Women in Ministry Series: Navigating the Fullness of God’s Calling

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When I asked Carol Howard Merritt to contribute a guest post to this series, I knew she had some great ministry stories, but nothing could have prepared me for what follows. Enjoy!

“Well. The good news is that you did well on your tests. Your grades are way above what we require. Your IQ is very high,” the advisor began.

“Oh great,” I sat back in relief. I went to Moody Bible Institute in the hopes of getting into their Mission Aviation program. After months of orientation and testing, I was finally receiving the verdict of whether I was accepted.

“BUT,” she said, trying to catch up with herself. “The Board rejected your application.”

“Really? Why?”

“Well,” she opened my file, pretending to examine pages for clues so she could avoid my eyes. “We don’t have any girls in the flight school. We’ve never had a girl apply.”

“That’s not true. I saw a woman in our orientation class,” I protested.

She shook her head. “She’s in avionics, not flight. Carol, we don’t even have any girls’ restrooms on the Tennessee campus,” She finally looked up and closed the file. Grasping the folder with one hand, she reached out her other hand as if she wanted to hold my palm in prayer.

I folded my arms tightly around my chest and imagined all of those secretaries relieving themselves in the woods.

She exhaled, shook her head diagonally, and continued, her words dripping with sympathy, “Believe me. The Board had a difficult time with your application. It felt like those men argued for hours. But the donors spend more money on flight school students than any other student. They just couldn’t take the risk.”

“What risk?” I asked.

“Think about it. What happens when you get pregnant?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you willing to promise that you’ll never get married?”

“What?” I said crossing my legs the other direction. I couldn’t figure out what she was saying. I was seventeen. Did she want me to take a vow of celibacy in order to get into the program?

“You can’t fly after you get pregnant.”

I sat. Taking it all in. She did expect a vow.

“Plus,” she went on, as her compassion took on a patronizing tone, as if she was trying to explain to a five-year-old the facts of big-girl life. “Being a pilot is a position of authority, and as a woman, it just wouldn’t be what God would want.”

“Why isn’t it in the catalogue that the Flight school is only for men?” I asked bitterly.

She continued her sorrowful head shaking. “We just never expected a girl to apply,” she smiled. Pointing to a box of Kleenex, she made an invitation, “You can cry, if you’d like.”

I looked at her, rolled my eyes and thought, Oh hell no. I am not giving you that satisfaction, and walked out of the room.

I left my advisor’s office, feeling shattered, ashamed and disoriented. I didn’t want to fly the planes to be in authority. I wanted to help people—to take medical supplies and building materials onto the mission field. Why was that act of servitude off-limits? I was not allowed to teach a boy who was over the age of six, because a seven-year-old male had spiritual authority over me.

The only thing that seemed acceptable for women was playing the organ and singing in the choir. I sucked at both. With my complete lack of domestic and musical abilities, I was useless to the church. I wanted to serve God, but how?

I suppose that’s when I began to question “God’s intended order for women.” I read Jesus’s parable a thousand times. We were given talents. We were not to bury them, but to use them.

So why had God given me all the wrong talents? Why did teaching and studying theology excite me like nothing else?

What finally saved me was the fact that even more than serving people, I wanted to serve God. I began the painful and arduous path of trying to live into the fullness of what God beckoned me to be. I had to tune out the eternal chorus of people calling me a “feminazi.” I had to quit imagining how I embarrassed my parents. I had to tame my thoughts that taunted me for not being good enough, smart enough, or just plain enough to be in ministry. I kept plodding along the path God set out, one step at a time.

I would have never planned this journey—going to seminary, becoming the solo pastor of a tiny Cajun congregation, leading a larger church in Rhode Island, and serving a church in downtown D.C. I began writing, and the process was like discovering an unused appendage. Then, I stumbled upon a whole new vocation, as I travel around, teaching church leaders and seminarians.

Now I’m working on a book, trying to trace the circuitous path behind me, in the hopes that others will be able to find their own way to live into the fullness of God’s call.

About Today’s Blogger

CHM in pewCarol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Tribal Church and Reframing Hope. She blogs at TribalChurch.org, which is hosted by the Christian Century. And she co-hosts the God Complex Radio podcast with Derrick Weston.

