Ministry interrupted

Women get interrupted more frequently than men. Studies reveal this, but I didn’t need research to confirm this truth — my own experience offers enough evidence. Even the most powerful women are interrupted more than their male counterparts. An article in Aeon magazine, “How men continue to interrupt even the most powerful women,” details findings from a survey of the Supreme Court justices. The authors report, “There are few more powerful positions than being a Supreme Court justice, yet the female justices are just like other women: talked over by their male colleagues.”

They go on to note that these interruptions have real consequences. “Scholars have shown that oral arguments shape case outcomes, so any systematic interference with the female justices’ ability to fully participate will limit their substantive power on the court.” Speaking and being heard matter. Words equal influence. Habitually silencing diverse voices limits vision, imagination and possibilities on the Supreme Court and in our congregations as well. Everyone ought to be heard, respected and regarded — not dismissed, or worse, discounted and demeaned.

I once described to a male minister friend that my experience of ministry often included what I have dubbed “the bear can ride a bicycle!” phenomenon. After preaching or teaching or moderating a meeting, often some well-meaning person will approach me in utter shock, congratulating me on a job well done. My competency belied their expectations. After funerals and weddings, those unfamiliar with women in the pulpit rave about how meaningful the service was or what a nice presence I had. And yes, more times than I can count came the “I don’t normally like women ministers, but you did a great job!” Wow, the bear can ride a bicycle! Amazing. Exceptional. Noteworthy. Each time I responded by saying “thanks,” but I felt my ministry interrupted, diminished, questioned. Every time I felt the heaviness of representing all women in ministry everywhere. What if I just confirmed their dislike of women in the pulpit rather than provided a bear-riding-a-bike outstanding, out-of-the-ordinary feat?

Women in ministry all carry the weight of representing not just Jesus but their gender. We think carefully about what we wear, what shoes are pulpit appropriate, whether or not to let that too-long hug in the narthex slide or risk “being rude” or “easily offended” or “overly sensitive” and asking instead for a handshake. We know that often our male colleague will be assumed to be our boss. Many of us can tell stories of search committees asking about our plans, or not, to bear children. Far too many us, when we are together, will share the vulnerable, scary #MeToo moments: the times we left a call rather than confront a beloved elder, the times we told the presbytery and got no support, the times we questioned ourselves and wondered if what we experienced really was what we were experiencing. Ministry interrupted, not just metaphorically, but literally.

But ministry, we know, is the interruptions. Jesus stops on the way to Jerusalem to tend to those who call out in need, time and time again. I advise new pastors to be mindful of people who say they need a minute even when you know your schedule is jam-packed already. Ministry happens in that space of disruption. Divergent thinking cultivates transformation. All of those bear-can-ride-a-bicycle moments offer an opportunity for God to do a new thing, with me and with the person taken aback by my presence in a robe and stole.

The cognitive dissonance I create for some just by virtue of how I am embodied could be the space where the light gets through, the holy operates and the interruption makes, rather than crowds out, space. But only if we all begin to notice the interruptions, the voices unheard, the ones taking up all the oxygen in the room, the ones dismissed or demeaned or discounted. Doing so matters. The outcomes of our ministry, of our vision for our life together, of our imaginations, possibilities, hopes and dreams depend upon the Word, and our words — all our words. Those of us who follow Jesus ought to be working daily to speak the truth in love, listen with compassion and pay attention to the interruptions.

Grace and peace,