Courtney McHill, Oregon–Idaho Annual Conference
I rearranged the living room again to have just the right vibe. I got out the snacks and the couple of bottles of wine because it was my turn to host in my home. I moved that one chair again and added a few more chairs over there. I dusted all of the furniture and the old fixtures. Even though we live in the parsonage just a few feet away from the church, I try to give it touches here and there to make it more comfy for people to hang out here. The group decided to switch to meet in people’s homes to add just these touches. We let down our guard more if we feel safer to do so. We covenanted with one another to meet every three weeks in this kind of rotation. Lately, each of us had added snacks and beverages to make it even more comfortable and intimate.
The community of practice began when twelve of us in north and northeast Portland, Oregon vocalized a similar yearning. We, as younger clergy in mainline denominations in Portland, were seeking others with similar values, practices, and passions to create more of a foundation for one another and more of a voice in Portland. We have been figuring out a different way to be in ministry with one another in this way—a community of practice—for the past year. Gathering in homes has been the next step in answering this yearning. We are ELCA, UMC, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterians, UCC, and Episcopalian so far—half male and half female—all eager to navigate a different version of church.
This particular day, in my home, somehow the subject of gender in ministry came up. My male colleagues were incredulous that we, as youngish female clergy, were treated any differently. My female colleagues and I looked at them with skepticism.
“You don’t believe we are treated any differently,” exclaimed one female colleague. The other UMC clergyperson and I exchanged knowing glances.
I have been in appointed ministry for ten years. I went directly from college to seminary and into an appointment. My first appointment was as an associate pastor in a larger Oregon church in a college town. My senior pastor had been doing this for forty years. In fact, the year I was ordained, we celebrated his fortieth year in ordination. It was a gift to work for him, but that was when I discovered just how different it is to be a young woman in this work. The touches are different, the critique is different, the compliments are different, the intimacy in conversations is different, and the expectations are different.
After four years, I moved into an appointment that was a cooperative ministry between a UMC and an ELCA church. I had an ELCA co-pastor. My colleague was thirty years older, very wise, but not in the ways of administration as much. I took on the administrative role, and yet I still saw blatant differences in how we were treated.
After five years there, I was moved to a solo pastor gig where I have been the senior pastor of a larger Portland UMC congregation. I am their first woman pastor. The underlying assumptions are still there, and yet here we are still in this conversation.
My male colleague spoke out and said, “It’s not that I don’t believe you are treated differently, but aren’t we past that?”
My UMC colleague and I exchanged glances and we started to banter:
“Let me just fix that piece of clothing of yours.”
“Such a cute hair cut [as they start touching and rearranging hair]”
“What do you wear under that robe?”
“I can’t worship while you wear heels, they distract me. You might fall!”
“Why don’t you wear makeup?”
“You wear too much makeup!”
“What kind of makeup do you wear?”
“When do you have time for family?”
“Do you want kids?”
“Oh Pastor, that baby looks good on your hip!”
“Don’t you think that dress shows too much?”
“Doesn’t the Bible say that woman should keep silent?”
“I will just wait for the real pastor to talk to me.”
And the list went on and on. When we finally came up for air, half of the room looked shocked, and the other half had a smile spread across their faces. One man asked, “Does this happen?” All of the women in the room said, “Yes!” in unison.
So many women have gone before me in this profession, paving the way for me to be here, and I am so grateful. I can’t imagine this profession and this call even thirty years ago. I have just a taste of what it means in the clergy world to be a called woman in ministry, and yet I have a taste. I know what it feels like to be touched, prodded, poked, and rearranged before a worship service by kind but unknowing congregants. I know what it feels like to be brushed over in order to get to the male pastor standing right beside me. I know what it is like to be called and told that my opinion isn’t valued as much. I am aware of the people who want to, “save my soul,” because I am woman called by God. I am keenly tuned into the fact that I am treated differently just because of what body I resonate with.
Last April, I applied and was chosen to travel to Cuba with other amazing women clergy through The United Methodist Church. Our group was headed to Cuba as women clergy in order to learn about women in ministry in Cuba. It was an incredible trip. We studied and asked questions. We experienced arts and life in Cuba. We played a bit and toured a bit. We bonded with women in Cuba, but most of all we lifted one another up when we needed it the most. All of us on this trip were searching for something, and we really found one another. We all served in different contexts and in different ways. We all walked around the world with a bit of defensiveness, built up over years of serving in ministry. One night, we gathered in one of our rooms and just started telling stories. We told stories of what people had said to us or when they had passed us over. We told stories of mustering courage and finding our voices. We told stories of when we needed one another the most. We created bonds that have continued. We prayed together and continue to cheer the others on.
This is why I invest so much of my theology in that simple line that John gives us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is the only way that I know that God knows me. God has been embodied before. God knows a body so intimately that God knows what it means to feel and hear these things. God knows what it means to feel the sun on God’s flesh and feel shame because of this body. Surely God knows what it means to be confident in the body and proud of what God has given us. God has to know what it means to hold someone else or whisper in another’s ear. God has to know how lovely it is to smell a newborn baby’s head or to hold an old woman’s hand as she gives her last breath. God must know what it feels like to preach the word and watch the word transform before our eyes. I am sure that God has felt hurt feet and a hurt heart. God’s heart has definitely been broken. At the same time, God knows what it means to feel that bit of urgency when new hope presents itself. God has felt a heart that has a quickened pulse. God has been in love. God has wept. God has leapt when all of the things align just right and when the air gets crisp in fall. God has felt and played in the dirt, and God has been washed clean after a long day. God has to know these things, because God became flesh at one point.
This is the only way I know how to serve this God and continue to serve this God in the midst of people looking down on my body or saying it isn’t enough. When God becomes an incarnate being, that is when I can acknowledge my God. When I get discouraged that, as a young woman clergyperson, I have to work a bit harder to be heard, this is what gets me back into my called space. God has been here before and knows what it means to be in flesh and to be judged by that flesh. When I get written off because I am “younger, inexperienced, and insecure”—and I am sure that I haven’t claimed any of that and I know it to not be true because I have done this for ten years and many times before—I know that God was passed over because God was too young and new. God was flesh and dwelled among us in the margins, to the unknown, and in vulnerable spaces. When I get told that I am just cute instead of qualified, I remember when God knew what it was to create the cutest and most qualified creatures. When the expectations are infused into a male body instead of mine, I remember that God created me in God’s image, as good and whole, in female flesh.
“Do people really say that stuff to you?? Really?” my male colleague asks again in my community of practice.
“Yes. All of the time. And now you know. What will you do about it?” This is how I respond, because I know God continues to work through our flesh. It is my job to be my voice and to witness to what God is doing. It is my job to empower the one who has never experienced these petty comments to make them stop. It is my job to continue to preach a God who has been in flesh—incarnate. It is my job to stand next to other women all over the world to hear their stories and continue to bond over commonalities in order to work together. It is my job to work with more security and experience than I did before. It is my job to encourage the women who come after me to continue in their call and to walk alongside them. It is my job to continue to vocalize my call in this world and make church safe for the little girl to have a different role model. It is my job to thank those who went before me who did the same for me.