Monday, January 16, 2017

Subversive Sisters and High-Heeled Holiness

I have just finished teaching a seminary course on women in Christian tradition, which included a practical ministry component for women in ministry. Whereas most students take an overview of Christian history, which should include women as part of the story and not as an afterthought sprinkled into a male-organized narrative, this course focuses specifically on women. Time periods, ecclesial and devotional patterns, and facets of leadership are organized around women's religious experiences rather than men and the institutions they've built.

Certainly there is overlap. Certainly to tell the whole story, there must be mention of men and women. But too often in overview courses, the focus remains on the men as if the women weren't and aren't a significant part of the shaping of Christianity. Women's religious practices and leadership tremendously shaped Christianity, and this course brings those women and their activities front and center.

I chose the name "Subversive Sisters and High-Heeled Holiness" for several reasons. One, I've learned that clever, alliterative titles result in higher enrollment. Two, I wanted to honor the spectrum on which women have acted. Some operated via gender norms, and others had to work outside of normal systems in order to follow their call. Either way, women have always found a way, no matter how cloistered or limited they have been, to honor God's call. If the church won't let the called serve, God will work outside of the church to build the Kingdom.

This is a phenomenally rewarding course to teach. The subject matter is inspiring, which makes course preparation feel like a privilege rather than a responsibility. In the classroom, I watch students' eyes be opened to a cloud of witnesses who have paved the way for them to answer God's call on their lives. I get to see their surprise at how much women were able to accomplish with so little. I have a front-row seat to witness them be astonished, inspired, and encouraged by the stories of women with whom they relate and from whom they feel solidarity and support for their work. By the second or third day of the course, I noticed the women standing up a little bit taller. Gumption. Confidence.

In a pleasant surprise, an equal number of male students enrolled in the course as female students. Each said that they enrolled to better understand the challenges women face in ministry and to cultivate their ability to be an ally for women. Some are married to ministers. Others work closely with women ministers. 

Privilege is complex. If you're male, you have it, regardless of race. If you're white, you have it regardless of gender. If you're wealthy, you have it regardless of race or gender. This doesn't even tip the iceberg, though, because privilege also favors the able-bodied, cisgendered, and heterosexual. Thankfully, this class became a safe space to examine our collective privilege, on whose backs it has come, and what responsibility we have to divest ourselves of privilege.

Throughout the course, female students shared stories of sexism they've faced from churches and church leaders. Some have been asked to preach from the floor instead of the pulpit. Some have been stripped of their hard-earned credentials in church bulletins and introductions. Some have been cautioned against preaching when they might be on their periods. Some have been told they are too emotional, too serious, too fashionable, too frumpy, too maternal, too small, or too old to be ministers. Some have to fight for acceptance of their calling at church and at home. The male students listened to these testimonies, and, together, we discussed solutions to cultivate support and public advocacy for women in ministry. One started planning training programs he wants to pitch to his denomination to help prepare rural churches for women pastors. Several students are planning sermon series and articles for denominational publications.

On the last day of the course, students were asked to present their research on a woman with whom they particularly resonated. One chose Elizabeth, the slave preacher, because she said that she had often felt invisible in her ministry and wanted to bring Elizabeth out of invisibility. One chose Matushka Olga in admiration of her care for those who were being abused. One chose Julian of Norwich because she was drawn to imagining her own body as part of the image of God. One chose Teresa of Avila because she, too, accepted the call to ministry later in life. I could go on. One by one, my students excitedly shared their research, reading from worn and well-flagged copies of these women's writings. They found strength and life in those words from the past, as if they could hear these women in the cloud of witnesses cheering them on here and now to follow God's call in spite of whatever obstacles they might face.

For fun, I invited my students to wear the pair of shoes that best characterized their ministry. Male students wore everything from boots to dress shoes to house shoes. Female students wore everything from slip-ons to clogs to stilettos. We are many, yet we are one.


Each student has a unique style, sense of purpose, and preaching voice. Each has been formed by readings, experiences, relationships, and God's call on their lives. As they continue in their ministries after this class, their sisters in the cloud of witnesses will go with them: Perpetua, Marcella, Leoba, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Christina of Markyate, Julian of Norwich, Hildegarde of Bingen, Marguerite Porete, Jane Chantal, Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, Elizabeth, Susanna Wesley, Jarena Lee, Antionette Brown Blackwell, Matushka Olga, Mother Theresa, Pauli Murray, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vashti McKenzie, and thousands more. 

