I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Christian studies. I worked hard for that degree. Both the working and the courses forever changed how I approached life and Christianity. Not for one second do I regret those four years I spent writing papers on the Incarnation and reading the early church fathers.
But I’m not ignorant. I’ll be the first to tell you that there is, basically, nothing I can do with that degree. Part of it is because you will never find “Christian studies” listed as a prerequisite degree to apply for a job. And most of it is that if that major is listed as an acceptable prerequisite, the job is probably off-limits to me — because I’m a woman.
I wasn’t fully egalitarian when I started my coursework, so I knew from the beginning that this degree was for kicks, giggles, and personal transformation.
Did I want to be a minister, people asked me. No, churches don’t hire female ministers.
Did I want to be a teacher, people asked me. No, churches and Christian schools don’t hire female Bible or theology teachers.
Did I want to do anything with the degree, they asked me. Well, yes, but how could I when I’ve got a vagina?
The truth was, I really did like the idea of teaching and preaching to an audience over the age of seven about academic, gender-neutral things that mattered. But I wasn’t going to set myself up for failure and heartache chasing an elusive career in a Christian culture that opposed my existence as a female leader and teacher.
And truth be told, I do love the opportunities I’ve had. I adore working with children. I will happily talk about marriage, childrearing, and relationships. Mentoring women about women’s issues, teaching children — those are not at all lesser things to me.
I don’t resent those opportunities.
But I do resent that those are the only opportunities I’ve had.
When I am at home, not blogging, not earning a paycheck, not calculating how my interests and gifts will pan out in the “real world,” I read books on theology and sociology. I sit cross-legged on my unmade bed and talk through my theological and spiritual thoughts. I listen to podcasts on culture and Christianity while washing dishes.
I am and have always been an academic nerd who lives for the intersection of culture, faith, and everyday life.
There’s a part of me that jumps at the idea of going back to school, becoming a pastor, becoming a chaplain, becoming a tenured professor who writes books and gets called up on the Liturgists because I might know something.
Then that part of me sits right back down with a thud and moves on happily with life in the opportunities that have always been given, approved, and supported.
Because I’m terrified.
I’m terrified of being responsible for knowing things, saying things, teaching things, and guiding souls.
Which sounds very wise and humble of me to say, and I am glad I am properly terrified of such huge responsibility, but I don’t have that fear in my “okayed” roles. I say things all the time on my blog without terror. I was happy to share my knowledge of the Old Testament exile during adult Sunday school hour when the pastor asked for questions or comments. I taught my heart out even when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I enjoyed counseling, mentoring, and offering advice to the women, teenagers, pre-teens, and the occasional man who came into my life asking for it.
I’ve always imagined my adult successful self as an English high school teacher, a speaker, a writer, a counselor.
So what’s the difference, fearful heart? What’s the terror of transitioning from “speaker” to “preacher,” from “counselor” to “pastor,” from “teacher” to “professor”?
I think the difference is that I have support in the okayed roles, and opposition in the “men only” positions. Not that I mind the opposition, per se — but I’ve internalized the paranoia that a woman shouldn’t do X, regardless of her gifting.
I’ve internalized it so much that it feels presumptuous of me to even think of presenting myself as a teacher, pastor, or spiritual guide. Who would take me seriously? Who would honestly come hear a woman speak, who would sign up for a female professor’s class, who would attend a church with a woman on the pastoral staff?
Women are too emotional. Women are too biased. Women leaders have no truth to speak because they’re all liberals pushing a liberal agenda. Women can’t command presence. Women can’t earn respect. Women are easily deceived. Women are lacking something that makes them fundamentally unqualified for leadership — like, being a man.
These are all things I know aren’t true, but that I believe deeply enough that they limit me from considering any sort of career outside of the prescribed female roles.
I try to explain this to my husband, who grew up with women leaders and teachers in his Catholic parish, who is not a woman, who never heard that women can’t because they’re women. I try to explain how brokenhearted I am that the patriarchy lives inside me and limits me. I try to explain what it’s like to feel automatically disrespected and dismissed simply because of my gender.
I don’t know how to explain it.
I don’t even know if I fully understand how damaging those beliefs are to me, how debilitating it was to be the best at something and passed over because I was a girl.
My home church made this worse, in retrospect, because they genuinely recognized my gifts and provided ample opportunities for young people to practice leadership in the church. Well, for young men.
The male Bible college students, regardless of degree, all got a chance to preach a sermon in evening service.
The high school boys all got a chance to read the sermon passage during the morning service.
The young men got to teach the youth group lessons.
Honestly, not all of them were qualified or even good at what they did. That didn’t matter to the church. They supported them, they encouraged them, they gave them opportunities. And I think it’s absolutely beautiful that our church recognized how empowering it was to believe in them and what they could do. I am happy they had those opportunities.
I would have loved those opportunities, too. I would have loved being encouraged and supported in such a public, challenging way.
That’s all I’m saying.
Many people, including the pastors, went out of their way to thank me for the comments and questions I gave during Sunday school hour. Why didn’t that ever translate into a chance to lead youth group?
Everybody praised me up and down for my speaking skills. Why didn’t that lead to an opportunity to preach an evening sermon or at least read the Bible aloud?
Why didn’t it matter that I was equally or more gifted in certain areas than my male peers and that everybody knew it? Why were my comments during Sunday school a blessing but the idea of me reading the Bible aloud an abomination of the created order? Why were my leadership skills praised when I co-organized VBS but a cause for visceral anger when I asked to lead worship? Why was my singing able to minister when it was during special music but all of the sudden a disaster waiting to happen when the congregation was singing along with a woman directing the tune?
Why do I feel capable as a kindergarten teacher with no formal educational training but incapable of teaching a class on something for which I earned a degree? Why do I feel little fear at training as a counselor but terror at training for a pastoral ministry? Why am I okay writing a blog post about a spiritual issue but uncomfortable with “preaching” it on Sunday morning? Why do I feel somewhat qualified to raise impressionable children’s souls as a mother but disqualified to guide thinking adults in the faith as a Sunday school teacher?
I know the answer to this.
I’m a woman.
And that’s the terror I have of stepping into a teaching or pastoral position over adults — heck, over even teenage boys — not that I don’t have something to say, not that I wouldn’t be good at it, not that I would not be gifted and equipped and called, but, simply, that I am a woman.
I am terrified of my womanness and the havoc it could cause. I want to spare myself from that destruction. I want to spare others from that destruction.
I’ve been taught that regardless of how gifted you are, being a woman ruins it somehow.
As an educated, talented woman, that is my deepest insecurity.