In a rather hostile, one-sided “conversation” about feminism and female priests, a priest noted that confession is one reason why female priests would be unhelpful: men would be more comfortable confessing sexual sin to a male priest. I can grant that, though I have been the unlikely confessor for young men’s sexual sin in the past.
But if that’s true, what about the opposite — what about the women and their discomfort with confessing their sexual sin to a male priest? Would that not be an argument in favor of the need for female priests?
What about women wanting female pastoral care, period? Would that not require a female pastoral staff?
As an academic and wannabe theologian, I got used to male mentors. All the pastors were men. All the Bible students were men. All the religion professors were men. Many of my theologically-inclined friends were men.
It was my male pastor who answered all my theological inquiries as a kid. It was a male professor who stopped me outside of Delp Hall to ask about my feelings, because I had been crying during his class the night before (and not, he had intuited, about the Summa Theologica). It was a male professor who oversaw my thesis on gender and spirituality. It was a male professor who heard all the angst about my spiritual life. It was a male counselor who walked me through relationship quagmires.
And yes, I even had dispassionate and theological conversations about sex with men. Was it uncomfortable? Slightly, in the sense that I was wondering whether it was uncomfortable for the man and whether it should be uncomfortable for either of us. But there was nobody else to talk to.
Ministry and academia are dominated by men, and I adjusted to that. I don’t regret any of those friendships or mentorships. I don’t resent my mentors for being men.
At the same time, I did want female mentors. Women have different perspectives than men. Women can talk firsthand about being a wife or a girlfriend or a female, about motherhood, about feminine spirituality (or even if there is such a thing). There are problems and questions I had that I wanted to address to a woman as equally thoughtful, intelligent, and educated as the male professors, pastors, and counselors in my life.
And there were certainly such women at my college (and maybe at my church). They just weren’t obvious fixtures in the community. There were the deans of women, there were pastor’s wives, yes. But those were titles with which I wasn’t familiar. They didn’t connote a pastoral or professorial nature. So I never went to them.
It wasn’t until the end of my junior year when I finally stumbled across these female mentors and struck up equally satisfying friendships with them. Those friendships with intelligent, thoughtful, caring people — both men and women — are what I miss most about college.
All of this leads me to say: We need prominent women in every community that cares for souls — particularly women’s souls.
I developed relationships with the people who taught and guided me — pastors, professors, and counselors — that is, those readily available. They were advertised as counselors. They stood in front of the class every other day. They addressed the congregation each Sunday. They were visible. Their beliefs and concern for their students or congregants was visible. And that made them prime candidates for mentoring.
In the churches I attended, that was not so. Women were not allowed to lead or teach in any way, shape, or form, so there were no prominent women. You didn’t know if a woman held a theological or counseling degree, and even if she did, whether she wanted to be a mentor or would be a good mentor. You never heard her teach, never could evaluate from afar whether she would be a safe person with whom you could confide.
That, to me, is a travesty. Even the early church had female deaconesses for the care of women before baptism. There’s historical precedent for an organized, prominent group of women for the spiritual life of other women.
It’s all very well and good to talk about the Titus 2 model of mentoring, but the reality is that many women don’t know who those “older women” could even be — because they’re not prominent in the church’s pastoral life. In many churches, there is no opportunity to walk up to a woman after her sermon and kickstart a relationship with a question about her main point — because women aren’t even allowed to read through the church announcements.
Like it or not, the people who look “prominent” in a church or a community are those up front — those you see and those you hear on a regular basis. If communities are serious about providing female mentors for women, they need more prominent women in their community.