Rev. Dr. Valerie Miles-Tribble, ABSW Visiting Professor in Ministerial Leadership and Functional Theology
A guest to the Miles family dinner table would often sit in quiet observation as affable conversation suddenly was interrupted by a comment or pronouncement, (usually our impish brother-in-law who deliciously relished getting the Miles women stirred up on one issue or another). In a blink of an eye, the previously affable dinner chatter would evolve and mount in decibels to a full-on debate in which youngest to eldest got in a point or two – or three – or four – with substantial enough fervor that the guest would inevitably whisper to me, “does your family fight like this all the time?” No, these weren’t raise-your-hand-in hopes-that-you’re-called on-debates; however in actuality, no fists flew; no derogatory exclamations or put-downs were expressed; and one gender was not often found pitted against the other even in gender debates. Each side of whatever issue at debate were clearly intent on articulating a viewpoint. After efforts to provide verbal substantiation, most of the time with hilarious reconciliation a vote was reached that we were going to agree that we just disagree on this or that point! When the excited exchange settled to mutual acknowledgement on a couple points and dinner or dessert banter resumed – inevitably another topic or comment sparked another issue and a new round of ‘family feud.’ By now, the guest realized this initiation into the Miles family gatherings was a regular phenomenon. Inevitably, he or she would be caught up in the second or third round, because somebody surely was going to pose to the guest “So really – what is your take on this mess?!” The positive impact of that childhood conditioning was the fostered climate that developed young people who not afraid to critically think, listen, and express their minds (secretly enjoying the rare legitimate opportunity to tell one or both parents and other adults, “How can you believe that? I wholeheartedly disagree” – and then, better be ready to state why!) Of course, that required us to read and investigate issues constantly (so you had a perspective to contribute).
I disclose that part of my formative context, because it developed my prophetic lens. Like my brother-in-law, I raise some issues here for the sake of exchange – since I still enjoy a hearty, mind stretching debate. My disclosure? I self identify as an African American womanist theologian with location in the seminary as a professor and in the church as a pastoral practitioner. Therefore (in case some didn’t know), I’m not shy about speaking, listening, or thinking deeply on thorny issues. With a womanist prophetic lens, I broach what follows on the ethics of gender leadership in my theological context of a Western Christian landscape. The majority of my faith journey has been mapped in a GPS of mores and customs of largely African-American congregations, collectively referred as the ‘black church.’ In denominational and congregational cases within the black church as well as in parts of the larger Church universal, I observe a still troubling ethical dilemma where the social implications of religion-based mores, customs, and practices conflict with ethical principles of dignity, freedom, fairness, and equity espoused in the hermeneutical call from scripture to be a liberative instrument of a justice-loving God. I am aware that the personal sensitivity of religious beliefs and derivative traditions sometimes complicate discussions of what is or isn’t ethical.
However, the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ remains: in the 21st century… in 2012…there still is mixed receptivity to women in certain professional leadership roles as senior pastor leader or even as ordained clergy. In the so-called secular 21st century societal arena, religious ideology has weighed-in to voice a position on issues of women’s voice / choice in decisions on her body and reproductive access to the healthcare system. As media coverage brought to our living rooms, computer screens, and smart phones, the elephant was unavoidable, as nationally formed legislative panels comprised of male panelists –religious and secular – weighed-in to frame the issues of debate without one female representative. And the fact that the voices of those men were accepted as normative, but who haven’t or ever will give birth, gave me pause to utter: “And really…this is still a debate in 2012?” West’s ( 2006) call for a liberative Christian social ethic (pp. 36-39) raises questions of gender justice. The ethics of gender leadership and gender disparity will not fade by being silent and ignoring the elephant. Meanwhile, the elephant’s ‘sister’, the ostrich is burying its proverbial head in the other room: the private sector of corporate or professional enterprise continue wage disparities and hiring preferences, albeit with adept subtlety (Hellman, M.E. & Welle, B., 2006). The conflict between mores/customs and ethical principles is witnessed in the refusal to hire women in senior pastoral roles by some faith-based organizations and denominational affiliations, due to traditions and structures that follow an unvoiced paradigm of women having secondary status to men. In such an organizational culture of mores and customs, other gender-related harassment problems arise and are overlooked. Domestic violence too often is theologized–and the silence unfortunately prevails (West 2006, pp. 40-42).
Tucker-Worgs (2011) documented in a major study of the black mega-church that sexism was deeply entrenched; a climate of patriarchy resulted in ‘dual gendered spheres’ (p. 141) where women were valued to diligently fulfill informal roles, but few reached higher levels of formal leadership (pp. 142-144). Others approved females’ preaching but not as pastors. In some denominations, while approval of females in leadership rates high, evidence of placement is low (pp. 145-148). Unfortunately, Black Baptist denominations and churches are at the lower end of the spectrum. Surveys and personal testimonies confirm the elephant’s presence: Given similar levels of educational achievement, leadership experience from prior careers outside of the faith-based setting, and similar skill sets, females will not be given the same opportunities for placement. Some denominations have taken policy steps to affirm women while others just as vehemently denounce and refuse to recognize the credentials of women. Despite professed ethical stances in the public square against societal discrimination, undue cronyism, and favoritism, the practice in significant numbers of churches persists – including the venerable Catholic Church. Despite equal opportunity laws that prohibit against gender discrimination, the mores and customs of religious preferences are deemed by many clergy to be beyond the purview of the law or ethical principles of equality, fairness, and respect of person. Thus, like the ostrich, congregations bury their heads and carefully circumnavigate the elephant.
One result is that significant numbers of females who are committed to pursue religious service or theological study are bound to actualize their call in college or seminary level positions as professors, researchers, and administrative coordinators, or they are found in presumed ancillary roles to pastoral ministry, such as chaplaincy, prison ministry, community social service executives and youth services leaders (McKenzie, 1996, introduction and pp. 41-54). While these positions should be viewed as valuable and professional alternatives that still manifest ministry calling, the old paradigm places a priori value on pastoral ministry in seminary training and inadvertently devalues the options, and therefore, women’s leadership potential. Still prevalent are paradigms that say women cannot be called to preach and pastor, and still whispers that a woman’s place is in the home. Ignoring the elephant results in loss of potential talent, brainpower, not to mention people power in a core area of a vocational field that claims it seeks to demonstrate the beloved community and positive social change. The contradiction is disheartening and unethical. [Still, there were SF Bay Area pastors of churches that boldly pioneered to support women in ministry-more in Part 2]
Hellman, M.E. & Welle, B. (2006). Disadvantages by Diversity? the effects of diversity goals on competence perceptions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(5), 1291-1319.
McKenzie, V.M. (1996). Not without a struggle: Leadership development for african american women in ministry. Cleveland: United Church Press.
Tucker-Worgs, T.N. (2011). The Black Mega-church: Theology, gender, and the politics of public engagement. Waco: Baylor University Press.
West, T. C. (2006). Disruptive Christian Ethics: When racism and women’s lives matter. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.