About the Women in Ministry Series

The Women in Ministry Series is a collection of guest posts that aims to:

  • Provide an alternative to the women in ministry debates by telling the stories of women in ministry.
  • Encourage women to explore their God-given callings.

Contributions Welcome: Contact Ed to pitch your post idea in 2-4 sentences.

You can stay updated on the latest post each week by signing up for the weekly e-mail list. (You also get a free E-book!)

Comment Policy: Everyone is welcome to leave a comment. However, this series takes for granted that women are called by God into every facet of ministry. This is not the place to debate that point and such comments will be removed. Women have been told “no” in far too many places. This is one place that is committed to saying “yes.” For more about the comment policy or submitting your own story, read here.

Next Week’s Blogger: Stephanie Smith

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44 thoughts on “Women in Ministry Series: Navigating the Fullness of God’s Calling

  1. Megan Willome

    This is such an important story! As a woman, I have also thought a lot about Jesus’ parable of the talents. Although I’m not called to be a pastor, there are those who would prefer for my entire life to be about bearing and raising children. I have two kids, but mothering is not my talent–writing is. I would be dishonoring God if I didn’t use the gifts he gave me.

  2. lisa delay

    And all this from a place whose flagship magazine was titled “Moody Monthly” … (That’s probably the only thing they imagined they would get from females in their program, right? Girl cooties.) They are a very conservative bunch. I know firsthand that male authority (their idea of it) is a mainstay there, and cannot be questioned. Actually, I’m surprised they’d even allow you to apply. “We don’t call it a Henpit. We call it a Cockpit!” …can’t you just hear them saying this?

    So glad you kept on for the Lord to use your gifts.

    yet…How many women become so discouraged from experiences like yours that they abandon Christianity all together? I wonder. I’d say the church has lost many along the way by choosing misogyny over giftedness.

    1. Carol Howard Merritt

      Ha!

      I shudder over how many women just walked away… I almost did several times. It’s weird. Since I thought that more tolerant Christians were not Christians at all, there were many times when I thought about leaving all together… not realizing that there was another way.

      We used to say “I’m on my Moody Monthly” all the time. :)

      1. Elizabby

        I certainly walked away from some denominations I had previously been associated with – when I was told to wear a skirt to church, when I was told that women were welcome to participate fully in the life of the choir and the ministry of feeding everyone morning tea, when I was told that as a woman I should sit down and be quiet and listen to the men tell me what to think – in my seminary class, no less!

        But there’s something about Jesus – the more I learned about him, the less I could walk away from *him*. He taught women, and listened to them too. He healed one of icky female problems! He thought women were worth his time and effort – it is the church that has gone wrong on that…

        So much as I may at times be tempted to write off Christianity and The Church – there’s just something about Jesus that keeps me coming back…

  3. Alise

    Yes, the parable of the talents is one that has always stumped me as well when it comes to women in ministry. I AM gifted in one of those “woman-y” ministries, but what if I hadn’t been? That has never sat well with me.

    And good for you for not crying because it was expected of you. GAH! (Though I would have been fighting pretty hard not to be crying!)

    Thank you for sharing your story. Each one matters.

  4. Michael

    Aviation??? Seriously??? Grrr. I direct the NY Aviation Management Association. I can’t tell you how much it annoys me that you were denied that great opportunity.

  5. Addie Zierman

    I was absolutely floored by this. I always knew that those gender lines were deeply entrenched, but the fact that their facilities didn’t even allow for a female just blows my mind.

    Thanks for doing that hard work of following God into an unpaved future and for making a way for those who might follow.

    1. ed Post author

      Come on Addie, in defense of the flight school, a woman flying a plane would literally be “over” men, so you really can’t blame them, can you? ;)

      Someone mentioned to me that when someone needs a trump card to keep women from doing something, just mention that it threatens male authority. This is an example of that theological silliness in practice.

  6. Rachel Strietzel

    Carol,
    Thanks for your story! What a harsh way to tell you that news. I would feel so patronized. As a recent-ish Moody grad, I think they have changed their flight policies by now. But, they still have a lot of unfortunate limits on what they believe women can and should do in ministry.

    1. Carol Howard Merritt

      I thought the flight school was closed. Isn’t it?

