I just didn’t get it.
I thought I did. I had strong female role models in my family, especially my mother and my spouse. I understood the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. I had strong feminist colleagues in seminary where the issues were discussed at length. Thus, my self perception was that I did indeed “get it.” My values were “correct” and in place. I thought I was a relatively liberated, sensitive, equal opportunity, “no gender gap here” male.
But there she was–a very pregnant preacher; and I was having difficulty listening. But there she was–showing me pictures of her new baby’s entire birthing process; and I had thought I would be seeing just a few nicely posed traditional baby pictures. But there she was–crying in my office, “No, that’s not what I’m saying. You’re not hearing me.”
These and similar experiences in the 1980’s forcefully taught me, to my confusion and embarrassment, that I still carried some gender bias, some sexist attitudes and behaviors, even though I thought I had purged these viral infections from my system. Clearly, I still had work to do.
That was my first mistake. I framed this work as a problem to be solved, as a task that could be accomplished and crossed off my list of things to do. My mistake was thinking that this work was a matter of learning techniques: inclusive language, consulting the Women’s Bible Commentary in my exegesis, having equal representation in the committees and programs of the parish, having female associate pastors as partners in ministry.
I still didn’t get it. Technique and inclusive resources and language are important and have great intrinsic value. But they have not helped me adequately address the concerns raised by the women I respected–concerns I believe were the promptings of the Spirit.
After several more years of listening and reflection I have now arrived at a place of relative comfort regarding these issues. I would identify three ingredients as helpful to me in my journey.
First is to see that theology and not just gender is at issue. Consider spiritual gifts. St. Paul tells us “To each is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good (1Cor.12:7, RSV).” If I believe that The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps all the baptized, then it is incumbent upon me to approach each and every person, recognizing that they have a gift needed by the community of which I am a part. Thus, I need the gift this other person has. To the degree my gender bias or stereotypes hinder the recognition or utilization of these gifts in the community, I am guilty of putting barriers in the path of the Holy Spirit.
When I consider gender I am helped to better consider justice, which in God must entail justice for all creation, including women, children, and any other group that is disadvantaged or marginalized.
As Pastor-Director of Evergreen Park Ministry I have been involved in diversity training in the corporate setting in recent years. One of the things we have learned in this activity is that many people are painfully aware of injustice related to race, age, and disability; but the pain resulting from gender bias is frequently either accepted as “the way things are,” or dismissed as mere “women’s problems.” We must not allow ourselves to be seduced into framing the issue as one of gender or closing the gender gap. The issue is justice for all, including women; or the spiritual gifts of all, including women.
The second ingredient is listening. For me, this goes beyond technique to a “posture” or a way of being in relationship. It entails approaching each person with the posture of student, as if I were saying “I believe that you have things to teach me and I know that I will benefit from listening to you.” I must overcome the arrogance of thinking “I will listen only so that I can help you solve your problem.” When I can see every “other” as my teacher I will begin to listen from a healthy posture.
The third thing that helps is to frequently remind myself that the culture I live in and the church I serve have woven into their very fabric various barriers to the working of the Holy Spirit. I need to remember that gender bias is one of those barriers.
In most cases this is not intentional malice–people most often operate unawares, with assumptions about gender–yet the impact is still profound. In the reception area of our ministry we display the photos of our pastoral staff of four men and two women. It is not unusual to hear a walk-in client request a male counselor because they “want a counselor who knows what he is doing.” Though I can recognize the bias in such a remark, I myself must work hard in my relations with female colleagues or clients, not to cast myself in some version of “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
We need to acknowledge our assumptions, stereotypes, and behaviors in the area of gender, confess their sinful nature, and make conscious and intentional changes, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the process.
A painful part of this reality is that men need to speak up and call attention to the existence and immensity of this problem. Sadly, until this happens, our male dominated church and culture will continue to dismiss these concerns as the whining of emotional females. So, male colleagues, speak up and speak out. Too few of us do.