Monday, 27 January 2014

Women in Ministry: Here to Stay

When a South Georgia congregation hired me in 1973 as their first full-time Minister of Music, Baptist women ministers were extremely rare. I had almost no female peers, anywhere.

Needing community, I soon joined a group of Baptist music ministers (all male, of course) who gathered monthly for inspiration and peer support. Usually I was the only female in the room (someone's wife or female accompanist would join us occasionally), but they accepted me as a sister in music ministry.

We enjoyed being together. They listened to my presentations and comments, and accepted my choirs equally at festivals and other church music events. They became my friends and co-ministers, helping shape my early years in music ministry.

By the mid-1980s, the Women in Ministry movement was gathering steam, receiving lots of press in Baptist publications. There were still very few female music ministers among Georgia Baptists, but overall, the ranks of women ministers--especially youth or education ministers--were starting to swell.

Several of us met in Decatur and officially formed a Georgia Baptist Women in Ministry group. I enjoyed helping launch this organization, even though I soon moved away and couldn't participate in its development.

I did help distribute colorful fliers announcing our group's formation at the Georgia Baptist Convention that year. The room was aglow with hot pink. Women ministers were here to stay.

Earlier, I'd begun writing about Women in Ministry issues. Over and over, I heard women ministers tell stories of both frustration and fulfillment in their ministry settings.

We all supported each other, but knew that sharing only with female peers was not enough. In order to facilitate change within congregations, we needed a larger forum.

Ironically, we also needed outspoken men to support us. Powerful male pastors and congregations who adamantly oppose women in church leadership roles only listen seriously to other men, never women.

Prior to drafting my first article, I surveyed Baptist women ministers throughout Georgia, requesting anecdotal responses to questions regarding calling, ordination, salaries, roles and relationships with pastors/congregations/staff members.

They had plenty to say, writing in the margins and on the backs of the survey pages.

When asked about obstacles, they noted that just getting hired as a minister was the biggest challenge, because of women's uniqueness. One woman reported being introduced to a male pastor who blurted, "Oh, a real, live woman minister!"

Once employed, some women reported being perceived more as secretaries than ministers--expected to do their own clerical work, for instance, and receiving lower salaries than comparable male ministers.

One was constantly asked, "Where is your husband ministering?" (He was an architect, not a minister.) Another told of being patted on the head by a male minister.

One woman music minister was told she could lead the choir, but not the congregational music. Another was told she could lead the youth and children's choirs but not the adult choir, because there were men in it.

Others were told to sing but not speak. Stand to the side of the pulpit when leading hymns. Refrain from wearing slacks when on the podium…or when shopping.

Visitors one Sunday morning assumed the woman minister leading the music was a substitute for the "real" (male) minister. They returned the next Sunday, exclaiming, "You're still here!?"

Despite misperceptions and imposed limitations, these women all remained certain of their calling. In the face of Bible thumpers or well-meaning, but unenlightened congregations, they acknowledged God's claim upon their hearts and lives as ministers.

Constant affirmations from those to whom they ministered helped validate their call to ministry, like the father whose son conducted his first Christmas cantata as a minister of music: "I would not be here tonight except for your influence on my son."

They delighted in the changing perceptions of women ministers. Revivals were common then, and one woman music minister invited a male acquaintance to be guest music evangelist. After the first service, her young son said, "Wow, Mommy, I didn't know men did that!"

In the 21st century, the Women in Ministry movement, like the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty, has taken great strides, but still has miles to go. "Everything changes, yet everything remains the same."

Qualified, called women ministers permeate every area of Baptist life, yet many still enjoy far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts.

Congregational attitudes are slowly evolving, but many women ministers continue to have difficulty getting hired (especially for "platform positions," i.e., pastor or music minister), and struggle with opposition or misperceptions about their ministerial roles. 

Women ministers are building on their past and looking towards a promising future. One thing is clear: women ministers need supportive relationships with their peers--both female and male--to help shape their lives and ministries. In order to thrive, women ministers need community with others who are divinely called to professional ministry.  

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Inclusive Language & the Church: Fishers of Men?

 (4th in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.) 

"I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.
If you follow me, if you follow me (glory hallelujah),
I will make you fishers of men if you follow me."

This little Sunday School song, attributed to Harry D. Clarke in 1927, was especially popular during the evangelistic eras of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham crusades.

Many children's church songs of that period--"Deep and Wide," "If You're Happy and You Know It," "Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain," "Do Lord," "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam"--were replete with nebulous lyrics. But "Fishers of Men" at least had a solid scriptural foundation: Matthew 4:19.

I doubt this Scripture would be nearly as memorable except for the popularity of the "Fishers of Men" song. I grew up singing it, and still can't read that passage without hearing the tune in my head.

Unfortunately, the song text quotes the KJV, which is known for its gender-exclusive language. The text and tune of this song are so wedded, it's impossible to substitute gender-inclusive language as a correction of the lyrics and still have a decently crafted song.

Whenever I think of this song nowadays, I remember one amusing incident from several summers ago:

Lisa, my friend and ministry colleague, took a group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders to join other Kentucky church groups for a week of camp at a nearby Baptist college. Thursday afternoon of that week I visited the camp, hanging out with our group as they went about their activities. 

After supper, everyone came together in the chapel for a lively joint "worship" service (actually, more of a "God-themed pep rally"). Then each church group gathered in separate rooms to wrap-up some of the concepts introduced during the worship service.

Lisa first helped the children write thank-you notes to various supporters back home. Then she asked them to sit in a semi-circle in front of her on the floor.

After a few minutes of listening to the children relate what they had learned that day, she began a discussion about using our spiritual gifts to further God's kingdom--one of the themes from the earlier service.

