Living in “complementarian” spaces was death by a thousand cuts. It can be hard to articulate, because each cut on its own sounds petty. Also, some of my pain is intertwined with other women’s stories, and it can be difficult to know how to talk about my own role without oversharing the details of their stories. This is my first attempt to put down in words the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain of living in patriarchal spaces most of my life. I think this old outline I recently rediscovered is a good place to start, because it shows my head space when I still considered myself comp.
I have struggled to find the words to express the pain of being a woman in complementarian spaces. We left our church almost three years ago, and when people ask me why we left, I still have difficulty giving a clear, concise answer, especially to people still in the system. The beginning of the end (though I didn’t realize it yet) began with my friend Mary (all names have been changed). It is mostly her story to tell, and so I will not say much, except that the ways she was treated by our all-male leadership horrified me, but because it was done within the context of church authority and spiritual discipline, I was a confused mess. I finally met with the elders to express my concerns, and it seemed like they understood some of what they did was wrong, but as time went on, it became clear to me that nothing had been put in place to prevent the same thing from happening in the future. To my great shame, I did not leave with my friend when she left our church, and I will always regret that I did not give her greater support. It took two more friends being crushed by my church leaders before I left. Shortly after Mary left, another friend, Amy, (who had initially been invited by me to our church several years prior) blindsided me when she shared that she was angry about the ways women were not valued at our church. I’m used to being able to encourage women, but when she said, “I feel that the church sees a diminished version of the person I believe myself to be,” I found myself speechless, and I was devastated. In my confusion, I told her she should talk to the elders about her concerns. Then I had a panic attack because I felt like I was offering my friend as an innocent lamb to the slaughter. So I scheduled a meeting with the elders as well. Here’s the original letter/outline I wrote before I met with them to try to get my thoughts in order. Please understand, this outline came from the place where I was at more than three years ago. I was speaking as a woman who still considered herself complementarian. So many of my views have changed since I penned this, and it was never meant to be a formal document, only an outline to guide my conversation with my church elders. I’ve only changed the names. I’ve kept everything else as it was when I printed it to use for my outline during our meeting:
Clear the Air and Explain Where I’m Coming From.
We were not present at the latest pastor affirmation. Amy who was raised Egalitarian, but had never in her life heard the term complementarian/egalitarian, and with me, has been studying feminism lately, had never thought through how that applies to church structure, even though she has attended several complementarian churches. Amy felt deeply grieved on Sunday morning and felt a great injustice took place. (Side note, my husband and I have since listened to that Sunday’s affirmation of new elders and found nothing in it to raise alarms. That’s not what we’re here to meet about, but I need you to understand how we got here.)
Amy and Donny did not show up at Family Group, which I found suspicious, so later that week, we had them over to hang out. I asked Amy if she was doing ok, and she said no, she really wanted to talk to me about something. She and I met alone the following evening. When I first talked to her, they were ready to never come back to Grace Baptist again.
For me emotionally, walking with Amy through this has been overwhelming.
For Three Reasons:
Possibly losing Amy and Donny. My husband and I have often felt like outsiders at Grace Baptist, and it has been so encouraging to have them at church with us.
Having to Re-Wrestle with the Tensions of Complementarianism/Egalitarianism. It has always been one of the hardest things for me in my faith to swallow. For the record, I have always understood where Grace Baptist stood on the issue, am not trying to change where Grace Baptist stands on the issue, and found nothing problematic with the recent pastor affirmation. I lean complementarian, but find it creates a whole area of gray that I don’t have answers for.