Thanks be to God that feminist and womanist scholars are restoring these women to our history narratives because we cannot tell the real story without them. Thanks be to God that for centuries, women have made a way out of no way to follow God's call in spite of the obstacles that societies, and yes, churches, have put in their way. And thanks be to God for these students, who are making their way into the world to be prophets for equality and justice.


"How beautiful upon the mountains
   are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

who brings good news,

   who announces salvation,

   who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’" 
Isaiah 52:7



Sunday, December 25, 2016

Hidden Figures and the Light

Part of being divorced is that your child(ren) cannot share every holiday with you. This year, I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my son, but it was not my turn for Christmas. So, when you cannot celebrate Christmas with your whole family, you do what you can. For me, this year, that has meant focusing on my writing. I did come up for air today, however, to worship, fellowship, and remember.

In worship this morning, I was reluctant at first. It's hard to be without your child on a holiday, especially Christmas. My church family was loving and understanding, and after a few minutes of feeling the care of this family of faith, I was singing, joyfully. Every element reminded me that no matter how dark things feel, the light will always shine brighter. Always.

After church, I was delighted to share a Christmas feast with dear friends from church who welcomed me and several other friends to their home. This couple is so full of love, in a way that brings people together. We shared conversation. We were honest, in ways rarely done among people who have just met. It was beautiful. Lunch felt like communion, like the Kingdom of God breaking forth among us.

After lunch, I saw Hidden Figures. This is a must see. I laughed. I cried. I remembered. I dreamed. I hoped.

Though I am now a historian and minister, in a previous life, I was an engineer. I lived, breathed, ate, and slept mathematics. I used to do extra self-assigned math homework for fun. While other kids were at football games or sleepovers, I was reviewing Trigonometry or practicing my Differential Equations. I carried engineering paper like most people carry chapstick. I still do extra math homework for fun, because I enjoy it.


Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson, one of the finest mathematicians (called "computers") in the history of NASA. Her parents advocated for her to have appropriate education for her mathematical brilliance. Through hard work and a supportive family, Katherine belonged to a team of Black female computers, resourcing the space program. 

As a former engineer, I savored the chalkboards filled with equations, the pencils always in hand, the constant desire to fix things yourself because you can. It took me back to late nights in the study lounge of my college dorm, frantically trying to solve my Physics homework. Did you know that throughout my undergraduate degree, I created a poster of math formulas? As I completed each class, I'd add "must know" formulas such that by the time I graduated, that poster was a gal's best friend. People would want to study in my room just so they could be near the poster. I am so disappointed that I did not keep it. 

As one of the only women in a large engineering program, I appreciated the way the movie depicted women's second class citizenship. I remember professors addressing "gentlemen" or "you guys" even though there were women in the room. I remember people assuming I was incompetent at programming and computer hardware, just because I was female. I remember the satisfaction of finishing my lab project first, and correctly. 

There were two white women on faculty in my department, but they primarily focused on their research labs. The professors who were taking initiative to encourage minority students were Black faculty, and that's where I found my home.

Dr. Kendall Harris coordinated summer engineering camps for teenagers, which I attended twice. Once I was a college student, Dr. Harris, whom I now affectionately call "Uncle Doc," hired me as a camp counselor for four years. Engineering camp is one of my fondest memories of college. These camps were particularly designed to promote minority interest in STEM programs. The kids visited research labs, worked on team projects, and even visited companies to see real-life applications of what they had been learning. My favorite was the tour of Six Flags, where we learned from the engineers who designed the rides. We walked the track, and they taught us about electromagnetic propulsion and how to calculate which seat on the ride would feel the most Gs. For that week of camp, everyone was a future engineer. Everyone's ideas were important and encouraged. There was no place for "but I'm ___" because we were too busy designing the future.

I didn't realize at the time what an impression engineering camp had made on my life. 

Watching Hidden Figures brought back these memories in a wonderful way, reminding me of my past, and connecting it with my future.