Now, Lisa is an excellent preacher. She preaches at our church several times a year, utilizing her well-prepared manuscripts. She is ordained, uses gender-inclusive language and Scripture translations regularly, and is at ease with extemporaneous speaking and facilitating theological discussions.

However, speaking without a manuscript always carries the risk of having to "think on one's feet." and when one has memorized KJV Scripture and sung gender-exclusive songs throughout one's childhood, these are the words that come to mind when speaking extemporaneously about Godly matters. Old habits die hard.

Anyway, back to the story...  As Lisa and the children were well into their discussion about using spiritual gifts, she said to the children: "The Bible says we are to be 'fishers of men.' Now, in order to be 'fishers of men,' what kind of bait should we use?"

One sixth-grade boy immediately raised his hand. “Women!” he blurted, not quite innocently, as his friends giggled.

Caught off guard, suddenly realizing how her inadvertent use of gender-exclusive language had prompted his answer, Lisa threw her head back and belly-laughed at his response.

It is so important that gender-inclusive language be used around children. Children are concrete thinkers, and more often than not they understand words and phrases literally.

Since even "inclusive" Scripture translations use only masculine pronouns for God, it's not surprising that children (and adults) think of God as male.

And since patriarchal grammar rules obscure female gender by absorbing them in terms such as "man," "men," "he," "his," "him," it's not surprising that children (and adults) think that males have priority status over females in both theological and practical matters.

I love the story of the little girl whose bedtime prayers included asking God to bless every family member, friend and pet (current and past) by name. At some point she began to add "and all girls" at the end of her nightly prayers.

Eventually, her father's curiosity finally got the best of him. He asked, "Why do you always add the part about all girls?" She responded, "Because everybody always finishes their prayers by saying, "all men!" Even at her tender age she understood the unfairness of females being left out. 

Adults have the power and the responsibility for helping shape the words and thinking of children—concepts that will follow them throughout their lives. What one learns during childhood "comes naturally" later.

Being intentional about using inclusive language will require diligent editing of our words, but it's important and gets easier with practice. And some songs like "Fishers of Men" just need to bite the dust.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Inclusive Language & the Church: A Male God?

 (3rd in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.) 

Much has been written in recent years about the negative effects of using masculine imagery and pronouns when referring to God.

The Scriptures tell us that God is neither male nor female, that God's nature encompasses both male and female characteristics. God is Spirit, indescribable.

Yet when it comes to choosing words that speak of God, we are deeply rooted in patriarchal tradition. World-wide language for God has for centuries been overwhelmingly masculine in biblical translations, liturgies, sermons, hymns/songs and everyday speech.

It has never occurred to some people that the pervasive use of masculine terminology and metaphors to speak of God might result in a skewed conceptualization of God as "masculine."

Author and hymnist Brian Wren (What Language Shall I Borrow?) writes: “To say that language choice is ‘mere metaphor’ or ‘only a matter of words’ is, however, unconvincing if the usage in question is persistent and widespread.

It is a fair assumption that persistent and systematic uses of language express what the speakers really think and match how they behave…[and] that the way we speak of God shapes and slants our understanding of God.”    

Our basic concept of God is formed at a very early age. There is some evidence that very young children may be more aware of God's presence than adults, though they are less able to articulate what they experience.

As an adult, I intentionally try to conceptualize God in broader, non-gender-related terms. But despite my best efforts, I still cannot entirely shake my childhood visualization of God as a blurry, light-skinned, grandfatherly figure with an inviting demeanor, a very large lap and long arms that reach out to embrace me as a child, along with lots of other children.

This imagery probably says as much about my psyche as it does my faith, but I am convinced that my religious upbringing--through books and Bible stories, worship language and song--had a lot to do with my early visioning of a masculine God.

Divinity professor Sheri Adams, ("God and Gender: Is God Male or Female? Both or Neither?"*) writes: “This powerful conditioning starts early and is very pervasive... I have asked many, many people what image they had of God when they were children. Almost to a person, people have responded that they thought of God in male terms.

...Most of the people…have sat through countless worship services in which every reference to God…was in male terms: he, him, his, Father, King, Lord. Every statement we make about God, every picture we produce of God, is an interpretation of God... From our interpretations come our theology and from our theology comes our guidelines for the Christian life.”

We think of God as having human-like qualities because that's what we know best. That's how we relate to others, and we want to have a close, personal relationship with God.

But we must remember that both males and females are "created in God's image." When we use only masculine imagery and pronouns to refer to God, we omit the balance of God's feminine nature.

We're so conditioned to speaking of God in masculine terms, it is often jarring to hear someone use "Mother God" or "She" to speak of God.

[If feminine imagery/pronouns were employed as frequently as masculine imagery/pronouns, there would not be as much activism against gender-exclusive language. But patriarchy reigns supreme, so we press on against the status quo.]

Several years ago I read Wm. Paul Young's wonderful religious novel, The Shack. Young has been criticized for imaging the Trinity as three completely separate human characters. But my favorite part was when he introduced the God-figure, an African-American female cook named Papa. (Talk about scrambling stereotypes!)

Actually, we have a bigger problem than using masculine references for God, or even substituting feminine references. When we think of God only in terms of human-like qualities, we limit our understanding of God's complex nature. God's character encompasses so much more than personhood.

To broaden our understanding of God, we might intentionally lay aside for a while any human-like references:

            · He, Him, His, Himself, Father, Lord, Master, King,
               or even She, Her, Mother, Parent, Ruler

[Note: Laying aside masculine pronouns will be the most difficult part of this exercise. With practice it gets easier. I've been able to avoid referring to God as "He" or "Him" when writing articles, litanies, lyrics, & prayers now for years--it's become second nature.]

