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Monday, June 29, 2015

Unique (I Think) Challenges for Female Theologians

I'm not a feminist, and I never want to jump on the soapbox that shouts, "Being a female theologian stinks, because everybody hates us!"  This is simply not true.  However, there are some unique challenges.  


Even if you break through the glass ceiling, there are people who want to repair it.  The Church of the Nazarene has a history of being inclusive of women, but even in the most women friendly denominations, some pastors still don't get it.  I will never forget the day Nina Gunter was elected as a General Superintendent.  I'd like to say that it is such an unforgettable moment, because she was deserving (which she was) or because it was a step in the right direction (which it was) or for any number of other reasons.  However, the most prominent reason I will never forget it is that I happened to be in the office at my local church, making copies of music for the youth worship band that I led, and the Senior Pastor was having an absolute fit over the voting.  

With each new vote, he would run into the office very upset about the upward trend for Dr. Gunter.  I can't remember everything he said, but he was furious that the voters at General Assembly could be so stupid as to elect a woman to such a position of power.  It was difficult, to say the least, to be standing there completely unable to form an appropriate response.

By the time the final vote was tallied, this man was actually changing colors, and I was a little concerned that he might have a heart attack.  I finished making my copies and walked home wondering how this could possibly be happening in the 21st century.


So many of your friends are naturally going to be men.  Pastoral Ministry is still a male dominated field, and that's OK.  People should enter into ministry because they feel called to do so, and if that means that an overwhelming number of pastors are men, because they are the ones who feel called, then I'm not going to argue with that.  Sometimes, you might come across a rare situation in which you are surrounded by other female theologians.  Actually, I have experienced this in my education, where many of my colleagues have been women.  But this is unusual.

I am tempted to say, "Guard yourself," but that doesn't begin to cover what I mean, and it is inadequate for the dilemma, because you actually can't guard yourself all the time.  If you did that, you would never form friendships with your colleagues.  These are difficult waters.  You can't build a wall around yourself, but there is also some wisdom in the old adage, "Don't play with fire," because, well, you know what's bound to happen.

It can be somewhat difficult to sufficiently play the role of "one of the guys".  That's OK.  You really shouldn't have to do this.  That said, I do have a lot of communication going on with male colleagues.  There are stretches of time when this is a daily occurrence.  It can be tricky.  I do not possess amazing social filters, and sometimes I know I say things, in the regular course of conversation, that might cross an invisible line in the sand.  I call these, "Oh, crap moments".  They are the times when I say something, or maybe worse yet, write something (who needs an incriminating paper trail, and let's face it, the Internet is forever), and then look back on it and think, "That did not come out right".  Then, of course, it's almost worse to try to fix it.

I have all kinds of guidelines for myself.  Don't say anything I wouldn't say to my best friend's husband.  Don't write anything that would come across weird if I left my computer open to Facebook (which I always do) and Phil read my last fifteen message threads.  Don't say anything I wouldn't say if my male colleague's wife was standing next to him.  Don't post anything that would make me furious if some woman posted it to Phil.  The problem with all of this, though, is that I am just as likely to be inappropriate in any of these situations!

Overall, though, just be smart.  There are going to be some limitations on your friendships.  It's OK.  Sometimes you're going to say something you wish you could get back.  It's OK.  You could drive yourself crazy over analyzing every interaction.  Don't do it.  It's not worth it.  Chances are excellent that you are way more worried about this than anybody else.


Your friends who are women might fall into a distinctly different theological leaning category.  Frankly, most of my closest friends are reformed.  This makes it basically impossible for me to talk with them about my calling, my education, or my vocation.  We are pretty much limited to discussing raising children and planning vacations, and I'm OK with that, because these are also things about which I care very much.  Sometimes, however, I wish for deeper conversation.  The problem is, if I bring theology or ministry into the equation, I am going to hear all about how I should identify myself as "Mrs. Michaels" rather than "Pastor Lisa," I am going to be labeled a heretic, and their husbands are not going to let them have play dates with me anymore.  It sounds melodramatic, but I have lost more than one friend because my definition of submission doesn't add up to her husband's definition.  Ironically, these same friends think my husband is awesome!  There must be something to that.

