By Katie Richardson, Kathy Phillips, and numerous other women in ministry.
Edited by Mike Phillips
A “micro-aggression” is a term first used by Chester Pierce of Harvard to describe small but significant ways certain racial groups are treated with disdain and prejudice. Most often, it describes the treatment of African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants. But increasingly, it is used to describe behavior toward any traditionally dominated group in our society.
Recently, with recognition of the #metoo and #churchtoo movements, women chronicle how they are treated with micro-aggressions as well as the better known aggressive, violent behaviors. Victims and “casual” sufferers alike are calling attention to these subtle behaviors which attack the core of female identity and calling.
One oft-overlooked subset are those women serving in full-time pastoral positions in churches, church organizations, and church institutions (such as seminaries). Though women in general are certainly treated unfairly and badly on the whole in America, female pastors are an especially maligned group.
This article is compiled by two people with an unfortunate history concerning this subject. Kathy Phillips (the wife of the owner of this blog) served as a licensed, full-time pastoral staff in several of the same churches as Mike.
She has the same degree as Mike, and often does the same work in churches. She has served as Children’s Ministry Pastor, Assistant Pastor, Teaching Pastor, Parish Nurse, and School Director. But Mike and Kathy have been treated much differently during that time by both the men and the women of the church.
Katie has served in many capacities in churches and missionary organizations. She has served on pastoral staffs for over 20 years. She has been a pastor for middle schoolers, missionary with Youth For Christ, full-time worker with Youth With A Mission, camp director, assistant youth pastor and children’s ministry pastor, and Co-Founder of “His Heart My Voice” mission to Kenya. Katie often worked side-by-side with her husband who was paid staff. Katie also did the same amount and type of work, but was so rarely paid or received the same recognition. Indeed, her first paid position happened only after her marital separation. She currently serves at a local church as Volunteer Coordinator and Outreach Director.
Mike Phillips is the editor and compiler of this article. He is part of several organizations which support the Egalitarian biblical viewpoint, and groups where female pastors are common. He asked all of them if they had any insight into micro aggressions against female Christian workers. And if they had any insights, could they share a few stories with us.
We received well over 200 responses to this call for insight. We did not use most of these stories, choosing to highlight some of the most typical for this article.
Suffice to say, there are many more examples we could give. We would be here all week—or all year.
We have arranged these into seven general categories of micro-aggressions. There may be more categories and if we receive some good ideas, we might do a follow up to this article.
We also gave Katie and Kathy a chance to begin and end the portfolio of these behaviors.
Here is Kathy’s least favorite moment as a female pastor:
“I was working as a church employee in charge of the children’s ministry. One of the other pastoral staff called and asked if he could meet regarding a staff-related issue. We made arrangements to meet at his home. When I arrived, his wife was in the living room. I assumed that we two pastors would meet in another area of the house, leaving his wife where she was. Instead, we met in the living room with the two of them. The discussion centered around a lady in the church who had volunteered to help in children’s ministry the week prior to this meeting. I explained I had been working night shift at the hospital and had not had a chance to call her, but was planning on doing so during my days off. (I worked full time as a nurse).
He told me that this was inexcusable, and I should have called her the day that I learned she was interested in helping. He claimed my lack of organization and caring about people’s feelings were the reason that I had problems getting people to help in children’s ministry.
I should note that he had no supervisory authority over me. I had also been on the pastoral staff three times longer than he had.
As I tried to defend myself—clarifying first I was not having problems getting people to help—both this pastor and his wife listed multiple things that I was doing wrong in my ministry. Then, the conversation shifted from the things I was doing wrong to the two of them explaining what a good senior pastor’s wife should be like.
I was told I needed to sit in the front row with my husband to show my support to him and to the congregation. I had three young children at the time and did not feel that this was a good place for three active children to be sitting. At one point I laughed and asked if they knew that two out of four Sundays each month I had to work nights at the hospital, and was not even able to attend church. They immediately shared their opinion that I should not be working outside the home and my job was to support my husband in his ministry.
