Feminism seems to be a dirty word these days. At a recent all-women roller derby practice one of the organizers cheerfully described the league as being run by women, for women, but not, you know, "feminist" (the scare quotes were implied), and I was baffled. This denigration of the women's movement is a shock to me, particularly when I hear it from a female peer. Our generation is the first to truly reap the rewards of the struggle of the women who came before us and made our vocational choices possible, both in society in general (like this roller derby league) and in the Church.
Where our foremothers had to endure being hissed at as priestesses, snubbed at the altar rail by disaffected churchgoers who refused to receive the sacraments from their hands, I grew into adulthood in the reality of a Church that had ordained women as priests since before I was born. When I discerned my call to ordination, it was in a parish that had called a woman as rector when I was 7. I didn't have to experience the front lines of that fight, and I continue to be profoundly grateful to the women who did, often sacrificing personal happiness along the way. And so it troubles me to admit that one of the last great bastions of institutionalized sexism today is the Church that I love.
Where the secular professions have seen thirty odd years of legislative pressure and litigation, intricately developed human resource policies and intentional consciousness raising, our Godly corner of the world seems at times to have been preserved in amber. For many of us who are female ministers and pastors, the stained glass ceiling hovers just slightly north of ordination, though for some even that isn't an option. If we needed any better evidence of the perniciousness of sexism than our own collective experiences, it comes to us in a thoughtfully compiled and incredibly helpful new publication titled The Girlfriends' Clergy Companion Guide: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry (Alban; $17.00). Compiled by four young pastors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)- Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley- this book grew out of their own experiences as women of the cloth in a vocational world still struggling with the realities of a Church in which the priest is a lady and pastors may become pregnant.
The authors endeavor to be a sort of pocket peer group for ordained women, and cover just about every aspect of the path we tread. The book begins with an essay on how to negotiate the call process, and includes helpful suggestions on everything from expectations of support staff to how to talk about salary. Subsequent chapters provide shared stories and advice for the particular situations of women serving as solo pastors as well as those in associate ministry (a short section on how to relate to the usually male senior pastor- and his wife- is brilliant, as this is definitely not the sort of ground covered in seminary), the single pastor, the married pastor, and the pastor with children, then transition into more general discussions of self-care, conflict resolution, transition, and nourishing a spiritual life through it all.
It happened that my copy of this book arrived in the same mail delivery as the Second Edition of Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Holt and Company; $19.00), a collection of articles and essays written over her first twenty five years as a leader in the women's movement, and the two serve as good, if bittersweet, companion pieces. It was at times hard to tell whether the story of the lone woman sitting in a meeting, silently humiliated, as members of an all-male board took turns telling crude, demeaning, sexist jokes was from Steinem's experiences as a journalist in the 1960s or a young woman minister interviewing with her denomination's regional governing body (in fact it was the latter). The advice given by both books is the same- don't pretend that something is funny when it is not, or more generally, never forget that you are called to the work that you are doing, and no one has the right to take that away from you through belittlement or shame.
Above all, both of these books exhort, surround yourself with the humor and support of a good group of girlfriends, because sisterhood is key to survival. In a nod to some of their own roots in The Young Clergy Women's Project, Riley, Morgan, Grano, and DeRosia state that the only antidote to the power of the old boys' network is a young girlfriends' network of shared wisdom and experience. Steinem noted that her only disappointment in her book's reissue decades after the original publication was that the material remained relevant, and this rings true as well for the publication of The Girlfriend's Clergy Companion. But as we continue along the path to a day when we can all simply be pastors, ministers, and priests, no descriptor needed, it is good to have our girlfriends as companions on the way.