A First to Last
(published in The Monthly Caucus of the Episcopal Women's Caucus)
When I was a little girl my mother made certain I could accomplish two things: that I would be the first woman in my immediate family to go to college and I would have a career. Her primary goal was that I become financially self-sufficient and thus I would not be dependent upon a husband to “take care of me.” A lot has changed since 1963 when my mother, influenced in part by Betty Friedan’s book the “Feminine Mystique,” instilled in me the dreams and fears she had for her only daughter. Fifty years later I hold two master’s degrees and have a vocation as an Episcopal priest. I’ve been married to the same man for almost thirty years. And, for a time I was a stay-at-home mother tending to our two children while my husband worked outside the home and earned the money we lived on. Both my mother’s dreams and her fears became my reality, but not with the outcome she worried about.
As a priest and a woman I have been the first female Rector at three different churches. It’s a peculiar reality to be the “first.” Two of the churches had little to no experience with women clergy. One church, which I currently serve, has had a woman priest on staff for thirty years.
Being the first woman priest brings with it an innate tension located in what it means to be an unintentional agent of change simply because of one’s gender. Other changes are more intentional such as what happens when a progressive, collaborative, female priest follows a father-knows-best autocratic male priest. A number of female clergy wonder about appearance; several clergy blogs are devoted to discussing clerical concerns about length of hair, makeup, nail polish, and how to manage bra-strap slippage while praying at the altar. Being first may be profoundly life giving or tragically vocation ending for women clergy. In my vocation it is has been both. Well, almost both. I have faced profound life altering challenges as a priest wherein I seriously wondered about my call. However, my vocation as a priest has survived. Now, for the first time in over thirteen years of ordained ministry I feel like I am thriving. I suspect that the challenges women clergy face, like other working women, are shifting from being first to what it means to remain vibrant in the work force. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that:
“… the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.”[i]
Long work hours, lack of affordable childcare and lack of quality childcare have become impediments that add stress and strain in all women’s lives, clergy included. Some clergy women have opted (by making the best of limited options) to stay home with kids and serve as “Pulpit supply” rather than take on full time or even part time roles in parish life. There are other reasons women priests give up their vocations ranging from the inability to find a satisfactory call to lack of Bishop support in finding a call that fits. Unlike most male clergy, women often face fewer options in the search process because they are limited by the need to find a call near where their spouse/partner works.
At the congregation I now serve we led our children, ages eight to eleven, in a five week study session on women saints of the Middle Ages. We focused on five women: Margaret of Scotland, Elizabeth of Hungary, Hildegard von Bingen, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich. Each of these women was remarkable. They contributed significantly to the life of the church, guiding leaders to avoid war, advising Popes, bishops, and kings, wrote music and medical journals, fed the poor and tended to the needy. Two of these women were also wives and mothers, the other three lived their lives in convents.
Our children shared their learning’s with the congregation as part of the sermon time on the first Sunday of Lent. My hope is these young boys and girls are being deeply formed in the reality of women’s leadership. I especially hope that the girls can fully envision themselves as the saints they are - change agents in the best of ways. I hope both the boys and the girls are able to recognize that when equality hits a brick wall we need to break down the wall and build something new.
Like the lives of these profound woman saints, the church can lead the way into full equality for all and set a lasting example of true Christian faith, forming and informing the future of all human kind.
[i] New York Times, “Why Gender Equality Stalled” by Jennifer Coontz, February 16, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/opinion/sunday/why-gender-equality-stalled.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0