-Pastor Melissa Fain-
I sat at my computer reading the title, “I Got Ordained So I Can Talk About Jesus. Not the Female Pastor Debate.”
Wow, I think. That’s the dream, isn’t it?
Rev. Tish Harrison Warren was writing on the three women who were recently ordained at Saddleback Church. It made headlines, and I remember looking at the picture of the three women with (unfortunately) jaded eyes. I immediately thought, “Are they going to be relegated to women’s or children’s ministry?” “Are people asking them if their husbands approved of this move?” “What sexist thing is being posted to these women under the guise of “love” but really it is the dirty smear of sexism?”
Then there’s the unfair double standard put on women in ministry. Men, like Mark Driscoll, can plagiarize, and inappropriately use church funds and end up with a new ministry out of it all. Ravi Zacharias can turn sexual abuse around to attack the abused, slandering the abusers name, and the truth isn’t allowed to surface until after his death. Meanwhile women in ministry must be without any sin, for with the first sign that they are not the perfected servant from God, they can be ousted from the community before the slandering paint has time to dry.
More than that, no one thinks Zacharias or Driscoll stand for all male ministers, but every woman minister somehow speaks for all women in ministry. If one woman fails it becomes the reason all women fail. Partly, it's because there are those who immediately want us to fail. This creates those who never want us to fail, because the consequences are too high. Female ministry has become like diamonds. There are so many hidden away in mines. The ones in charge have chosen to only release a few to those coveted spots, pulling just a handful out in the open, forcing us to become limited resources when we are actually abundant.
My call to ministry:
I got ordained so I can talk about Jesus, not the female Pastor debate.
No, really. I completely agree with Warren on this.
Perhaps if I were to use my own statement it would more pointedly read, “I felt called from God, and I followed that call.” While that specific statement is so open from your end, it’s open in another way from mine. I was actively against being like all the other women ministers I knew. I deeply wanted to dig into scripture without bringing gender into the subject. I didn’t want to preface my sermons with telling everyone I have a Masters of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, or that I was ordained by two congregations within the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ). Yet, here I am, forced to carry around my bio like a shield, and brace for impact.
When I was in the pulpit, questioning my call as it related to my gender was mostly never asked. Unless I was seeking a job. Then the question was never asked, but always inferred. People you loved suddenly turned into snakes and bit out. Imagine what it’s like to hear someone you respect and love say to your face, “I personally believe women should be ministers, but I voted against it because I don’t think our church was ready for one.” Imagine being on the phone for a church interview and the Senior Pastor pointedly asks, “Why do you call yourself ‘Pastor?’ We like you, just not with that title.” The biggest whammy being the one that comes from colleagues, “If I were looking for an associate…” It’s the dreaded, “You’re too qualified for this job.” It’s the easy, and safe out. Not offensive, but still exclusionary.
When I’m online and out in the world it’s a whole other battlefield. While no one in the church would tell me to my face they don’t think women are ministers, outside the church has no problem at all. Middle schoolers like to joyfully announce they don’t believe in me, like I’m somehow a fairy that would cease to exist if it’s not immediately followed with clapping to keep me from suffocating under the weight of those words. It’s the way my projects are quietly taken away and given to a man; rebranded to never to be associated with me. (In Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I felt Sam’s raw pain in seeing Cap’s shield being given to a white man. I’ve experienced the same pain as a woman.) It’s also the gawking stares once they hear I’m clergy, like I’ve magically become a dangerous monster with three eyes and two heads.
Online, it’s become less my title, and more about the subversion of that title. Nowhere was this more clear to me than when I tried a male username for 6 months. On Reddit, my username is /u/RevMelissa. I’ve had an account since April 2013. I used to think it was normal how often I’d have to explain myself or dig up sources. I thought the negative attention was what every minister received, and I pushed into it. It wasn’t until I began to notice a guy could come behind me, say the exact same thing, and their comment would be upvoted while mine was being criticized and brought to lower tiers of the thread.
My original plan was to bring in a minister of the opposite gender, and the two of us would create new usernames. Mine would be a masculine pastor, and his would be a feminine pastor. Then we would spend six months on Reddit, responding to comments and occasionally posting. At the end of six months we would compare karma, and write about our experiences. Everyone I asked was either too busy, or too uncomfortable with Reddit. Even among friends, I couldn’t find a single person to help me understand what was happening.
