Thank You for Thinking Before Asking: Dialogue with Larissa and MaryAnn

thinkIt’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!

18 thoughts on “Thank You for Thinking Before Asking: Dialogue with Larissa and MaryAnn

  • January 23, 2013 at 10:21 am

    This post gave me so much to think about, even as a non clergy person :). Love the reminder that their questions are coming from (hopefully!) a place of authenticity.

    • January 23, 2013 at 1:47 pm

      I actually am pushing the question of where those questions are coming from and saying that authenticity is what’s necessary on both sides of the interview table. But I do hope that churches are doing that more! You all have some good amount of experiences with interviewing at churches 🙂 so would love to hear more in light of these conversations. <3

  • January 23, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for this. I love that the discussion is traveling all over the internet…

    Technically speaking, the word unique means one of a kind. Perhaps my experience is *unusual*. But I cannot believe I am the only woman who has never been asked an illegal question in an interview 😉

    That said, you are absolutely right that there are issues of privilege at play. As a white woman my journey is very different than those of women of color.

    Thanks Mihee!

    • January 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm

      You’re right – “unusual” would have been a more accurate word but I may have been thinking in the context of clergy women of color. Even so there have to be some positive experiences for women of color similar to yours out there, right?

      Either way whatever the context and color I think we all agree that questions are good but that there needs to be some continued push in examining the ever present gender and race questions.

  • January 23, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    My experience has been similar to MaryAnn’s, BUT interestingly, my husband, who is also a pastor, has gotten a TON of questions about how our family life works since I am ordained. People have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that I won’t be at church with him.

  • January 23, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Thank you both for your posts! I agree that honest dialog is important and necessary as churches and candidates discern a potential call together. But I also believe that the same questions should be asked of all candidates. Work and personal life balance is a struggle for us all yet I find that my male colleagues are not asked similar questions as I have experienced.

    As a candidate, it also feels risky to directly call out a seeming inappropriate question. I agree with Mary Ann that redirection is the way to go and if often the path I have taken. Yet this, too, has led to further questions about daycare, my son’s time on Sunday mornings, etc. There has to be a point at which we can refocus on how all of these aspects are gifts, not liabilities, to our ministries. That’s the conversation I am willing to have.

    • January 23, 2013 at 1:55 pm

      I still think there’s something like an identity crisis/confusion among a lot of churches. Are we a business? Are we a community? Are we a non-profit? Are we a club? Etc. I feel like that comes into play in interviews and those specific questions about family. Something about the professionalization of our vocation has screwed up some of the conversations so that it feels more political and less … Pastoral?

      • January 23, 2013 at 3:45 pm

        I agree and I like the idea from Matt of raising it initially in the conversation. It is important to understand the congregation’s expectations and this approach can shape the conversation. Thank you all for these thoughtful comments!

  • January 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    As a male pastor I have had discussions about balancing family life but I have probably initiate them. I think being authentic is key. I simply state that I want to b present in my family’s life and ask, “Are you a church that will share that value with me.” I also ask if they have expectations of m y spouse and if they understand that she will probably work. There is the underlying question, beyond gender, of a belief that the pastor is a bit of a martyr. Part of that blame can be laid on the generation of pastors before us who took the non-confrontational road of taking on more, rather than the hard road of equipping and teaching their congregation to fill the roles of leadership and ministry. Also disturbing is this veneration of corporate culture in the church when the church should be challenging the no-boundary workaholic expectations.

    • January 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm

      That’s great that you initiate those questions. I think that’s a nice start to framing those questions in a way that’s helpful for both sides.

  • January 23, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Mihee, you have spurred some wonderful discussion here… thank you! I hope it will continue!

  • January 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Just a quick comment as I don’t have but a minute—just so we’re clear, there are no “illegal” question in a church interview. Because churches are not covered by AA/EEO or non-discrimination law, they can ask pretty much whatever they want. Those questions may (or may not be) appropriate, and they may be against church polity…but we are not covered by the same non-discrimination laws as public enterprises are. Because we HAVE to discriminate based on religion, we are out of that legal loop.

    That said, it’s always wise to be circumspect about what people are asking. “how do you feel…what will you do….” they may be asking about self-care. They may be asking about your availability for emergencies. If you can ferret out what they are asking (by context or timing–is the question in the middle of a batch of questions about duties or in the section about self-care, spiritual practices, etc.) and ask the question behind the question, you are in a good position.

    • January 24, 2013 at 12:21 am

      That’s great advice, Susan. It’s so tricky sometimes. Do we play the game? Or can we talk simply and honestly about what’s going on behind the questions? I’m bad at playing the game. Andy is much better but not in a manipulative kind of way. He’s … Diplomatic. I think I’m too awkward so I’d rather have everything out on the table.

  • January 23, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    The expectations of the spouse / partner of the clergy person is an important one. For more than a decade I have been a part of a very small “closed” clergy “spouse” group that is international (worldwide) and the topic covered many miles, particularly in the earlier years (before we “all” moved to Facebook). For twenty-seven years I was the “beautiful wife” of the senior pastor — now less than two years into “honorably retired”-ment. Time to turn the corner with the PNC interview question to include (for white and male) “Do you think a (white) man pastor can handle this (call)?”

    • January 24, 2013 at 12:16 am

      Most definitely!

  • January 23, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    OOooh! Love this discussion. I lean toward the “Don’t ask the question” side of the coin, and that’s because, as Larissa pointed out, I don’t think men would be asked the same question in the same way. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but my experience is that “how do you feel about coming back to work” is code for “Don’t you feel guilty about going back to work? How will you do it all?” I am very fortunate in that my current head of staff, solo pastor position was a position I got while pregnant with my second child. The congregation believed I could (with, and only with my husband’s strong support) navigate the work/home balance. But they let me figure that out. They assumed I had that under control. I think they are rare in that. I think the norm is to be suspicious, to question to pry. Also, in the process I received a rejection letter that said (literally) “We would have hired you if you weren’t pregnant.”

    • January 24, 2013 at 12:18 am

      You’ve really experienced quite the spectrum when it comes to churches and their questions. Thankfully you’ve found a community that trusts your gifts and abilities – I hope they will continue to be supportive of your family life!

  • January 23, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    PS – For some reason I can only sign in to this under my cooking blog identity “Mrs. Smith.” This is Rev. Traci Smith writing. 🙂

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