igniting the ember: emerging women finding their voice

“women have been taught that for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out, we will fall off the edge”  – author unknown

i’ve discovered the world is round. i have survived my venture out (so far) and although it feels like i have fallen off the cliff, i have found there really is solid ground beneath me.  it was fun facilitating the workshop “emerging women finding their voice” at the new conspirators conference in seattle last weekend.  as i mentioned before, julie clawson, who moderates the emerging women’s blog out of chicago, couldn’t travel due to her pregnancy and asked me to fill in.   the workshop ran twice during the conference and were both small but perfect-sized groups for dialogue (my favorite).  i was glad a few guys were there, too. we need to both be in the room to have these kinds of conversations, and i have respect for men who are trying to learn and see what they can do to shift the tide of sexism in the church.  i mentioned previously that they audio-taped it, and as soon as i find out about the link, i’ll pass it on. it’s hard to condense into a simple blog post, but here are a few of the big ideas:

in the workshop we talked about our responses to the words “emerging – women – finding – their – voices”.  the word i most connected with was “finding”.  finding means something was lost. it was once there.  our voice was put in there by God at creation, but all kinds of crazy things have squeezed it out.  sometimes in the moments of spiritual growth and empowerment, we might think we have to go “get it from somewhere else” but i think that is is actually just uncovering what is buried under the rubble and rocks of church, society, and life experiences.   under the rubble is a burning ember waiting to be fanned back into flame.  it just needs to be nurtured, tended to, fueled, to bring what may have been squelched back to life.  and we all know that one burning ember can create a raging fire, given enough fuel.  i believe all men and women were created with a powerful voice (and powerful doesn’t mean just loud).  a voice meant to express itself, impact others, live out passion, affect this world in small and big ways.  this voice is not just for “ministry” in the typical church sense.  to me, that would be a miss.    it is about women finding their voices in all their relationships, with people, with God, with theirselves, in ministry, in the workplace, in the deepest places of their heart.  it’s about stepping into His image in us and quit holding back out of fear, doubt, and insecurity.  during the workshop we brainstormed some alternative words for emerging, finding & voice.  here are just a few words we came up in the first session (i forgot to ask someone to write them down round 2):

emerging:  coming out, courageous, hopeful, arising, blooming, transforming, blossoming

finding: seeking, discovering, listening, recovering. exploring, stepping into

voice: ministry, purpose, deepest song, identity, breath, worship, calling, creative ability, mo-jo, beauty

i want to make something clear:  gender equality is just one important issue connected to the bigger issue of justice and equality for all regardless of color, sex, socioeconomics. i take galatians 3:28 very seriously.  the reason why this conversation is so important to me is that i don’t believe there can be restoration and reconciliation in the church until men-women-black-white-latino-asian-native american-rich-poor-gay-straight-conservative-liberal-hip & cool-boring-educated-married-single-young-old-broken-more healed can see each other as equally valuable, with important voices to bring to the table.  to listen to.  to speak into.  to learn from. 

the only way this can begin to happen is if power (aka: leadership, voice, value) begins to shift.  those with power need to give it up.  period.  make room.  read the beatitudes.  the fine art of these passages has been stolen from the museum and replaced with a ridiculous leadership poster and a few scriptures taken out of context.  people with power need to learn to give it away. don’t be as successful.  ruffle some feathers in your congregations by doing the right thing instead of bowing down to the fearful voices.   seek ways to let others have more than just the microphone now and then.  seek to serve instead of be served.  see the value of a different perspective. honor the diversity. 

at the same time, those without power need to begin to step into it.  this means risking our ego, self-protection, doubts.  it means upsetting the apple cart and possibly losing some friends.  it means sometimes we will have to ask to be a part of certain conversations even when it feels incredibly stupid to ask.   it means some people will say we are “controlling” and “power-seeking.”   we need to learn to live with the negative feedback  and worry about pleasing God, not man.  this means rocking the boat in our relationships, bringing our true selves to our marriages, our jobs, our friendships, our ministries and callings, and not hiding behind a “good christian woman” facade.   (i believe we must do this for our daughters who follow.  these young girls need us to change the course of this ship so that when they get on it it is traveling toward freedom, not slavery). 

charles degaulle said “silence is the ultimate weapon of power.”  i believe that men and women have been silent on this issue for far too long.  allowing ourselves to give time, money, heart to a system that does not value a woman’s voice means we are unknowingly supporting oppression.  i believe it is time for men to begin to say “hey, this isn’t right.  i am not going to stand by and let my sisters/daughters/spouses/friends be silenced.”  i believe it is time for people to start asking good questions about the lack of women’s voices in their communities beyond the typical support roles.  i think it is important that we learn to vote with our feet.  i am so distressed by the number of people willing to stay in systems that continually perpetuate boy-power because it looks and sounds cool, and they don’t realize the subtle theological message that is being sent (i am not throwing stones, i was once there, too, just trying to raise awareness how covert and insidious sexism and prejudice really is).