Instead, we might speak of God using terms that highlight other aspects of God's character:

            · Names: God, Yahweh, Jehovah, I AM,
                              Divine Spirit, Maker, Godself 

            · Adjectives: Holy, Creator, Loving, Heavenly,
                                  Mighty, Good, Great, Worthy,
                                  Defending, Deliverer, Redeeming,
                                  Perfect, All-Wise, All-Knowing, Cosmic

Ultimately, changing our verbiage will change our thinking and living. Remember, there are "a thousand names for God," and we need to use them all. 

*from Putting Women in Their Place: Moving Beyond Gender Stereotypes in Church and Home, Joe & Audra Trull, authors

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Inclusive Language & the Church: Does "Man" Include Women?

(2nd in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)

American schools have long taught the English grammar rule that allows the words “man” and “he” to refer to both males and females. This practice has evolved along a convoluted path.

According to Carolyn Jacobson (English Department, University of Pennsylvania), "man” was once a truly generic word referring to all humans. One document even refers to a seventh-century princess as “a wonderful man.” But the meaning of the word “man” has gradually narrowed to refer only to males.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, upper class boys needed help preparing for their Latin studies, so English grammar rules were created. As a result, "he” officially came to mean “male, only," not “male and female.”

Then a problem arose with using “they” as a singular, rather than plural pronoun. Eventually, grammarians drafted legislation that included establishing “he” as a generic pronoun. An 1850 Act of Parliament officially stated that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”

The new law sanctioned "he" as a generic pronoun, but application of that law was quickly ignored. In 1879, for instance, female physicians seeking admission to the all-male Massachusetts Medical Society were denied acceptance because wording in the Society’s by-laws referred to members only as “he.”

English, like other languages, is still evolving. In the 21st century, pronouns like “man,” “men,” “he,” “him” and “his” are officially generic, but in practice they are usually male-specific. Studies show that, despite knowing traditional grammar rules, both adults and children tend to think of male, not female persons when hearing or reading masculine pronouns.

Author Carol Becker (Leading Women) observes that our grammar rules promote a double standard which allows both men and women to hear male language as neutral and female language as gender-biased, noting that "Our habit of using masculine pronouns reminds us constantly that men are active in human history. …Using 'he' to talk about humanity works in favor of men and contributes to the invisibility of women."

In O Come, Let Us Bow Down and Worship, author Deborah Moore Clark adds that we must choose our words carefully, because "language often warps and filters meaning and understanding. …Words, like mirrors, reflect our attitudes…bear witness to our beliefs…influence our behavior and the behavior of others."

That is why gender-inclusive language is foundational to the issue of "women's place" in church and society. The way we speak shapes the way we think and act. Women will never achieve full equality and opportunity as long as female gender is absorbed into male terminology and imagery.

It's not a matter of being politically correct; it's a matter of putting our theology into practice. The gospel message of inclusion cannot be delivered adequately in the vehicle of gender-exclusive language.

The good news is that we can begin changing the status quo, one individual at a time, by adjusting the way we speak and write. It will take sustained effort, akin to becoming fluent in a second language, but it can be done.

Where to begin? People often stumble over feminine imagery for God (a theological issue for some, which I will address in an upcoming article in this series). So it seems easier to start with using gender-inclusive terms (rather than male-oriented terms like "man" and "he") when speaking of males and females as a combined group.

1. A short list of terms that excludes females:

    he             males               lords                  guys

    him           man/men         brotherhood      gentlemen

    his            boys                 mankind            fellowman

    sons         lads                  fathers               brothers

    fellows     kings

2. A short list of terms that excludes males:

    she               woman/women      gals           lasses

    her                females                  girls           ladies

    daughters    sisterhood              mothers    sisters

3. A short list of terms that includes both females and males:

    person                          parent                     people
    internationals               sibling                     nations/nationals 
    multitudes                    people of God        child/children         
    everyone/everybody    one/one's                humans 
    child(ren) of God         anyone/anybody     community
    mortals                        human race            souls    
    they/their                     all creation              family/familial
    humankind/humanity   human beings        saint                     
    all/some/many/most    co-worker              lovers
    laborers together         sage                       neighbor 
    group/people group     friend                      loved ones 
    world/worldwide          folk                          all races
    kin/kindred                  all generations        team
    flock/sheep                 tribe                         heir
    all ages                      all lands   

The idea is to select inclusive terminology from list #3 (avoiding list #1) when speaking of women and men together.

Remember there will always be naysayers who dig up awkward grammar problems (most of which can be worked around) created by substituting gender-inclusive language. But with practice, everyday usage will become second nature for those who are intentional about including women linguistically.

As author Brian Wren (What Language Shall I Borrow?) notes: "Language, like tobacco, is habit forming. Some patterns of writing and speaking are addictive and may damage both the user and others who breathe the same linguistic atmosphere. If we . . . decide to kick the habit, we may get withdrawal symptoms and hostility or derision from other smokers. But in the end, we shall enjoy breathing fresh air.”

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Inclusive Language & the Church: Worth the Effort?

(1st in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)

Language is powerful. In the broad sense, language as a communication tool takes many forms: behavior, expression, gesture, tone, words. Language has power to bless or curse, inspire or deflate, heal or wound, clarify or confuse, include or exclude.
Theologian and hymn writer Brian Wren, in What Language Shall I Borrow?, says that “language has limited power ‘by itself,’ but it gains considerable power—to enable, oppress, or liberate—in the hands of powerful users.”
The most obvious form of language is words. Words may be written or spoken, read or sung, whispered or shouted. Language not only puts our thoughts into words; language shapes our very thinking.
The nuances of language evolve within cultures and subcultures: countries, regions, cities, even churches and families. In every culture, young children absorb the basic language—including words, phrases, idioms, gestures, inflection, tone—of their parents and siblings, intuiting meaning and usage as they begin to mimic words and phrases.
Formal education then fine-tunes children's inherent language skills, teaching them reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary and rules of grammar, all reinforced through repetition. One's primary language becomes second nature at a very early age.
Once language patterns are set, it then becomes difficult to make adjustments. Editing our primary language is more difficult than learning a second language because the words and idioms of our primary language come to mind so easily that adjusting the verbiage feels awkward, unnatural.

