“A female pastor. How wonderful!” she said. “And I got to see it before I died.”
She approached me after a funeral service, her beautiful scarf framing her face, a woman who looked to be in her 70s. I was rendered completely speechless. And I confess her words mark my memory with a sadness I have a hard time articulating.
You see, I live in a world where gender both qualifies and disqualifies you. Where “othering” is often the language of the day and I regularly observe all-male elder boards or male-led denominations attempting to dictate who they want me to be, how I should use my gifts, and what they will allow me to do.
As a woman who holds a master’s degree in theology, and who has served as an interim pastor and a chaplain, I am more confident than ever that God has created me to pastor and to preach, to teach and to shepherd. I can tell you that nothing comes more naturally to me than this. It actually caught me by surprise when I served as an interim pastor, the ease of my stepping into this type of service, the joy and the aliveness of it all.
If the glory of God is woman fully alive, I experienced that feeling of God’s glory and delight surrounding me, of freedom to fully embrace and live out of my giftedness and experiences.
Today, I find myself in a unique place. On the one hand, the Church seems to be recognizing that female voices are needed, that they are needed on church staffs, and that they need to be sought out. On the other hand, I am often wanted only if I conform to a certain constrained ideal.
When I have been shamed about preaching or serving as a pastor, the “othering” has often come from other women. This hurts most of all. I want to see each woman set free, regardless of her circumstances, and the things that hurt most are the sideways comments.
I remember once sharing with a woman who happened to be the wife of a pastor in the community how a sermon outline had finally come together in my head. She looked up, startled, her eyes narrowing: “What is it you DO as a pastor exactly?” (i.e., Please tell me it isn’t preaching or teaching!)
I am amazed at the many people who want a description of what a female pastor does, when I think this should be fairly obvious. She does whatever is needed to help and aid a congregation in their spiritual growth: she teaches and preaches, she counsels and consoles, she stands in mud to conduct a graveside service in the cold.
Several other women approached me at different times to ask: “What does your husband think of all this?” It always perplexed me, because without my husband’s overwhelming support and encouragement, I wouldn’t have pursued ministry at all. Instead of feeling threatened by my gifts, he has been outspoken in his support. When I have been uncertain, he has encouraged me not to turn back but to step forward.
Once in awhile someone will approach me about a position in which I must shrink to fit. We want you to provide pastoral care, but not be a pastor; to help grieving families but not participate in funerals, that sort of thing. I have conversations with myself and my mentor in which I try to make these scenarios work, but I come up empty-handed.
God’s good work in me has not prepared me to shrink to fit, but to continue to expand so God can use me fully and freely.
In the midst of all this othering, I have watched myself become quieter at times. The ease and effervescence of my personality has been subdued as I experience the reality of being a square-shaped piece that others keep trying to fit into a round hole.
So when asked, I tell others I am an author and a writer, and it is true.
But inside my heart says: This is not all of me! Come closer and show me that you believe Jesus has set his daughters free, and I will dare to reveal this heart of a pastor, this longing to love as I was created to love, this beautiful part of me that makes me feel “other.”
Suzanne Burden lives in the Indiana heartland with her husband, David, where she serves as a part-time chaplain. She is the coauthor of the book Reclaiming Eve: The Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God, and confesses to regularly making paleo chocolate cake in the microwave.
Image credit: Lee Cannon