"you're a pretty good speaker for a woman" and other wacky memories

no one can make you feel inferior without your consent

(but they can sure try!)

a weird thing happened to me a few weeks ago. i was at the twins’ basketball game on a snowy december night, sitting by myself, when a vivid memory swooped in out of the blue from 7 years before.  it was when i was still on big-church-staff and we hosted a special winter event where several of us shared dreams for our different ministries to gain financial support for the church.  right afterward, an elder came up to me and said “wow, you’re a pretty good speaker for a woman.”

“you’re a pretty good speaker for a woman.”

at that point i had been been getting stronger as a leader & came back with at least a halfway decent response (although i’d have a way better one now!).  i asked, “um,  is that a backhanded compliment?”  he just chuckled, and there was an awkward silence before we both went our separate ways to get some more hors’oeuvres.

he is not a bad guy.  i do think he was being sincere.  in his mind he was going out of his way to say something nice to me.  my guess is he really had no idea it was insulting.

i don’t know why this memory suddenly came back to me but it sparked me remembering other things people have said to me over the years as a woman in the church. it might be easy to dismiss some of them as not that big of a deal. i know many of you have far worse ones than these, but i felt like sharing them today because they tell a story & paint a picture.

they highlight the realities of how being a woman in the evangelical church is a little like always swimming upstream.  that the subtle & direct slant against equality takes its toll. i understand why so many women have tired of the journey and left to find freedom & their voice outside of the system.

i am hoping that we can learn a better way so in the years to come our daughters don’t have to hear these kinds of things that have been said to me:

“women aren’t supposed to lead men” – my first real pastor, when jose & i were newly married and he was in the navy. our pastor found out that women had been leading a weekly Bible study for military friends at our house and called me into his office, saying “i know you are new to the faith, so you might not know this, but it’s not biblical for you ladies to be leading.  you can lead each other, but you can’t lead men.”

“men need to feel like men and they can’t if women are always leading” – one of the leaders at a former church when talking about the small group ministry. every person–male or female–had the opportunity to lead and step into the role, but the women seemed to be ones who made things go.

“we’re just not ready for a woman teaching from the front” – the all-male senior leadership staff, after i spoke at a different former church and they received inquiries about their “position on women in leadership.”  they decided that speaking from the front at “real church” was theologically different from preaching regularly at the church service for the recovery ministry even though there were a whole lot of men there.  oh, but they were addicts. and it’s still not the right time.

“lifeway won’t sell your book because you are a female lead pastor”  – my publisher at the time, after getting news the #1 christian bookseller turned back their big book order of refresh when they discovered i was a female lead pastor. i was walking the floor at the international christian retailers conference in atlanta getting ready for our book signing and will never forget the shame i felt in that moment.  the publishers knew i pastored the refuge but underestimated the impact it would have with their primary distributor. the irony: the material was written exclusively for women.  if i was an associate pastor or “under a man”, it would have been fine.

“it’s great that your husband is a pastor and you get to do these kinds of things with him” – a man, after i spoke at a christmas banquet, assuming that jose was the pastor of our church because we were there together.  i was like “um, actually, jose’s not a pastor. i co-pastor the refuge with my friend karl.”  he gave me a blank look and went to refill his drink.

“sorry, but when they heard a woman was speaking, a group of conservative pastors banded together and showed up at the meeting to vote against it.”  – my friend, after having to disinvite me from speaking at a public school’s baccalaureate.

oh, there are many more but that’s enough for now!  the reason i share these is not to slam others but to highlight that gender inequality in the church is real.  

these subtle & direct assumptions about women are deeply grooved into our culture and it will take a lot of intention to shift the tide.

my hope is that men & women alike will support and encourage women to keep moving forward despite these obstacles in whatever ways God is calling them.  this isn’t just so women can lead but so that the church of Jesus Christ–the place that should be the free-est & most equal & bravest in town–can step more fully into all it is meant to be.

as we move forward, i’d love for a whole new generation of women to hear more comments like:

“it’s beautiful to hear your voice”

“you were meant for this”

“we need you”

“we will gladly stand for what is right and take the hit against the nay-sayers on your behalf”

“God created you for this”

“step into your passion”

“we are sorry for the past but we are committed to carving a new future..together.”

