“We’ve already done that,” people often say when I mention that I’m working on equity for clergywomen. “We’ve been ordaining women for decades, and we see women in the pulpit.” Although it is true that many denominations have been ordaining women since the 1950s and 60s, that some churches have been calling them to pastoral leadership, and that the number of women in theological education has increased to almost 50%, only about 11% of pastors of all Protestant churches are women. This percentage of pastors has not increased since 1998. These women-led communities contain only about 6 percent of the people who attend our country’s religious services. The percentage of women of color who find places to fulfill their call to pastor is much lower than the percentage of white women. In many denominations the percentage of women pastors of all ethnicities is lower than 1%. The average compensation of female pastors is much lower than that of male pastors, although clergywomen are more likely to have seminary degrees. Even when we find pastoral positions, clergywomen continue to experience sexism and racism within the church.
The struggle for equity for clergywomen is far from over. For this reason, in 2014 we formed the national ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church, intended to tap all the unused talent and training of culturally diverse women ministers. Our mission is to advocate and network for clergywomen across denominations and cultures to facilitate access and congregational receptivity, and to dismantle patriarchal and white supremacist church practices and structures so clergywomen can thrive in pastoral positions. Our big vision is to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.
Rev. Dr. Alfie Wines resonated with this vision at an Equity gathering, “Calling in the Key of She,” initiated and led by board member Rev. Andrea Clark Chambers. Rev. Dr. Alfie soon became an active Equity board member also. Beginning in 2017 with a blog on our Equity website and then an event she led in 2018 at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, she developed a book. She did an impressive job of collecting and editing 32 chapters by authors from a variety of races, genders, denominations, and occupations. The book titled I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Equity for Women in the Church came out in the fall of 2020.
On the back cover of the book she writes this description: “Looking through the exquisitely crafted stained glass windows of many churches, one might think that all is well inside. Yet, the word from clergywomen is that nothing could be further from the truth. Their commitment to God and to the people of the faith community where they serve remains intact. Yet, underneath this public veneer lie endless inequities, struggles unimaginable, and realities too long undivulged. In this age of “Me Too,” clergywomen dig deep as they share their stories of joys and challenges with boldness and authenticity. In this book the voice of clergymen and others who stand in solidarity and support of clergywomen can also be heard. Words of hope and suggestions of possibilities for the future call on the church to implement policies and practices that will lead to equitable treatment of clergywomen everywhere. May the church, today and tomorrow, with enhanced equity for clergywomen, reflect all humanity as created in the image of the Divine.”
In the Introduction of the book, Rev. Dr. Alfie lists things that clergywomen might wish someone—pastor, mentor, colleague, professor—had told them as they considered responding to their call to ministry:
“(1) Church work pays not just less, but a whole lot less, than the corporate workplace.
(2) Although “politics” is part of life in any workplace, politics in the church can be even more intense.
(3) While they may have experienced sexism and/or racism in the workplace in other settings, sadly, their most painful experiences can happen in the church.
(4) While networking among colleagues is part of any job, it is essential to surviving and thriving in ministry.
(5) The work of a pastor is often a lonely undertaking, especially in a small church with relatively little regular contact with others, including colleagues who understand how difficult the work can be.
(6) With so much of the work needing to be done on a weekly basis, repetitiveness may result in work that is neither challenging nor engaging. Indeed, the work of ministry is often routine and just plain boring. More than once, the clergywoman many ask herself, “Did I spend years in seminary so I could run copies of the weekly bulletin?”
(7) Built in previous decades, church offices are often dated, depressing places to work in comparison to offices built in more recent times.
(8) The energy required to meet the demands of church work is quite different from the energy needed in other workplaces.
(9) Churches are not held accountable for their missteps.
(10) Churches are often more interested in maintaining the status quo of the past than living Jesus’ commandments to love God, others, and oneself.”
To give you a sense of the depth and variety of chapters in I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Equity for Women in the Church, I will give some excerpts. I hope these will pique your interest and you will read the entire book.