The movie honestly depicts the third and fourth class citizenship of Black women. Though they have the same credentials as other employees, they were relegated to a satellite campus with substandard facilities and inferior compensation. Throughout the movie, there are opportunities to better understand how systemic prejudice, not just individual acts of bigotry, operate. There are scenes of dialogue that expose stereotyping, entire story lines necessary to convey the extent of prejudice against people of color, and witty one-liners that resist oppression. My favorite at the moment is one by Katherine herself, in conversation with a man who doubted her employment with NASA: "Yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it's not because we wear skirts...it's because we wear glasses."

Throughout the movie, there are women who resist oppression in search of true equality and freedom. They know what they are made of. They know what they are capable of. They know what they deserve. And not only are they excellent on the job day in and day out, but they are even preparing for the future from their own vision and insight, proving that they were brighter than the leading minds at NASA. Bricks without straw, and they kept on building, higher and better.


My engineering days are behind me, and I am now a professional historian of race and gender. I think that my engineering background, particularly my experiences being mentored by Dr. Harris, has a lot to do with why my historical interests center around the Civil Rights Movement and the religious leadership of women.

In my line of work, I often have conversations with well-meaning people who believe that because they do not commit personal acts of bigotry, that those prejudices no longer operate in our society. The fact that you can opt out of awareness of prejudice demonstrates your privilege. If you are in the groups against which prejudice is directed, you cannot opt out. You have to navigate the system and somehow find ways to still be true to yourself. Sometimes that means that you take the risk of speaking truth to power. 

I am white, and I grew up in a middle-class family in which both parents earned graduate-level degrees. I have privilege. I am also a woman who has experienced marginalization in both the engineering and religious fields. I am also a divorced mother. I experience prejudice against me fairly regularly. As a white person, I could isolate myself in white circles and turn a blind eye to what the rest of the world faces. As a woman, I have realized that I will never be equal until all other forms of prejudice are eradicated: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, etc. Unless we are all free, none of us are free.

Hidden Figures beautifully painted the complex landscape of prejudice in America, a land which prides itself on freedom but does not deliver. Certainly it did not address everything, but if you're watching carefully, you can learn a lot more than you might think. These women had to be excellent to be taken seriously, in a way men do not experience. As parents and spouses, these women relied on supportive families to share in household responsibilities, which continues to be a difficult balance for working mothers. As people of color, they had to fight for their right to education and necessary resources to do their jobs, including things most white people would take for granted. 

Prejudice is not just committed person-to-person. It is also, and mostly, committed by systems. It is deeply enmeshed in our cultures, our language, and our traditions. It is so present that we do not realize how much we engage in prejudicial acts.

Stereotypes thrive unless personal experience exposes the inaccuracy of our prejudices. Reconciliation cannot happen until we see and treat every single person as made just as much in the image of God as we are. It means change, especially for the comfortable, but it is necessary and righteous.

I have been feeling the weight of this present darkness, and Hidden Figures reminded me of the light, which is always brighter. Always.

This Christmas, give your family the gift of seeing Hidden Figures. Talk about it together. Reflect on ways that you may be complicit with prejudice against women and people of color, and talk about what changes you will make to see and treat each person as made in the image of God. 

Lord, in your mercy, may there be peace on earth, and may we love each other as you love us.

      
[Uncle Doc and Me, 1998]   [Uncle Doc and Me, 2015]

Monday, August 29, 2016

Fiercely

I owe Amy Schumer a debt of gratitude. In fact, I almost titled this post, "Thank You, Amy Schumer." Her book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, is raw and hilarious, but also wise and right on the mark. She tells her story, just puts it out there, and it's brilliant. I relate to her so much. I'm a professor/preacher, not a comic, but we're about the same age, and we've faced a lot of the same pressures and hardships along the way: an athletic build rather than being stick thin, becoming adults way too fast, career ambition at an early age, and being introverted in a public profession.


