In this post we continue our series of responses to Lenore Knight Johnson’s study, “Four Decades Later: Credentialed Clergywomen in the ECC.”
I am a first-generation Filipina-American, currently pursuing my MDiv at an interdenominational seminary and working towards ordination to word and sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church. My path to seminary and ordination has been a “bottom-up” journey from within the local context, facilitated by key connections and relationships. I was initially given lay leadership opportunities within the church. As my gifts and calling were developed and affirmed by senior pastors (at the time both men, one white, one Asian), I eventually pursued seminary training and now ordination. All along the way, my local church pastors have been unwavering advocates, modeling that advocacy in our multiethnic church, as well as making space for me to preach and further develop my gifts.
There are strong echoes of my experience in the 2016 Covenant clergywomen survey with regards to many women’s “non-traditional route” into ministry; the necessity of advocacy, structural, and spiritual support; and the importance of local church male pastors making space for their female counterparts. I would be curious to see how these factors operate specifically within the intersectionality of race and gender for clergywomen of color, and for multiethnic and ethnic-specific/immigrant congregations.
The Covenant’s affirmation of both racial righteousness and women’s ordination and leadership are crucial cornerstones for women of color serving in ministry. Yet cornerstones alone do not a strong structure make. Family and cultural issues can add extra layers to the stained-glass ceiling for clergywomen of color. When I told my parents that I was preaching for the first time, they indirectly (and indelicately) voiced their disapproval by asking, “Oh? Was the pastor away? Could they not find any man around to preach?” In Asian-American contexts, cultural patriarchy may be a significant factor in a congregation’s decision to not hire a female pastor, even if she is affirmed and ordained by the denomination. Her résumé may be put aside on the grounds that she will not be a “good fit” for the church – yet assumptions regarding the form and definition of “fit” remain unchanged and unchallenged.
It would be fruitful for future surveys to examine whether the cultures of immigrant and multiethnic congregations tend to break down or build up gendered notions of ministry. Another avenue for ongoing exploration is whether clergywomen’s experiences differ in Covenant church plants and in pre-existing churches that choose to affiliate with the Covenant. Would ECC church plants be more willing to hire female pastors than, say, a newly-affiliated church that comes from a more conservative background? It is interesting to note that more majority-Asian-American churches join the Covenant through denominational affiliation than through church planting. How does this affect their view on women in ministry and pastoral leadership?
In local Asian-American church contexts, the presence of advocates has the potential to bear more weight than any top-down denominational stance. Having an older male authority figure express affirmation for women’s pastoral leadership, model support, and actively advocate for structural and cultural change can have significant influence on local church culture and structure. This was true in my experience.
The 2016 survey stresses the need for clergymen to advocate for their sisters to live out their call to vocational ministry and create spaces for them to serve. I would urge my brothers who pastor in primarily Asian-American contexts, whether in multiethnic or ethnic-specific immigrant churches, to further examine the significance and weight of their voices. I would encourage them to be all the more intentional about dismantling structural and cultural barriers for women in their local contexts, while also affirming through word and deed the call and gifts that the Lord has placed upon their sisters in ministry.