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One Illustration – Two Points

Though it’s been over 20 years, I remember with clarity a college professor’s powerful illustration about the nature of Christian ministry. This professor, also a long-time minister and volunteer hospital chaplain, had been called upon to be a pastoral presence in two contrasting yet related situations: first, as a new mother promptly parted with her newborn daughter, and then minutes later when the infant was presented to her adoptive parents. The point of the illustration was that a minister is sometimes involved in the full spectrum of emotions; in this case the pain and sadness of one mother stood in stark contrast with the joy of another. As a young ministerial student, I got the point well enough. Years later, I get it even better.

But here’s what I didn’t get at the time. The professor was male. All the students in the class were male. As poignant as the illustration was, it could also be used as a powerful illustration of a different truth: It would have been better if that minister—the one called upon to escort a newborn girl between mothers—had been a woman. Such a scenario is surely one example of a woman’s place. But because of the presuppositions of my own Christian heritage, it didn’t occur to me at the time.

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23 Comments

  1. Comment #104608 posted May 23, 2013 at 1:50 am

    This is a stereotyping of the genders which is disturbing to my egalitarian ears. There is no reason on the face of it why a male minister wouldn’t be as acceptable to this woman as a female minister. It is important not to assume that a woman would be preferred over a man in any situation. I can think of many reasons why this woman would have preferred a male minister and vice versa.
    Let’s not fall into the trap of gender stereotyping – it’s the quality of the pastoral care that is usually the most important factor.

    • Michelle
      Comment #104610 posted May 23, 2013 at 8:23 am

      +1
      I’m glad you spoke up, Ali. I would not have done so, otherwise, because I have not ever had any children, and would have just felt awkward. But the story struck me as odd, as well. I also am wary of falling into the trap of, “We need women because women would be better at ‘x’.”

      I’ll add that I’ve known personally at least two women who had a child because their husband wanted one. In at least one of those cases, the husband did more of the parenting.

      I hear similar arguments sometimes referring to why we need more politicians who are women: I disagree with them, also. I believe it unlikely we’d end up with (for example) peace on earth if more of our elected officials were women, but the fact is that we do need to elect more women and people of color to public office. (They need access first, e.g., money, but that’s off-topic….)

      Stereotyping about “good” qualities is still stereotyping.

      • Comment #104611 posted May 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

        As a Brit I think it is difficult to sustain an argument about women being more peaceful than men when I recall the late Margaret Thatcher and other female politicians of note!

      • Susan
        Comment #104643 posted May 27, 2013 at 11:28 am

        It seems to me that “peace on earth” is, or should be, more fully realized if women are as readily admitted to the table as men, not because women are stereotypically more peace loving but because God’s image is more fully present as his sons and daughters unite.

  2. Comment #104609 posted May 23, 2013 at 7:08 am

    I don’t think it would have necessarily been better for the minister to have been female. But it would have been nice if in the class there would have been a realization and discussion of the role of the minister’s gender within the dynamics of the situation.

  3. Comment #104613 posted May 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    In my experience, women are generally more comfortable having other women, as opposed to men, present in labor and delivery situations (medical professionals excepted). Hence one major reason for my blog entry.

    • Comment #104614 posted May 23, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      From my perspective, as a mother of 3 and an ordained minister, I still hold that the generalisation that there are specific spheres in which women should be ministering to women is not valid. The need for a minister to be present in labour and delivery situations must be exceptionally rare – in fact, I have never come across this being required before.
      Ministers are professionals like medical staff and this is the role we occupy in life’s intimate situations. Is it possible that it is the male ministers who find it uncomfortable rather than the women? If that is the case, perhaps that particular type of pastoral care is not one they should be involved in.

  4. Comment #104617 posted May 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

    In defence of the author of this post, I wonder if the point has been lost. I read it as saying that it was just assumed in the class that the ‘minister’ would be male and no one questioned it.

    On reflection, the author is thinking that maybe a woman ‘minister’ might have been more suitable, but the option wasn’t even there. When I read this story, I was so sad for the woman giving up her baby with seemingly little consideration for her feelings.

    Egalitarian thought goes to extreme when we say that either gender can (perhaps must) perform all duties which the office of ‘minister’ entails. In the instance mentioned, it seemed insensitive to just assume a man would be suitable without even the option of a woman to come alongside the woman giving up her baby.

    Many woman prefer to have a female doctor – not because a male couldn’t do the same work with the same expertise, but because of modesty and privacy which can still be an issue even when being seen by a trained professional.

    Another aspect which can be overlooked in the equality debate/discussion, is the wisdom of having someone of the same gender managing personal, sensitive issues.
    Take it one step further and think of all the male pastors who have got involved with a female counsellee with whom they have been spending time alone when it would have been more wise to have another person present or for the woman to be counselled by another woman.

    While biblical equality affirms that we are all made in the image of God and all have gifts given by the Holy Spirit, it does not mean that we become gender-less when it comes to relating to other people and particularly people in times of trauma and grief.