Making changes that are lasting also requires constant intentionality over long periods of time, which many regard as unnecessary and "too much work."
Such is the difficulty when trying to establish gender-inclusive language as normative in patriarchal cultures, where gender-exclusive language has been the primary language for centuries. Ingrained habits are extremely difficult to overcome and replace.
When someone points out another's use of gender-exclusive language, the response is often, "Well, English grammar rules say it's okay to use the word 'man' and 'he' to mean 'everyone.' Everyone knows what I mean." [Then why not just say what you really mean; why force people to interpret your words?]
We sometimes forget that those default grammar rules were themselves created by men who were educated and powerful. Women--who were not allowed a formal education--had no voice in making them. It is no surprise that the rules favor men over women.
Most likely, the rule-makers didn't intend to be "anti-women"; it's just that no one thought to include women in the process. That's one of the biggest problems with women's equality issues, anyway. It's often not so much that women are openly rejected; it's more likely that they are "invisible," simply not thought of.
Then when women object to being constantly overlooked, they are quickly labeled as "aggressive" or "domineering," both considered undesirable traits for women who are expected to be "passively pleasant" in the realm of males.
It is when women speak up that patriarchal society resists, pushing back towards the status quo. As Wren puts it, "Power over others is usually clung to rather than surrendered."
The more patriarchal the culture, the more its women are discounted, overlooked, rejected, considered unimportant, not worth the effort of intentional inclusion. Patriarchal grammar rules are just one of the ways that women are kept "in their place." 
Some may argue that perpetual use of outdated grammar rules (i.e., gender-exclusive language) is but a minor problem within efforts to raise the worldwide status of women. That "talk is cheap" and "actions speak louder than words."
On the one hand, that is true. But consider that gender-inclusive language is foundational to the entire question of "women's place" in church and society.
Language shapes thought; thought precedes action. Until the world speaks of women differently and thinks of women differently, women will not be treated differently in the long term.
Gender equity will never be fully achieved in church or society as long as gender-exclusive language is the norm. Only if enough people think gender-inclusive language is important enough to sustain intentional usage long enough will any real progress be made.
The larger question is, "Are women worth it?"

Monday, 20 February 2012

Responding to Truth

In 1978, Frank and Evelyn Stagg's groundbreaking book, "Woman in the World of Jesus," gave impetus to the modern Women in Ministry movement. The Staggs' meticulous research effectively poked large holes in prevailing Scripture interpretations that advocated male domination of women in church and home.

An uproar ensued among conservative pastors and husbands. The ground shook beneath the status quo platform of "women's place." Today, after decades of passionate debate, the controversy remains heated.

Shortly after the Staggs' book was published, one of my pastor colleagues was attending a conference at Southern Seminary, Louisville. He happened to be sitting with the Staggs at dinner one evening. The conversation drifted to their popular book.

At some point he asked Evelyn how she felt after completing all the research for their manuscript. She looked him square in the eye, set her jaw, and gave a one-word reply: "Mad."

Several years later I was gathering materials for an article* I was writing on Women in Ministry. By then I'd been full-time Minister of Music in a South Georgia church for over a decade--against all odds, considering the climate against women ministers.

Earlier, I'd become certified to teach public school choral music. But my circumstances changed unexpectedly and I "fell into" professional church music ministry instead.

Though I hadn't attended seminary, I found that I was well-prepared for music ministry. In addition to my formal choral training, I was the child of a church-planter Baptist preacher, and grew up doing all sorts of leadership tasks in mission settings. Also, for two summers during college, I conducted music schools in churches throughout Florida.

Unknowingly, I'd been preparing for a career in church music ministry all along. Yet, I'd never considered being a minister, and had no women music minister role models.

Since childhood I'd been taught to follow wherever Christ leads. So Christ called, I followed, and I've thrived as a Minister of Music for 30+ years.

In preparation for the article I was writing on "women's place," I sent a survey to Baptist women ministers throughout Georgia, garnering about twenty intense responses.

My plan was to fashion a mostly anecdotal article from their responses, including a section dealing with women's ordination issues.

Just one problem: I didn't feel qualified to write that section. No biblical scholar here--I hadn't even been to seminary yet. And the survey responses regarding ordination were only moderately helpful.

I remember sitting with KJV Bible in hand, wondering if I'd been wrong about "women's place." Certainly, what I was experiencing was different than what I'd been taught.

My instincts, satisfaction, and affirmation from the saints around me--not scholastic exegesis--had given me confidence in my calling.

With some trepidation, I breathed a quick prayer asking God to reveal whatever it was that I needed to know. Opening my Bible, I decided to focus on Jesus' words and actions.

Yeess!! There it was, clearly shown, even in the KJV. Affirmation after affirmation. How could anybody miss it?

Jesus didn't restrict women; he demolished the status quo. Jesus reserved his strongest admonitions for the religious power brokers, who usually got things wrong.

Jesus made no distinctions between women's and men's roles. He even freed Martha from the kitchen.

Jesus had women disciples. God gave the Good News of Jesus' resurrection first to women, and told them to proclaim it.

Women's "place"--just like men's--is next to Jesus' heart. Knowing Jesus brings boundless freedom, fulfillment and joy.

I can hear Jesus saying, "Follow me. Develop your gifts. Become the wonderful person God created you to be. I'll love you, be with you and partner with you always."

When the Holy Spirit reveals to women (and men) that the status quo they've bought into for so long is a lie--despite well-meaning instruction by trusted parents, religious leaders and mentors--their responses are varied: Shock. Betrayal. Bewilderment. Frustration.

