An Open Letter to Covenant Women (1989)

Over the next few weeks we’ll feature a series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.” We begin the series with a letter issued June 12, 1989, from the Board of the Ministry, responding to the ten-year study conducted by Mary Miller. The letter was written by Jean Lambert on behalf of the Board, and is reprinted in Kelly Johnston’s article, “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer,” pp. 16-19.


An open letter to each woman seeking to obey Christ’s call to ministry in the Covenant Church, both volunteer lay workers in local congregations, and pastors, missionaries, and staff ministers.

We have been thinking together about the situation of women and men in ministry in the Covenant Church, and we want first to affirm some convictions, and then offer some interpretation we think important.

Convictions

  1. We are committed to an inclusive ministry in pilgrimage toward a whole church.
  2. We care about you. We value your commitment to Christ, respect your willingness to study and prepare for ministry, desire to be your colleagues.
  3. We hear your pain and respect your anger, as we heard it expressed by some of you in Mary Miller’s report of your responses to her questionnaire, published in the Covenant Quarterly.
  4. We are distressed by the continuing atmosphere of coolness or hostility encountered by all too many women who hold positions of leadership throughout the Covenant church.
  5. We do not claim complete understanding of the sexism that is one of the dominant evils in our society, yet we are committed to learning what it is, how it affects women and men, how it distorts our common life in Christ; we are committed to repenting of sexism so the Spirit of God can transform us. And,
  6. As part of our ongoing work in a church always being reformed by God’s Spirit, a church growing more whole as we believe Christ intends, we urge you to join us in considering some “facts of life” we believe affect our common life in church work: the search for a call, the consideration of volunteer possibilities, the selection or interview process, entering into work, how one is received, how one perceives oneself in ministry, how we respond to situations of frustration, conflict, and fulfillment. We think putting these facts into open conversation will help us all be stronger, saner, and more faithful.

Facts

Fact 1: American society is sexist, specifically masculinist. (It is also racist, ageist, classist…but we aren’t addressing all of that here!) Though we do not understand it fully, it is clear that sexism is both a psycho/cultural bias and complex of social institutions. It operates largely unconsciously, though its “symptoms” may be observed by the seeing eye. This complex reality – sexism – is based on an ancient intuition that the biological differences between men and women are a natural and revealed “message” about superiority/inferiority, value and worthlessness, competence/incompetence, appropriateness/inappropriateness.

To say our society is “sexist” has implications on three levels:

  1. The visible social structures are “set up” to give power and freedom for self-definition and fulfillment to men, primarily white men. These structures depend on women to support the male power elite – physically, emotionally, spiritually – by working in subordinate and often non-remunerative work, like homemaking and volunteer church work. This “set up” is a presupposition when women who are employed outside the home are blamed (or feel blamed) for “the decline of family life.”
  2. The tacit sense of what is real, that we all share, is colored by sexism. Unless we actively “convert” from it and become “disciples” in living and viewing the world in a critical, constructive “Galatians 3:28-way,” there will always be a part of us that is really convinced that women are the moral and intellectual inferiors of men. It doesn’t matter whether one is a person of good will or not, a man or woman, a follower of Jesus or not, a caring person or not: anyone in our society “is sexist.” This is why a male supporter of women’s ordination says, “We’ve got to do more to help these women,” (i.e., They are our responsibility, the dears). This is why a woman frustrated by a lack of call says, “To improve the situation, replace five of the nine superintendents with women.” (i.e., The men are the problem). Unconsciously we show our sexism.
  3. Our personal senses of our selves are determined in large part by the sexism of our culture. It encourages women to look for men for their sense of self, of value, of affirmation for work accomplished. It encourages men to feel defensive when they are accused of impeding women in any way. Sexism dwells inside ourselves, and affects our self-image, self-esteem. It speaks within a woman, for example, saying: “I am weak. What can I do about anything? I am at the mercy of them. If I want a future I need a man (men) to give it to me. Make friends with the males in charge; figure out how to please them, and by all means please them.” Men hear the voice of sexism in their own souls, as well. “Someone needs to be in charge. Men do. This world works better if we take care of business, etc.”

The longer we listen to our inner sexist voice, the less our own, true, inner woman-voice or man-voice is audible in our soul.

Fact 2. The church mirrors the sexism of the society. Christianity has its own patriarchalism to face. We need to listen to our masculinist language and theology, notice the male dominance of the decision-making in our churches, and notice the subordinate care-taking, maintaining roles that our churches deem appropriate as “women’s work”: teaching children, serving dinners, being decorative at social functions, providing hospitality for the men who meet to plan and strategize, teach Bible studies for women, manage fund raisers and service projects, particularly those without public visibility. We need to look at all this patriarchalism and study scripture to learn whether any of it is defensible now for Spirit-led people. If we find old patterns that need change, we must start to make the changes. And even all this will merely be polishing the mirror! The sexism the church reflects from the society runs far deeper.