That said, as I have tried to walk with Amy through this, I have not been fully able to affirm Grace Baptist as much as I would have liked, and that’s why I have asked to meet with you. I have experienced grievances in the past, and tried to extend grace, and knowing how conversations that could be misunderstood as pro-egalitarianism within conservative circles usually go, have avoided them. I am still pretty raw from how things with Mary were handled, and walking with Amy through this specific issue has been like ripping a scab off a fresh wound. I voiced my concerns with Mary, and was well listened to. But, part of the problem in talking with Amy, is that I still don’t know where you all have landed, so those concerns are still there for me, and has made it difficult for me to affirm the role of women at Grace Baptist. And as I’ve had to think long and hard about all the gray areas that complementarianism creates, I see a lot of ways Grace Baptist could do a better job of affirming women and making sure their voice is heard.
Topics to be covered:
Woman’s Voice. How is it being heard?
Elder’s Wives/Clear Authority of Women
Age – 1 peter 5:5-7, 1 timothy 5: honor as mothers,
I’m going to bare my soul, which is scary because as I reveal my hurt, I will also be exposing my pride.
I think it’s very important in this conversation that you need to understand that women in complementary churches choose to be here, we recognize the authority of Scripture in our lives, and we have understood Scripture to teach that on some level men are to serve as the head of the church.
I think one of our biggest fears is to be “that woman”, the femi-nazi, the contentious woman who is like a constant dripping. I think it is difficult to discern how to have a gentle and quiet spirit and to have a voice in the church.
I believe our perspective matters and I’m not sure how to get there and not overstep our bounds.
I think I could have spoken into the Mary situation and had wisdom to offer, but I was not asked, did not want to be “that woman”, recognized that though I had served as Mary’s college minister for several years, my time with collegiate ministry has never been recognized by Grace Baptist and I did not feel I had the authority to put myself into the situation. I chose to trust the pastors and I feel partly responsible for not speaking up sooner but it is hard to discern, as a woman, when I should speak up and when I should be quiet.
[Note: We attended a predominantly white church that claimed to value diversity and intentionally planted in a high-refugee area whose stated mission was to reach the nations, that’s why I share so many specific details about my “ministry” experience.]
This is my ministry resume, only because of the grace of God:
I went to a Christian high school, and while everyone else was going to Christian colleges, I wanted to go to a secular university to see if my God was big enough for a secular campus, instead of going to a Christian college out of fear.
My first week in college, Collegiate Ministry had an outreach outside my dorm, and I was with Collegiate Ministry throughout college.
I was planning on moving in with several Christian women my sophomore year, but was taking an evangelism course called “Becoming a Contagious Christian”, and felt God very clearly tell me that if I moved off campus, I would be back in the Christian bubble that I went to a secular university to be away from. Taking a huge leap of faith, I opted for a random roommate (it was too late to pick roommates) for campus housing and have been trying to not be engulfed (and insulated) by the Christian bubble ever since.
In college, I was a leader in campus ministry and led multiple small group Bible studies. Technically I majored in English, but I feel like I majored in Christian Ministry.
After graduation, I went to [foreign country] and interned in a children’s home for 6 months. Married husband, moved back to City, was asked to go on staff with College Ministry, which I did for 5 years.
I was a campus minister, first at University 1, and then at University 2. I was pretty much a pastor to the students at those universities, which meant:
- Training students to lead small group Bible studies (OIA, EDR)
- Training students in evangelism outreach
- Leading prayer groups
- Large group teaching in weekly meetings
- Planning conferences
- Discipling students
- Leading investigative Bible studies with non-believers
- Worked very closely with the Black student chapter of University, engaging and guiding students from both chapters towards Biblical views on race, equality, and unity.
- Discussions and group studies of racial issues, tensions, and reconciliation
- Leading students on urban mission trips
Husband and I took a Perspective class, and helped facilitate one the following year, partnering with a Black church. We were also involved with the International student ministry at University, and have served in various capacities over the years.
We bought a home with the intention of being able to have international students living with us, as a ministry to international students. We had a variety of students live with us:
Muslim, Hindu, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Atheist, Christian, from Egypt, Malaysia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, China, Romania, Russia, Columbia, Mexico
In addition, we housed rent-free four women who were previously homeless, one of who boarded with us for several years.