So I did it myself, creating /u/PastorJerome. Sometimes I’d even post almost identical comments in the same thread. I’d watch as people so willingly accepted Jerome and the title. There was power in the male username in a way I had no idea. (If you want to go down that rabbit hole- there’s the original post on my userpage, and my About page has two articles on the subject.) I had wanted someone to pick it up and do a real study. I wanted it to show something deeper, but all that work ended in nothing.
So what about that dream?
I am a woman who has been working in the church for over 20 years. I was ordained 11 years ago. I’ve physically worked at one conference center, and 5 churches; one of them a senior pastorite. I was a supply for two churches. I’ve been the minister of Fig Tree Christian for almost 9 years. Yet, I’m currently earning money through subbing middle school. I don’t get paid through Fig Tree; it has never brought in even close to enough to put me on salary. All that said, I am a minister.
I want what Warren wants. Believe me, we all do. We want what the men so naturally have: to not have their words constantly compared to their gender; to be treated the way Jesus treated women. We want to be like the woman at the well, who became an evangelist. Jesus never ended that conversation with, “And look at you doing all that as a woman!” He didn’t chastise her for pulling in guys with her work. He treated her as a person who did something for God. Is it too much to want that?
That’s the dream, but the reality is I have a 9 year old daughter. I’m quickly choosing to stop fighting for myself, and start fighting for her. I absolutely don’t, with no conditions, want her to become an adult in the world right now. My struggles go beyond ministry. I want her super creative spirit to not be completely crushed when she becomes an adult; when that creativity appears dangerous to the greater world. So here is where I stand:
More than anything, for everyone, realize this is a battle that is still being fought, and it needs support. It wears us out. Women- you are not losers if the weight of the world causes you to collapse. Even top tier fighters have their breaking point. It doesn’t change your call. It doesn’t change your mission. It just means you need to rest for a bit. You women in ministry- you rock. I support you, and I hope you support me.
Everyone else- maybe come at that with a bit of grace.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;
23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
Roman 8:22-23 NRSV
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my second child, that I finally really read Romans 8. Guys out there, do any of you know what labor pains are like, or being pregnant in general? (I know the answer’s no, which is why it’s shocking to see Paul use the analogy so loosely.)
Pregnancy can rip your body apart. Skin pulls in ways it is not used to pulling, and very quickly. Your body swells. You can’t fit into your shoes and your fingers feel like sausages. You want to eat strange things, like a jar of pickles in one sitting. I knew a mom that could only manage to eat fried liver, and she hated every bite. The closer you get to labor, the more uncomfortable it is to sleep, but (at the same time) you are so tired. Those last few weeks, you begin to wonder if God’s actually transforming you into a boat, instead of a mother.
At the event itself, even if you are given an epidural for the labor, there is pain that continues afterwards. There are places that tear with natural pregnancy, and the C-Section wound if you go the other route. The person who did the epidural the second time, did it wrong, and it only worked on the right side of my body. The other half felt everything.
And boys, you need to realize this, that period that didn’t happen for 9 months? Well, after birth it’s back, all 9 months of it, and it can last for weeks. The hospital gives these horrid pads too. If they were a little bit wider, they might as well be called a diaper.
Then there’s the post pregnancy weight. The doctors tell you they want you personally to gain weight during pregnancy. What they don’t tell you is that weight could stay with you for years. Also, when fat cells are created, they never truly go away. That means, for the rest of your life it will be easier to gain back that weight, because those fat cells are just waiting to be filled up again.
What was Paul getting at?
Let me first say, compared to Ancient Rome, I can confidently say my pregnancies were way more comfortable than the women of that time.
I also think this sort of language needs to be used more often in the Church- the language of pregnancy and birth.
Finally, I think it’s super uncomfortable to watch a ministerial man fumble through this text to blurt out at the end, “But I honestly have no idea what that’s like.”
So, let me get to the nuts and bolts of this as a ministerial woman; with a confidence that only comes from being a mom that birthed babies- let me lay it out.