Fact 3. Sexism is a form of evil that is women’s real enemy as we seek to say “yes” to the Spirit who calls us to ministry. For example, it is sexism, that assures the Director of Christian Education will be paid thousands of dollars less than his or her senior pastor, regardless of the CE director’s education, experience, competence, or sex because whoever the CE director is, he or she is perceived to be doing “women’s work,” which is not worth as much as men’s in the church budget.

And it is sexism when the only job available to a female seminary graduate moving toward ordination is at a rural crossroads 60 miles from the nearest hospital and 5 miles from any paved road. The problem isn’t her superintendent, her grooming, or her reputed emotional instability. All of these might be factors for this person or that, but the major barricade on her professional road (no matter who she is) is sexism, that psycho-cultural bias and complex of social institutions that operates largely unconsciously, to devalue women.

Therefores

So, what are we saying to you women readers, and to ourselves as part of both the problem and the solution. Quit? No, no. Don’t quit! Nor is this letter advice to “be patient,” or to “hang in there.” Rather, we are writing to us all as a kind of prophetic “call to consciousness.”

Women today are pioneering in a treacherous wilderness. Whether in the church as treasurer, deacon, adult Bible teacher, elder or council member, minister of Christian education, missionary health professional or missionary evangelist, or as pastor, the fact remains if one is a woman in ministry, one is a pioneer. Anyone who seeks to be a colleague of women in leadership in the church is pioneering as well. Women have a “right” to be called and supported equally with their Christian brothers, but women are not, and changing the situation will require work. Women must expect the “flies, floods, and fights” a pioneer always undergoes. Women will “pay their dues” like their brothers, and then pay again, and again. It is not fair. Women also must be more careful than their brothers in Christ to be prudent, incorruptible, well-prepared, unsuspected. Nothing women do will be unscrutinized. A therapist with whom I worked in a small group of women once said, “any group of women is potentially threatening, to men and to other women. You may be planning a revolution, or talking about your nail polish. If there are two or more of you with your heads together it is likely to be seen as a subversive group.” Or, as another observer of the human condition has observed, “No good deed will go unpunished.” We must know this, and let it guide our life together, without carrying the knowledge as a chip on our shoulders. Being in solidarity with each other as sisters can give us particular strength. The company of brothers who share this pioneering spirit gives encouragement as well.

Women are choosing to be faithful to Christ in a church that too often wants women to be faithful to sexist tradition. Conflict is ineventible. As pioneers, women risk dying on hills toward which brother and sister Christians will be pushing them, without knowing they are doing so. In one sense our fellow Christians are responsible, but even those who want to accept responsibility for their actions are not necessarily able to, and this is the result of sexism.

Remember Hebrews 12:2, which calls us to be “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” We do have an Exemplar beyond all others. Christ calls the women and men whom he will. You are called? Good. You said “Yes”? Wonderful.

Now, though, comes the pioneering challenge. If you choose not to accept a sexist definition from the church and society for what your ministry is to be, then you need to be fully aware that you are accepting more than a vocation, a career, a profession. You are choosing a cross, and you will be lugging it around for the foreseeable future. Moreover, in a real sense you are going to be carrying this cross on behalf of the church. Your “career choice” may bring you no benefits, but the long-range benefits for a renewed, transformed, more faithful church will keep you in the struggle. Much of the time it will be a joy and you’ll forget you carry the cross; sometimes it will weigh a ton. Helping us defeat sexism is a part of your ministry. You can say “no.” Whether and how you respond to Christ’s call is a matter for each to work out with the Holy Spirit.

If you say “yes,” you can take some comfort in the promise that we will – as the Board of the Ministry – help women and men struggle against sexism as best we can, given our own need to grow and struggle too. But we cannot take away the cross. Our common enemy is sexism. To personify, the Enemy carries sexism these days as one major piece of a demonic portfolio. It makes The Enemy happy when we attack each other rather than learning to understand and undermine the sexism itself.

We can be evangelical people. Where the world stands for get-and-grab, one-upping, levels of power and status, and degrees of rank and respectability, we can be gospel folks: sharing, helping, standing on the level ground beneath Jesus’ cross. We can stand with each other and, as the Spirit empowers us, we can bear each other’s burdens. We invite you to persevere in ministry.

Women in ministry – lay and clergy – we are your colleagues in the ministry of Jesus’ gospel. We love you.


Jean C. Lambert (1940–2008) was the first woman to serve on the Board of Ordered Ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Read more about Lambert in Kelly Johnston’s article, “Jean C. Lambert: Covenant Pastor, Theologian, Pioneer.” This letter appears on pp. 16–19.

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