“The Linguistics of Humanity: How Words Heal or Hurt in a ‘What If’ Life-Changing, Decision-Making Moment” is one of the chapters by Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, co-chair of Equity for Women in the Church and the first female and first African American pastor of First Baptist Church Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “What if in this twenty-first century, humanity will take a stand and acknowledge that words can truly heal or hurt?” Rev. Sheila writes. “Would clergywomen have an easier time in this patriarchal world? Along with respectful words, will humanity (both men and women) take more positive actions to confront church patriarchy? Both words and actions must go hand in hand to facilitate change . . . just as hurtful words can wound, words of encouragement can be life-changing and healing. . . . We as Equity for Women in the Church must challenge people to examine their use of words, whether in a conversation, church setting, text or Twitter. Also, we must meet people where they are so that positive interactions can take place. For example, many of the members of the church in which I serve are mainly used to patriarchal imagery and language. However, during worship times I have said, ‘She and He—whatever your comfort level is to reference God.’ During sermons and prayers, I also reference God by other names, ‘Holy One, Redeemer, One of Light.’ Also, I am becoming more mindful in other settings of my use of words to others, and even to self. Are we ready to take on an additional challenge regarding our use of words that can aid the Equity movement? We must be role models for others. . . . Let us have caring hearts and express that care through the use of our words that can lead to justice action on behalf of women in ministry, justice action for clergywomen who are still trying to thrive in a patriarchal religious environment, justice action for women who are contemplating whether to answer their call from God.”
One of my chapters in the book, titled “Wisdom Is Calling: I Wish Someone Had Told Me,” also challenges us to dismantle patriarchal language. “I wish someone had told me how deeply misogyny and male privilege are ingrained in religious institutions. I felt betrayed by my Baptist tradition that had encouraged me to answer God’s call and endorsed me to go to seminary but refused to give me a place to fulfill my call to ministry. I wish someone had told me that patriarchy has its foundation in an exclusively masculine naming of God. . . . The more I have tried to live out my pastoral call, the more I have realized that the resistance to gender equality is part of a larger culture that gives greatest value to white, heterosexual, able-bodied, financially privileged males. I have come to understand that at the foundation of this culture is an image of a white male God, sanctioning patterns of dominance and submission. We need to include biblical female names and images of the Divine in our worship if we are to have social justice and equality. These female names and images affirm the foundational biblical truth that female and male are created equally in the divine image (Genesis 1:27). I have mined Scripture to reclaim female divine names and images, such as ‘Wisdom’ (Proverbs 1, 3, 4, 8), ‘Mother’ (Isaiah 49:15, 66:13), ‘Mother Eagle’ (Deuteronomy 32:11–12), ‘Midwife’ (Psalm 22:9–10), Ruah (Hebrew word for “Spirit,” Genesis 1:2), Shekhinah (Hebrew word for “dwelling” presence of God, Exodus 29:45, 40:34–38), Shaddai (Hebrew word for “the Breasted God,” Genesis 49:25). Multicultural images intersect with female images of the Divine to form a foundation for equity and justice.”
One section of the book celebrates women who have gone before us to pave a pathway for equity and justice in church and society. This section includes a chapter titled “Staying Awake: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Central Challenges of Ethical Leadership” by Rev. Dr. Abraham Smith, professor at Perkins School of Theology, author, and ordained minister of the National Baptist Church USA. “Once a hidden figure, overlooked by her contemporaries and obscured from the later annals that should have marked the contributions she made to society, Ida B. Wells-Barnett has at least lately received some of the recognition she duly deserves,” Rev. Dr. Abraham writes. “She was a pioneering muckraker journalist, a fierce antilynching activist, and a tireless organizer. Indeed, she established multiple organizations through which she was an advocate for the rights of women, minorities, and members of the working class. Given her relentless belief in God as a source for her activism, it is also little wonder that some have called her a prophet while others can see distinctive brands of ethical leadership in her life’s witness. . . . She was a member of the National Association of Colored Women and one of the cofounders of the NAACP through which she honed the skills of social analysis, a passion for justice, and appeals to new sentiments. Yet, she also worked with other women’s groups because she knew presciently what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later capture in the words, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.’ . . . The nineteenth-century muckraker journalist Ida B. Wells frequently used wakefulness diction in her writings to shake U.S. public sentiment from its stupor with respect to the injustice and heinousness of lynching. Then, there was King preaching in the National Cathedral, and there is now the BLMM/M4BL who have told us all to ‘stay woke.’ If we do stay awake and if we develop the literacy to deliver at least some persons from self-delusional ‘sincere fictions,’ we may just be able to create a more just and a more equitable society for everyone. Stay Awake!”