one other thought that came up during the workshop.  power is not finiteif someone gives up power, it doesn’t mean that there’s now less power in the room. it actually means that there’s more power in the room.  this is the wild and craziness of God’s ways, not human ways.  the giving it up actually ends up as gaining something far more valuable.

so power needs to shift, and possibilities need to increase.  this just means that more and more and more and more opportunities need to present themselves for women to use their voice.  those in power/leadership will have to see in us what we sometimes can’t see or don’t even yet know.   makeesha fisher recently said:  “if you send the message that the voice of the other doesn’t matter, don’t be surprised when given the chance they don’t want to speak.”

don’t underestimate how much tending and nurturing this shift is going to take.   shame is very prevalent for those of us “finding our voices.”  we feel a little guilty for using it because all of the forces around us have told us that is bad, wrong, that our role is raising our babies and being meek and mild.   it’s a little bit like the kicked and abused dog who gets a new owner.  the door to the cage is open but it just a little afraid to come out. it will take a lot of wooing but over time hopefully safety and trust will get created.  possibilities will not happen overnight, but i have great faith that more and more opportunities will open for women, and my hope is that my sisters will give it a try and step into their giftedness, creativity, passion in many wonderful, powerful ways.   i may not see all the change i’d love to see in my lifetime, but i believe the steps that we are taking now will pave the way for those women that come behind us, just as those who went before us helped pave our way, too.

at the end of the workshop i handed everyone a piece of wood, a firestarter, and asked them to write on the wood what they needed to do to fan their voice or another woman’s voice into flame.  to ignite that burning ember.  the responses were beautiful:  men saying they needed to “learn to follow, stop talking about it and just do it” women saying “risk my heart, go for it, support other young women who need encouragement.”

my hope:  little and big fires erupt all over the place in the months and years to come.

ps:  saturday march 8th is international women’s day, women using their voices around the world to impact change for the greater good.   here’s to fanning the flame…here are some blog posts worth checking out:

complementarianism sucks: telling women to stay quiet in the name of Jesus – pam hodgeweide

a world handicapped by half and the voice – makeesha fisher

international women’s day – julie clawson

are women human? sonja

i don’t have the balls to be a leader – kingdom grace

in the same vein, tia lynn also has a thoughtful and well studied series about gender equality – my favorite:  deborah-a fundamentalist’s worst nightmare.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

11 Comments

  • Kathy, thanks for giving me a post that I could cry my way through. 🙂 Man, did the tears flow. Tears I did not even know were in me, frankly, especially on this topic. As I read your words I realized that I’ve been really, really, really, really quiet for a lot of years (and that is not how I used to be at all). I’m just beginning to find my voice again. Thanks for yet another nudge to me on this journey of coming out from the back of the cave and letting my voice be heard once again.

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  • One day those in power, which is a nice way of saying control, are going to realize the wealth of partnerships available to them in women. But in the meantime, the women are going to continue discovering God’s incredible gift that is the heart much better than the guys.

    Nicely said Kathy.

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  • Wow.
    This last couple of weeks have been one of God’s nudging once again….and with this post, He nudged me again.
    Over and over, He has been reminding me of the importance of using my voice, even if I feel it’s not heard. He has a purpose in it.
    Thanks.

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  • hey kath, great post! don’t give in to the guilt, shame and the voices of the enemy. keep on fighting for what is right. and pray that enough of us men can grow big enough gonads to encourage our precious sisters and help them fight, what i think Jesus would call “the good fight”. you go girl. you ROCK. love ya! mike

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  • I find it very encouraging that men are commenting on this post. One of things that used to bother me was not so much that there were men who opposed women using their voice in any way, shape or form. I expected that! What surprised me, though, was the way so many men would not speak up whenever that happened. For example, every time I got up to preach (back in the days when I was “on staff” at a church) several men would walk out of the building because they could not have a “woman teach them.” No one ever said a word to these men. Another time I sat in a pastor’s meeting with about a dozen other men from our city (I was the only woman there), while one man took me to task for being a “woman in ministry,” and all the other men sat there with not one word of opposition offered to that man. These were men I got along wonderfully with, who invited me to speak in their churches, etc. But when it came to actually confronting a brother on this issue, they were silent.

    I am fortunate to have a fantastic husband who supports me in every way to this day, and it’s how I made it through the above times. But not all women are in the same position, and so it’s great that men will speak out for other women. Keep it up, good men!

