Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Reflections on Red Shoes

Recently a friend and colleague, Christy Thomas, wrote a very thoughtful post entitled “Red High Heels and Annual Conference.”  She offered both practical and theological reasons why she would not be joining other clergywomen in wearing red shoes on the first Monday of Annual Conference.  While I have great respect for Christy and her reasons, I would like to offer the reasons I will  be wearing my new red shoes. 

Now I will say, practically speaking, I am not terribly good at wearing high heels.  These are about 5-inches; the highest I have ever had.  I have been practicing walking in them. I can’t wear such shoes all the time, or I would indeed wind up in the orthopedic ward.  However, I can still manage it for a day or two at a time. But why go to the trouble, the expense and (let’s be honest) the pain?


When I was a child in elementary school, I had to wear orthopedic shoes.  I hated them! Large and ugly, they only came in the colors of gray, brown and black, and provided lots of opportunities for being teased. Even when I was older and could wear shoes that were somewhat more normal, my feet were so narrow that the really cute, fashionable shoes never fit.  Not until after I had children and my feet widened was I able to wear shoes in colors other than black, white, brown and navy.  Now, call me shallow, but I have fun wearing cute shoes.  I don’t have many pairs of them; most of my shoes are still black (goes with the robe) and sensible.  But occasionally, I like to splurge and wear something fashionable and fun.  These new red shoes are fashionable and fun and I am still young and healthy enough to wear them. So I will.

But I would not do this just because it is fun, if I was theologically opposed to what the red shoes represent.  So I have my theological reasons as well.


I actually agree to some extent with Christy, that one way to understand our role in the pulpit is that the pastor should try to disappear behind the glory of God.  But there is another piece to being a pastor who is a woman: invisible is particularly difficult for me.  My voice is different; and I mean that both literally and metaphorically.  I have a higher pitched voice than most men; I have had some people tell me that their children paid more attention (at least at first) because of the novelty of the way my voice sounds.  But I also have a different voice as a preacher who is a woman.   I see things from a slightly different point of view.  I use examples that come out of my experience as a woman.  I talk about giving birth and mothering children.  And frankly, I can’t get away from the fact that people see me as a woman who preaches, even though I would prefer to be seen as a preacher who happens to be a woman.  And maybe that is not as bad as I think.  I want girls to know that a woman is just as capable of being a preacher as a man.  I can’t do that by being an “invisible pastor.”   


I always feel like I am going to fall when I wear these shoes.  Every step is a “step in faith” that I won’t fall and break my ankle.  So, like Jeremiah, I am going to wear these red shoes as a sign-act. Because God did not call me to be silent and safe.  God called me to speak with my woman’s voice. Sometimes God calls me to speak an unpopular word, take precarious stands, and step out in faith. I stand with my clergywomen colleagues because we are different. I continue to walk beside my clergywomen friends because we may need to hold each other up and pick each other up. And I am willing to stand out in the crowd because we have not come as far as we had hoped as women in ministry.  The Bishop made that abundantly clear at the meeting we had of lead women pastors. 
So, someone needs to say that women don’t need protection, we need support.  Someone needs to say that we really can fight our own battles, but we can’t fight alone.  We need to remind others and one another that the best way to convince people that women can be pastors is to preach Jesus and be an effective leader.  Competence convinces.  If we make disciples of Jesus Christ, those disciples will not care that we are female.  In my experience, when people are hurting because their mom has just died of cancer or their child was drowned in a neighbor’s pool or their teenager has just tried to commit suicide, they really don’t care that I am female.  They just want a pastor.  

If we are stepping out in faith, we are always going to feel like we are balancing on 5-inch heels; like we might fall if we take a false step. But that is our reality. 


Will we lose members because people are opposed to women in the pulpit? Oh, yes. Will we lose big givers for the same reason? Most definitely.  Does the church, does the conference, have the guts to see it through?  Don’t know.