And like Amy, I often find myself lying awake at night thinking about things from twenty or twenty-five years ago, wondering why did I say that to him, why did I buckle under that pressure, why didn’t I trust that good advice? For example, there was a friend I had in elementary school who was only ever super nice to me. He wasn’t popular, but he didn’t care. He was his own person, and he was wonderful. Every day during reading time, he would get to class early so he could put my book on my desk before I got to the room. He made me a lanyard one summer and mailed it to me (getting mail was a big deal). And even after we went to different junior high schools, any time I needed to talk, he would stop what he was doing and take my call. And I was not kind to him most of the time. I said mean things so the popular kids would notice me. Why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see through those dynamics and value real friendship where I found it? I never really got to apologize to him, even though we reconnected briefly in college. In sixth grade, we won the most likely to succeed award, and we both have PhDs and families now. I was foolish not to maintain that friendship. Stephen, I’m deeply sorry, I’m so glad that you’re happy, and I hope you can forgive me for not being the kind of friend to you that you always were to me.

And like Amy, my childhood was somewhat interrupted. My parents are happily married, but there were some rough years when I was younger. When we’re little, we think of our parents as infallible. When we learn that they aren’t, it’s disillusioning. My aunt recently said that I never really saw myself as a kid, even when I was one. To some extent she’s right. Yes, I played with dolls, and I rode my bike around the block. But I also trained as a figure skater, which gets really serious really fast. I did extra math homework over holiday breaks. And I started taking college classes when I was 12, enrolling in college at 14. That aged me.

And because of that, and because of the habits that I had to develop to get there, I was always a little different from my peers. I starred in musicals at church. I was in honors math and language arts classes. I won Bible Drill competitions (Google it). I earned dozens of skating medals. But I was also hella insecure. I was desperate to fit in, to belong. The kids at church had stay-at-home moms who drove them to play dates. The kids at skating lived near each other, across town from me. The kids at school lived near each other, across town the other way.

I remember spending a lot of my childhood alone. I was a latchkey kid. I’ve been responsible for my own rides, schedule, meals, and homework since I was 12. At the time, I felt very sophisticated, like I was ahead of the curve. But now, I realize there was so much more childhood to be had, that I never got to have.

And like Amy, I was just different enough to become prey. I was so blinded by desperation that I allowed dangerous people into my life. Predators look for people who are insecure and lonely. I also think some predators look for women who are driven and capable, and then try to conquer them, like some weird kind of trophy. They lure you into a false sense of security and dependency on them, and then they use it to control you and hurt you. And you don’t have a point of reference to realize that it’s not okay.

Amy has a chapter called “The Worst Night of My Life” that hit a little too close to home for me. She tells about her relationship with Dan, how she got suckered into a relationship with him, even thinking she was the one taking the lead, how even in the worst of it, she made excuses and thought that it would get better, and how it’s so hard to see a way out.

I have wanted to write about those times in my life, but I haven’t known how.

If you went to high school, college, seminary, or graduate school with me, then you know I’ve faced more than my fair share of abuse. A preschool teacher. A junior high boyfriend. A security guard at the skating rink. A high school teacher. My college boyfriend. My seminary relationship.

I’ve been spit on, shoved into walls, yelled at, trapped in rooms, targeted online by older men, stalked, threatened, molested in my sleep (twice), and raped. All by people I knew and thought I could trust.

I changed all of the names, but here are some stories.

Karl used to instant message me, especially later in the evening. He’d be that caring adult who was always there to listen, but then he’d say things that felt inappropriate. He’d say I shouldn’t come to school looking so cute. He’d tell sexual jokes. He’d want me to meet him after school after everyone else had gone home.

John was so nice to me when we started dating. He made an effort, made me feel really special. And then there was so much arguing. Somehow he’d always blame me for whatever the issue was. He got mean, and the dynamic turned to what I would do to deserve him. It was all about him, and my needs didn’t matter. During a mission trip, I told him that his interactions with another girl were making me uncomfortable, and he screamed at me as he shoved me into a wall because I couldn’t get it through my head how much he loved me. He raped me not long after that. Then it got to where he had time for me to make dinner and clean his apartment, but not time to actually spend together. He wouldn’t let me go into his closet at all, which I now realize was because it was full of porn. He hid his drinking from me, too. There was a point where he had dodged my calls for so long that I had to call him at work to get a hold of him at all, and he broke up with me over the phone. After being together for three years, most of which he treated me like crap, he dumped me over the phone. I later found out he'd been cheating during the last six months of our relationship.