At present, I have initiated several different groups that minister to women – book club, conversation tables, playdates / coffee events. I have the opportunity to share my faith frequently in these groups.
I have 4 children –
He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
1 Timothy 3:4-5
When I was on staff with College Ministry, we were attending a different church. I pursued and desired to be recognized and was continually overlooked in a way that men/couples coming from seminary were not. With the arrival of second child, I was in the process of transitioning off staff with College Ministry (because campus ministry is very difficult as a woman with two wee ones), and God was not redeeming some of the brokenness of the people living with us the way I thought he should. When we began attending Grace Baptist, I was jaded, hurting, and entering a long year of spiritual depression. I had planned on changing the world for God, as most eager twenty-something Christians are, but God was teaching me a long, hard, good lesson that he does not need me to change the world. It has been a humbling and good journey, but I do believe part of the humbling process has come from being a woman in a complementarian setting. And just because God has used it, doesn’t mean it’s right. Hopefully, the Southern Baptists response to Civil Rights should make us very cautious as we consider where a woman’s voice belongs in the church.
The only thing (until recently) I have ever been asked to do at Grace Baptist is to be the nursery administrator.
I think there are three, maybe four reasons I have been overlooked at Grace Baptist: I am female; my husband has not pursued leadership; neither of us is of seminary stock; and maybe, I have not asked. I had never realized until this past family meeting that the bible teaches it is okay and even good to pursue a position of leadership within the church, although the 20-something me did occasionally attempt it.
I do think it’s more difficult as a woman with some of the things I’ve already shared to feel confident in pursuing leadership positions in a complementary church.
Overlooked for Being Female
Recently I was asked to help Grace Baptist write the questions for family group discussion from the sermon. I think this is a good idea. However, once I realized that Bill, Steve, and Bob had been writing these questions already (for some time previous), I was humiliated and insulted. It would be one thing if the elders had been writing these questions and were now expanding this to a larger group. Instead, what I realized was that the elders had already given/shared this responsibility to group of men for quite some time who in age and experience are my subordinates, and most likely subordinates to all the women invited to write the questions. Also, towards the end of question writing meeting, this group of younger men “welcomed” us women to the group, seeming very proud of themselves for allowing us to join. Instead, they should have apologized that women weren’t included from the beginning, which would have been much more appropriate.
I was also asked to help facilitate a table at Grace Baptist’s upcoming evangelism training. I was deeply disappointed when I realized that the curriculum was in the process of being created, and I was only asked to facilitate. I am growing in my passion for evangelism, and have spent a lot of time praying and thinking about culturally relevant ways to reach lost people in the United States, and would love to be able to share those ideas, and have a place to work through them with other people.
It is difficult for me to watch younger men, particularly those from seminary, be consistently put on the fast track to official ministry at Grace Baptist – whether this is deacons, family group leaders / seconds, or other positions of leadership. This isn’t a criticism of these younger men from seminary – when I was in my mid-20s, if these positions were offered to me I would have eagerly taken them. I feel like the injustice is that they were not offered to me not because of my qualifications or ministry experience, but because of my gender.
Overlooked for not being Seminary
I think it’s also dangerous to only give leadership positions to those who pursue them, I think husband and I have both been overlooked because we are not from seminary, and have not actively pursued leadership positions. [Here I gave a really long example of several couples from seminary fast-tracked to leadership positions who left destruction in their wake] And honestly, if you don’t think we’re ready for leadership positions, why hasn’t anyone taken us under their wing and discipled us?
Overlooked for not being married to a leader
I think one of the reasons I have been overlooked is because I am not married to a church leader. At Grace Baptist, men can rise up to leadership whether or not their wife feels a strong calling to ministry. But I think it is more difficult for women who are married to men that do not feel a strong calling to ministry to be recognized.
