Yes, it hurt – Part 1 | Dear Diane
April 1999, Houston. Diane is now on a ventilator—her last major adjustment. Every day and night I hear the sound of air pumping in, out, in, out. Sometimes an alarm goes off to signal something isn’t working quite right. Diane is surrounded by a growing assortment of machines, pillows and sheepskin padding, carts filled with personal and healthcare items, plus tubes and electrical cords.
Is it worth it? Diane’s resounding answer: YES! She still enjoys people, life and watching the show from her front-row seat. She also knows she has more to say. This is the longest of her pieces. It’s a Big Deal, not simply for her.
I’ll make my response at the end of Part 2.
Yes, it hurt – Part 1
Thirty-five months ago I finally acknowledged to myself that the time was now, not later, to walk away from my staff ministry position in a large Southern Baptist church. It was a devastating reality imposed on me by a devastating disease.
An incredible sequence of events had brought me into that unlikely position. The church had received me in that role in a way challenged rather than restricted my ministry gifts. I have heard the horror stories of several women colleagues in ministry. Many were struggling to find a place where their sisters and brothers in the faith community would acknowledge and allow them to exercise their obvious call and spiritual giftedness for ministry. But for some reason, after completing my seminary training, my story had taken a far more positive and productive path. I was not more skilled or gifted; God had placed me in a different environment. This weekend, however, I received an abrupt reminder in the mail that I had not completely escaped the insidious implications of sexism in the church.
The Annuity Board of the Southern Baptist Convention handles my health insurance, monthly disability insurance benefit, and monthly disbursements from my retirement account. (I should note that these are three enormously important benefits provided for me by my church as a member of the ministerial staff. Not all women in ministry are so fortunate.) A letter came from the Annuity Board announcing an exciting new arrangement whereby ministers could designate a portion of their retirement income as a housing allowance and enjoy the same tax benefit to which they had been entitled during their years of active ministry—application and return envelope enclosed.
I didn’t need to read the letter carefully to know to file it with other junk mail. In bold letters under the application heading, there it was, as if I might now know: For Ordained Ministers Only. I had often wondered if any church budget committee members ever realized that without licensing or ordination, designating part of my compensation as a housing allowance was meaningless. And here it was, in my face again.
Some may choose to believe otherwise, but this is certainly not about money or the tax advantages of ordination. As my responsibilities had increased, my compensation had generously reflected that fact. This is about affirmation by the church body and acceptance by other ministers as a full, equal partner in ministry.
More than once in the presence of other women, I have heard a leader in the group declare, “God called me to ministry and I don’t need a bunch of men to put their hands on my head to get on with it!” And I hurt with them every time I heard that attempt to deny their hurt.
Ordination is certainly not a prerequisite for devoting one’s life to ministry. Its contemporary significance is not even biblical in origin. But denigrating the importance of this expression of the church’s affirmation of one’s call and preparation for ministry is a denial of its symbolic power. While thousands of ordained men refuse to recognize that withholding ordination has greater symbolic significance than bestowing it, I and hundreds like me refuse to admit how much it hurts.
I have no interest at this point in arguing the biblical teaching regarding women in ministry or their role in the family and society. Those are issues I confronted years ago and many others have articulated the conclusions I reached quite well. I have lived out those beliefs at home and church though they were contrary to the teachings and models of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. I do need to express, however, a part of my experience as a woman in ministry about which I have remained silent. . .
Look for Part 2 tomorrow.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 November 2014