Birthing anything will change you.
The absolute truth of labor is this: When it starts you want it to stop, but you have to literally push through the pain to get to that point. It is the point of no return.
When afterwards, when your very body is a forign object, you are left with someone new who has no way to care for him or herself. You need to process and heal, but they need you now. It is the beginning of a relationship: mother to child. Wanting a baby is one of the most selfish things you can want in this world. Being a parent is one of the most selfless. You begin to understand the world differently, as you see it beyond yourself.
We are the product, not the producer in this scripture. We are the result of the Spirit’s labor pains. This is a very feminine image of God that mostly goes ignored. It’s an image that holds negativity of pain and transforms into something beautiful. A God that rips herself apart, and dies to her old self, to be something new for us: A Mom. God isn’t asking us to birth creation, or re-birth humanity. God is asking us to process the brokenness and heal from the deep woundedness of the Church. The issue has already been engaged, so it can’t be stopped. We have to literally push through the pain. It’s the point of no return. If we don’t, we die from it. If we do, we are reborn through that death, made something new as God holds us close.
-Pastor Melissa Fain-
My daughter is in third grade. She is a social butterfly. She desires connection in all ways. She wants to connect with friends. She wants to connect with text as she devours literature. She connects with history, math and science with a childlike zeal.
She would also break the middle school dress code if she was more than a third grade child.
I’m probably hyper aware of all this because I sub middle school, while my husband teaches elementary. I see the world through bifocals. If I look up, I’m a caring mommy that just wants to do what is best for her baby. If I angle down, I see the inner workings of the education machine. Neither one is absolutely true, but neither side wants to engage the other in real talk. And no side wants to see beyond the education system.
Education is the system used for last stands
I truly believe, Covid is what really clarified all this for me. This year I watched as kids were being used like pawns in a game of Chess. No, scratch that! Kids were being used as a defensive measure for personal belief systems. “Think of the kids,” became the rallying cry. In my county, it became the reason why we should let our kids go back to school full time without any face coverings or social distancing. I mean there were family members of these kids that died, but the kids made it through A O Kay.
Did that come off as a little snarky? Yeah, it was a little snarky.
History has shown that we throw our kids up like shields when major change is on the horizon.
Even when some of those changes lead to healthy moves forward, like Brown vs. the Board of Education. The children were used as the final standard to end segregation. Putting the children up front means they become the ones taking the real damage.
Yet sometimes, this last stand is less a shield, and more a statement against media and pop-culture.
Which brings me back around to the dress code.
Rev. Evan M. Dolive (who recently became Rev. DR. Dolive, congrats btw), has girls of his own. Back in the long-long-ago of March 2013, he composed an open letter to Victoria Secret regarding how sexualized their ad campaigns were towards children. This letter went viral, and led to a deeper look at body image, marketing, and God. It led him to publish the book- Seeking Imperfection. In the book, his focus was mostly on media and marketing as it related faith. I submit, it is media and marketing that has a much more lasting social impact on children than school.
To put it another way, what companies sell to kids, and what social media puts in front of their faces do more socially than what happens 9am-4pm inside a school. The media and market can only be felt in the education system. It cannot be altered or changed.
Which, for the third time, brings me back to the dress code.
It doesn’t take much digging to see parents and students have felt school dress codes are overly focused on the female half of the student population. The pushback is plain stupid. While parents and their daughters are upset, the school system passes the throwaway comment that these same rules are also true for the boys. If a boy came to school in a spaghetti strap top and booty shorts, he would be dress coded. For years, we’ve seen how those items have been stereotypically seen as female clothing, and therefore, girls have been unfairly signaled out for dressing inappropriately. Meanwhile, this has become the last stand for “decency.” We can’t talk about sexism in the market or the media anymore. That battle appears lost. Even when one clothing manufacturer comes up with modest clothes, the fashion icons and photographers push the boobs and butts to the forefront. Kids see it, and want to do what is socially popular. So, we take it to the schools.