This difference in opinion has also been problematic for my oldest daughter, at times.  One particular evening, she had a friend at our house for a sleepover.  While we were eating dinner, her friend said, "Ms. Lisa, I'm learning at church how I was created to make a man happy and have babies!  If you want Grace to be like me, you should let her come to my group!"  They were eleven years old!  This sweet little friend was so excited about this, and I know I was standing there with my jaw on the kitchen floor.  The only thing I could think was, "I don't want Grace to be like you!"  Of course, I couldn't say this, because I am relatively opposed to usurping other people's family values at pre-teen slumber parties, so it took me a long moment to respond carefully.  We declined the invitation.  I hope no one who attends that church ever wants to date my daughter.


If your husband is also a theologian, it is really hard to shake the stigma of being "the pastor's wife".  You almost have to set yourself apart in some way, but you don't want it to become a competition.  The truth is, sometimes I feel as if it's a lose-lose situation, which is extraordinarily sad, because neither of us wants it to be that way.

As an example of how this is sometimes bizarre, I recently volunteered to participate in the editing process for a denominational document.  It was sent to all of the volunteers with the greeting, "Guys and Lisa Michaels - ".  Awkward.  It was also sent to my husband's email address as opposed to mine.  I'm not sure if they thought he needed to preview my email or what.  He forwarded it to me, I made significant edits, sent it back from my own email account, and then they thanked him.  It was weird.  On a good day, this is almost laugh out loud funny.  On a typical day, I wonder why I am invisible to some people. 



  1. Thanks for being real and sharing your heart, Lisa!! While I do agree with the "women should not be pastors" camp, I also feel there is MUCH more out there than just pastor that God can use a trained and willing woman to do!! Ie: Lisa Cherry at Frontline Ministries, and everyone knows Beth Moore- I've even heard a male pastor say she's a better preacher than many men!! LOL Keep your eyes on HIM and seeking what HE has called you to do!!! *hugs*

    1. Cheryl -

      This is an interesting comment and I really appreciate your thoughts on calling being important. I am curious, though, how do you reconcile being in the "women should not be pastors" camp if a woman is called to be a pastor?

  2. I am 51 years old, and have not had the opportunity to sit under the leadership of a female Pastor. Let's be honest though, if the ladies throughout the history of the Nazarene church had not taken many leadership roles in the church, not a lot of ministry would have happened! I have no problem with women being ordained pastors. Keep up the good work, Lisa. I have enjoyed your theological discussions, even if I disagree with some of your viewpoints. :)

    1. Bryan -

      Thanks for this. I think it is astounding, in the Church of the Nazarene, how many people have not experienced a female pastor, even though we are (at least in policy) a really female pastor friendly denomination.

      I don't want to take away from the positive response you made here, in any way, but I do want to point something out about our language of inclusiveness or exclusiveness, in general. You said, "I have no problem with women being ordained pastors". Again, thank you. I really do appreciate that. However, I wonder how strangely someone would look at me if I said, "I have no problem with men being ordained pastors." I think the look would be something between, "You just grew a second head," and "Why would you need to say something like that?"

      Now, I know I set myself up for it with this post, but what I would really love to see, in the future, is a church where no one even thinks about the differences between having a man as a pastor or a woman as a pastor. Perhaps I'm living in a dream world. There are challenges in ministry for both men and women, and the ones I outlined, here, are probably not going to go away. But I sure wish they would.

      I guess I decided that education, in this case, was better than ignoring that the issues exist, and I appreciate the support in that. I wonder what we can do to make the challenges less prominent moving forward.

  3. I know the challenges are immense, because I have watched you face them, firsthand. I pray for the day when these are no longer challenges for women in ministry of for anyone, but everything is simply...normal.

    You wrote, "Sometimes you're going to say something you wish you could get back. It's OK. You could drive yourself crazy over analyzing every interaction. Don't do it. It's not worth it. Chances are excellent that you are way more worried about this than anybody else."

    This is great advice for anyone, women or men.

    It's definitely tough in the ways you suggest regarding two theologians in the same house. And I think both men and women going into ministry need to consider these words, because *they all* need to be prepared to handle the frustration of other people looking past their spouse when the spouse is the most appropriate person to talk to, yet is treated like they are invisible.

    But let's face it, 99% of the time the female is the one who gets overlooked. It's wrong. So it's important for the male to go out of his way to correct those wrongs insofar as he can, and for the female to not get frustrated at the male rather than the ones who are walking past her like she is invisible.

    1. Thank you. I certainly appreciate how you go out of your way.