Roy was supposed to be different. He’d had a troubled childhood, so he was misunderstood and recovering just like me. He would take calls from his parents for hours during our time together and tell me I wasn't good at being in a family if I couldn't understand that. If I wanted time to work on my projects, he’d call me a selfish bitch, yell at me, refuse to let me have privacy, spit on me, push me into walls, and throw things at me (just next to me to create terror but no bruises). If I locked myself in a room to get away from him, he would break in. He checked up on every little thing I did and everyone I talked to. He followed me around, even when I went to work. He put down the things that I was interested in, insulted my skills at my job, and held me hostage in angry silence, refusing to talk but not letting me leave the room. He yelled at me about how much he loved and supported me, and how lucky I was that he believed in me even though I wasn't very good at much. He'd spend all night in a drunken porn binge and then blame me for not being available to him. His pornography addiction was so severe that he was using on every single media device available to him, even at church. I thought we could work together to help his addiction, but he kept relapsing, worse every time. I thought we could talk it out, but argument after argument left me weary, exhausted, and content with survival. I learned to live in the box that he made for me, because life was hell if I didn’t. If I stood up for myself, he would quote scripture at me, like a weapon. When I would contest what he said, he would yell over me, repeating the same phrases over and over, even threatening to kill himself if I left him. Then one night, he tried to force himself on me, so I locked myself in another room to get away from him, after which he beat down the door and chased me around the house with scissors until the police arrived.

How could this happen? How could it happen so much? I’m smart. Really smart. I’m observant. I’m strong. Why did I fall for it time and again? Or, as my dad asked me, “How did he trick you?”

I’ve wrestled with that question for so long, but Amy has inspired me to put it all out there.

I was so lonely, so afraid that I wouldn’t find where I belonged, that I tolerated destructive partners, just to have one. And they knew that and used it against me. They studied my weaknesses and insecurities, and when I started to think for myself or stand up for myself, they knew just how to strike. Amy said it well: “When you are an abuse victim, your logic and instinct can become warped. [After I was raped], I ended up comforting him for hurting me, even though it should have been the other way around…..I wanted to comfort him and make him feel like we were in this together.”

In those moments, I sensed things were more painful than other people’s lives seemed to be, but we could get through it, right? We can give and take. God wants us to forgive each other. It’s probably my fault, anyway. I absorbed it, all of it, in my Type A quest for growth and wisdom. I had no idea until much later that it was abuse. I still can’t point to the moment when it clicked for me. I remember friends trying to help me see the abuse. I remember knowing I needed to call the police. I remembering being scared. And I remember being determined to break free.

Getting out was a matter of survival. It really was that bad.

I have been to hell and back, and I’m still here, standing stronger than ever. I know who I am, and I am proud to be me. I am not afraid to be alone, so I don’t tolerate toxic people. And that makes me lousy prey. As Amy says: “He said he loved me, but every step of the way he’d hurt and sabotage me. I realized later he put me down so much because he was probably terrified that I’d realize he was nothing and leave him. Which is exactly what I did.”

Thirty damn years. Please don’t wait as long as I did to get out. Trust your gut. If you sense that things are toxic or unsafe, you're probably right. Get somewhere safe. Get help. Surround yourself with affirming people. It will be hard but not impossible, and I promise you'll find yourself again. And you will love yourself fiercely.

As Amy says, “I’m telling this story because I’m a strong-ass woman, not someone most people picture when they think ‘abused woman.’ But it can happen to anyone. When you’re in love with a man who hurts you, it’s a special kind of hell, yet one that so many women have experienced. You’re not alone if it’s happening to you, and you’re not exempt if it hasn’t happened to you yet. I found my way out and will never be back there again. I got out. Get out.”

And Amy, if you read this, THANK YOU, and let’s do coffee.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Letters

I taught at Baylor for three years before coming to MTS, and I have had the privilege of teaching thousands of students. My last year at Baylor, I had a very special class. Rather than the usual 60, my class had 21. These students were pursuing various majors, but they were in a leadership residential community, meaning they lived in the same residence hall and participated in many events and classes together. And, because of this, they would be in my Scriptures course in the Fall AND my Church History course in the Spring. We would be together all year.