I do know this, however.  The truly “unchurched” couldn’t care less that the pastor is a female or what kind of shoes she is wearing.  People who don’t consider the bible the “Word of God” are not going to be influenced by I Timothy 2:11-14.  (Does this even need to be said?) If our goal is to keep our good members from being stolen by nondenominational churches, then, okay, we may have a problem in putting a woman in a church.  But if our goal really is to reach people with the message of Jesus Christ, to build the kingdom, then we all may have to make some sacrifices.  We may have to step out in faith – conference cabinets and bishops included and appoint someone besides perfect young, white male pastors with lovely wives and 2.5 kids.  (For the NTCUM’s among you, check out how many of these appointments have been made to large churches recently.) We need all the people we can get – people of color, and women in red heels included – to preach the gospel and share the love of God. And if that causes a drop in giving at a church, if a pastor is threatened with losing salary or not paying apportionments because of gender or race or whatever, then other pastors need to step up to the plate and make sure that salary gets paid, even if it is out of their own 6 figure salary.  Now that’s a radical idea! If we are all committed to the kingdom, we need to make sure the kingdom doesn’t get cheated out of servants.

This is a lot to get from red shoes.  But for me the red shoes represent all of this.  However, I do have one more comment to make.  Christy is right that many women don’t even have shoes.  I can’t solve all the problems of shoes in the world and not buying/wearing my shoes because some don’t have them is a little like being told to eat all the food on my plate because of all the “starving children in China.”  But I can do this: in honor of clergywomen and my red shoes, I will donate a pair of professional shoes in my size to an organization such as Dress for Success (which helps women dress professionally for job interviews).  And I will wear my red shoes to Annual Conference, even though (or maybe because) every step I take in them is a step in faith.

Thoughts, comments, shoe stories?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Women in Ministry - Answering the questions

A number of years ago, I was contacted by a young man who was writing a paper on women in the ministry.  He asked if I would be willing to answer a number of questions; these are my answers.  I have used them over the years when people have asked me why I believe that women are allowed to preach.

I am sharing them now because of a discussion that we had today in a meeting of clergywomen who are lead pastors.  One of the issues we discussed was the need to have “elevator answers” to the questions that we get from people.  In addition, we need to teach our laypeople those elevator answers to use when they are accosted on the soccer field by folks from non-denominational churches asking them how they can attend a church pastored by a woman. I am including all the questions and answers, but the “elevator answers” can be found under #4. Comments and questions are, as always, welcome. But, as always, please keep it civil or I will remove your comments.  I don’t mind disagreements (even relish them!) but I will not allow verbal attacks.

 1.  What schools have you attended, and what types of degrees do you have?
 I have a B.A. degree in Molecular Biology from Vanderbilt University.  I have a MTS (Master of Theological Studies) from Perkins School of Theology at SMU and a PhD in Hebrew Bible from SMU
2. What led you into the ministry?
I think that I always was led to do ministry.  When I was in 6th grade I was on the Missions Committee at church.  I helped teach Sunday School and helped out with Vacation Bible School when I was in youth and I was involved in everything the church did.

What led me to enter seminary was Disciple Bible Study.  At the end of this study, each member of the class is asked to reflect on what gifts they have for ministry (in the United Methodist Church we believe that everyone has gifts for ministry, though not everyone has gifts for ordained ministry).  I wasn’t really sure at the time what my gifts were, but I thought probably teaching.  I volunteered to help with the Disciple class the next year and by the end of that year I had felt a call to professional ministry.  At first I thought I would go into Christian education, but I finally accepted the fact that God was calling me into ordained ministry, i.e. preaching.
3.  What led you to become a pastor?
 In the United Methodist Church, we have to go through a long process of discernment to determine just what our call is.  At the same time that I entered seminary I also began the Ministry Inquiry process.  I did Bible study with a Mentor pastor, interviewed four or five pastors in different kinds of ministries (large churches, small churches, hospital chaplains, etc.).  I went before our District Committee on Ordained Ministry and interviewed with them.  I went before my home church and they had to vote to recommend me for the process.  In other words, a long process.

I didn’t like a lot of the process at the time, but it did help me understand and articulate my call and helped me understand that I am definitely called to pastoral ministry and not to a specialized ministry such as teaching or chaplaincy.

Basically I am a pastor because I feel called to share the Word of God in preaching and teaching.  I feel called to administer the Sacraments.  (The sacraments have always been very important to me; I memorized the communion service when I was twelve just because I wanted to be able to remember it.)  I also feel called to provide leadership for the church. 