      Joy Rast was the next woman to apply, after me. And, I’m happy to say, she got in. She’s serving on the mission field with her husband, Bill Carrera. From what I heard–off the record–from a prof, the school was at risk of losing its accreditation because of the sexism. They had to make several changes–recruit more women students and profs, etc.

  7. HopefulLeigh

    Oh my dang. Thank you for sharing your story, Carol. And thank you for honing in on what God would have you do, instead of the people telling you what you couldn’t.

  8. Suzannah

    This is fascinating, infuriating, and inspiring all at once. I cannot believe they told you that you couldn’t fly! Unreal. So glad you pressed on into your gifts, calling, and leadership.

  9. Dianna

    I find it immensely ironic that you were denied aviation because they saw you as “being in authority” over men, which changed your course of life to the point that you are now – literally – a pastoral authority. Fah on them!

  10. Stephanie Spencer

    Oh my. That’s all I could think as I read this. Oh my.

    They never thought a woman would apply? Because girls play Barbies and not GI Joe, right? They probably would not have been pleased by all the times I hid from army helicopters when playing with my brother growing up.

    I can’t believe you didn’t cry. I think I would have.

    Good for you for moving forward, for sticking with the church, and for finding a new calling.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  11. Charlotte

    This is probably one of my favorite posts in this series, thank you so much for sharing your story. The lack of women’s restrooms just baffles me; so there are absolutely no women on the campus, ever? Not even to visit? It’s just it’s own separate island of masculinity? Wow.

  12. Anna

    Thank you Carol for your story and putting words to some of the feelings and thoughts that emerge on the journey. I wish I didn’t connect so deeply with this narrative…while at the same time feeling deeply grateful to have wise women who have and are navigating similar paths.

  13. Frea

    Thanks for your story. Your rejection probably helped pave the way for the next applicant to be accepted, and you were led to your calling. Amazing how God works!
    I can’t help thinking that male authority in this context means male ego. I am wondering why we are willing to give it the authority that we do? So glad things are changing.

  14. Theophile

    Hi Carol,
    You know, getting those pilot wings isn’t something the average male “gets on board” lightly either. Do You think the average HS graduate can enlist in the Air Force, and become a pilot? Wouldn’t You’re parents have to of put You through expensive flight school/Air Force academy first?
    The sad fact is when the world tells women, “You can have a career & a family, and enjoy the best of both”, it is a lie. You may well have a career in a powerful position, but meanwhile, if You have children already, someone else will claim the “always there Mommy” position. If You wait(to have children), until You have “made it”, then the pressures of “keeping it”, will always take place over Your children.
    The bottom line is we basically have less time in years to live, than is required to obtain “multiple callings” and do all with excellence. If You would of wanted the career more than the family, why didn’t You say “What if I get my tubes tied?”, and found out right then if it was really pregnancy, and child raising, that bothered the board?

    1. Stephanie Spencer

      I agree with some of what you say. This society says we can have it all, but it’s not true. Every person has to make choices about what is most valuable to them. When we say yes to some things, we say no to others. And we best be intentional about what we choose.

      But my question for you would be why the question of importance of family is a question only women have to consider? Yes, a woman may someday get pregnant. But a man may also someday get a woman pregnant. The father and mother both have responsibilities and both have the potential to be pulled away from their careers.

      Perhaps a female pilot, as many women who are in the military do, could have a husband who is the primary care provider for her children. Or a good support network of friends and family that pitch in as necessary.

      The “what if she is pregnant someday” question is unfair to women. And, by the way, illegal to ask or use as a part of hiring and admissions because of it.

      1. Theophile

        Hi Stephanie,
        What would You say is the most important job for parents? Isn’t it raising up the next generation? The “what if she gets pregnant question” becomes a question of importance to an employer that depends on the performance and attendance of someone they invest in the training of, to continue to fulfill their contractual obligations. If the person in question lets parenting matters interfere with their performance, it’s not fair to the employer.
        You see, there is a unfairness to imply that “getting pregnant” is the same as accidentally breaking Your leg, or other medical emergencies that an employer may consider traditionally as “medical leave”.
        The thing to consider 1st, in the ministry, though, is Jesus’s words “Those that put their hand to the plow, and turning back, are not worthy of the kingdom”. Since He also said to consider the cost, which would include possibly foregoing a family of Your own, is Jesus being unfair too?