Our section of Scriptures and History focused on social justice issues, and I arranged the course to encourage the students to think critically about social justice and religion, to begin to find their voices around issues that are important to them, and to integrate these with what they were learning in their other courses, particularly the courses in their majors. This means that we talked about difficult things most of the time. This means that we were vulnerable often. This means that we engaged disagreement with a shared commitment to learning. We got tight, and fast.

Telling them that I was leaving Baylor to move to Memphis was incredibly difficult, even though it was the right move for me.

Before I left, they planned a beautiful surprise for me. They gave me a box filled with letters they had written about our year together, about what they had learned about themselves, and about how much we mean to each other.


I didn't read the letters then, because it was so precious, so wonderful, so loving that I felt like I needed more time to be ready for such a gift.

I read the letters today, upon finishing my first year at MTS. Some were long, while others were brief. Some were funny, and some made me cry. One did both (you know who you are, dear one!). I could hear my students' voices as I read their letters, and my heart filled with joy. I just sat there for a while, reading and rereading, thanking God for the opportunity to be a teacher, thanking God for my students and for their big dreams, and treasuring memories of conversations and cupcakes. (If part of my spirit remains in Waco, it lives at The Olive Branch.)

With more than ten years in ministry and almost five as a professor, I have been blessed beyond measure to walk with students, parishioners, and families, to hear their stories and dreams, and to play a small part in helping them get to where they are going. I love when they stay in touch, when they invite me to celebrate in their accomplishments and share in their sorrows just because we know we love each other.

Dear ones, I am always here for you. And I am always proud of you.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Deep Edges

My Papa Stanley has bought me every pair of skates I have ever owned. Until now.

I have been wearing the same pair of skates since 2005. When Papa bought me those, he got me top of the line custom Harlicks, so that as I moved into upper level double and possibly triple jumps, my skates would carry me through. After he passed away in June, 2009, my skates became a way to still be with him, to still feel his love for me.

But now those skates are worn down. They are held together in duct tape in some places.

So this year, I ordered new skates. On the one hand, I am eager to skate in them. I can't wait to see where my skating can go with the right gear to support me. I've been teetering on the brink of several jumps, and I feel like my body is ready to progress. On the other hand, it feels like burying Papa all over again.

I am keeping the last pair of skates he bought me, the skates that have carried me these past eleven years. I will always keep them. Wearing them as I coach my little students, they will be cozy and familiar. And as I help little skaters find their feet underneath them, my Papa will be helping me find mine.


There's something beautiful about being the first one on the ice, making that first mark across the surface, especially early in the morning when inches of fog rise from the ice surface. There's something hauntingly precious about holding your edge right before a take-off, that moment that feels like an eternity of remembering your greatest falls and your most triumphant landings. And the solace of being in a spin, of letting go of your thoughts and just enjoying the air against your skin and the power of your body to create momentum.

And now a new chapter is starting. Maybe a new pair of skates doesn't seem like enough to mark a new chapter, but skaters will understand.

I imagine that the first time I take the ice in my new skates will be emotional in many ways. I imagine it will take me longer to break them in than I realize, that it will hurt more than I remember, and that I will feel more vulnerable than is comfortable.

But I can't move forward unless I take that first step. And as we coaches tell all of our students who are scared to take their first steps....you can do it, one step at a time.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Walking Away

I have been blessed lately by rich conversation with some very wise people: pastors, advocates, professors, friends, and all-around great people.

We've been talking about the difficult journey of realizing who you are, accepting who you are, and daring to be who you are even when others aren't okay with it. And most of these conversations have inevitably circled around the question: "From what have you had to walk away?"

For me, that started when I sensed I was called to ministry. There were many in my life who could not accept me being called as a woman. For a time, I tried to help them understand, but many refused to see me as anything but wrong.

Then I began my career of studying gender and race. There were some people in my life who might have been okay with me being ordained, but couldn't handle me pointing out systemic prejudice and suggesting that we should work toward reconciliation and justice.


Then I dared to be a single mother with a career. Stay married and convince yourself you're happy, they said. It's probably not as bad as you think, they said. Instead of juggling motherhood and career, just stay home, they said. There were some who said I could have a career after my kid was grown. Wait until then, they said.

And now here I am, in my dream job, in a city I love, mother to the best kid in the world. None of it happened the way I thought it would happen. I am not the same person now that I was when I started this journey.