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.

37 Comments

  • Oh that stuff gets me so fired up! Thanks for helping us to keep our eyes open. I especially LOVE the suggestions at the end for great things to say that are so encouraging, true and complimentary

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  • Thank you so much for sharing these memories with us, Kathy. I so appreciate your distinctive, passionate voice for equality and freedom and grace in the church, however broken and sexist it may be at times.

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  • I think the one that sticks with me most vividly was when I was a senior in high school, a young (< 3 years) Christian, and leader in my youth group. I felt a "call" to ministry. I was in a Southern Baptist Church. I knew I "couldn't" be a "pastor" – but I didn't know all the rules. I walked the aisle after a morning service to let the pastor know I felt called to ministry. They had to explain to me that I was not allowed to surrender to ministry, but that I was welcome to surrender to "Christian Service". Ah, semantics. I still have that letter somewhere… (we Baptists love our letters…)

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    • oh that is so painful to hear and i just want to scream when i hear things like that but they are so good to remember so that we can do whatever we can to change things. anger can be a very helpful emotion to propel us toward change! thanks for sharing.

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  • good grief. I’m glad you’re speaking out and being such a leader and voice of encouragement. I usually read you in my reader, so I don’t know how long your website has been changed, but I love it! I love the header!

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  • thank you for this. yes and amen. there have many occasions where i have felt pushed down or have seen other women i admire pushed down because of their gender. i am hopeful for change. i encourage my daughter to be a leader, not a follower. i mean that in every way:) let us press on together.

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  • Thanks Kathy – I also appreciate your graciousness in realizing that some people are actually trying to be nice/supportive but are unaware of the impact of their words. As someone once said to me, there’s a difference between those who are in opposition and those who are simply clumsy friends.

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  • Hell Kathy,

    And thank you for sharing your experiences. I note that other comments that have been made here so far have been exclusively made by women so far and overwhelmingly supportive of your position and views. What you are talking about refelcts somethign simlar on this side of the “pond” with there being a narrow vote against female bishops in the Anglican church.

    My first respeonse was to smile when I saw what you had written when what you had about being good “for a woman”. And then smile later at the response you would give now. I take it that a similar comment would either betaken with humour by you and responded with by you in a freindly spirit and as forcefull or with some other form of rhetoric. My Catholic (female) friend says I am not bad for a proddo. And after a bit of too and froing with that we have fun playfully teasing each other about our differences both in our church tradition and in our genders.

    Where we find difficulty is of the like where either (and as you have extensively written Kathy) where patriachal opression occurs. Or (as you have written less about) we see the equivelently abhorrant excesses of extreme feminist rhetoric. I anticipate now with making that assertion, a response like I usually get of “yes, but we are just doing what has been done to us, and it has been done to us for thousands of years” or “you don’t understand, you are a man and have never expereinced this kind of thing”. To the first I would answer, what anout Slaome, Jezebel to name a couple from sripture. And to the second I would share about when I had spoken out recently about false prophecy a female leader in the church saying that she was doing so “because the power is with men and God deals with the men first” and in a further attempt to justify wat she was doing say that “men have demeaned and not listened to women and caused them to have low self esteem”. The latter was with support of the pastor which lead to my leaving the church. And at other times in church situations with females being either (inappropriately) accused of being oversensitive and insensitive to others or having an issue with women in leadership.

    It clearly works both ways. And two wrongs don’t make a right. What concerns me is that we can get into a gender tribalism with either gender claiming to be the victim and having power stuggles as a result where we know we are not indepenent of each other and also the obligation we have to each other to me mutually sbmissive and mutually edifying.