They said nothing about my ministry at all. By this time I excused myself and left feeling beat up and ready to return the favor.”
Around our world, women pastors are treated with contempt and derision. Observe with us, at least seven of the most common ways women receive micro-aggressive behaviors.
Kate: “When I was a young newly married woman working in youth ministry, I was publicly prayed over in a staff meeting that I would “be submissive to my husband” in my ministry. My husband works in HR, and while he volunteered in the ministry he had never claimed to need headship over the ministry I was doing. It was humiliating and infuriating.”
Joan:I used to work for a church as a ministry leader. After having been there five years, the church hired a new executive pastor who was very aggressive. He was charming in front of people, but behind closed doors, he was a bully. The irony is that if he had patted my knee every time and told me I was a great gal, it would be sexual harassment. But dismantling my self worth and humiliating me because he didn’t like women in ministry and was jealous of my relationship with the senior Pastor isn’t sexual harassment and apparently is okay. It wasn’t. I complained about mistreatment to the senior pastor who either didn’t believe me or chose to let it happen because he didn’t do anything. He implied I was being overly emotional and exaggerating. I wasn’t. I went to the head of our board. They told me not to make things up about such a great guy–and if I didn’t like my job, I could leave. He then proceeded to tell the executive pastor I had told on him. I paid dearly. I eventually resigned after a humiliating period when he forced me to allow him to speak in a meeting even when a question was directly asked of me. It’s been eight years and we have reconciled and I have gone back to that church. It took a lot of work by the Lord for me to forgive and later reconcile. I hated that pastor for a long time. He derailed my life for years.
Sheryl: I was being interviewed at my denomination’s district headquarters for ordination. The male pastor questioning me told me he wanted to keep the door open. (Obviously a Billy Graham rule adherent). Everyone in the building was a minister of some sort and we were in a large conference room WITH WALLS OF WINDOWS.
Jaye C.: I’ve encountered a number of overtly sexist attitudes (biblically supported, of course). I think the first time I encountered truly passive aggressive behavior was when upon completing one year as paid staff in a student ministry, I was informed that my contract would not be renewed. When I asked for a reason why, I was told because I occasionally had to get firm with members of my team in order to facilitate our goals, I had an unteachable spirit. How do you argue against that? If I protested, I proved this accusation right. If I asked for clarification, I still proved this perspective right. No particular instance or even a complaint from my team our team leader could be identified. I’ve encountered some blatant unethical behavior from people who absolutely knew better. In my last ministry position, at a church, I witnessed a carefully orchestrated campaign where my non-typical children were used to discredit the children’s minister, and also as one way to discredit me. What work do I do that threatens people so much? Media ministry. I run the sound board, the lights, the supporting graphics, etc. I don’t even want to be a preacher.
Jan: I currently work at an educational organization. We recently had a financial scandal on campus among staff members. I reported that there were problems with this group. I didn’t know exactly what, but I knew something was happening because they left campus for hours at a time, sometimes most of the day without explanation. The Dean blew me off every time because his “buddy” wouldn’t do anything wrong. I was being difficult, critical or implied that perhaps I might be annoyed because of the stage of life I am in. In time, the facts showed I was right. They were all fired and the Dean appears like an idiot that he didn’t know. To his credit, he did apologize.
Penny: I was hired to be one of the pastoral staff. The senior Pastor told me I would be equal to the other pastors on staff in authority and recognition. However, in my first year on staff, I was excluded from several staff meetings, an all-staff barbecue, a prayer meeting regarding problems in the church, and several smaller but significant church events. When I confronted the pastoral staff about this, they told me that there were things they shared at these events which the presence of a woman would make uncomfortable.
Jessica: All ordained clergy in my denomination wear collars. I was ordained in December of last year. Since the moment it was announced I was seeking ordination, until today, I am asked frequently about wearing my collar. I am asked whether or not I think it’s necessary, whether or not I feel comfortable, and it is almost always with the implication that it is a distraction to others to see me in it.
