If I had to choose one word to describe Jenny Rae Armstrong, it would be: passionate. She is passionate about ministry and passionate about empowering women to find their God-given callings.
"Yes, but what have you done?"
I blinked at the young man interviewing me, schooling my expression as I gathered my thoughts. I had just finished describing the youth ministry my husband Aaron and I had run at the church he used to work at, the Campus Life clubs we had built when he was on staff with Youth for Christ.
Yes, it was Aaron’s name on the paycheck. But we had attended all the training events, seminars, and youth activities together. And I thought I had made it clear that I ran the junior high ministries, while Aaron was responsible for the high schoolers.
Apparently, my ministry experience was only valid if someone had kicked me some coin for my efforts, or I had at least done the job alone. Me, myself, and I. Facing down hordes of squirrely tweens on the rock-solid foundation of my personal awesomeness. None of those weak "working as a team" or "ministering together" platitudes, even if I had been putting in close to twenty hours a week. The moment my husband entered the conversation, I was demoted from "minister" to "helpmeet."
There was nothing to do but go home and whine at Aaron.
"I don’t understand men!" I wailed, sitting at the kitchen table while he chopped onions. "It’s like it’s all about status and being the one in charge."
"I keep telling you that," he shrugged, still chopping. "You don’t believe me, but I keep telling you."
"But it’s so stupid," I protested, swatting away a tear. "It’s arrogant!"
"Yep," he agreed.
I stewed as Aaron scraped the onions into the chili pot, gritting my teeth. I could play the achievement game if I needed to. I was smart, passionate, and well-connected. But the fact remained: I thought the game was misguided, and didn’t want to play.
Still, I tried for a while, throwing myself into ministry activities that would look good on my resume. I was careful to do them alone, or clearly establish my leadership, so my successes would be attributed to me.
I felt like a jerk, diluting my loving intentions with personal ambition, but I reminded myself that these were the hoops I needed to jump through to make headway in the male-dominated world of vocational ministry. Guys did this all the time, and didn’t seem to feel guilty about it.
While I did some good things and felt pride in my accomplishments, underneath, I was unhappy and frazzled. My true state of mind seeped through in my sleep. Over and over, I dreamt I was crossing a bridge in my community that had somehow become impossibly steep, climbing the slippery surface on my hands and knees, fingertips scrambling for purchase on the asphalt.
Years later, when my dream self finally made it to the other side, the familiar terrain was dark and threatening. The safe landmarks had vanished, and my friends, family and mentors were not where I expected to find them. I was alone, vulnerable, and under attack.
I woke up, literally and figuratively, and re-embraced what I had always known. Going it alone is stupid, and "performing" ministry is arrogant and sinful. But how could I move forward in ministry if I was laying down my bid for approval, accolades, and (most importantly) acceptance–acceptance as an equal who deserves to have her efforts taken seriously, not as a pretty prop to be patted on the head and sent off to play with the women and children?
Women called to vocational ministry walk a precarious line. I am not the first woman who has felt she had to stifle her feminine soul to make headway in a climate that values achievement and autonomy over relationships and collaboration, and I won’t be the last.
But what has really struck me is just how much the 21st century church, despite our insistence to the contrary, undervalues the volunteers, the lay leaders, the people who "help." Those roles that have, traditionally, been filled by women.
Now, I’m a staunch egalitarian. I don’t swallow the idea that men are called to lead, and women to function as their "support staff." But I was also raised as a missionary kid, and had a front-row seat to the full-throttle partnership missionary couples brought to their ministry.
Yes, it was usually the man’s name on the paycheck. But the women worked too, often at great cost. Until recently, it was not uncommon for mission agencies to require children to be sent to boarding school, freeing the women up for full-time service. It was/is a crappy policy. But those women? They got the job done, paycheck, title, status, or not.
So I get a little prickly when people criticize, belittle, or get affectionately patronizing about the contributions of the "helpers": the hyper-involved homeschooling moms, the "controlling" church matrons, the ministry wives who seem to live at the church. I mean, I’d like to see a church try to run without those powerhouse women, women who have dedicated their whole lives to the service of God and others.
I’ll see your hot-shot pastor and raise you my grandma. Roll your eyes at the decorating committee one more time, and I won’t be held responsible if you find darling elitist appliqués hot glued to your iPad.
Maybe, after the "women in ministry" controversy has blown over, we’ll discover what is truly subversive about female leadership, about the collaborative, relational systems women build and thrive in. Something about laying down your life to find it, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, considering others better than yourself, and the meek inheriting the earth.
Now that would be an achievement.
About Today’s Blogger
Jenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes about women’s issues for Christian publications. She and her husband are currently working together to create a youth curriculum for Christians for Biblical Equality. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog (http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com) and say hi, and add her on Facebook (jennyraearmstrong) and Twitter (@jennyrarmstrong).
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.
You can stay updated on the latest post each week bysigning 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: Kimberly Majeski