Think about a time that you’ve been The First at something.
Maybe you were the first person in your family to graduate from college. Maybe you were the first person under the age of 18 to receive a Nobel Peace Prize or the first woman to swim the English Channel. Maybe you were the first person you know who perfected a homemade pie crust.
I just spent the last week with an extraordinary group of “Firsts.” Many of us clergywomen – especially of a certain age – have been the first in some way:
- the first clergywoman someone ever heard preach
- the first clergywoman who serve as pastor of a particular church
- the first clergywoman to be Head of Staff of a particular congregation
- the first clergywoman to chair a certain committee or commission
- the first clergywoman to be ordained in your Presbytery, Diocese, Conference, or Association.
Among those at whose feet I sat last week included the first Baptist clergywoman ordained in Italy, the first Arab clergywoman to be ordained in any denomination in the Middle East, the first Presbyterian clergywoman ordained in Guyana, the first clergywoman to serve as Provincial Secretary of the Anglican Church of Kenya, the first clergywoman ordained in the Mennonite Church in Colombia, the first clergywoman to serve as Executive Secretary at National Council of Churches in India, the first clergywoman to serve as Vice President of the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda. I could go on and on.
Being the first means being a pioneer, a risk-taker, a target. Because women have been oppressed in blatant or subtle ways, we seem to step up more quickly to support others who are oppressed. This is one of many reasons why women make good leaders whether we are talking about church, politics, business or non-profits. We know what it’s like not to have a voice.
(Note: This is also true for LGBTQ people and I also do not mean to exclude other genders in this post but the topic last week was specifically women.)
Almost all the women meeting in Magnano, Italy could speak about their experiences in being a pioneer, a risk taker, and a target because we have been all of those things. Although women from Asia, South America, and Africa told more dramatic stories about being in danger as women and specifically as clergywomen, all of us – even from North America – have stories about being targets of harassment in the context of our ministry.
And so into this context we talked about the role of women in the Church. There are many reasons why some denominations and traditions do not ordain women to the diaconate much less the priesthood – but danger is one reason.
One clergywoman said that – in her country – it’s not safe for women to be out alone during the daytime, much less at night. And so if there is a pastoral emergency after dark, no church would expect their female pastor to go out and address it . . . so they are more likely to call a male pastor. In some cultures, it’s considered inappropriate for a woman to be alone with a man (or men) even in a business setting and so congregations do not want to call a pastor who cannot participate in meetings with the other pastors.
These are things that many clergywomen do not have to worry about. Issues about the leadership of women in the Church are intersectional issues also dealing with violence, racism, and poverty.
I have many thoughts about last week, but this post is written to honor women throughout the world who take enormous risks to follow Christ’s call. They are exploring a path with dangers beyond gossip and shunning. They are occasionally told that they were not created in God’s image, unlike the men in their cities and villages. And more often they are told that they – too – are indeed created in God’s image but they are rarely treated that way.
May God bless The Firsts, The Seconds, The Twentieths among us to serve Jesus. It’s often a test of faith.
Image of the participants of the Ecumenical Consultation on the Role of Women in the Church at the Bose Monastery in Magnano, Italy last week.