Evelyn Stagg, after discovering truth through her own scholarly research, felt anger. Righteous anger at the misguided teachings of so many churches. Her response? Co-author a book that shares her findings.

For myself, after discovering biblical support for what I'd known all along in my soul, I felt relief, validation. My response? Write a blog advocating for women, especially women ministers--and be the finest Minister of Music that I can be.

Countless other women (and men) also use their little corner of the world to empower women: Activists. Politicians. Authors. Preachers. Social Workers. Mentors. Parents.

Some create websites and utilize social media; others organize conferences and give speeches. Some create informative reading materials; others mentor young women.

Some provide emotional support for battered women; others elevate the physical circumstances of needy women. Some are in-your-face activists; others advocate from behind the scenes.

Whatever the mode of our responses, our message is always the same: "The truth shall set you free."

[*Subsequently published in The Christian Index (GA) and The Southern Baptist Church Music Journal, which devoted the entire 1985 edition--including sensitive commentary about women's ordination--to articles by women music ministers. My, how the SBC's official stance has devolved since then.]

Monday, 8 August 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Scarcity Thinking & Domination

(4th in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Human relationships are complicated. Each of us is uniquely endowed with particular strengths, weaknesses, desires--and peculiarities. The very nature of being human is that we are created to live not only in relationship with God, but with all those other "peculiar" human beings. That's where things get messy.

For humans to live together peacefully on this planet, we must constantly make adjustments in order to get along with each other and achieve satisfying lives.

No matter what the connection--within families, with coworkers, friends, neighbors or people groups--human relationships are in a constant state of flux. We ebb and flow between conflict and resolution, brokenness and wholeness, anxiety and serenity, dissatisfaction and contentment.

Too often we get so stuck on the negative that we have little time or energy left to enjoy the positive aspects of our relationships.

One negative factor is our tendency toward "scarcity" thinking (your gain is my loss) rather than "abundance" thinking (plenty for everyone). We come by this naturally, entering this world as egocentric infants, assuming that everything revolves around our needs and wants.

We grab all we can for ourselves; we have to be taught to share. Unfortunately, many adults--even nations--never fully outgrow their egocentricity.

Scarcity thinking is hierarchical thinking. It's "who's on top," rooted in lack of trust in oneself, others and God. It's "if you win, I'll look or feel like a loser"; "if I don't control you, you will control me"; "if you get lots of praise and recognition, I'll look or feel stupid and insignificant"; "if I don't dominate or intimidate you, you will take advantage of me."

Domination issues underlie much of human conflict: bullying, gender inequities, racial unrest, economic gaps, abuse, war. To the degree that one party in a relationship is allowed to dominate, the other party is proportionately submissive.

Adult relationships tend to fall within one of four categories, each with predictable results:

1. Dominant party + submissive party, both parties comfortable with their roles = generally peaceful relationship.

2. Dominant party + submissive party, one party (usually the submissive one) uncomfortable with role = generally conflictual relationship.

3. Belief in equal parties, but difficulty working out roles in cultural context, one or both parties uncomfortable with role = generally conflictual relationship.

4. Equal parties, successfully working out details of roles, both parties comfortable with their roles = generally peaceful relationship.

Human relationships in category 1 rarely stay there very long. There is something innately human that resists being dominated by others, whether it's slaves seeking freedom, women seeking equality, or the poor seeking economic parity.

At best, category 1 relationships only maintain the status quo--a very tenuous "peace"--because what appears to be willing submission is often only passivity.

In category 1, relationships may outwardly appear to be peaceful because the submissive party has low self-esteem or is too weak or intimidated by the dominant party to protest the inequity.

Or the submissive party may have been indoctrinated, with not enough education or life experiences to discern unhealthy relationships. I once read of a girl who "accepted" incest throughout her early life because trusted relatives had convinced her that it was just "something girls do with fathers and brothers." She didn't know it was unacceptable until she went away to college.

Sometimes the submissive party in category 1 is unwilling to shake up the only way of life she/he has ever known. At the end of the Civil War, some newly-freed slaves begged their former masters to let them stay on as indentured servants because launching out on their own was too overwhelming.

Females growing up in male-dominated homes often enter into male-dominated relationships when they date or marry. For them, it's a familiar way of life, usually reinforced by patriarchal religious beliefs.

Some females, especially those who marry young, transfer directly from supervision by their fathers to supervision by their husbands. They don't comprehend that only God--not any other human being--is automatically qualified to be anyone's "boss."

Dominance is often characterized as being brutal or overbearing toward others, for whatever reason. But dominance can also be subtle--perhaps just an underlying attitude or assumption of entitlement due to being wealthy, male, Caucasian or American.

I once heard a church member proudly say, "My ancestors were good to their slaves," as if that somehow exonerated his family's slave ownership. "Goodness" is not the issue; domination is about lack of freedom, equality and opportunity.

Conservative groups such as Promise Keepers teach that male domination is inherently God-ordained in church and home. Their premise is that men are to be "in charge" of women (whom God expects to submit graciously), but must treat them "lovingly."

Besides this misapplication of Scripture, the problem is that within human relationships, power and authentic love cannot co-exist. Even a kind, gentle, "loving" ruler still retains power to control the direction of others' lives. Again, the real issues are lack of freedom, equality and opportunity.

Some may ask, "How can the conflictual relationships of categories 2 and 3 be preferable to the peaceful relationships of category 1? Isn't peace, even a tenuous "peace," always better than conflict?"

For one thing, there is a difference between the peace found in category 4 and the "peace" found in category 1. Category 4 relationships are justice-based; category 1 relationships are not. In category 4 both parties--not just the dominant party of category 1--have God-given freedom and opportunity to thrive as individuals.

Conflict—especially sustained conflict--is always difficult, and conflict for its own sake is never justifiable. But conflict can sometimes be valuable. Just ask any civil rights advocate if progress made in race relations has been worth decades of struggle.