    I realise it is in fashion to use rhetoric and go men “boooo!” women “hurrah”. And many men would do similar out of imupure motives. But don’t fall into the trap of seeing what appears to be good and taking a taste of it. It happened to Eve with the forbidden fruit and like an idiot, Adam went along with it. Think about it folks, please! A lot of us guys are on your side and it doesn’t do you or us any good to alienate us. Dare I say this try sticking up for the men in your life in gender issues they face. You might find as a matter of course that by showing that understanding, grace and nurture that you may very well be freed of or as least see any male opression diminish in your lives!

    May you know the Lord in the midst of whatever you are faced with and be freed to be thw women God created you to be, living to the fullest that Christ came for with the Spirit od sound mind, power and love.

    God Bless

    Adam

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    • thanks adam. my hope is always that men and women will be set free and that ones freedom will never create another’s oppression.

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  • Amen, Kathy.

    Your post brought back some scattered comments that were tossed in my direction here and there along the way. Oh yes, so hurtful, so ignorant, so deflating, so debilitating.

    Thank God those were in another time, another place. And by His grace He led me to a new horizon 5 years ago, co-founding a new ministry, and I could put all the foolishness from the lips of the unwise far behind me. And embrace all that He had designed for me to be and to do.

    Dallas Willard’s ‘How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership’ might be helpful for those who are still navigating through those treacherous waters where the undertow pulls many gifted women under, never again to emerge to serve in their sweet, powerful giftedness …
    http://creeksideministries.blogspot.com/2011/06/women-ministry-leaders.html

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    • thanks for sharing, i need to check out that link when i have a little more time but always love hearing stories like yours of moving forward and into freedom and leadership and hope in all kinds of ways.

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  • Thanks Kathy! This reminds me when our daughter asked the elders to be able to speak to the church in a Sunday service after her High School graduation, just like her older brothers and other boys had through the years. She wanted to speak and share her thanks. She was told “No”, but she could in a Sunday EVE, AFTER services! Guess it’s ok after the closing prayer is said! I believe that was the beginning of the end for us there! We have only been blessed by closing that door and entering a more inclusive church where our gifts are accepted and used.

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    • thanks karla for sharing. oh that is so painful, hearing your daughter’s story and so glad you listened to its reality and found a place where your and her gifts are properly valued! i hope many more parents follow your example!

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  • Thanks your strong feminist voice, Kathy! Several years ago, when I moved to this tiny corner of the world, I was homeschooling my children and inquired at local homeschooling group (with mainly fundamentalist and evangelical members) about the procedure for enrolling my kids in community college classes. One woman piped up: Oh, you get the principal – that would be your husband – to fill out such and such form….My husband, who commuted a long distance on a weekly basis at the time and had very little to do with our homeschooling. Needless to say, I didn’t make any close friends in that group. In this area, even in churches where women are “allowed” to lead, usually it is when their husband is the lead pastor and then they lead the children’s program. I’m glad to see you speak up to let people know that you can be a Christian AND a feminist. I wonder what those churches would do with Mary of Nazareth or Mary Magdalene if they walked into the sanctuary and wanted to speak or teach….

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    • thanks, cherie, for sharing. i can totally picture that scene in your group. the norms of certain cultures are so freaking strong. as i always say, well behaved women will not change the church! here’s to more and more rule-breaking!

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  • All of this is so foreign to me. My wife and I grow up in a Congregational tradition that has been egalitarian from its beginning. It saddens me as well. To yank a few verses out of the living, breathing Bible and claim they have authority over and against the overall narrative is just wrong. Jesus and Paul both affirmed the leadership and authority of women.

    May the spirit of Junia, the apostle, breathe Truth into a new generation of believers.

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    • amen to that my friend. it is always so comforting for me to know there are so many denominations that do, indeed, cultivate equality in all kinds of awesome ways. this just happens to be the strain i ended up in to start with! thankful for all the ways you encourage others so freely.

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  • Wow. Just wow. It amazes me the things people say sometimes and saddens me that this an attitude that is prevalent within the church. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in a tradition that affirms the leadership of women.