I never would have gotten here if I had let naysayers stop me at all the places they could have. I had to dare to be myself, against the grain. There were times, and still are, when it feels impossible. But day by day, and sometimes minute by minute, I have to be me.

As I have walked away from toxic people, toxic environments, and toxic ways of thinking, I have found such freedom to be myself. I have found my voice as a preacher. I have found a new way of living in community, a new way of seeing relationship, a new way of existing in the world. I have embraced things that bring life and given myself permission to walk away from things that bring death. 

But isn't that the audacity of hope? To see beyond what exists to what could be? To endure present suffering with confidence in progress and a better tomorrow? To speak truth to power? To move toward that which brings life?

It is hard to walk away from people who love you only if you become who they want you to be. It is hard to walk away from places that nurtured you that no longer have room for you. I still grieve these losses. But if I hadn't walked away, I would have been a compartmentalized, half-alive version of myself at best. I never would have found my voice. Sometimes love means walking away.

May we know deep in our bones that the God who has called us will sustain us as we are faithful to that call. May we have the courage to stay if needed, the courage to walk away if needed, and the wisdom to know the difference. May we have the courage to be ourselves, and to embrace this as truly good.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"I Can Do It" but Should I?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about gender inequity in the workplace, particularly in church work and higher education.

Why aren't women paid the same? Are women asked to do the same amount of work as men? Why are women such reliable lay volunteers but excluded from top leadership, or in the case of higher education, why are the most reliable staff often women, but the top leadership are almost always men?

While this is still an ongoing wondering for me, I do have some ideas. Please keep in mind that these are all general tendencies, and that I am in no way trying to speak for all women or all men or all churches or all educational institutions. These are just general observations, to which I'm sure there are nuances. (And the reason I had to write that at all is because I know there will be men who read this and want to quickly correct me for how non-sexist they personally are, without even taking the time to think about how they benefit from the system by being male or how their complicity with these systems does perpetrate sexism.)

Women are incredibly competent. We are good organizers, good with people, and willing to work hard to acquire new skills. We are ideal employees!

We are also very good jugglers, because we have had to be. (This was the most unsatisfying punchline of a rom com ever, in I Don't Know How She Does It.) We are constantly juggling to-do lists, long-range plans, short-range plans, grocery lists, menus, drop-offs, pick-ups, health care needs and frequencies, car repair needs and frequencies, budgets, organizing strategies, physical fitness for the family, sports and activities for the family, whose birthday is when and what gift to give, upcoming travel plans, what to wear in the family photo and who/where/when to take it, etc. And that's just our personal life, what some scholars have called "emotional labor." Even if there is a partner to help with the execution of household and family responsibilities, women tend to be the ones who manage this work, keeping track of what needs to be done and when, and delegating the responsibility. We still hold it, even if others help us do it.


And, we are juggling in parallel at work. We are thinking about committees, reports, newsletters, events, networking relationships, upcoming hires, upcoming presentations, class prep, professional development, conferences, association membership and leadership, etc. And even those women who are lucky enough to have a staff to help them are having to keep track of everything to appropriately delegate the right tasks to the people who can best execute them. We hold it all.

And on top of that, women tend to volunteer for things much more often than men. Whether it's to demonstrate competency, lean in with ambition, or a sense of obligation to help others whenever in need, women tend to volunteer for way more than men do.

In higher education, this means women spend more time advising, counseling, serving on committees, assisting with other departmental efforts, etc, which takes a lot of time and often interferes with having sufficient time for things that directly lead to promotion - namely, teaching and publication. So, the system of university evaluation and promotion systemically disadvantages those who are more engaged in service, which typically means women and minorities, the very folks already facing disadvantage in the field.

In church life, this means women spend more time on pastoral care visits, answering phones or returning calls, sending cards, offering mid-week Bible studies, sitting on committees, or having planning conversations. They are the backbone of the work, but very little in the limelight. And because of expectations that pastors serve their congregations, and the prejudice against women pastors, it is very difficult for women pastors to say no or to set boundaries on their time.

Serving professions (teaching, ministry, social work, etc) attract people who care about others and want to make the world a better place through service. These fields attract a lot of women. And women tend to be among the most competent in all of these fields, and more.