I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Equity for Women in the Church also includes poetry. “I’ve Gone Fishing” is one of the poems contributed by Rev. Virginia Marie Rincon, the first Latina to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Maine and a curandera, a title given to those who practice traditional healing medicine from the Mexica tradition. Rev. Virginia Marie prefaces her poem with an account of how she came to write it.
“’Gone Fishing’ was written at a time when I realized that in order to do justice for my people, God’s people, I had to do my own work and break free from those old patterns placed upon me by the dominant culture. I wrote this poem in response to an incident that happened to me. I had just preached a sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the response was overwhelming when people stood up and clapped. But as I was leaving the church, a white man approached me and said, “YOU need to assimilate if you are going to be a part of this church.” This is not a new story. I am sure many of my sisters have endured a similar situation or encounter, maybe too deep to share with the wider community.
I’ve Gone Fishing
I’ve gone fishing,
fishing for my brokenness.
I’m not afraid to see through
the reflections of the glorious pond.
No, I’m not afraid of the glorious pond that
surrounds my legs as I enter and approach
the depths of my brokenness.
I cast my line and gently enter and finally not
afraid to catch it.
Catch my pain and childhood memories.
I pull a little here and pull a little there and
the line reveals the years of tension that have
so often left me stuck in my brokenness.
With each tug at my line I grow more confident
and know that I can gracefully move to catch what
is necessary for my healing.
The warm and glorious pond lovingly mirrors back
all that I have lived.
At this moment of fishing and catching, I know that
God has finally given clarity to my many pains.
Like a gentle breeze my line is cast into my heart.
No divisions, without the concepts of politics or religion
God radically accepts the worms of my life.
I’ve gone fishing
and the river of abundant food and life is named
I guess, I’ll do some more fishing.
One chapter in the book features men speaking out in support of the mission of Equity for Women in the Church. One of these is Rev. Marv Knox, coordinator of Fellowship Southwest, an ecumenical, multicultural network affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and former editor of the Baptist Standard, the Texas Baptist news organization. “Equal representation of clergywomen as pastors is vital for men as well as women,” Rev. Marv writes. “Let’s consider two perspectives. First, what if you woke up and discovered more than half your body was paralyzed? The Apostle Paul called the church the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12–31), so this is a fair question. More than 50 percent of most congregations, as well as the church universal, are females. When we deny them the opportunity to serve as pastor, we separate the church from its base of strength. We prohibit the body of Christ from exercising its full potential. Second, women bring enormous gifts and blessings to the pastorate. Traits often exhibited abundantly by women—empathy and the innate ability to identify with others, intuition, and willingness to listen first and speak later—are essential qualities for successful pastors. From preaching, to pastoral care, to long-range planning, women pastors excel and expand God’s kin-dom.”
In the Conclusion of I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Equity for Women in the church, Rev. Dr. Alfie summarizes the purpose of this book and expresses our hope in the fulfillment of the vision of equity for clergywomen and for all humanity. This book “addresses sexism, sex discrimination, misogyny, patriarchy, and racism—for all contribute to the challenges that women face in society, in the workplace, and yes, in the church,” she writes. “As noted in this book, clergywomen, and laywomen alike are not immune just because they are connected to the church. . . . Whether told from the perspective of family, friends, or the clergywomen themselves, the reflections in this book make it clear that the ministerial journey is not an easy one. As with other male-dominated fields, women can expect to face challenges simply based on their social location (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.). . . . We hope that the reflections in this book simultaneously encourage and inform clergywomen about the blessings and the challenges of being a woman in ministry. It is our hope that the reflections start and contribute to conversations in faith communities, seminaries and divinity schools, families, and beyond. It is our hope that decision makers will make equity and inclusivity an essential factor in every decision they make concerning women in ministry. It is our hope that the church of tomorrow will live in unity—with equity for clergywomen and clergymen—and be a true reflection of all humanity created in the divine image. May it be so.” Ase’ and Amen!
Editor of I Wish Someone Had Told Me: Equity for Women in the Church, Rev. Alfie Wines, PhD, is an Amazon best-selling author, wellness and spiritual life mentor/coach, spiritual entrepreneur, transformational speaker, emotional motivator, retired pastor, biblical scholar, and theologian. Also, she is a Brite Divinity School theological reflection group facilitator, contributing author/guest columnist for the Working Preacher, Craft of Preaching, and Enter the Bible websites sponsored by Luther Seminary, and CEO of The Sinew Consulting Group.