I tried to ignore my call for a number of years because I was very shy and did not like to speak in front of people, but God was very persistent!
4.  How do you feel about the controversy of women in the pulpit?

I understand and respect those who are opposed to women in the pulpit, but I think that they are ignoring important parts of the Bible.  For instance in the Old Testament one of the judges of early Israel was Deborah.  In fact she is the only judge about whom the Bible says that she actually made judgments for the people (Judges 4:5).  Then there was Huldah, a prophetess to whom King Josiah sent the manuscripts found in the temple.  She is the one who proclaimed them authentic and warned the King to obey what they said.  Since she was called a prophetess, by definition she spoke the word of God. (2 Kings 22:14-20)

In the New Testament, several women around Jesus clearly did preach.  For example in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well, after the conversation, the woman goes back to the village and witnesses to the villagers who then come to Christ (John 4:28).  This seems to me the definition of preaching – sharing the Good news in public so that people come to know Jesus.

Also the first person in the Gospel of John to whom Jesus speaks is Mary Magdalene.  Peter and John have been at the tomb, but Jesus chooses to speak to the woman and says to her “Go and tell,” thereby commanding her to preach to the other disciples of his resurrection (John 20:17).

Paul has often been thought to deny women the opportunity to speak and certainly some texts do seem to indicate that, specifically1Timothy 2:10-12.  However, a number of scholars dispute that this is truly written by Paul (for reasons that are too complex to explain here).  Regardless of whether or not Paul wrote this, it is in the scriptures, so has to be taken seriously. I believe that this text is referring to a specific situation in a specific church where women speaking would have offended people in the surrounding culture.

One reason I don’t believe that this was Paul’s general attitude is because in other cases Paul clearly regards women as fellow workers: for instance Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) and Priscilla (Romans 16:3, see also Acts 18:26 where she helps to instruct Apollos).  And certainly Paul never distinguishes between gifts for women and gifts for men in his lists of gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In summary, there is some evidence in the Bible that argues against women being preachers, but I think the weight of evidence is in favor of women being called as well as men. 

5.  Does any of the controversy directly affect you, and how do you handle it?

 Very little of the controversy directly affects me.  Occasionally in my early ministry I would encounter folks who were not happy about having a woman pastor (these were very small churches in rural areas), but after hearing me preach for a while and experience my pastoral care, they usually came around.  Since my name is on the sign outside the church, most people know when they come to Oak Grove that a woman is the Pastor and if they don’t like that they just don’t visit.  I have had a number of people who come to weddings and funerals here say that they were not sure what to expect, but that they realized after they heard me that women can preach about Jesus just like men do!  I think that when people realize that I am not a rabid feminist and that I just want to be a faithful and competent pastor, they get over the “woman pastor” thing.

I never try to argue with those who think I shouldn’t be preaching (other than simply laying out my point of view as I have done here).  I don’t think such arguments further the cause of the kingdom.  I know that I am called and that people are coming to Christ through my ministry and that is all I care about .  I cannot control the judgments of others; I answer to God.

This part of my answer would change now. The controversy has directly affected me in two of the churches that I pastored.  At one of those churches I was the second woman in a row, so most of those who didn’t like women preachers had already left.  However, the pastor at the largest Baptist church in town actively tried to recruit our youth, telling them that they were doomed for 2 reasons: they had a woman pastor and they were not baptized (i.e. dunked).  In the most recent church I pastored, I had people leave the church because I was a woman.  Thankfully others were glad to have a woman because they felt that I was a good role model for their daughters.  Overall, I was pretty well accepted in the community, but being a woman was still a handicap. (I know some women clergy will resent me saying this, but it is the truth.)  It was clear that some people simply did not take me seriously as a pastor, no matter how well I did.

How did I deal with it?  That answer is still the same: competence and grace are the only ways I know to deal with negative attitudes. I continued to be as kind and gracious as possible to those that left the church. If they wanted to discuss the biblical issues, I would give them my point of view, but I rarely changed minds by arguing the case.  I did change minds by being a good pastor.