In Defense of Pronouns

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on my ideas about church growth and pastoral leadership:

A Growing Church is a Dying Church

As it turns out, this post said what many others were thinking. I watched as it made its way around the theological corners of the blogosphere, sparking an enthusiastic “Amen!” from many of my colleagues in ministry. The response, however, has not been entirely positive. A small minority of commentators have branded me as a ‘Leftist’ whose heretical views are responsible for the decline of mainline Protestant churches.

Why have I been so labeled?

  • Have I blasphemed against the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the Atonement? No.
  • Have I called for Christians to stop praying, throw out the Bible, or cease & desist from celebrating the Sacraments? No.
  • Have I discouraged churches from engaging in mission, serving their communities, or speaking publicly about their faith? No.

I have done none of these things. To the contrary, my call in the article is for more prayer and Bible study, more frequent celebrations of the Eucharist, and more community outreach, all of which are activities that even the most theologically conservative Christians could get behind with their whole hearts.

The issue that has repeatedly stoked the fires of anger in some of my readers is my use of a single, three-lettered pronoun: She. The hypothetical pastor in my article is a woman.

It was a relatively minor editorial decision that I made on the fly. When I wrote the article, I didn’t set out to make any kind of deliberate statement about feminism or gender equality through my use of pronouns. Honestly, I didn’t give it much thought because it didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time.

I serve in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where we have ordained women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament for over half a century. In every single congregation I have served, women have not only been my colleagues, but also my predecessors at the table and in the pulpit. My wife was ordained several years before I was and it was through her, in part, that I began to discern my own call to pastoral ministry.

I have been shocked that this minor detail seems to have drawn out the sexist attitudes that still poison our church life and do violence to the gospel itself, no less than the arbitrary distinctions between Jews and Gentiles that St. Paul sought to overcome in his time.

It seems ridiculous to me that this particular article could have sparked such a hateful reaction.

Even though the article itself only advocates for things that could be affirmed by all Christians, detractors point to my use of feminine pronouns as evidence for a liberal conspiracy to undermine, subvert, and destroy the church from within.

Gender equality had nothing to do with the main thrust of my article, but it has emerged as an important issue in the way that the article has been received by its critics. To me, their unexpected vitriol highlights two important realities:

  1. That our sisters in ordained ministry are being compelled to carry the cross of mainline decline.
  2. That some versions of the conservative vision for ‘renewal’ in the church have little to do with fidelity to the gospel and much to do with returning to a nostalgic ideal of a specifically American way of life, dominated by straight, white men.

In the time since the article’s initial publication, I have received numerous requests for it to be reprinted in church bulletins and newsletters. Some churches have asked whether they could change the pronouns from feminine to masculine. I have refused to authorize any such changes.

I think it’s important to keep the feminine pronouns as they are. So long as it is up to me, I would rather there not be a second version of this article in circulation that could be used to remove the scandal for sexist ears.

7 thoughts on “In Defense of Pronouns

  1. And heartfelt thanks for all of that, from both me and my husband, as well as my congregation. In 20 years of pastoring, yours is the first thing I’ve ever read, in which the pastor was referred to with a feminine pronoun, but also in which that WASN’T the point of the article. You cannot imagine how powerful and meaningful that is (or maybe you can).

    Don’t change it. Thank you.

  2. jimfromcanada

    I think you are right in retaining the feminine pronouns. If there is a scandal it is their scandal, and we know who that pronoun refers to. I’m glad that you’re blog has had such wide circulation.

  3. Sad, but oh too true. Women have been ordained in my denomination for over fifty years too. My first call I stumbled across the surveys used to prepare the congregational profile. One of the questions (and totally inappropriate btw) “Would you entertain the possibility of calling a woman minister?” One of the answers “God, I pray it doesn’t come to THAT!”
    The first time I wore my collar in a grocery store, people actually crashed their carts into each other.
    I was referred to as a ‘priestess.’
    Various representatives from national and global ministries would call asking for the pastor. When I replied, “Speaking.” There would be long moments of what I took to be confused or stunned silences, some would even hang up.
    I would be at regional meetings, offer an opinion and then get disagreement or push back. A male colleague would give the same opinion and it would be accepted without comment.
    The director of a ‘non-denominational’ Bible Camp called me three weeks into my ministry and told me he could not accept me as a colleague and there was no way we could work together. (It didn’t stop the appeals for money and help with fundraising…)
    Regardless, this is a strange and wonderful calling. And I wouldn’t trade it for any other. God has been good to me, I am grateful for the privilege of serving my Lord in this way.

  4. Shibui

    This all reminds me of an after-speaker discussion at our church almost two decades ago, in which — talking about gender in the bible and in the pulpit — one man stood and said, “Well, I can agree God may not be a man but I am absolutely certain He isn’t a woman!”

  5. I just used your post “A Growing Church is a Dying Church” to lead a discussion with the session of the church I serve. I am so grateful for the way your use of language made our particular situation much easier to think about. As a young female pastor of a small church, it is refreshing to not have to make ALL the leaps in my and my leadership’s imagination when reading something useful about the church and its ministry. It was easier to “see ourselves” in what you were saying because of your non-chalant use of “she.” Thank you.

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