Men Won’t Receive Ministry
Joanne: I was the Children’s Ministry Pastor for 22 years at the same church. The Youth Pastor had been on staff for less than two years. After a Sunday Service, where I had done a joint sermon with the senior pastor, the Youth Pastor came to me and said he felt I had done a disservice to the church. He actually said, “No one who has the Holy Spirit can accept the teaching ministry of a woman. It was so obvious when <the senior pastor> was speaking that God was there and then God’s presence left when you started.” When I told him that was his opinion, he clearly stated that he had never been able to receive ministry from a woman. He didn’t know any man who could.
Katie: I was brought on to serve as the part time admin assistant for a church plant where I attended all regular meetings with the pastors, helped form the teaching schedule, wrote sermons, “taught” never “preached” on Sundays, participated in vision casting meetings, and basically acted as a third pastor. I was not allowed at Elder meetings and was not paid for any extra time I gave. After having 2 children in two years I quit the admin job at the church (and took a break from teaching) and a few years later, I volunteered with the same church as the children’s creative ministry lead for a nominal amount of money and when I refused to accept payment anymore I was told they wanted to continue paying me so they could tell me what to do. The last straw at this church was after my 3rd child was born I asked why no other women had taught after me and was told ” a woman will never teach here again because our people can’t handle it. It would be like black man preaching in the south in the 60’s”. I was stunned and decided that night that our church had left its vision which broke my heart.
Tracey: I once asked a committee of my male peers to use more gender inclusive language instead of terms like “clergymen” and I was chastised for “making it awkward ” for them.
Rebecca: At a staff meeting we watched a ministry training video on ancient Hebrew and Greek. When part of the video showed a woman with a PhD in those languages doing part of the teaching they fast forwarded her part because “what she says doesn’t count because she is a woman.”
Misogyny in General
Corinne: “The new senior pastor asking me to lead the new members class (that I’d led many times before as the Associate Pastor). He “sat in” on the class and hijacked the whole thing, barely letting me share and disagreeing with my theology over and over when I did offer something. I am constantly interrupted during board meetings by the senior pastor and having to literally say, “I was still sharing.” Needless to say he is usually disagreeing with me.
Gail: “Subtle comments like “I liked your talk” instead of sermon (which is used when a man preaches).
Matt: My wife was teaching classes at our local seminary, but we had gone to visit an old church in another state. We were meeting with our former pastor and my wife said there had been some challenges as a seminary professor, and the pastor said, “Oh, because you are conflicted about being a woman and teaching?” He said it very clearly in the sense of, “I just wanted to make sure you knew I don’t agree with this.” GREAT PASTORING RIGHT THERE.
Faith: A local minister and his wife invited my husband and I over for dessert. I thought it was a welcome meeting as I was a new pastor. But after our polite visit, we got up to leave and the other minister handed me a magazine from his mission group that focused on how ungodly it was for women to be pastors. In fact, they concluded it was sin. Article after article in the magazine told about the role of women as homemakers, child bearers and support for their pastor spouses. I felt as if I had been sucker-punched. But the minister and his wife never said anything to my face.
Jessica: When I told a friend of mine that I was going to be ordained, her first response was, “Wow. What does your husband think?”
Shelley: I retired after 28 years of ministry. I don’t think the people who give the slights have any sense at all that they are out-of-line in their attitudes towards female clergy. I have been yelled at during meetings in one church when I had a different opinion of a situation. I should say I was shouted over to drown out my voice.
At a gathering of ministers in one community, the pastor leading a devotion kept praying that we all might be “men of God.” Had he only said that once, it would have been enough, but he continued to say that in his prayer. There were two of us female clergy in the group that day. I thanked him for his meaningful devotion, but told him that no matter how hard I prayed, I would never be a “man of God.” He admitted his wife had been trying to get him to be more inclusive in his language.
