may say so myself, she is remarkably gifted in pastoral and leadership roles. She has done, and is doing, her job well. She has a plan in place for extra support and is doing a great deal of work ahead of time to ensure no one is inconvenienced during her short maternal leave of absence.

This happens too often for women.

Anyone – and I do mean anyone – who has seen me speak, lecture, or been with me as I’ve led multiple mission trips overseas and camps stateside in the last six years has only seen me accompanied by an entourage of one or more.

I’m a mom. Not only am I a mom but I’m a mom of three children aged 5, 3, and 1!

I’m also a minister, preacher, teacher, and writer.

I always disclose the fact that I’ll need to bring at least one of my children. I say something to the effect of “I’ll have to bring a baby, we need each other and we just can’t be apart for more than a few hours at a time.” Most often, the quick response is that they would be delighted to have me and it’s a bonus to see a real live person modeling ministry and family together.

I know several male pastors and male youth pastors who have taken their babies and children to camp. It is often a highlight for their own family and for all involved. It is an up close and personal time for many youth and young adults to see an intact family seeking to honor God together. I have another former student experiencing exactly this. He is encouraged to bring his wife and new baby around because it is good for his family and for the church.

Yet, I know too many female ministers who have had conversations similar to the one seen in the text message above.

I am neither naive nor unaware of the challenges and difficulties of having a child and serving in ministry. Having a child changes the way you do ministry. I made those changes myself. Now, I am less often the one leading midnight karaoke or flying down the zip line. I may actually take a rest during free time in the afternoon when previously I would have worked on the evening’s program. I may actually have to ask for help and delegate more.

Mostly though, I stopped having to be in control of everything and learned to invite others more frequently into the ministry that I once thought was solely my responsibility, which, by the way, sets them free for greater ministry. I get to be present with my own children as my faith and skills are stretched. More opportunities are opened up for me to sit on a porch holding the baby while having a deep, Holy Spirit filled conversation when I would have been sorting t-shirts or setting up prayer stations. In short, having a baby present forced me to accept a pace that invited conversation and shared the load, helping me to see not only that delegation was possible but that it is closer to the model of being the body of Christ.

I am a better minister and do my job better with my children present than without.

What words of encouragement can we send to this youth pastor – and countless others – who are, have been, or will be in similar circumstances? What do we say to let her know that having a baby is NOT the end of their ministerial career? The initial opposition expressed by some at her church has led to much discussion and many committee meetings.  Some are supportive, some not so much, some are in the middle wanting to hear both sides.  Now they are trying to figure out what it will look like for her to be a minister and mom.

She has heard what I have to say. What do you say?

Sexism by any other name . . . .

Christianity Today posted a web-article this week, entitled The Benevolent Sexism at Christian Colleges. Biola University professors and researchers, Brad Christerson, M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall and Shelly Cunningham offer a glimpse into the experiences for many female faculty at Christian liberal arts universities. As I read through the article, I felt like they were describing my life. I’ll offer a few key comments based on my own personal experiences and then invite as many as would like, into the discussion, particularly my two colleagues on this blog.

Christerson, Hall and Cunningham call the particular dynamic of male-female collegiality on Christian college campuses, benevolent sexism. “Benevolent sexism refers to sexism that is not overtly hostile. In fact, it is often in the context of warm, friendly personal relationships between men and women.” I have taught in environments where the sexism was overtly hostile, but where I am now there is an ethos of collegiality and my relationships with my male colleagues are marked, for the most part, by relationships in which I am treated with kindness and respect. What makes my relationships different though, than what I observe in male-to-male relationships is that men tend to earn and give respect based on their intellectual and academic accomplishments. The respect and kindness afforded me most often seems to be for my being womanly – e.g. nurturing, tender.

The article points out that the results of this study show female faculty often feel excluded from male social groups in part because “evangelicals are more guarded about cross-gender relationships.” The theological wars over issues of women in leadership, the roles of women and men, among other things has fostered an ethos in which men and women are socially awkward in relating professionally with one another. Should a male colleague and a female colleague meet in an office alone to discuss a research project? Can they meet for lunch or at a coffee shop? If someone sees them, what will people think of them? The typical end result of this awkwardness and paranoia is that it’s often just easier NOT to engage professionally, which consequently means that women get left out of the discussion. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have felt excluded from professional conversations in which I knew or suspected that it was primarily because of my gender. And, sometimes, I was the one making that choice.

Finally, a point closely related, was “how social exclusion leads to professional disadvantages by virtue of being left out of informal information-sharing networks. . . .” In my own experience, for many, many years, I have watched as the men go to lunch together, talk shop over coffee, play sports together, socialize together with their families and very rarely was I or any other female faculty member included. And, here is where the benevolent part comes in. Many of my male colleagues would consider me a friend, and if I raise the issue of women being left out of social networks, I typically receive two kinds of comments: “We are not stopping you from having your own social networks;” or “you may be right, but it’s too uncomfortable, it’s not appropriate or healthy, etc.” And the researchers are correct, in that this subtle benevolent form of sexism leads to less academic and professional opportunities for women: advancement and promotion, grants, access to networks that lead to book contracts, journal articles, etc. Succeeding professionally is often about mentors and networking, getting your name out there because of the social networks you develop. The ethos of benevolent sexism on Christian college campuses makes it much more difficult for women to develop the needed relationships to thrive professionally. Sexism by any other name is still sexism.