When the goal is justice and equality for everyone, rather than dominance by some, then non-violent conflict is good. For those who are willing to struggle through categories 2 and 3 in order to achieve category 4, their reward is a lasting, satisfying, "just" peace.

However, scarcity thinking ("who's on top") can thwart progress toward lasting peace. Conflict is not good if the result is replacement of one dominant party by another dominant party. (Think rival gangs in NYC, ruthless tribes in Africa, corrupt regimes in the Middle East.) The goal of "just" conflict is to establish equality and freedom, not further domination.

No matter with whom we have relationship, we must avoid scarcity thinking, which only feeds our human tendency to dominate others, and prevents us--and them--from experiencing the "abundant life" that Jesus offers (John 10:10).

Jesus deliberately shook up the status quo, but Jesus never tried to dominate others. The more we embrace Jesus' way of thinking and treating others, the better our chances of achieving peaceful, satisfying, "category 4" relationships as we help bring about God's peaceable kingdom on this earth.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Racial & Gender Superiority

(3rd in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Those of us who advocate egalitarianism, working for justice worldwide, may consider ourselves to be enlightened, inclusive and progressive. But hierarchical thinking can linger subtly in our own lives, manifesting itself as racial or patriarchal attitudes of superiority.

For a few months in 1973 I rented a room from a widow in South Georgia. "Miss Ida" was a friendly, genteel, Caucasian woman with one of the most distinctive southern drawls I've ever heard.

Miss Ida* was nearing retirement, but still worked full-time at the local Neighborhood Services Center. There she distributed food and clothing, taught life skills and planned fun events for poor people, most of them African-American clients. She delighted in her work, finding it very fulfilling; I admired her dedication and generosity.

One week Miss Ida hired an African-American woman to help clean her house prior to hosting a party. The woman was as jovial as Miss Ida; from my room I could hear them laughing as they worked together. For some reason the woman wasn't paid that day, but was asked to come by for her earnings later in the week.

A day or so later I was talking with Miss Ida in her living room when the front doorbell rang. She opened the door, had a friendly exchange with the cleaning woman and handed her some cash in an envelope.

Closing the door, she wheeled around and muttered scornfully as she briskly walked by me, "Now they're coming to the front door!" I was speechless, totally shocked. I never expected to hear those words, especially from her.

Apparently, as long as Miss Ida played the role of benevolent white woman everything was fine. But let any of the blacks get "uppity" and presume to act like her equal, then her inbred assumption of superiority quickly kicked in.

A similar situation sometimes occurs when Baptist churches overcome internal political barriers and begin ordaining women as deacons or ministers. Admirable intentions aside, there is a big difference between allowing ordination of women and embracing women as church leaders. Congregations don't always understand that ordination is only the beginning, not the climax, of women's full inclusion into the life and ministry of the church.

Some churches consider themselves to be progressive simply because they ordain a woman or two here and there as deacons. But this can be a mere nod to egalitarianism if these women are perceived primarily as tokens, not functionally equal to their male peers.

In such churches women deacons may serve communion and attend deacons' meetings. But the unspoken assumption is that they will mostly serve quietly behind-the-scenes, still following the leadership of male deacons or ministers in important church matters.

Things will go smoothly for a woman deacon until she starts to act as if she were as capable a leader as any man in such a church. Once she begins leading, voicing her opinions, lingering patriarchal assumptions of superiority quickly kick in. The status quo is threatened. She's soon discounted, labeled as "uppity," "difficult," or worse.

More progressive churches may ordain and/or hire a woman as children's minister or youth minister, perhaps even as minister of education. Some churches perceive of these as mostly behind-the-scenes positions heavily involving the teaching/activities coordination of children and youth.

[Please note that I personally am not critiquing or ranking ministry positions, only observing the thinking of some misguided congregations. Ironically, when it comes to impacting a church's ministry and influence in the community, a strong case could be made that the children's minister position is more "important" than all other ministerial positions. Yet children's ministers--so many of them women--often have little power and receive the least salary.]

For many congregations, the last bastions of male leadership are the "platform positions" (minister of music and, of course, pastor). Churches tend to reserve these up-front, worship-leading positions for men. Even among the most progressive congregations, outspoken about equal opportunities for women, so many prefer hiring males as their primary worship leaders.

It's one thing to invite a woman to preach occasionally; it's quite another to hire a woman as senior pastor. No one is saying that only churches with female pastors are fully progressive and egalitarian. And every pastor--female or male--is not necessarily the right match for every church.

However, it seems obvious that the deck is greatly stacked against women pastoral candidates. Overall, words of affirmation for women ring hollow unless ministerial search committees are intentional about giving serious, not just token, consideration to female candidates.

Those of us who try so hard to live egalitarian lives that embrace women and minorities are sometimes surprised to discover lingering hierarchical, "superior" attitudes, subtly inbred by our culture, in ourselves and our churches. At the Holy Spirit's revelation, it is incumbent upon us to dust out these corners of our spiritual lives, that we may see each other as God sees all of us.


(Upcoming: My next article will deal with hierarchical attitudes in domestic relationships.)

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Alternative Paradigms & the Middle Class

(2nd in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Hierarchical paradigms shape our thinking about the world in which we live. We tend to view relationships as levels on a pyramid, constantly assessing whether we are above, below or equal to others in intelligence, education, popularity, wealth, attractiveness, health, talent, power, importance, family or even spirituality.

Competitiveness seems hard-wired inside our brains. We instinctively try to outdo others, sometimes dominating or intimidating perceived rivals in order to achieve or maintain a preferred status.

The biggest problem with hierarchical thinking is that it creates far more losers than winners. There are only a few spots at the top of the pyramid, while the bottom is very wide.