Path to Ministry discouraged
Mollie: When I decided to major in missions in college, an Elder of my home congregation asked my mom why I didn’t become a school teacher, and just do mission trips during my summers off. I had never even considered teaching as a potential career … because I didn’t want to be a teacher.
Geneva: I’d be asked to get coffee; prayed over to be “submissive” to my husband; told I couldn’t lead worship from the front because that would be leading men (so they made a man who couldn’t sing be the “official” worship leader so I had a male “covering”). After he committed suicide from a drug overdose, I couldn’t lead worship anymore at all. I was also told that my presence on the platform might cause men to stumble because men are so visual and I am too sexual. I attended a district pastor’s training and picked up some materials. When the senior pastor of the church was talking to the same attendee, he said “Oh, I gave the material to your secretary.”
Faith: I’ve also gotten the comment several times “are you sure you are called to ministry?” And this if from pastors in an egalitarian denomination.
Denise: I made an official visit to a seminary loosely affiliated with my now former denomination. During my day-long visit, nearly everyone I met focused upon reasons why I shouldn’t attend there. The major one was that I already knew too much and they would have to create special assignments just for me. They also mentioned that I would have to be in the MDiv track because my rationale for getting a seminary education was to learn Greek and Hebrew. After that day, I never heard from them again. A few years later, I happily enrolled at Gordon-Conwell, where one of my classmates mentioned that he had inquired about the other seminary once and they were still sending him postcards on a regular basis.
Kathy: “I was doing an internship toward becoming an ordained Pastor, and the supervising pastor could hardly speak to me at our first meeting. He told me, “I was so disappointed when I found out we were getting a woman. I mean, no one is ever going to take you seriously as a pastor, so why do you need to waste a good internship?”
Bethany: A deacon asked me if I was going to seminary to give better children’s sermons. (I was not a children’s minister either.) The Pastor joked to a room full of church members that I would be the highest educated secretary because he was convinced I would never get a ministry job.
Mary: “ I served a church as a associate pastor. The senior pastor resigned after a period of turmoil. I applied to be considered for the pastor. The congregation chose a 90 year old man to serve as interim pastor. Later, a friend told me that a member of the pulpit committee told her they only agreed to take me on because they needed someone to play the piano.”
Katie: I was allowed to work in full time ministry but made significantly less than my male counterparts because they were the sole providers in their household, which included one man who had no children and whose wife worked full time. My husband did not have a job at the time.
Patty: I know of several women who were forbidden to be in leadership ministry because they had to “take care of the family “. These same women work full time, as do their husbands. But the church is for “male leadership “. Don’t get me started!
Lara: my friend joined the church and sent the pastor a copy of her ordination from a previous church and he didn’t reply. She wrote him again just to make sure he got it and he still didn’t reply.
Geneva: I have a friend with whom I graduated from the same seminary class with our MDiv’s. We were buddies and had many classes together. He left a church after a long time of dismissed opportunities to go start his own. One Sunday he needed a guest speaker because he was going to be out of town and was looking for recommendations. My pastor, who is a mutual friend of ours, suggested me. I never heard back, because he believes that the Bible limits the preaching and teaching from the pulpit to men only.
Faith: I was working on a revitalization and was asked to visit various churches in the community to see if they might be interested in joining us by sending people. I called at one of the local churches and asked to meet with the Pastor. They said yes and then had the grounds keeper meet with me.
Cally: When my pastor asked what I felt called to do in ministry and I told him I felt called to preach he answered, “I see you and [your husband] more as a ministry team.”
A few years later, after teaching a couple rounds of marriage courses with my husband, I reminded him of his words. He claimed he didn’t mean it to be exclusive. But when I told him I still felt called to preach he told me “if” I am called I would need to find “somewhere” I could use my calling. Then said that if I had told him 10 years ago maybe he would have pointed me in the direction of colleges, internship, etc. 10 years ago I had an infant and toddler at home. Meanwhile, a year and a half after I had told him I was called to preach he’d created an internship program with two younger, less qualified interns receiving free tuition for online courses and ministry mentorship.
