On Graduating, On Being a Woman

These past years have not been the first time I invaded a space that seemed to be unfamiliar with welcoming women, where I felt both out of place and also very much at home.

In reflecting on not just these years of seminary, but long before, I stumbled upon a memory of my time in second grade. I was beginning to be disruptive, I was bored, and I was running out of books to take accelerated reader tests on during the moments when I was waiting for other classmates. It was time to start to make things harder on this wild mind, so I was moved into a higher math group. There were five of us who got moved to this advanced work, and of that group, I was the only girl.

This didn’t faze me until the horrible middle school years began where not only was I ostracized among most of my female peers for being in this male-only group, but the boys in my group began to see me as not just a peer, but a girl. Where this was supposed to be rewarding, I seemed to be the only one getting punished. I learned all to quickly that being the “smart girl” was not a coveted position, and that for the most part, silence would be the best way to avoid the sporadic bullying that came from both sides. Unfortunately for everyone, I was and am the last person to choose silence when it comes to most everything.

I have the gift other women have not had, thankful that upon dreaming about seminary as my next steps post-grad, I was encouraged and pushed to take that step. Yet, much like other woman, I’ve also been asked the question about that very call with much suspicion, careful to make sure to leave any sort of emotive language out of that discussion so as to not allow more of those doubts of my place to be harbored in the other. As I was steaming out my gown for the pomp and circumstance, I listened to a podcast on Cynthia Long Westfall’s book, Paul and Gender, and was struck by her conversation that what I had experienced the entirety of my time in higher education was actually normal. Yet, we never question the emotive language used by men in regard to calling, but quickly find places for them to ensure that desire be fostered and encouraged.

I find that on the worst days, hope seems too quiet to find in overcoming this jaded self.

The day before I was hooded, Beth Moore released a letter talking about the misogyny that she  knows and endured for all too long, really, that most of us who find ourselves not only in roles in ministry, but in the church as well continue to know and endure. Through tears, I considered the many times I chose to keep my head down rather than address the problem in front of me for fear of being called the f-word that many evangelicals tend to despise: feminist.

The interesting thing about finding myself in places that tend to be male-dominated is that I always feel the need to apologize for it. If there were a spectrum of sorts for whatever argument there might be on any part of the gender topic, I am typically found right smack dab in the middle of the pendulum, too much something for either side. Yet, like Moore states in her letter, the reason for the exclusion from the table is not simply a conviction based on scripture, but sexism, plain out sin. Regardless of whatever “side” you find yourself on, you are not excluded from not being your sisters keeper in a way that regards her as a fellow human being.

We need to talk about the ways that we have internalized sexism as women.
— Tish Harrison Warren

I actually graduated in December, so I’ve had a good five months or so of telling people that I don’t have a tangible plan of what’s next. With that similar tone of cynicism of asking why I was even called to seminary, the opportunities my brothers have had upon finishing up are not ones I will be given, which consistently leads the question to: why did I even go?

Although at least half of our congregations are made up of women, they make up a small percentage of leadership, and on top of that, not trusted to be in a vehicle with any of their male co-workers alone because just like my elementary school math friends, we are regarded as other and sexual objects over imago Dei and human beings. Once again, while most of these avenues allowed for reward for my male colleagues, I was held by the punishment it felt to continuously have to defend myself before being able to move into these spaces. Most times in walking into a classroom, I would be completely and totally ignored, being regarded as a threat to the plethora of men in the seats rather than fellow learner. The only other woman in the MDiv program sat next to me as we were in line alphabetically to graduate, and as our student leader talked of such a great camaraderie, I wished I had known his experience as I had never felt more isolated.

At the end of the night, I took only one picture with a fellow grad that wasn’t a family shot. As we both entered in to our ministry residencies at the same time, we became friends. He is one I am so thankful for in that he never walked around me with distrust. He listens, he speaks into my calling, he encourages, he calls me out, he shares himself, he is truly brother. Is this not what the household of God is supposed to be?

As I speak so boldly about the atrocities, the loneliness, the overlooking that daily can be true of a woman not only in seminary, but in ministry as a career, I can not help but to also talk of the hope that I hold. My time learning did not leave me floundering and joyless about Christ, but with more fervor and passion for Him than I could have ever hoped or dreamed. I found my voice, rather than losing it, and the majority of my professors emboldened me to continue forth, and further than I would have thought for myself. These conversations about gender and the church are happening, they are happening. Though I have felt alone, I have also received deep, genuine apologies from several brothers who acknowledge that they have participated in these culturally acceptable ways of excluding women. They have repented, turned, and embraced me.

In a meeting recently, we were asked to share about a word that defines the season that you find yourself in. Mine was paradox. I feel at odds within myself over this age old war of being who I am: both an introvert and an extrovert at the same time, both bold and constantly second-guessing, both self-deprecating and aware that I have something to offer, both a people-pleaser and fleeing from pusillanimity. It has been many years of being told that I shouldn’t be in the spaces I occupy, everyone including myself aware that I just don’t fully fit. There are many burdens we bear that are extra-biblical when it comes to who we are as male and female, and it is time to begin to lay these at the foot of the Cross, because they are not meant to be carried, they aren’t here to serve us. The life of a follower of Christ is both so vividly clear and simultaneously foggy, leaving plenty of opportunities to consider God’s wisdom over our own makeshift versions of self-protection, finding life in dying to self, blessing us with more chances to experience His goodness and grace in the grey.

I am still learning. I will not be silent.

Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
— Psalm 25:5
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Another morning and I wake with thirst
for the goodness I do not have. I walk
out to the pond and all the way God has
given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord,
I was never a quick scholar but sulked
and hunched over my books past the
hour and the bell; grant me, in your
mercy, a little more time. Love for the
earth and love for you are having such a
long conversation in my heart. Who
knows what will finally happen or
where I will be sent, yet already I have
given a great many things away, expect-
ing to be told to pack nothing, except the
prayers which, with this thirst, I am
slowly learning.
— Mary Oliver, Thirst