“I can’t concentrate on your sermon because you’re so pretty.”
“This is our little girl preacher.”
“You are looking fat.”
“If God can use a donkey, I guess he can use women in ministry.”
These are just some of the demeaning comments female United Methodist pastors in eastern North Carolina say they’ve received while doing their jobs.
A newly released video of the comments ― read by male pastors ― illustrates just how much misogyny and sexism women face when they decide to go into ministry.
Many major Christian denominations in the United States
support the ordination of women. Still, it’s relatively rare for women to crack what some have called the “ stained glass ceiling” and hold top leadership positions within their denominations.
And there are also many subtle ways sexism shows up in congregational settings ― through offensive observations about a clergywoman’s appearance, or pointed jabs about her ability to serve as a pastor in the first place.
The United Methodist Church, America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, granted women
full clergy rights in 1956. There were over 10,300 active and retired UMC women clergy in the U.S. in 2014.
Inspired by a similar project conducted by North Carolina Lutherans in
October, the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, which covers the eastern part of the state, decided to ask its female clergy to share some of the “unhealthy or inappropriate comments” they’ve received from parishioners or from male pastors.
The video was officially released on June 13 at a conference meeting, during a report given by its Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW), which works to advance women’s roles in the UMC.
The Rev. Tracy Sexton, the local COSROW convener, is the pastor who collected the comments from her colleagues for the video. Some women sent in comments from within the last year, while others sent in harsh words they had heard a decade earlier that still stung.
“Reading these comments as they flooded in was a disturbing event for me — hearing stories of the Body of Christ dishonoring itself through inappropriate words and actions,” Sexton said.
Sexton said the
Me Too movement has highlighted a need for accountability within church spaces and hopes that when people watch this video, they will resolve to do their own “transformational work.” For Christians, Sexton said, that means honoring women as fellow members of the body of Christ.
“As Christians, each one of us needs to be mindful of personal transformation,” she said. “For too long, both inside and outside the Church, transformational accountability hasn’t been practiced.”
For many of the men in the video, the comments provided an eye-opening look into the lives of their female colleagues.
“No! No, no, no,” one visibly stunned male pastor said, before reading out the comment, “I keep picturing you naked under your robe.”
“Really?” he said. “That one is really wrong.”
Another comment stated, “If I were 20 years younger, you wouldn’t be able to keep me away from you.” After reading it, a male pastor shook his head and said, “That’s appalling.”
The men were asked at the end of the video to reflect on how the comments made them feel. Their reactions ranged from “furious” to “ashamed.”
“Those colleagues who happen to be female have had many more obstacles to face than I’ll ever face,” a male pastor said. “It just deepens my appreciation for their willingness to continue to press on when it would probably be easy to walk away.” This article has been updated with comments from Rev. Tracy Sexton and a clarification of when the video was released. Also on HuffPost Rev. Jennifer Bailey Bailey, a clergywoman for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, on the (s)heroes who inspired her feminism: "As a Christian leader, my feminism means daily affirming the full humanity and capabilities of women as part of God's beloved creation and their sacred work in the world. It also means honoring the sacrifices, courage and labor of the many female saints of God that it made it possible for me to wear my clerical robe and preach the gospel of Jesus. Historic figures like Jarena Lee, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie paved the way for me as did the unsung (s)heroes and everyday church mothers whose work has kept the church alive and flourishing since its inception. We still have a long way to go to completely shatter the stained glass ceiling but the ancestors have shown is it is possible by holding to God's unchanging hand. Blessed be her Holy Name." More Sarah Bessey Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist, on how feminism could impact the church's mission: "It was following Jesus that made a feminist out of me! That discipleship lead me to caring about everything from maternal health in Haiti to sexism in the Church as issues of justice close to God's heart. Patriarchy is not God's dream for humanity: It never was and it never will be. I remain hopeful, too - more and more people are waking up to what wholeness and peace-making can look like for both men and women in the Kingdom of God which changes things on both a small personal scale but also helps to move the needle forward when it comes to systemic injustice, too." More Vicky Beeching Beeching, a theologian, broadcaster, and LGBT activist, on why Christians can be feminists: "To me, feminism means championing the rights and equality of women. Jesus treated women in ways that were truly radical for his era, so I've argued for years that Christ should be considered a feminist. The church has seemed afraid of the feminist movement, unsettled by it somehow; branding it as harsh and shrill. That seems bizarre as Christians should be at the forefront of women's equality, not bringing up the rear! Many denominations still don't let women preach, become Elders, or get ordained, so there's much work to be done. 