But these are the same fields that tend to exploit the labor of women, letting them put in extra hours without bonus pay or promotion, letting them sign up for lots of extra service opportunities but not factoring that in their evaluations, expecting them to produce results but not guiding them in how to budget their time so that they can succeed on the career ladder.

I'm so tired of the quick-and-thoughtless response that women are choosing to raise families, which is why they aren't seeking career mobility. What that means is that women are still expected to do most if not all of the work of raising a family, even if they work full-time, but men now want to take half or more of the credit.

And what's worse, when men do volunteer for something, it's so rare that a big deal is made about it. How many times have you heard moms at school compliment a particular dad for helping, but not expect similar gratitude for their consistent above-and-beyond helping? He did it once, which is so rare and precious, so we must throw him a parade, but never mind that we rise to the occasion on top of our regular jobs day in and day out!

Just yesterday, a colleague and I were trying to visualize the life of some of the men we know professionally. Wake up and put on clothes you did not wash, eat a breakfast you did not cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, drive to work at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's drop-offs, work until you feel done for the day, drive home at a leisurely pace without the hubbub of children's pick-ups or errands, rest a bit in a comfortable chair before you eat a meal you didn't cook made from groceries you did not purchase and put away, read or watch television leisurely until you were ready to go to bed, and then repeat. We could not imagine it. Even when our children are staying elsewhere for a night, we are still juggling laundry, errands, menus, lists, tidying, health, and relationships. We don't get up when we want. We don't go to bed when we want. We often leave work before we feel done for the day. And when we do get home, we start an hours-long shift of caretaking, cooking, cleaning, and prepping for the next day. I'm lucky if I get 30 minutes of leisure time before I go to bed. But the men we were thinking of often post loving dad pics on Facebook, which is perhaps the only 30 seconds they spent with their kid all day. Most of their time is about themselves, yet they get credit for being an invested parent. Mom, on the other hand, is doing most of the work at work and most of the work at home, and it's "normal" so we take it for granted.

I doubt that most institutions mean to exploit the labor of women. I suspect that a problem is posed, a woman volunteers to help or has already demonstrated capability to solve the problem, and she is tasked. Women are doing more work, for less pay, and then going home and putting in another full-time job's worth of a shift to care for their families. Even if they have a staff at work and a supportive/responsible partner at home, women tend to carry the burdens.

It's a vicious cycle. If I say no to something I know I am capable of doing, I feel guilty, like I'm not being a responsible member of my community. But there are some things that I just don't have the resources to do. I don't have the time or emotional energy to take on every project that needs doing. Others have much more time than I do, they just aren't volunteering. Others know how to do the task just as well as I do, or even better, they just aren't volunteering.

And in the faculty/staff meeting, inevitably, the leader will ask for volunteers, there may be an awkward silence, and odds are a woman will fill it by volunteering herself. We are used to juggling a million responsibilities, so what's one more? We can get it done.

But is this ultimately helping us, making us look more like members of the team, and demonstrating our well-rounded capability? Or, is this keeping us in a hamster wheel, so bogged down in the things that others weren't willing to do, that we undermine our own career progress?

I'm not saying women shouldn't invest where they feel capable and able to help. Each woman should get to determine such things for herself. I'm saying that some environments recognize women as super jugglers and systemically take advantage of them, whether those environments realize they're doing this or not. I'm also saying some women don't realize when it's happening to them, and think that eventually their hard work will be recognized, but ultimately end up getting passed over for promotion by a man.

It's a complex problem that will require careful reflection by all involved. There's not one solution. The answers likely depend on the specific context. Some employers are being very careful to ensure that service counts for promotion. Some employers encourage their junior staff/faculty to judiciously limit their involvement so that their time can be devoted to developing new courses and publishing. And some employers insist on offering supplemental pay, revised job titles, or promotions for those who truly exceed their job descriptions. Some employers keep tally of who has volunteered for what and require those whose numbers are lagging to pull their weight.

But it is a problem. Even if women get to the executive table, which is still incredibly difficult, the table isn't set up for fairness. Men reap higher dividends even when women make bigger investments. The playing field is not level. And until the systems that perpetuate uneven expectations and uneven rewards for women are redeemed, we will have tokenism at best.