All paradigms of divine-human or human-human relationships are inherently flawed. But networking paradigms that emphasize mutuality and interdependence more closely resemble the egalitarian views of Jesus.

Author Bruce Epperly, in Holy Adventure, tells of a sixth-century hermit, Dorotheos of Gaza, who developed a networking model of relationships in which all humans form one circle surrounding God, who is at the center. Dorotheos' paradigm suggests that as humans move closer to God we automatically move closer to our sisters and brothers, and vice-versa. God is the energy center of all relationships, human and divine.

Another networking model of relationships resembles a maypole. In this paradigm, God is the center pole, the top of which is connected with ribbons to humans interacting freely within a circle at the base of the pole.

In addition, there are ribbons connecting humans to other humans. There is no hierarchy among the humans; no one has an advantageous position over another. All humans are on the same level, interacting with God and each other.

Of course, networking paradigms image a perfect world, but the real world is far from ideal. Relationships are very complex, and hierarchy--especially patriarchy--still reigns.

The middle class is in a unique position to unravel the complexities and effect change in hierarchical systems worldwide. They (we) have enough education, power and leverage to challenge effectively the upper class' attitudes of superiority, appealing to their humanity and sense of fairness, persuading them to share their power and wealth with those at lower levels.

The middle class also has enough economic means themselves to raise the living standards and self-esteem of many in the lower class by sharing resources and power with the needy, intentionally lifting them into the middle class a few at a time.

Theoretically, as the top of the pyramid inches lower and the middle becomes deeper and wider, reducing the size of the lowest tier, the model looks less like a pyramid and more like an oval or sphere.

Still, complete metamorphosis lies somewhere in the distant future. Implementing networking paradigms requires courage and sustained effort. Total transformation won't happen in our lifetimes, but we must inch forward towards facilitating much-needed changes.

As I write these words I am starkly aware of my own susceptibility to hierarchical thinking. By American standards, I probably fit economically into the lower middle class tier of the pyramid model.

I may live modestly, not striving for additional wealth; may value all humans as equal brothers and sisters; may speak kindly and work in a helping profession; may care for the earth and contribute generously to charities. I may even challenge hierarchy and advocate egalitarianism.

But I am seriously deluding myself if I think I don't contribute to hierarchical systems. I may not strive ruthlessly to live at the top of the pile, but I do struggle to maintain my current standard of living.

That in itself means that I participate in hierarchical injustice, simply because there are millions of people living at a lower level than myself. I enjoy some privileges--even if I worked sacrificially for them or think I deserve them--only because I have had advantages over others.

I'm certain I would never want to dwell in the lower class. I wouldn't like living hand-to-mouth, without enough food, health care, shelter or transportation; having to do all my shopping at Goodwill, the Salvation Army or the Food Pantry; having to call churches to help with my children's Christmas gifts or pay my rent; having little opportunity for a good education.

Then I remember that even the bottom of the American pyramid looks wonderful to many people in third world countries, where humans are reduced to living in abject squalor and barbarism, where women are treated callously. I may support efforts to help them, but I will do everything in my power not to have to live like them.

So, I am tempted to shake off my "middle class guilt," retreating safely (and gratefully) to my comfortable, mid-level place on the pyramid, trying not to get too depressed about Somalis, Haitians, Indonesians and other poor people.

. . . But there's that nagging, "still, small voice" in my head again, prodding me out of my complacency into action, reminding me that abundant life is intended for everyone in God's kingdom, enough for all to flourish.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Pitfalls of Hierarchy: Is Change Even Possible?

[Note: This article was written just prior to the upheaval in Egypt and is not intended as political commentary on that situation, though much of the article may/may not be applicable.]

(1st in a series of articles exploring how hierarchical paradigms negatively impact culture)

Hierarchy is the primary foundation of the world's systems. Military model. Corporate model. Winners vs. losers. Rich vs. poor. Powerful vs. weak.

The reason hierarchy prevails is because it works so well for us. It's what we're used to. It's what we know. We're so wrapped in our hierarchical, pyramid-like thinking that it's difficult for us to conceive of, much less implement, a different paradigm.

Throughout history, hierarchy has most often manifested itself negatively as patriarchy, with racism and economic inequities running close behind. Males of all races, rich or poor, generally have more power and status than females throughout the world, with few exceptions. Hierarchy pervades all societies.

As our world keeps evolving, some progress is being made towards leveling the gender and racial playing fields in parts of the world, but economic equity still lags far behind. When Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7), perhaps he knew the hardest thing for humanity to overcome would be the greed and narcissism that sustains unjust hierarchical systems.

Pockets of egalitarianism do thrive here and there, however. And the movement against patriarchy and racism seems to be gaining some ground, in spite of major setbacks.

Most of the progress that's been made can be attributed to Jesus' influence upon humankind. Without Jesus, egalitarianism and mutuality would have little hope of existence. Women, minority races and the poor would have little chance for equal respect, freedom and opportunities.

Jesus initiated an egalitarian movement, showing people how to live and love without dominating each other. But Jesus--and courageous others since his time--paid the ultimate price for challenging the status quo. Progress is rarely achieved without conflict and casualties.

Amazingly, some modern Christians are among those thwarting progress toward egalitarianism, all in the name of biblical fidelity. Fundamentalists and inerrantists keep trying to push society backwards to the hierarchical world of the Bible, where women basically had no rights and slavery was common.

An exaggeration? Perhaps. But even if societies only reverted to the attitudes of the 1950's, not the first century, the world definitely would be headed in the wrong direction. Pushing backwards is futile, anyway. The egalitarian cat has worked its paw out of the proverbial bag; there's no going back to the way we were.

Hierarchical models of adult relationships are especially problematic at the top and bottom tiers. People at the bottom of the pyramid constantly struggle to improve their status, often looking upon those at higher levels with envy, sometimes hatred because they feel trampled upon, hopelessly stuck near the bottom due to a system over which they have no control. They are determined to rise higher than the bottom tier.