'Christian feminism' is not an oxymoron; it's a deeply compatible, healthy response to the injustices that still exist within the faith community." More Gail Song Bantum Bantum, executive pastor of Seattle's Quest Church, on why feminism is about freedom:
"Feminism cannot merely be an idea but a life embodied. For those of us women who have fought to live out our call in spaces of leadership within the church, we embody feminism daily whether we realize it or not. Any embrace of feminism within the church must be rooted in our deep conviction that we are all created to be free -- that it was for freedom that Christ set us free (
). It is a desire for this freedom to emerge from the truth that both women and men are created fully and wholly as image bearers of God. In that sense, feminism is not necessarily about equality for me. It's about discipleship - about honoring the creativity of God in our midst, about enabling others to flourish, about fighting for another's freedom, and about submitting to the truth that we have all been gifted this breath each waking moment of the day."
More Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams Williams, a pastoral counselor, on how a journey to live out her gender identity helped her understand why feminism is important: "I have preached in three of the twelve largest churches in America. Today I would not be allowed in the pulpit of a single one. Not only would I be barred because I am transgender, I would be barred because I am a woman. The irony is the things I know now make me twice the person I was before. But women's voices remain silenced while churches stumble in the dark with a leadership blinded by its own entitlement. It has made me into something I never expected I'd be -- a feminist." More Edyka Chilomé Chilomé, a spiritual activist, said she believes that the word "feminist" erases her identity as an indigenous mestiza woman who seeks to carry on the traditions of her female ancestors, whom she says "fought for the dignity of life and the sacred worth of women long before the term 'feminist’ was conceived.” "As a woman of color I don't identify as a feminist although I walk in solidarity with my feminist sisters and am working toward similar goals of transformative justice. I grew up in a christian context that inherited liberation theology born from third world liberation struggles and the continuous survival of indigenous mestizo peoples in the global south. My Christianity looked like rallies at the capital Sunday morning led by indigenous mestiza women who made very clear for me that God, in whatever form, is calling us to walk with the earth’s people and honor life first. This means that the world is my parish, and at the end of the day, compassion and accountability go hand and hand." More Mica McGriggs McGriggs, a Mormon, on why she thinks Jesus was a feminist: "Feminism for me as a Christian means I am working toward being more like Christ; I see the Savior as the ultimate intersectional feminist. He was always concerned and working for 'the least of these' he looked to the margins and created spaces that were inclusive to all. That is what intersectional feminism aims to do. The church would be a safer and more loving environment for all God's children if they were to embrace liberation theology and the practice of intersectional feminism." More Rev. Christine Lee Lee, the first Korean-American woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, on the value of seeing women as Jesus did:
"As a Christian, to me feminism is about seeing and valuing women as Jesus did. I'm always moved by the stories of Jesus' interactions with women in the gospels. In a time and culture where women were often invisible, he saw them and treated them as ones who were honored by God and deeply loved. If the church followed the example of Jesus in how he treated women, it could heal the world. Just like the human body, the whole flourishes when every part is made stronger."
More Nicole M. Garcia Garcia, a transgender Latina who is a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on tracing feminism back to the creation story:
"Genesis 1: 27 is very clear: God made humankind in God’s image. Feminism, to me, does not mean I want more, I want what God gave to each of us -- to be a human being in God’s image. The church has subjugated women far too long and it is time to emphasize the love and compassion Jesus taught us in the Gospel."
More Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño Carcaño, the first Hispanic female bishop in the United Methodist Church, on women's God-given gifts: "As a Christian, I view feminism as a commitment to women having the opportunity to fully be who God created us to be. Creation itself allows us to catch a glimpse of God’s amazing creativity with all its beauty, potential and interrelationship. Individually and collectively women bring God-given gifts to life. The church has a responsibility to remind the world of the sacredness of all life including that of women. When women suffer because of discrimination due to their gender, everyone suffers through the loss of the gifts women bring to the world." More Monica A. Coleman Coleman, a scholar, activist and minister, on what a woman's perspective and questions can bring to the church: "For me, feminism in religion is about voice and power. It's about what I notice and what kinds of questions I ask: Where are the women in the story? Who has voice? Who doesn't? What might she have said? Who is in leadership in churches? Whose voices and perspectives have the loudest voice and influence? I try to answer these questions when I preach and teach. I want them to feel natural to my daughter's faith." More Rev. Winnie Varghese Varghese, an Episcopal priest at New York City's Trinity Wall Street Church, on feminism and equality: "As a Christian, feminism is a reality check on the gospel message of equality among all people in the eyes of God. If we believe we are equal in the eyes of God, we have to work to make that equality a reality in the world we live in. This has implications both for how girls and women understand their full humanity and dignity and how people of all genders understand the worth and dignity of women, which the church has historically profoundly influenced negatively." More Kate Kelly Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement in Mormonism, on how feminism could have an impact on women in society:
"In my home state of Utah, policy is heavily influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is an extremely patriarchal religion. Any Church that excludes women from leadership roles is clearly missing out on 50 percent of the potential, talents and wisdom of its adherents. But, religious gender discrimination also leaks out of the bounds of the institution and negatively impacts society at large. Utah has one of the
largest income gaps
between men and women, as well as
one of the lowest female college graduation rates
. The influence of the religious teachings that put women below men affect not only Mormon women, but all people that live in Utah… Societal parity for women will never be fully actualized until women are spiritually integrated as equals into every major faith tradition in the world."
More Emilie M. Townes Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt University's Divinity School, preferred to use the word “ womanist,” a phrase coined by poet and activist Alice Walker to embrace the experiences of black feminists. Townes described the term this way: “Womanism is when historic and current insights of Black women are used to eradicate inequalities for all people with a particular focus on class, gender, race, sex and sexuality as social and theological tools to unseat evil.”
"As a Christian, womanism underscores the power of the gospel working in our lives to set us all free from stereotypes based on gender, sexuality, race, class, physical ability, and all of the ways in which we are humans in God’s creation. Womanism is a spirituality of life that calls me to remember that my life is a gift from God and I should use this gift to work for peace and justice by sharing the good news and to work with others to craft a space and place for folks to thrive. This space and place, to my mind, is the church. It becomes the place that is genuine[ly] involved in being partners with God in bringing in the new heaven and new earth and an embodiment of love, hope, peace, and justice in a world that can use a good dose of each these days."
More Gina Messina-Dysert Messina-Dysert, co-founder of the site " Feminism and Religion," on why Christian feminism isn't an oxymoron:
"While many believe the idea of a Christian feminist is an oxymoron, in truth, feminism and Christianity have a long history together. Although, many argue to be feminist is not to be Christian or vice versa, in fact, Christianity has feminist value. If we examine the foundation of the tradition, the idea that every person should be liberated and treated justly, this is very much in line with feminist ideals. Nonetheless, patriarchy has resulted in the manipulation of the tradition into one that has been utilized to oppress women. But with that said, feminism has a responsibility to uproot oppression wherever it exists - and that includes religion. And so, as a feminist lens is used to critique patriarchy in all aspects of society; it is critical that feminists continue to apply the same lens to religious traditions."
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