Meredith: The Senior pastor rang thirty-something-year-old-me and asked me to speak on Good Friday as he thought that it would be a good day for a woman to speak. He said to me: ‘and don’t get on your political soapbox’. Me: I don’t have a political soapbox. Him: and don’t get on your feminist soapbox. Me: I don’t have a feminist soapbox. Him: you must be an amazing woman. Me: I am.
I preached on the women who waited with Jesus during the crucifixion and mentioned the men who ran away. Lots of women (especially younger women) came and asked me for more information about the topic – indicating that even then feminist theology was becoming a ‘thing’ – this was nearly 30 years ago in Assemblies of God Australia.
Danielle: I am sure this is relatively minor but one of the things I have often experienced is for a man in leadership, when he holds an opinion (especially a theological one) which is different to mine, rather than having an honest discussion, he will revert to “well this is just a pink and blue issue”. The clear indication is that any further conversation is unnecessary since we will ‘never be able to understand one another’. I can’t think why it feels this way precisely, but I always feel like it is because the man in question believes there is an inherent inferiority in my female opinion. Always paired with this is inattention to whatever I am saying, regular interruption to finish my sentences for me (inaccurately I would add) and a rush to explain why I am wrong. Since it is clear the man is not hearing me well, I end up feeling dismissed and the distinct impression that he wants to end the conversation quickly.
This final word from Katie:
I’ve been serving in Christian ministry for almost 20 years. After recovering from a traumatic and, regrettably, permanent separation from my husband, I came back to ministry ready to fully be seen and valued for my spiritual gifts, no longer taking a backseat to a husband’s gifting in ministry. I took up a paid position at my church as the volunteer and outreach director.
Though supported by the pastor, I received comments from one particular male leader regarding my willingness to step in and serve. Just after I was hired he told me, “Well, you just love doing everything around here, don’t you?” He shocked me even more a while later when he commented on my singleness. While discussing with him again that he needed to make improvements in his area of ministry (Note: I was his supervisor), he said:“I have a personal question. Why aren’t you dating or have a boyfriend?” The question offended me, since it had nothing to do with the current discussion regarding the ministry.
He was clearly implying that I was unimportant and diminished in his eyes because I didn’t have a man in my life. I have learned on repeated occasions that he resents having a woman supervise him and give him suggestions about his work.
In 1982, Mike wrote the president of his denomination in Canada to let them know he was refusing to be ordained unless his wife Kathy was also. Refusal of ordination would cause them to fire Mike. But he and Kathy had prayed about this and felt God was leading to make this demand.
A few days later, the President of the denomination called Mike to give him a chance to back away from this ultimatum. Here was his reasoning: “There are enough pastors like you who feel women should be recognized as equals in ministry. Wait a few years; it will happen. You need to be a part of the change.” Kathy and Mike prayed about it and God showed them to stay in the denomination and to keep working for change.
It took many more years. Finally, just a few years ago, that denomination began ordaining women as pastors. But as Mike and Kathy have noticed, the micro-aggressions toward women in ministry keep happening.
One wonders if the spirit behind this anger and bitterness shown by many will ever leave the church alone. We are hoping that God is planting the seeds of unity among the sexes in his family.
These are obviously more than just doctrinal disagreements. Much of the problem relates to those elements of misogyny buried beneath centuries of entitled Patriarchy. For this to really change, God’s people must confront these types of aggressive behavior toward women. We may end up being called “trouble-makers” and “divisive”. But that is the only way to open the eyes of people.
For the many church leaders who believe women have an honored place in ministry–and always have had–our role is to keep teaching, pushing, setting good examples, and honoring women. If enough of us do that consistently, the incidents of aggressive behavior toward women in ministry can be reduced.