People at the top of the pyramid often have a sense of entitlement that accompanies their elevated status. They sometimes think they deserve to be at a high level because they are smarter or work harder or are simply destined to be in that position.

Many are grateful to God for their high status. Some even believe that God placed them at the top just because they are male, or white, or good, or American, or… While they enjoy power and privilege, their biggest struggle is with constantly having to scramble just to keep their place on the pyramid. They are determined to perpetuate the hierarchical system that keeps them at the top.

In her wonderful allegory, Hope for the Flowers, author Trina Paulus tells of Stripe, a caterpillar who tries to climb a huge pile of caterpillars, all trampling on each other in their blind quest to reach the top of the pile. Ultimately, Stripe reaches the top and discovers that there's "nothing there" except other caterpillars struggling with all their might to maintain their high position.

Stripe finally quits playing the game, gets trampled to the bottom, crawls away and eventually is transformed into a beautiful butterfly, able to soar above meaningless caterpillar piles everywhere.

Like Stripe, in order for all of us to be transformed and have a better life together "more than we can ever imagine," we must somehow find the courage to move beyond hierarchical systems and work towards implementing better relationship paradigms. Difficult? Extremely. Impossible? Not with God helping us.

[Upcoming: The next article in this series will explore alternative paradigms and the unique perspective of the middle class.]

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Baptists and Ordination: Would Jesus Qualify?

Christians, by definition, are followers of Christ. They just differ on “how." How should Christians walk daily with Christ? How closely? Every Christian falls in a different place along a wide spectrum of discipleship practices and intimacy with Christ.

Churches, by definition, are groups of Christ’s followers, disciples supporting each other and joining together for worship and ministry. Again, they differ on "how." What Christian practices should churches follow? How strictly?

Historically, Baptists have valued priesthood of believers and autonomy of churches. As individuals and churches forge unique paths of worship and discipleship, problems arise when some confuse authentic Christian practices (following Christ) with mere religiosities (patriarchal traditions).

Ordination of women has long been a source of controversy among Baptists. Some churches believe there are no gender barriers to ordination. Others believe that ordination is reserved for males, only.

For centuries, Baptists have laid aside their differences, cooperating to facilitate larger ministries together. However, divisions over women's roles (among other issues) have recently prompted fundamentalist Baptists to disfellowship from associations and state conventions any churches who ordain women. 

The only “autonomy” evident among these ousting churches is that some object to ordination of women as pastors; others draw the line at women ministers; still others object to any women being ordained, beginning with women deacons.

The word “deacon” comes from the Greek “diakonos,” meaning “servant.” In the early church, deacons were chosen by their peers in recognition of their gifts of servanthood.

Baptists' perception of ordination has become skewed over time. It has shifted from a recognition of humble servanthood to a position of authority and power, perceived as an election into a class of spiritual elitism.

I once witnessed a misguided deacon candidate "campaigning" for ordination, approaching church members with, "I hope you'll vote for me." Ordination candidates should be selected, not elected. Ordination is not an admission requirement into an exclusive club of elevated spiritual status. 

Baptists have never had consistent criteria for ordaining deacons, ministers or pastors except for a sense of calling by the candidate and an affirmative vote by a congregation. The process has always been up to the ordaining congregation.

Baptists have no age or education requirements for ordination. Candidates in individual churches may be ordained pre-seminary or post-seminary, or with no education at all. I know of some pastors who were ordained in their early teens.

Some ordination councils grill candidates about doctrine; some question candidates' stances on hot-button issues. Others simply say, "Tell us your story of how you've followed Christ."

Oddly, though the IRS recognizes both ordination and/or licensing as credentials for professional ministers (pastors/ministerial staff), many Baptists make a big distinction between the two. Both licensing and ordination require an affirmative vote by a church, recognizing a candidate's spiritual gifts and calling. Ordination adds the laying on of hands.

All Christians are ministers. Professional ministers, licensed or ordained, are those called to vocational ministry. They make all or part of their living doing ministry with churches, denominations or other Christian-related institutions.

Some Baptist churches hire licensed ministers as clergy, not requiring ordination. Others regard only ordained ministers as clergy, whereas licensed ministers are considered laity, reflecting hierarchical thinking that considers ordination a "higher calling" than licensing.

Ordination itself is not divine; it is a human tradition of affirmation. Technically, the word "ordination" does not even appear biblically in the context of choosing deacons.  

As far as we know, Jesus was never ordained by humans, just chosen by God. And the disciples whom Jesus chose (including some women) were never formally ordained, just chosen by him to help with his ministry on earth.

First Timothy 3 is the passage most often quoted by inerrantists as the primary guideline for selecting deacons for ordination. Verse 12 (KJV) states that deacons “must be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well,” a statement often used to disqualify women, or men who are divorced, or married to divorced women. [I once heard of a Baptist congregation that even rescinded the ordination of a deacon who remarried after his first wife died--he was no longer "husband of one wife."]

A closer look at verse 12 reveals a huge dilemma for inerrantists. A strict, literal interpretation would disqualify even Jesus, the ultimate personification of a servant leader, as a candidate for ordination, because Jesus is thought to have been single, having no children.  What a loss for any church.

[Jesus probably wouldn’t be ordained or hired by a church, anyway. His treatment of women and his style of ministry were anathema to the hierarchical, patriarchal systems that have prevailed for thousands of years.]

When it comes to disallowing ordination of women, inerrantists must rely on increasingly elaborate theological gymnastics in order to justify their patriarchal practices. Baptist autonomy notwithstanding, when such religiosities prevail, Jesus’ way of leading, thinking and living becomes less and less evident among some who call themselves Christians. What a loss for everyone.