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  • My father didn’t like women. Unfortunately, he married one, and then he had three more as daughters. I never felt adequate when I was young. One day we were boating, and he yelled out derisively over the water to another group (all men) in another boat about being stuck in a boat full of women. Every part of me yearned to dive out of that boat, swim away across the Gulf of Mexico, and get away from the humiliation of that moment. Then, the Lord spoke to me, quietly, that He made me, and that when God created woman, it was good in His sight. I still don’t like riding in boats very much, but I know who I am now. I am a woman, and God loves me just as I am.

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  • We grew up in churches that did not believe this stuff. The last church we attended believed it, but they were rather secretive about it. Once we figured out the internal dynamics of their system, we removed ourselves from that system, specifically over this issue. In many ways, the core group reminded me of a dysfunctional family (one that used religion and Bible as enablers for their dysfunction), so as you might suspect this was only one of many ways in which their dysfunction revealed itself.

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    • dysfunctional is such an appropriate word. everything’s a little dysfunctional because we are human but goodness gracious so many unhealthy systems get away with ongoing hurt and oppression. it’s a little nuts.

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  • I’m always amazed at what women are willing to endure within evangelicalism. But my question is “why?” You mention women leaving “the church” but your comments point to the truth: it’s not every church that is this discriminatory and sexist. So you can leave conservative, fundamentalist evangelical subculture, and still be very much a part of the Church. I attend a non-denom church that preaches the Bible, yet is firmly egalitarian. We proclaim salvation by trusting Jesus, and have women elders. That’s not a contradiction. If women left these churches that tell them that they are second class citizens, those churches would crumble, right? But what amazes me is the women who not only accept, but defend the very statements you’re sharing.

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    • i am so with you, “what women are willing to endure within evangelicalism…”i think the why is very complicated, i think. some is it is just so deeply in our roots it’s hard to shift. it’s where all our friends and family are. it’s what feels comfortable in all kinds of other ways. the switch from a conservative evangelical church to a mainline one is sometimes not the easiest jump. and there often aren’t many in between. we don’t even know that something else exists is probably the #1 reason, too. we truly just don’t know. when i say leaving “the church, for many i know it is because of the deep damage from years and years of it and so turning themselves over anymore to anything is just too sensitive. it makes me so sad, but it is so real. the saddest part for me is that so many stay and keep the systems spinning, settling for crumbs (http://www.kathyescobar.com/2012/02/17/settling-for-crumbs/) & helping perpetuate the madness. yes, if they left the churches would crumble, but the leaving rarely happens. it’s a crazy phenomenon.

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  • I like this post- I find it interesting how all the insulting stuff people have said to you would have sounded totally normal to me in that past. Like “women aren’t supposed to lead men.” (Hmm, I guess it “sounds normal” but I guess I never thought it through or took it that seriously- I’m a Christian woman, and in college I led a lot of bible studies for groups of girls and guys… hmm… but that’s college so it’s all informal…)

    Anyway, now I totally get how insulting and restrictive it is when people say that. Good post, and I’m going to link to it from my blog. ^_^

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    • thanks for taking time to share. i am glad that you are in a place where it feels normal for women to lead. i always like hearing that! my observation, depending on the church, has been there is sometimes a weird difference between high school/college ministries and the rest of the church. sometimes women are doing all kind s of cool things in those areas with kids/young adults but making that shift over to the grownups, where more power is, comes not as simple. it looks so different for everyone, and there are so many nuances, but i always come from a place of patterns i have observed or hear about from others. peace.

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  • “it might be easy to dismiss some of them as not that big of a deal.”

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I have spent years dismissing the wounds inflected by the church as “not a big deal”, and then been shocked to discover that I was really, really angry about it. God has had a lot of untangling to do in my soul to bring me to a place of healing.

    Today when those voices pop up it’s mostly in my head, and I am able to recognize them for what they are and move on. But I am so grateful for the people who say, “We would like to hear your voice.” “Your perspective matters.”

    And I am thankful for the examples of women like you who keep leading, and showing others of us how it can be done well.

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