Then there’s my elementary school daughter. Right now she’s fine. No one is sending her to the office in May because her shorts are too short. No one is worried because her shoulders are too exposed in her sleeveless top. Meanwhile, it’s becoming harder and harder to find dress code approved pants and shorts. Social media, marketing and those getting the money from these clothes are sexualizing these girls. Boys have clothes that are mostly made to be comfortable. Girls have clothes that are mostly made to be looked at. Think about that for a minute. You, an adult reader, are trained to form your first opinion on a girl of 12 based on how her butt and boobs fill out her outfit.
This means we are teaching these girls a terrible lesson that does carry into adulthood. Women must always consider their gender when doing pretty much anything. They will always walk that line between whether something looks professional or slutty. A line boys don't even need to consider. We've sexualized girls while boys don’t have to ask the same questions. School dress code doesn’t make this better. It’s actually the first step in drawing more attention to a girl’s sexuality than her personhood.
The problem isn’t the dress code, the problem is systemic and far reaching. It’s time to stop putting the focus on the dress code, and start focusing on the real problem: societies desire to sexualize girls. Dolive brought this problem to our attention in 2013. Now, in 2021, I’d say the problem is worse. It’s time to take arms ourselves, instead of forcing our daughters as a front line last defense.
Pretend with me:
You are out and about. You realize you forgot something, and instead of going all the way home, you'll call home and ask someone to come to you.
You remember there was a payphone booth just around the corner, but upon reaching it, you only see the box remaining. The phone is no longer there.
All the same, you dig through your pockets for a quarter to find you no longer carry change. Frantic, you yell out, "Does anyone have a quarter?!" People look at you like you've gone mad. Still, a kind looking older lady comes up to you and gives you one "I hope it gives you what you need," she replies.
You thank her, and then look at the box. Having no other alternative, you chuck the quarter in its general direction, and wait. No phone materializes. You look around the box. What do you do now? Pulling out your iPhone, you call home. "Honey?" you ask. "How do I get an old payphone to start working again?"
When tradition has lost it's purpose.
Yes, the above example is completely and totally ridiculous. We can see it for what it is, because the pieces are/were physically there. Even though there are not very many empty phone booths today, and you’d be lucky to even pick out the cement slab they used to sit on, we can visualize what’s going on.
Aside from Covid-19, the pandemic didn’t bring anything new. It merely sped up what was already happening. The Church was bleeding out before, now it’s hemorrhaging. There are a few congregations that have the appearance of health, and as I’ve written in a previous post, that is a false sign. First the smallest of the churches closed, and those who were left joined slightly larger churches. As larger and larger churches have felt the reality of all this, the largest churches have created a false equivalency of large churches are the solution. In reality, they simply exist because there is nowhere else for refugees of dead congregations to go. And, these refugees want to buy the snake oil of fake growth, because to do otherwise would be to admit that the system, as it stands today, isn’t working.
This is all like watching my closest friends throwing coins at a gutted phone booth; putting their hope in God magically returning the phone. I don’t dare tell anyone that the answer is on us, because they are so nostalgic for what once was they will try to force the phone booth to work with smartphones. My answer is, why are you forcing my wireless connection to God into an obsolete system?
“At least we’re doing something,” is dangerous.
I feel like our desire to just do something in crisis, is not really about solving the crisis. Instead, it’s the immediate need to not be the one who’s at fault. Then, maybe the focus will turn to those who are doing nothing.
What congregants fail to realize is the reason there are people doing nothing, is because God didn’t give them the “coin.” When congregants throw their coin into a gutted box, they are doing even worse than burying it. They won’t even be able to dig it up and give it back. It’s wasted. Literally thrown away. Meanwhile, God’s call is all around them, with means to connect to that call.
It all comes down to this: God never promised to save your building. God never promised to save your location. God never stated that the times around 11am was the only sacred time to set aside and meet God. Just doing something is dangerous because what you are doing is too small, too outdated, and throwing away resources that could be better spent somewhere else.
God did promise salvation. God did promise redemption. That's of people; not places. The longer we throw away our money in those empty husks, the harder it will be to help God follow through on the real promises.
Note: Not all mainline protestant churches are in a bad place, or maintaining what is killing churches today. There are a few that meet the needs of specific people in a specific way while living into now. I don't like drawing attention to those few, because most churches want to believe they are part of the minority, when they are actually part of majority.