by Rev. Elaine Connolly
It’s been going on at least since Hagar, a servant woman, was forced to bear the child of her master, Abraham. For centuries, that story was told for a variety of reasons to illustrate “larger truths” of faith, trust, and obedience that had nothing to do with Hagar or her suffering or her views of herself as a woman whose life was at the mercy of a powerful man.
But since 2017, it’s been easier to pay attention. Enough women have spoken up about enough men that the stories cannot be ignored or dismissed as the bitter (or idle) tales of women scorned or desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame. Hollywood producers, beloved entertainers, Christ claiming politicians lost status, sometimes jobs. It seemed as if most of those in their orbit were not surprised at these revelations – they were just surprised they’d been exposed. Perhaps they were just as surprised at the outrage.
Female clergy were not surprised either. We all have stories about women and men and an abuse of power. For too many of us these stories are our own. I wrote this article relatively quickly, so the women I reached out to were the ones whose stories I already knew. I have chosen just two of those stories, but all of them deserve to be heard. The names, of course, have been changed.
Gina, a seminarian, was thrilled when she was called to intern at a high-profile church with a well-known pastor in a major city. She was 24 years old. “The church was huge, overwhelmingly white, and composed of very wealthy congregants. I was exposed to more than church work – free theater and concert tickets, lectures. They even paid for us to go to conferences and workshops. None of my other classmates had this kind of opportunity.”
The pastor invited her to his home for dinner one night – she’d been a few times before, once with her husband, always with the pastor’s wife present. On this particular night, the pastor’s wife was gone – which he did not mention until after Gina had arrived at his home. They had a nice dinner. “He put on a Miles Davis record and asked me to dance. I laughed and said that it would be too weird. He said, ‘no, it will be nice’ and pulled me into his arms. We danced for a few minutes then he kissed me. I said, ‘We can’t do this’ He said, ‘we deserve this.’”
She was confused. They had sex. The “affair” continued for four months. Gina tried to end it a few times. He’d agree, but it continued. Gina finally told her husband. He was furious and went to the Clerk of Session. An investigation was conducted within the church. The Presbytery was never involved. Gina and her husband were paid a sum of money to leave the church and signed a confidentiality agreement. The pastor denied all charges and retained his position (he is now retired). Gina and her husband divorced. She signed the church settlement over to him in the divorce proceedings. She was ashamed and afraid that if the “affair” became more public, she would never find a position in the church. Gina now serves as a pastor of a small church in the mid-west.
“I’m still in therapy, breaking all of this down,” she says. “What was my role? How did I let this happen?”
Maria was an associate pastor, her first position, at a church on the West Coast. It was a difficult call. “There was much I loved about the church, but the Senior Pastor and I clashed and he was often verbally abusive. At one Session meeting, he commented that there were certain times of the month when I could be difficult. Everyone, the women as well as the men, laughed.”
She decided to start looking for another position. She confided this to the pastor who agreed that it was for the best. He, in turn, told the Clerk of Session about it. After church the next Sunday, the Clerk approached her in the parking lot and said, “No offense, Maria, but maybe you’re too downright mean to do ministry. You’re, what? In your thirties? Have you ever wondered why no man has wanted to marry you?”
Maria spoke to the Senior Pastor who told her, “He shouldn’t have talked to you like that. But maybe there is something in his words that the Holy Spirit is using to get your attention.”
Maria went to her Presbytery for help. The Presbytery helped negotiate severance pay for her with the church but no other action was taken. “I was grateful to leave and grateful to get the money,” Maria said. “I thought more should be done to address the issues at the church, but didn’t feel I could do more than I did. I regret it still. I feel it was a cowardly thing for me to do.” Maria is no longer in ministry.
A study conducted in 2016 by PC(USA) Research Services in 2016 showed that 84 percent of clergywomen experienced gender-related discrimination, prejudice or harassment. That same study reports that 48 percent of their male colleagues believe that gender inequality is not an issue in the church.
I mentioned this while in the company of some clergy people recently. One of my male colleagues believed that “. . . there is a domino effect. Once one woman makes the accusation, it seems as if a lot of women start to rethink and cast a different light on their own experiences. [Not all] but many of them start to see harassment and discrimination where it doesn’t exist.” When I told this to a female colleague, she said the following.
“[This same male colleague] was a mentor to me in my early ministry days. I admired his brain and sense of call, even though our theologies didn’t line up. We would lunch together regularly. On one occasion, he told me, ‘I really feel as if I can speak with you as I can’t speak to anyone else. You are the first person in my life who seems to completely understand me. Even [my wife] doesn’t understand me as you do,’”
She made a comment to him about how much pressure we put on our romantic relationships. “Everyone needs friendships,” I said, somewhat nervously because I was feeling uncomfortable. “[Your wife] understands you in ways friends never can and your friends in ministry understand your work and thoughts in ways someone outside ministry cannot. It’s normal.”
“’Maybe,’ he said, ‘but don’t you feel as if you and I share a type of intimacy that’s different from everyday exchanges with colleagues?’
“Before I could answer, we were unexpectedly joined by someone from his church. To this day, I am not quite sure if I read into his words more than he intended. Our lunches stopped after that and I didn’t see him for some years after I accepted a call to ministry. We’re in the same presbytery now and meet professionally on occasions but he has never said anything since to make me wonder. But when I think about it, I’m not always clear on whether I read too much into what he said. On the other hand, I can’t see him talking that way to a male colleague.”
The church has provided resources for education. (see below). Presbyterian Women (PW) and the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC) have released a “Joint Statement on Sexual Injustice,” which says, in part “. . . the faith community must confess and hold itself accountable for fostering environments that allow for abuses and encourage silence, repent and create systems where justice for victims is accessible, and offer resources to support healing for victims and secondary victims of abuse. We must individually and collectively begin to deconstruct ideologies that perpetuate maleness as superior to femaleness, whether in our imagery for God or in our references to one another, and think of one another in a way that lets us see our gender differences as blessings to be respected and celebrated.” (for the full statement, go to https://www.presbyterianwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Joint-statement-PW_ACWC.pdf)
Words and policies are just a small step in the shift that needs to happen within the church for all of us to get out from under this sin. We need a Reformation. It’s not simply about right behavior, it’s about right-thinking. It ties into issues of status, education, male-female identity and understandings, gospel-driven equality, pay equity, and a whole cultural shift. We should not be following the lead of the wider culture. We should be leading the wider culture. Our men will not take the lead on this. How can they when they are almost never the ones directly affected? But they can be our allies and we need their support. And if we don’t get it, we need to lead anyway.
The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns offer the following to help churches address issues of gender harassment, prejudice, and discrimination.
The PC(USA) Child/Youth/Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy and Its Procedures (pdf) from the 222nd General Assembly [(2016)] (A resource that helps with setting church policies)
We Will Speak Out sermon guide (A preaching resource)