A couple of months ago, Beth Moore posted an open letter to “[our] Brothers In Christ”, shedding light on her experiences as a woman in vocational ministry–particularly her experiences of misogyny and even discrimination. I encourage you to read it (link above). I have no doubt that each paragraph is painstakingly crafted; each word carefully chosen. I would do a disservice to you and to her if I tried to summarize it here.
What I want to take a moment to explore with you is the little part she quickly breezed past in her letter: the reason she stayed silent. I cannot claim to speak for Beth Moore, she certainly did not confide in me personally. But, I believe I can make a safely educated guess, because I have experienced the same things she talks about in the letter–just on a much smaller scale. The addendum I’d like to offer is this: the experiences she describes are wildly more common amongst the women of the church than many may realize.
The Collective Silence
My personal experience with this issue has ranged from being held to double standards based on gender, to enduring inappropriate comments made about my body by men in church leadership positions. Others I know have experienced these problems as well. When I shared Beth’s post on my social media, one friend commented “oh the stories I could tell…” but, I doubt I’ll ever hear those stories. Her comment, like Beth Moore’s, were unsurprising, even if I had never heard any details about either of their experiences.
So why isn’t anything ever said? Why doesn’t my friend, or Beth Moore get specific about their experiences? Probably, the (over-simplified) answer is, we don’t want to burn our own house down.
Fragile Power Structures
We almost never speak up about these problems because they are largely executed by men in positions of power and authority. Which means, that if we were to share our stories, we would have to call out church leaders into scenarios that feel like scandal. Or, the claims are dismissed and ignored. Disbelief that a beloved pastor could make a mistake, leads others to dismiss it outright. If the claim is believed, it can turn into a hot mess. Churches get torn apart over scandal, and before it’s done, too many are left bloodied and bruised. Many of us aren’t willing to stir the pot (or incinerate it) for anything less than the most egregious offenses. And, even in those cases, power structures and internal church cultures can make it nearly impossible for people to come forward when they should.
A particularly disheartening kind of damage seems to happen to women active in ministry. Greater exposure, is, well, greater exposure. In her post, Beth Moore jokes that she had never wanted to even mention her experiences for fear that she’d “get fried like a chicken.” Suddenly, whether or not she is believed, her ministry comes to a halt, and all focus shifts to the story.
No matter what angle you come at it from, it quickly turns into a hot mess.
Does God Offer Alternatives?
We need to find another way, for the sake of spiritually healthy churches, including (not in spite of) the well-being of the women in our churches. We need another option, besides staying in silence, or slinking away with our wounds, possibly sharing a #churchtoo post on social media.
I am not suggesting that we should start tossing around accusations, devil may care. I am not about to start marching around local church buildings waiving a sign about the ills of male leadership (lest you write me off as a card-carrying egalitarian, think again). Nor am I advocating continued silence. But perhaps we can find some third way that allows women in the church — especially those active in ministry — to discuss their experiences; for at least no other reason than to educate the next generation of women working within the church. Educate one another how to handle difficult and inappropriate situations. And, if the dialog begins to include the (often mainly) male leadership of the church, they can become better equipped as well.
Sometimes, when there’s smoke, there’s fire. And a healthy church ought to want to address the flames. If Jesus is our healer, then surely His church shouldn’t be the bloodied battleground it sometimes feels like it is. As God continues to romance his bride, the church, surely we can take a posture of self-care? Rather than descending into the chaos of in-fighting, can’t we find a way to acknowledge the truth that all churches are made up of a bunch of broken people in spiritual recovery? When you gather broken people together, wounds, missteps, and even outright transgressions do happen. Instead of trying to play the game of “that doesn’t happen here”, we could find a humble posture that helps us right our wrongs and allows space for healing and reconciliation (whenever possible).
Once again, Beth Moore had an opportunity to write it so well: “These are sobering days. These are days for each of us to go on our faces before God, searching our own sin-prone hearts, repenting for our own transgressions and asking God to dislodge planks out of our own eyes. We can and often do hold to attitudes so long that are so wrong, so skewed, but shared by so many people with tattered Bibles, marked by highlighters and sketched with margin notes that how could we be wrong? Especially after we were right about so many other things? … I am very familiar with the demoralizing numbers of victims within our church culture silenced by fear, intimidation, shame, bullying and such manipulation of biblical submission as to border on pathological. These are acts of second-wave abuse, beyond civil action in court perhaps, but not beyond the court of the Ancient of Days. May He have mercy on us all.”
Maybe we are nearing the end of the silence after all?