I understand now, after talking to Pastor on Friday, that Elder’s Wife is not a recognized position at Grace Baptist. But I do not think that has not yet been communicated to the larger church body, and in the past, they have been our de-facto leaders. In fact, when Mo and Larry were ordained as pastors, it was communicated clearly that Shirley and Betty would be taking on leadership roles.
Since Elder’s Wife is not a recognized position at Grace Baptist, and elders’ wives are not expected to have a leadership role, there is currently a vacuum of female leadership in our church. Most women are not going to feel comfortable speaking directly to a male pastor, and it needs to be clear that they can and/or there needs to be some clear female leadership that is accessible to women and females who have some level of authority to make decisions.
Other points to cover:
- Husband / wife – example of submission
- We don’t have to be bound / limited by the structure of only elders and deacons
- In fact, we already aren’t, as we officially have an accountant and secretary.
- The importance of a woman’s voice
This puts me in an awkward position moving forward. I do love ministry. Not sure what my role is at Grace Baptist. I do think one of Grace Baptist’s strengths is making room for people to use their gifts outside the church and not overburdening us with church programs. I think I feel like I needed to speak up because when Amy shared with me that she “longed to see women affirmed in the way [new elder] and [new elder] were and felt that the church sees a diminished version of the person she believes herself to be” I didn’t feel like I could defend Grace Baptist because I feel like I have often been invisible at Grace Baptist and have never figured out quite where I belong here.
The meeting was a disaster. I was the only woman in the room (my husband was with me, but I had asked him to let me do most of the talking, and he respected that.) There were five male elders/pastors in the room. From the very beginning, the tone was hostile and aggressive. I was constantly interrupted, and I don’t even remember if I shared all the points in this outline. I cried several times during the meeting. Near the end, the question angrily presented to me was “Where’s the grace?” Later, when I told them the meeting was hostile and it was unfair to be the only woman in the room, they told me that it was I who had asked to meet with the elders. I didn’t say it at the time, but who else was I supposed to talk to? I went in thinking I had enough relational capital that I could speak into how to improve complementarian practices to be more healthy. In hindsight, because of complementarianism, I had relational capital with their wives, but not with them. I considered some of their wives to be my dearest friends, but I was practically a stranger to their husbands. The most painful thing was, I was asked not to talk about what had happened in the meeting with others in the church, because that would be gossip. So I had no female in the church to whom I could go to for counsel.
I was desperate to make church work, and we stayed longer than we should have before we left. Once I saw the misogyny of our church, I couldn’t unsee it. It was everywhere. There were several more terrible meetings that followed. They were almost comical. We wanted so badly to stay, and after each meeting, my husband and I looked at each other and wondered, “How could that have gone any worse?” I didn’t even bother going to the last two meetings because I refused to be by myself defending my worth as a woman to a bunch of men, so my husband went alone to advocate for me, and the elders were not concerned that I was not present. During the original meeting, the lead pastor had stated, “We need to figure out what to do with ‘strong’ women like you.” At the last meeting (where I wasn’t present), he changed it to “contrary.” That was when I knew it was over. At first I had enough hubris to think I could advocate for change, but I knew as a woman, once I carried the label “contrary,” the male leadership effectively silenced me. Anything that wasn’t “Yes, sir” with a smile plastered to my face would be viewed through that lens.
So much of my identity, life and friendships were bound to our church. I feared that if we left, we would lose it all. We tried to leave on gracious terms in the hopes that we could maintain some of our friendships. (Remember, I hadn’t been talking to my friends about our concerns, only the elders, because that would be gossip). But all my deepest fears came to fruition. We lost it all anyway.
At this point, I have five friends who used to attend our old church because I invited them, and none of those friends attend church anywhere anymore, and some of them no longer even identify as Christian. I am on a journey of processing the ways I was both victim and victimizer in a spiritually abusive church setting and still have a long road ahead of me.
For more of my story, see Finding My Voice (in the wilderness) – Part 2
Title image is Hagar in the Wilderness by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot
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