It’s been awhile since I last posted – I’ve been sort of all over the place this January with trying to manage my health and this pregnancy, and then the twins, of course, and ministering to and with college students (…and attempting to put some coherent thoughts on paper for the two book projects due this year). Coming across both Larissa’s and MaryAnn’s blogs on women interviewing for church positions and dealing with some of the questions sparked some thinking for me, too, enough so that I felt like I might have something to write and get these juices flowing again. But thank you for asking. Haha.
Anyways, both Larissa and MaryAnn make some great points, and offer really honest pictures of their own experiences, and presumably some of the experiences perhaps of colleagues and friends. On the one hand Larissa shares:
Every single interview (Did you read that? EVERY SINGLE INTERVIEW) that I have had in the past several months has included some form of the question, “How do you feel about going back to work?” or “What will your son do once you start working?”
I see her point. It would certainly rub me a little bit the wrong way. But, I do think in some ways this is a good question. Even a legitimate question. And yet, I can’t deny it’s really loaded and complicated. And not without agenda.
On the other hand, MaryAnn writes that:
In almost every case, the person was asking out of curiosity, concern, and in good faith.
Curiosity: The idea of women serving as pastors is beyond a no-brainer for me, but it’s still new to many people. Many of them are not looking for a reason to weed you out, or a reason for you not to succeed. They are simply trying to picture how the life of the pastor works, what with night meetings and hospital emergencies. Our busiest times in ministry coincide with the school’s winter break and spring break. (Fairfax County schedules spring break during Holy Week every flippin’ year. Grrrr.) So… “how do you do that?” they want to know.
Concern: Many church people I meet are genuinely interested in the well-being of the pastor and her family. Many church folks get the stereotypes surrounding the minister’s family—how kids are put under the microscope and spouses are expected to be a de facto “second pastor”—and conscientious ones want to mitigate that through expressions of care and concern.
Yes, in some cases, “How do you feel about going back to work?” is a trap. But not necessarily. Remember, the church is a community, a place where people care about people. Many people sitting on search committees have felt ambivalence about going back to work—and joy at being there. The question is not necessarily a wall. It can be a bridge.
Good faith: Again, I know women who have been the victim of appalling examples of sexism. That has not been my story, for whatever reason. I wonder all the time why that is. It could be that I’m simply clueless, that there’s sexism going on and I’m not paying attention. Or I got lucky with the congregations I’ve served. Or I’ve decided to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when those potentially iffy questions and comments come my way I see it as someone trying to establish contact and relationship, albeit in a fumbling or even frustrating way. Probably it’s a combination of all three.
I definitely agree that there are some geographic pockets of communities where people still do a double-take when the pastor of a church is a woman. Surely, curiosity is a driving factor behind some of these questions, and I’ve navigated them in bars, airplanes, and the kids’ nursery school. But in the interview setting – especially in a PCUSA church – I’m hard-pressed to believe that this is somehow that novel or unbelievable. I mean, don’t people own TVs? Internet? Maybe that’s a rude question.
Likewise, I do believe that churches should be places of concern and compassion, and many are from the get-go, even in the search process, but in an interview setting, when it comes down to it, most PNC’s aren’t thinking about the well-being of the pastor candidate. They’re thinking about themselves – and maybe even rightfully so, because they need/want to make sure the church finds the right match. I’ve heard that this sentiment has actually been expressed point-blank to not only female but male candidates. Whether it’s theologically/ecclesiastically “correct,” it’s a reality that seems to motivate PNCs. I understand there’s history and pain and anxiety in a lot of churches’ histories, and that’s something to not take lightly in the search process.
In terms of giving churches the benefit of the doubt, I think that is the healthy route to take in what can be a soul-draining process, but I really think that MaryAnn’s journey is unique. I won’t totally go into the race factor here, but for many women of color, I’ve only heard of struggle and difficulty during the search process, particularly when it comes to Anglo congregations.
One tip Larissa offers is:
Asking a female candidate, “How do you feel about working while raising your children?” feeds into decades of pressure on women to feel as though they have to do it all. I’m guessing if a woman has applied to your church, she has already considered this…otherwise why would she have submitted her resume in the first place?! Give her the benefit of the doubt, bite your tongue, ask about the unique gifts she brings to your congregation, and uncover the ways you can do ministry together.
To me this means thinking before asking. I’m fine with questions. Please ask them. I attempt to always be as open and honest as possible especially in an interview setting for a church position. Sometimes that would get me far. Sometimes that would seem to create barriers perhaps because of misunderstanding or some kind of scary foreignness I brought to the table. But, I’d want and expect that kind honesty from the PNC, too, so if you’re going to ask me a question that you think is pertinent to the job, then please really ask yourselves first, “Why do we want to ask this candidate about her family and raising children and going back to work? What’s behind it?” rather than a question that may actually be hiding a different question (i.e. “How do you feel about working while raising your children?” maybe equaling “Are you going to be around? Are you going to be reliable? Are you going to choose your children over the church each and every time?”). Maybe there’s some history or some hard experiences that prompt these questions. I get that – but tell me a little bit of the story – again, the history, the pain, the fears – instead of asking a question that is really confusing.
Granted, I know so many churches are supportive of the pastor and his family, in fact, we are experiencing that in huge and incredibly gracious ways at Andy’s church now. But, when a friend receives an email from a potential church that says in essence, “we would have considered you a candidate but your pregnancy prevents us from pursuing you further,” then I can’t help but wonder what PNCs are thinking when they ask those questions.
Ultimately, I think we all want the same thing in relationship to our churches and ministries, as MaryAnn writes:
I want search committees to care about work-life balance.
I like and appreciate MaryAnn’s perspective, and rather than simply giving into the cynicism of a difficult system, I’m all for working openly and honestly with churches to change that culture. To me this means entering into honest dialogue and abandoning the posturing and positioning associated with a corporate-like organization. The honest conversations will make the search processes much more meaningful and genuine…and hopefully help change the dynamics of churches and their ministers.
My good faith really believes that most churches are truly looking to support this balance in their pastors because it’s mutually necessary and beneficial. But, let’s keep dialoguing and pushing each other!