How Small Do You Want Me to Be?
By Kirsten Øster Lundqvist | 12 September 2019 |
This is reprinted from the Spring 2019 Adventist Today magazine.
I’ve never been petite. Nor dainty. Being of Viking stock, I never will be. And that should be fine.
Diversity is good, we are told. As long it fits in the box. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Size and appearance shouldn’t matter, but it does. The diet and cosmetic industries are rich because of expectations of what women should look like. Small, they say, is what we should be going for.
For centuries, Chinese women bound their feet to be smaller, as a sign of beauty; this practice crippled them, limiting their movement and making it almost impossible for them to walk. Thankfully, we don’t do that anymore.
But are we not still binding women into making themselves smaller?
Now I’m not talking just about appearance. I’m observing that women are encouraged to be something they are not, to make themselves look or be smaller than they are.
Shouldn’t we by now know—and be—better?
Fitting the Role
I’m a pastor. And I’m a woman. This set of attributes is difficult for some people. In whatever culture I work (right now I’m pastoring in New Zealand), some people always seem to be uncomfortable with my presence—not who I am, but what I am. Balancing cultural biases is always tricky, but this appears to be a constant: that in our denominational culture, women clergy are performing a balancing act of trying to be faithful to God’s calling and gifting in their lives while simultaneously navigating people’s perceptions—not only of what that should look and be like, but if they should exist at all.
Probably you are familiar with the research showing that the same qualities admired in men are typically considered problematic in women. For example, a man who uses certain expressions is regarded as exercising leadership, but a woman who says those words is seen as bossy. People even use different adjectives, based on gender, to describe identical characteristics: the man is “strong” but the woman is “bitchy,” the man is “forceful” while the woman is “angry,” and the man is “passionate” whereas the woman is “emotional.”
Like the dieters and the women with bound feet, I have in my 20-plus years of ministry witnessed women—particularly those serving as pastors—making themselves metaphorically smaller to ensure they don’t offend anyone.
In many congregations, women get an underlying sense that they’re expected to show gratitude just for being allowed a seat at any decision-making table. Please understand that I’m not talking about the need to be courteous—that’s a given. No, I’m talking about women (especially female pastors) needing to make themselves smaller to get the chance to step into a position of leadership, even though they have trained for it and are qualified for it.
So how small must women pastors get in order for the men to be comfortable with our presence in the Adventist church?
Just asking such a question is confrontational, and as I write, I wonder if I should remain silent. I’m conscious that some will read this, find it too uncomfortable, and disregard everything I say. I am at this instant fighting the urge to package this idea more tentatively, more softly, so that more people will find it acceptable.
When I’ve talked to women in other professions, they’ve voiced resounding recognition of this type of experience. In the article “What It Takes to Be a Trial Lawyer If You’re Not a Man” in the September 2018 Atlantic magazine, Lara Bazelon tells how many male attorneys routinely file a motion against their female opponents to “preclude emotional displays” during the trial—implying that the court can’t trust a female attorney to state her case without crying and carrying on to unfairly influence the jury.
The playing field isn’t equal, says Bazelon. “I was practicing law differently from many of my male colleagues and adversaries,” she writes. “They could resort to a bare-knuckle style. Most of what I did in the courtroom looked more like fencing. Reading over my old trial transcripts, I am taken aback by how many times I said ‘Thank you’—to the judge, to opposing counsel, to hostile witnesses. And by how many times I apologized.”
In a church setting, the cultural gender bias may even go up a notch. I’ve heard comments about a female pastor’s dress, pitch of voice, physical appearance, marital status, and choice of sermon topics or illustrations. I’ve seen male church leaders ignore suggestions and comments that female leaders make at board meetings, classes, or gatherings.
Here’s the litmus test: would church members behave the same way if the pastor had been a man instead of a woman?
The word “mansplaining” is relatively new, having entered the vocabulary around 2008, according to Elizabeth Aura McClintock, Ph.D. Mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending or patronizing manner. Although the word is new, the concept isn’t. Mansplaining, writes Dr. McClintock, “is problematic because the behavior itself reinforces gender inequality. When a man explains something to a woman in a patronizing or condescending way, he reinforces gender stereotypes about women’s presumed lesser knowledge and intellectual ability.”
Within our Adventist church is an ongoing and very public debate about the value of women pastors, and to a large extent, we who are being talked about remain silent. Could this be another way in which we are trying to make ourselves smaller in our church culture? Women pastors read and listen to people’s opinions and pontifications about us, but we tend to stand aside, because it is seen as problematic if we choose to engage.
Recently I conducted an unscientific poll in a global Facebook group of women pastors in the Adventist church, where I asked the question: “Have you ever had to make yourself, your ideas, or your professional skills ‘smaller’ so that men you work with didn’t feel threatened?”
It took less than 12 hours for a clear pattern to emerge in the answers. A large majority admitted that yes, this was their experience. Here are some of the comments I received from these women pastors:
“Often. If you want to be accepted in the group or have your ideas recognized, you have to ever-so-subtly become smaller. The phrase ‘correct me if I’m wrong, but…’ often precedes my comments or suggestions.”
“I make a conscious effort not to do this. However, if you are in a role with assumed authority, I find it’s necessary to be mindful of this dynamic.”
“I’ll often phrase as a question something that could be taken as confrontational if phrased as a statement.”
“I have worked to remove ‘Just’ or ‘I wanted to’ from sentences, [since these] words tend to self-minimize what I want to assert.”
“I do have to boost male egos. It often feels manipulative, to make them think that it is their suggestion. For example, at a board meeting I said, ‘…because you are such a man of God, I know that you would never agree to such shocking behavior.’”
Accepted for Who We Are
In my informal poll, a woman pastor shared: “Once a man said (as a compliment to me), ‘S has a man’s brain!’” Comments such as this make me wonder, Will women ever be accepted in the church for who they were created to be? Or will they always be seen in contrast to or in comparison with men?
For example, when male pastors preach about women, they most often choose the context of how women relate to men. Think back to one of those rare sermons about a biblical female. What biblical woman was mentioned or preached about? In my experience, most of these women are spoken of in relation to either motherhood or prostitution. These seem to be the two main choices, even though the Bible contains so many more women’s stories—and so many more sermon topics that relate to women.
Just as women pastors are happy to preach about the men described in the Bible, believing that lessons are applicable to both genders, wouldn’t it be wonderful if male pastors would strive for equal relevancy when they preach about women in the Bible? Have you noticed that most male pastors bring out the biblical women’s narratives only on Mother’s Day? Too often the congregation must quietly sit through sexist pseudo-theological ramblings from the pulpit on how women are to become someone’s good wife or mother.
We would be enriched as a church to hear more narratives of women in the Bible. And the more we preach a larger view of the Bible’s women, the more we will add validation to women’s voices in our church sphere.
Can we collectively move to a place where women are recognized not only by how they relate to men, but as partners of equal size, value, and worth? Can we treat female voices, as diverse as they are, with equal respect in the conversation?
And shouldn’t Seventh-day Adventists, especially, know better—in a church where our co-founder and most significant voice was a woman?
- Elizabeth Aura McClintock, “The Psychology of Mansplaining,” blog post for www.psychologytoday.com (Mar. 31, 2016). ↑
Kirsten Øster Lundqvist is originally from Scandinavia, and now pastors in Wellington, New Zealand. She has over 20 years of experience in ministry in Europe, in all kinds of pastoral settings. Having lived on five continents, she identifies as a global citizen.