“Young lady, are you training to become a pastor?” the accusing eye sized me up as I tried to shake the old woman's hand. I opened my mouth to answer, but apparently she didn't need one. “I wish you wouldn't,” she went on, as people leaving church piled up behind her. “There weren't any women pastors in the Bible. And Jesus' disciples were all men. And . . .”
I don't remember how long she went on, or just what she said. The stream of churchgoers was diverting to flow around us, and the pastor's wife was giving me a look of apology. I had just been introduced in this church as the volunteer assistant pastor, taking a year out from my Religion degree, and I was supposed to be meeting the congregation. I grabbed the first moment she paused for breath to assure her I was glad to meet her, and move on to someone else.
About a month later, I wiped my sweaty palms on the platform pew, and stood to give my first sermon. The pastor had called in sick a few hours before, and I luckily had little time to worry over it. This time I stood alone in the greeting line afterward, shaking hands.
The little old lady shuffled up and sized me up again. She patted my offered hand with her small one and said. “You're going to make a fine preacher one day.” And then, with a swift change in tone, “But I still wish you wouldn't . . . “ I missed the rest of her remonstrance as the press of people moved her forward and others pressed in to assure the newbie I hadn't fallen flat on my face.
A few months later I preached again. This time, my elderly friend caught my hand in both of hers. “My little pastor,” she said, pulling me down for a hug.
Three years later, and I was in a kitchen in rural Pennsylvania talking to a friend from church. Jim was the pastor, but we had six churches, and I preached as often as he to cover them all. My friend Joanne and her husband were like grandparents to us there, and some of our closest friends. But--she confessed to me that night--she hadn't approved of me at first.
“I was dead set against women preachers,” she said. “But you changed my mind. I listened to you preaching, and I've changed my mind.”
I am not a great preacher. I've never even been a pastor. I have never faced the virulent detractors some of my friends live with to be faithful to their calling from God. But I have seen the argument waged back and forth all the years since my first sermon, and I have seen that people seldom change their minds.
I have argued with a lot of people over women in church. I'm better educated than most, and I can hold my own. I've even left some confounded by my reason. But I've never had an argument end with my opponent changing their mind. I have only seen people change their minds one way, in fact.
My first critic was an easy case, almost laughably so. But I never did answer her arguments. I never even tried. Once she was comfortable with me, they didn't convince her any more. Joanne, by contrast, was no intellectual slouch. We never talked about her theology on gender, but I know she read theology, and studied deeply. What changed her mind, however, was her experience.
I am not trying to say that no one studies the issue when they change their minds. I'm not suggesting we don't make choices from reason. But I suspect that people don't study something they aren't willing to know. We don't consider a new idea objectively until it becomes something less than repugnant to us.
Since San Antonio in 2015, the debate on women in the church has become one of the most caustic, divisive issues in our history. Those who were once uncomfortable with the idea of women leading now feel morally bound not to change their minds. Argument doesn't help our cause. Instead, our talk is throwing gas on a wildfire.
The best path, perhaps the only path now, to change minds is personal experience. There's nothing to be gained by out-shouting or out-voting one another (as we wish some had learned from the 2015 vote). The only way to win, is to win the church over.*
That's why this blog a call for action. To the women of the church, you can do something about this issue. In fact, you can do the most important thing. You can lead.**
I am convinced that the solution is not words now, but action. The best way to convince our friends and families that women can lead, is to show them. Preach, minister. Lead.
Lead in whatever capacity, and under whatever title your context affords. For many people out there, nothing will force them to rethink their ideas except seeing a woman lead positively, and with grace.
Preach, if you can. And remember, if you don't think you can, that it's a skill, and it can be learned. Don't imagine that fearlessness is required. Volunteer, don't wait to be asked.***
Say yes to the nominating committee. Speak up in meetings. Accept the title of elder, even if not everyone in your church will like it. Give them a chance to see your example. Let experience change their minds.
It sounds small. How does one woman preaching in one little church change the votes of the world church? It doesn't. But thousands of women affecting their own communities can change the culture of a denomination.
If we do this, if we all did this, to whatever capacity we could, we would change people's minds.
I can't do anything about what happens at the GC's Annual Council this year. But this particular sink-hole of church politics isn't going to be escaped by the work of committees, small or large. If it's going to be won, it will be slowly, by you and I.
So please, if you want to make a difference about Women's Ordination, pray about what you can do. And then, wipe your sweaty palms, and do what you can. That's what I'm going to do.
*And maybe outlive some of them, too.
**To the men, you can use your influence to identify, encourage, and suggest women in leadership. Notice gifts, point them out to others, mentor if you have experience that can help.
***This is a big one. If you live in a rural area, chances are there is a local pastor with too many pulpits to fill each Sabbath. Churches like these are usually more open to lay people preaching, even if the lay people are usually men. These are the places that need to see women ministering the most.