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:
- That our sisters in ordained ministry are being compelled to carry the cross of mainline decline.
- 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.