Women Still Have it Tough in the Church
I remember Judy. Judy was my senior pastor. She was a bright, capable, creative woman who chose to hire me as her assistant pastor to help the church give birth to a new church. She had been at the church for a couple years when I started working there. Unfortunately for Judy, the church and me, about 10% of the church resisted her leadership because she was a woman. From the day she arrived, this part of the church advocated and lobbied to get a new pastor.
Her supporters tried to help her by coaching her in how she could change herself in order to appease her detractors. This got to the point of the ridiculous recommendation that she change her hair style. Maybe growing her hair longer and getting a different hair dresser would mollify her critics.
Disagreeing VERY Disagreeably
Judy was a bit forgetful. What nobody knew was that at 49 years old, she was beginning to show the first signs of the early onset Alzheimer’s which had killed her mother in her mid-50s. As the year progressed, Judy became more and more paranoid that people were out to get her. This was both a manifestation of the disease and reality. Some people were out to get her. In fact, the anti-Judy group tried to get the District Superintendent to commit to move her at the church’s charge conference that fall. (Charge Conferences are the rough equivalent of annual business meetings.) The District Superintendent categorically refused given that a charge conference is neither the time nor the place to have those discussions. It was inappropriate, rude and embarrassing.
When Disagreeing Becomes Cancer
The stage was set. The anti-Judy group was willing to do almost anything to coerce the rest of the church and Judy to get her to move. Once this Pandora is out of its box, it has no end. It is the cancer that spreads through the body which has become its willing host.
Eventually, the animus of one of the group members was directed at me. He began circulating rumors that I was gay. Homosexuality is a chargeable “offense” in the United Methodist Church and I’m sure he was hoping to get rid of me, too. He even went to the church that Winter was working at and warned her that she shouldn’t date me because he was certain that I’m gay. Winter and I had just begun dating.
As Judy’s dis-ease progressed, her behavior became more and more erratic and she began to lash out. The staff told me they were going to resign en masse. In my naïve youth, I chose to triangulate myself and carry that message to the District Superintendent. In June, Judy moved. The detractors won through hook, crook and coercion. We were all sucked into this incredible dysfunction and I am sure that the church is dealing with the emotional fallout to this day.
Coercion is Violence
This was the quintessential lose/lose. Everybody lost. I wonder, “If we had chosen connection instead of coercion, what would have been different?” What if the anti-Judy group chose to invite the rest of the church to a discussion with their struggles around women in ministry instead of trying to force the rest of the church to take on their prejudice? What if the Staff/Parish Relations Committee had named the groups misogyny and sought to help the church begin to work on how to disagree agreeably instead of pressuring Judy to change? What if I had refused to go to the District Superintendent but instead said, “I think we can figure this out on our own? How do we cover for Linda’s weaknesses and support her in her strengths?”
This was a highly complex situation and environment. The truth is that there were no easy answers. But, if there’s anything that we are called as followers of Jesus to embody, it is caring for each other. Had we cared for Judy and each other, I have no doubt the fallout from Judy’s dis-ease would have been different.
Coercion is a form of violence. Whether it comes in the form of manipulation, lying, deception or physical force, to coerce someone else to bend to your will is an act of violence.
A path through violence is choosing connection. Some questions to ask ourselves when seeking to choose connection over coercion are: “What do I need to do to connect with someone I feel unconnected to? What questions do I need to ask that would lead to deeper understanding? What do I need to share in order to clarify where I’m coming from? If we still disagree, what do we need to do in order to stay connected and still move forward?” Answering these questions lead to connection not coercion.
I have shared mine, would you share yours? “As you think about the conflicts of your past or present, what does coercion look and sound like to you? What would seeking connection look or sound like instead? What are your great questions that create connection that you would be willing to share?”