    • Comment #104619 posted May 24, 2013 at 10:05 am

      This is what JDM wrote: ‘It would have been better if that minister—the one called upon to escort a newborn girl between mothers—had been a woman. Such a scenario is surely one example of a woman’s place.’
      By refuting the assumption that this is a woman’s place ie to offer pastoral comfort to a woman, I am not saying that gender plays no part in who we are and what we do. Of course it does but to take this specific example and shoe horn it into ‘woman’s ministry’ is not appropriate.
      Again, I go back to the role of a minister – it is a professional capacity in which we operate so gender is less important than many people would like to assert. Do I want a female doctor for certain physical ailments? No! I want the best possible doctor available who will get the right diagnosis and treatment! Do I want a female lawyer to handle my rape case? No! I want the best possible lawyer who will make sure justice is achieved.
      The same applies in this case – at least on the facts that we have been told. There is insufficient detail to analyse the pastoral needs of this woman concerned. You state that there was ‘seemingly little consideration for her feelings’ but there is no evidence that this is the case at all – in fact, someone had cared enough to ensure that she had pastoral care. We must be careful not to read into scenarios what we have not been told.
      There may be good reasons why the new mother did not want a woman pastor – some women find men more reassuring than women especially if they have had poor relationships with other women in the past. Or this may have been the one ‘good’ man who did stand by this new mother in her time of need and grief – she may have been abandoned by the other men in her life – this may have started a process of healing for her. We simply do not know enough to make the judgement that this is a ‘women only event’.
      Men are fathers, men have daughters – there are very few men who would not be able to weep with this new mother and rejoice with the new parents. By limiting this kind of scenario to women only, we are limiting and excluding men from some of the most awful and wonderful parts of pastoral care.

      • Michelle
        Comment #104624 posted May 24, 2013 at 1:42 pm

        Very well stated. Thank you! Excellent observations about reading into a text, and over-generalization that can come from lacking detail + our own presumptions re: sex & gender. I appreciate the specific examples you gave that spoke to why a woman in such a situation might be (more) comfortable with a pastor who was male.

        I do prefer an excellent doctor who is female to serve as my primary doctor. She has the same type of human body as I do, and is able to address questions about quirky things, changes I never learned about in school, in ways I don’t think a doctor living in a male body would always be able to. But certainly I’ve seen and had regular and specialist physicians who are men. So now my cards are on the table ;).

      • Michelle
        Comment #104627 posted May 24, 2013 at 1:55 pm

        Excellently stated. Thank you. You do a great job of identifying the hazards of reading into a text, which is easy to do when we lack details and carry around our own presumptions about sex and gender.

        I appreciate the examples you provide about why a woman in this situation may be (more) comforted by a pastor who is male.

        I am glad you are posting; you are articulating my perspective in a much better way than I would and in some ways, could. I never thought you were indicating or advocating any sort of gender-less-ness, btw.

      • Comment #104636 posted May 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm

        You are correct in that I said ‘seemingly’ little consideration for her feelings. Maybe there was much consideration for the mother and I read into it how I assumed it would have been many years ago.

        Just goes to show how we can misunderstand each other and again, how words get in the way sometimes.

        In my current experience of hospitals, there are more women chaplains than men and I’m wondering how some of the guys feel about this. Not every person in a crisis time thinks rationally about what sort of qualifications or experience a person has – they just want an empathetic person and that person could well be a male or female.

        Wisdom would inform us that having a person of the same gender is a safeguard for both parties when comforting is to be done but this is not always possible and great discretion needs to be taken.

      • Susan
        Comment #104644 posted May 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm

        Perhaps I’m going off topic here, and if so, please forgive me. Seems to me this post and the ensuing discussion highlights the conundrum we’re all in as we explore gender equality in these days.

        Male and female are equal but different (essentially, anatomically). Feminine and masculine are also equal though perhaps much less different. Still, those differences seem to be important.

        To have the choice of a male or female doctor or minister illustrates this. As Liz pointed out, “having a person of the same gender is a safeguard for both parties when comforting is to be done.” And as Ali mentioned, “There may be good reasons why the new mother did not want a woman pastor – some women find men more reassuring than women especially if they have had poor relationships with other women in the past.”

        Is it true that there is no “place” that is exclusively a man’s or a woman’s? Probably. But is there no “place” that is better filled by a man or by a woman in a given circumstance? I don’t think so. We’re different for a reason. I agree with Ali that I want the best doctor available when I need care, but I also know that, all things being equal (get it?), I’d prefer an excellent female doctor over an excellent male doctor for a variety of reasons.

        Maybe this gets to something we can all agree with, that having men and women fill all roles and positions in society provides folks with the option of being ministered to by the one God can best use in that circumstance because of his or her gender.

        • Comment #104647 posted May 28, 2013 at 6:02 pm

          Susan, I think you are right on the mark with your comments. It’s about options and people being able to work and minister within their gift areas.

