I recently asked my five-year-old daughter, Zoe, what God looks like. She gazed into the distance for a moment before saying, “She has a really big, beautiful face.” My wife smiled and, hugging Zoe tight, suggested that maybe there are also parts of God that are more like daddy.
My wife has been a senior pastor for the past 10 years. In that time, I’ve seen plenty of situations in which her gender worked against her. There was the man at the church where she guest-preached who, with a straight face, told her she did a pretty good job “for a girl.” There were the times when people got up and walked out when she took the pulpit to preach. There was even one man who left the church because he couldn’t watch her preach without fantasizing about her having sex because she was visibly pregnant.
In comparison to their male counterparts, female pastors have limited opportunities and face serious pay discrepancies. Never mind that half of people in mainline seminaries today are women — so if many churches are to survive in the future, it may be with a woman at the helm. But too many congregations are not willing to accept this reality.
There are some real advantages a female leader can bring to a congregation that most — if not all — men lack. I don’t mean this in a sycophantic “girls rule, boys drool” kind of way. There are some key characteristics women possess that are much needed in many of our churches today.
A woman at the helm implicitly communicates change.
Many people beyond the walls of institutional religion either have bad personal experience with organized religion or harbor a negative perception based on the way religious leaders are presented in the media. It’s not that a woman can’t lie, steal, or commit acts of sexual impropriety the way men do. But seeing a woman in a position of top leadership can help challenge, and even break down, some of those preconceptions for the skeptics among us.
Women can have greater empathy for marginalized people.
Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund, a regional minister for the United Church of Christ, told me, “As a woman and a feminist, I am more inclined to empathize with other oppressed groups and appreciate feminist, womanist, liberationist theology.” Yes, men can have compassion for people and groups who have been historically oppressed or denied equality, but empathy emanates from shared experience.
Women can help reveal the patriarchal bias around scripture.
Fellow author and ordained Presbyterian pastor Rev. Carol Howard Merritt noted that Christians have cleary been interpreting scripture from a predominantly male point of view for a long time. As such, we run the risk of missing some inherent biases in how we tell and explain biblical stories.
“Bathsheba wasn’t a seductress,” Merritt said. “Hagar wasn’t a tormentor. Esther wasn’t just following Mordecai’s suggestions. The woman at the well may have been following the Jewish laws that said she had to remarry her brother when her spouse died. The woman with the ointment wasn’t a sex worker. Women have been belittled, undermined, and all slutted-up for a couple thousand years. We have a chance to give another perspective.”
A woman pastor looks like more of the people in the pews.
A Gallup poll conducted a couple of years ago found that 47 percent of women surveyed in the U.S. claim regular church attendance — compared to 39 percent of men. Author Sarah Thebarge, director of communications at Imago Dei, a nondenominational Christian church in Portland, put it this way: “Most congregations are more than 50 percent female, so [women pastors] have the advantage of being able to identify with more parishioners’ gender.” Having a woman in the lead helps assure women who attend that their pastor understands their daily experiences in a deeper, personal way.
Women can help us imagine God more broadly
We tend to think of God in traditionally masculine terms, though many churches have made strides by using more inclusive language. Still, actively imagining the more feminine qualities of the Divine is another thing entirely. “A woman minister,” said Rev. Lund, “can offer insight into the feminine image of God that informs the Trinity in both female language for God in the Bible (God described as a mother hen, ancient images of nursing mother God) and in Sophia Wisdom.”
Also, following the Protestant Reformation, many Christians resisted anything that smacked of Catholicism. As such, we lost much of our connection to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who plays such an important role in the Catholic tradition. All of this helps us broaden and enrich the ways in which we imagine God, which, in turn, can help us imagine ourselves more richly and broadly as creatures of both flesh and spirit.
Whether we celebrate the changing face of Christian leadership in the United States or we meet it with resistance, we are in the midst of a broad transformation. In mainline Protestant churches, women are coming into positions of professional and volunteer lay leadership in unprecedented numbers. They bring with them unique understandings of God, community, relationship, and what justice looks like.
Image by Nomadic Loss.