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  • elle – oh i am so glad it makes you feel less alone out there in vermont! the tears are hard but they are so good, too. i agree with you, too, on how cool it is that men are refusing to be silent. there is nothing more painful. i have experienced precisely what you described and it is a terrible, terrible feeling! i am surrounded by some really great humble men who are just living it out. it is beautiful and i do feel so thankful. i am so glad you are part of this conversation and for what you contribute.

    jonathan – it is great to know there are men like you who “get it.” thanks for all your encouragement and for what you are doing to value women’s voices in your community in cali.

    che – i am glad you are listening to the nudging…

    mike – you’re the best. thank you for your faithfulness and how you value all of our voices in such lovely ways. you are an example of true brotherhood in Christ and what that can look like, how healing it can be for so many–the boys and the girls. i believe what you and the other refuge men are living out is truly one of the most beautiful things i’ve ever experienced in all of my years of being a christian. you guys are the real deal.

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  • wow. sounds like you had it going on.

    i used to think, for many many years, that the whole women thing was a theological issue. so i was perfectly content to leave it at that. oh i believed in women pastors, etc…but i viewed it the same way as someone might determine a theological position on baptism or communion. we’ll just have to agree to disagree kind of mentality.

    and then i heard a woman leader (rose swetman) declare, “Issues about women in leadership are not issues of theology, but an issue of justice.”

    That one statement was like a light switch for me.

    From that moment on I determined to pay attention and speak up whenever and encounter gender bias, particularly in the context of Christendom.

    I’ve had some fun hitting “reply all” to some mass emails from some of my old buddies from traditional church who innocently fwd some of those sappy devotionals that unwittingly feed the image of a woman serving under the man.

    Sigh. Racism, sexism, gender inequality, it all sucks. Really. It does. And I don’t think for a moment that God meant for it or created it, not even under the guise of “roles” or religious gifting or calling.

    I take Galatians 3:28 very serious too. Someone argued with me about it once, saying that I took it out of context in support of women having total access in the kingdom of God. They claimed the theology of the verse is about “position in salvation,” not in “roles.”

    Argh. The “r” word is getting on my nerves. Anybody else?

    Ok. I’m good and fired up. I’ll write something up for tomorrow, March 8, in honor of International Women’s Day. Thanks for fanning my flame Kathy!

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  • Sorry I just got to reading this, Kath…I loved this “those with power need to give it up. period. make room….those without power need to begin to step into it.” I think that pretty well sums it up, in a nutshell. We like to blame those with the power for not allowing our voices, but we (the powerless) also need to realize our voices are valuable, maybe after a lifetime of being told they are not, and be willing to risk something for it.

    Great stuff! You take it easy and get well.

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  • WOW! Happy Women’s Day! I found you by accident, Kathy, and I’m so glad I did. I’m writing too, and looking for ways to provide the opening to others. I wish I had been at your conference.

    I’m for not “seeking power” at all, and recently retired from a 20 year career in politics in order to stop playing the power game. I would like to see a conversation on what power really is, and how we can accomplish justice and prosperity and health and happiness without power, per se. There’s no reason why we need to break INTO the mold. I’d like to live without one. Here’s to all of us, and here’s hoping we find our way together.

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  • pam – i love that rose swetman quote, too. so cool that that was the thing that really shifted things for you. okay i am heading over to your blog now to comment on your amazing post today for int’l women’s day…soooooo good! and yes, the “r” word really gets on my nerves. come on, people, GOD IS BIG.

    erin – i agree, that is why we need each other so much, to remind each other of the truth–that we have something worth saying even if the voice in our head says we don’t.

    suzanne – thanks for stopping by. that is fun that you stumbled upon… yeah, i hear what you are saying about the word “power” – it is not my fav word either but i use it to make a point. i like to substitute it with “leadership, value or voice” and think this would be a great future conversation, really–what is power? i also believe that it is just as dangerous for a woman to have unchecked power as it is a man. (that’s why i believe so strongly in shared leadership, actually). but what i am glad for is the conversation, that we are talking about women stepping out, risking, breaking molds and living free.

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  • Hi Kathy!

    I got to this sentence “under the rubble is a burning ember waiting to be fanned back into flame. it just needs to be nurtured, tended to, fueled, to bring what may have been squelched back to life.” and I had to stop and write my comment … I may write more later because I have not read the rest of your post yet 😉

    In any case, I’m a homeschooler mom and I’m currently working through a series on chemistry with my two kids, so I’ve been reading through experiments and that sort of thing. I’ve been fascinated by a couple of experiments that use a yeast reaction to bring a glowing ember back to full flame. It seems that the yeast reaction gives off oxygen which is what the ember needs to burn.

    Your sentence put me in mind of that experiment. That bubbling yeast is what provides the oxygen so that there is a flame. But that flame will not burn out of control, become a raging inferno. It will only burn lightly and as long as the yeast bubbles. It is when we are in healthy relationship with one another that we can find and nurture that voice/ember. This is a really neat visual that I am so not doing justice to! I need to think it through some more …

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