        1. ed Post author

          Theophile, It sounds like you’re all for pregnancy discrimination at a job then, right? So far as I know, there’s no employer who can legally not hire someone or fire someone because she may get pregnant or is pregnant. That sounds like a rotten employer to me!

          I also think Stephanie’s main point is men and women fully share the responsibility for children, so why was Carol grilled about pregnancy when we know that it’s quite likely no men were grilled? Maybe her husband would have stayed home with the child while she flew… oh right, Moody would have never gone for that back then…

          1. Theophile

            Hi Ed.
            We are talking about ministry of God’s word, right? But in secular society how many “stay at home fathers” have been unjustly transformed by law into “dead beat dads”? This “freedom of choice” thing, where the prospective father is robbed of one, has carried on till well after the baby is born, where the state will jump right in as “provider”, while “making him pay”. Does the fact that so many children today being raised by single mothers, weigh in on discussion of a “heavenly Father that loves them”, when the only father they know is a “dead beat”? Is ignoring God’s analogy of Him as a husband/provider, and His people as His wife being provided for, our “politically correct” rebellion? It sounds so in Isaiah 3:12.

  15. ed Post author

    Theophile, I think we’re talking about two different things. I have no idea how your comment connects with anything I said, but that’s cool. Have a good one!

  16. JeanELane

    What is really striking me as I read this post and others before and other blogs – what people say as male authority really looks a whole lot like pride. I don’t know that it gets mentioned much. And you folks are theologically way beyond me. But Pride??? As far as I can see, every other sin gets its start right there.

    If we all pursued humility (if you can do that :) ), we would all mutually submit to one another and all these “things” would be history. Isn’t that what we are called to do? Yet Moody and others are so into rules. I thought the rules were Love God, Love Others. Where does all this other nonsense come in? People!! They get me so frustrated!! Including myself!!! Sorry, I’m just going on and on. Something set me off!

  17. lisa delay

    LOTS of comments.

    Carol…I have to ask….Did you ever try to get flying lessons, after that, on your own, or was this experience a game-changer in your life?

  18. Steve

    I’m aware of Moody’s conservative standings and support them. There are a few flags raising and I will be reaching out to Moody with this story so that this institution that has sent out thousands for remarkable, biblical service is able to address them if desired.
    Perhaps a woman in ministry that honors Moody would be a good entry to this blog series. They might not share your position, but how about that for tolerance, eh?

    1. ed Post author

      Based on your comment, it looks like this blog or blog series isn’t for you Steve. I made all of my views abundantly clear above and the parameters for this series couldn’t be any clearer: women in ministry are sharing their stories. We’re just a group of people telling stories. If one story ends up revealing a dark side of Moody, that’s just reality. You seem to think we’re attacking Moody. We’re just talking about a story of someone who was treated unfairly by Moody. Welcome to the internet.

    2. Jen Luitwieler

      Sounds to me like this is a story of a woman in ministry who is honoring God, who is, of course, the Head of Moody and every other agency that professes His name. You’ll notice, too, that she did accept the decision of her authorities. Don’t see anything other than a child of God finding and fulfilling the life God created for her.

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  20. Jen Luitwieler

    This just kills me. Kills. Me. Reading the comments gave me more than an eyeful of what I got in the story. Carol. I’m sorry that happened to you. I find the oppression of anyone unbibilical and morally wrong. So many issues: preganancy, the expectation of women to literally bear the entire responsibility of the family, the idea that pregnancy is somehow a condition that limits rather than a natural fact of life, the subjugation of half the world that is created in God’s (masculine and feminine) image (oh yes, I went there.), and really, the condescenion to a free agent with a mind, a heart and a brain attempting to serve God. I think what irks me most is that when someone is called by God to do something, and the church or its representatives deny them this, it negates God’s power to give as He sees fit and reduces women to a set of lady bits of which we should be ashamed. Hell no.

  21. Dawne Piotrowski

    “So why had God given me all the wrong talents?” Thank you for putting words to the cry of my heart! I am finally beginning to believe God did not make a mistake and have found a community where my talents can be recognized in their fullness and not have lots of fences put around them.

    Thank you, Carol, for sharing your story, and Ed, for providing a place for the stories to be told!

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