          • Michelle
            Comment #104648 posted May 28, 2013 at 6:17 pm

            Actually I find Susan’s comments need Liz’s clarification. I was a secular feminist who came to Christ later in life. I found myself in a church that practiced gender hierarchy, and really, The obsession with separating the sexes and treating women as though they are completely different creatures than men…it mirrors the greater culture here in the US to a disappointing degree. All the stereotyping. This is why, though it was probably presumed, I find it worth stating; God will use the best person for the job, based on everything about that person. Gender is a factor for consideration, I would imagine, as it is part of who a person is. But I would guess that it is far from the only consideration.

            I have always thought of myself as a person, primarily. I don’t obsess about the fact that I’m a female human unless I’m in an environment, such as the aforementioned church, where an issue is made of my sex.

        • Michelle
          Comment #104649 posted May 28, 2013 at 9:23 pm

          Okay I do see that certainly Susan made it very clear “all things being equal” that gifting and personality etc.are included in the factors. I apologize for missing that initially.

          I am irritated and frustrated by people separating a person’s biological sex out from all the other factors that makes a person who s/he is as though it is the most important or single determining factor about a person’s identity.

          • Comment #104650 posted May 29, 2013 at 4:16 am

            I have always felt the same, Michelle. I am a person first, Christian first and happen to be born a female which only really impacts on my life in relationship with my husband. That’s how we see it, but of course others see through different lens.

          • Susan
            Comment #104651 posted May 29, 2013 at 9:11 am

            Michelle, thanks for your clarifications. I too am irritated and stymied by the view that separates “a person’s biological sex out from all the other factors that makes a person who s/he is as though it is the most important or single determining factor.”
            But, Liz, I’m not sure my femaleness only impacts my relationship with my husband.

            I haven’t found a way to articulate this, but I think our sex and our gender is an important part of our being image bearers of God, but not (NOT, NOT, NOT!) in the “me Tarzan; you Jane” reduction that hierarchialists present.

            I think it’s much more complex. I think there are no male & female “roles.” But at the same time I think a particular woman will bring to a role a unique set of giftings PART of which includes her gender, but which also includes every other thing that is unique about her personality, ability, etc.

            Maybe I’m getting circular in my thinking. I guess I just can’t get away from the fact that God created us male and female. Was it only for procreation? I’m convinced it wasn’t to create blue and pink stereotypes. But what?

          • Comment #104653 posted May 29, 2013 at 11:02 am

            I think that those of us who are very comfortable in our gender and giftedness don’t even think about the gender much except to consider how it might impact the situations we deal with. This makes it difficult to articulate how gender is important because we are just naturally our gender – it’s a part of who we are but not the defining characteristic. Perhaps it is comparable with that of ethnic origin: I don’t live in an area where it is unusual to be white Caucasian so I never think about my ethnic origins but in a different context I might be very conscious of them.
            Recently I have noticed that those who are very gender conscious always treat me as a woman then a person; those who are gender blind, treat me as a person then remind themselves I am a woman. Then there are those who see me as a woman first but hurriedly remind themselves that they must see me as a person first now their theology has changed!
            Those who are very gender conscious almost always have a theology that restricts women in leadership positions and those who are gender blind are invariably egalitarian. I used to think that those who were ‘complementarian’ were so because of their interpretation of the Bible but I have come to believe that it is more about their view of gender that dictates their interpretation. Of course, the same applies to those who take an opposing view to them. We are more creatures of our cultures than we would like to believe and as our culture is seriously messed up about the whole issue of gender it’s no wonder we are also struggling with gender issues within the church.

  5. Comment #104652 posted May 29, 2013 at 10:49 am

    “Maybe I’m getting circular in my thinking. I guess I just can’t get away from the fact that God created us male and female. Was it only for procreation? I’m convinced it wasn’t to create blue and pink stereotypes. But what?”

    Perhaps, God did things that way for humans to help us find true humility and the depths of God’s love in the process. Through humility and the love that honors another as well as oneself, one can achieve a perfect balance of honor, respect, giving, supporting, and being the fullness of one’s capacity.

    • Comment #104654 posted May 29, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Well said TL!

      Another vital point is that it is God who determines our gender before we are born and in that we can be content that everything God does is good and so we can embrace our gender as a gift. Same goes for any children we may have. God decides what gender they will be along with all the attendant cultural expectations/difficulties.
      As Ali said, it is the cultural expectations that cause problems and in many places, to be a woman gives a person a huge disadvantage which is not the fault of our creator God but that of sinful humanity.

  6. Rachel Heston-Davis
    Comment #104655 posted May 30, 2013 at 8:30 am

    While I believe, like other commenters, that a male minister could serve just as well in this particular situation as a female minister, I take the point that it is odd to have this woman’s story being related by a man, to men, without a woman’s perspective in the room. That is what feels off-balance to me.

    It would be a problem, of course, if this woman had wanted a female minister in this difficult time, but came from a denomination that didn’t recognize female ministers, and so she had no choice. That would be extremely sad. But without knowing the details of the story, I can’t say if that’s the case.

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