Over the past few days, I’ve been spending time at a church in Alexandria, Virginia conducting oral history interviews. I’m doing research for a project about the arts and the church that has me diving deep into the church’s congregants’ and leaders’ experiences. Yesterday’s conversations offered insight about many theological topics that interest me, but what was particularly encouraging was what I witnessed concerning women in ministry. That’s not what I was looking for, but it is what I needed to see.
Before beginning these interviews, I had already been thinking about the ways women’s authority and voice are often challenged. This past weekend, I attended a regional religion conference where I assumed a leadership position and my voice was sought out for advice and insight. I had great conversations with other women in academia about wellness and success while I was there. Attending the conference provoked fond memories of a similar conference many years ago, when I connected with many colleagues in this FAR community and we discussed the theme of “Women and Authority.” Those were positive experiences. But I had an unpleasant encounter, too, when I was on the receiving end of a male colleague’s condescending remarks. I was also made aware of a disturbing incident in which a woman of color was publicly disrespected while speaking at a university event and subsequently trolled. Those experiences triggered anger and deep sadness. To be honest, I also felt a sense of resignation and defeat. Patriarchy is just so persistent.
Fortunately, my research project brought me to a place that is good for my soul. My oral history research is at Convergence, a church and arts initiative that I was part of many years ago. I participated in the life of that church when I was a seminary student, and later, as a doctoral student when I served as a resident artist in the summer of 2008. Convergence began as a “restart” of a Baptist church in 2006, when it redefined itself as a faith community to support artists and other creative people. Since then, I have seen the church grow and emerge as a unique voice among local congregations and the local arts community in Northern Virginia. It is my hope that sharing Convergence’s work more broadly through my research will inspire other congregations who may be struggling to find their voice in the cultural landscape to include artists in their work. Convergence played a significant role in my personal and intellectual development, and so documenting the oral histories of this community is my way of offering something back to the church that can contribute to its growth and development. My return felt like a homecoming.
Yesterday, I met with churchgoers and staff to conduct interviews. Among them were Lisa Cole Smith, who is Convergence’s pastor and artistic director, and Pam Moyer, a former staff member at Convergence who is now the senior minister at The United Baptist Church in Annandale, Virginia. Both women have been my friends since we were students together and then co-laborers in the early years of Convergence. Lisa has been the pastor and artistic director (basically, the head minister) at Convergence for over a decade now, while Pam has taken on several ministry roles at Convergence and other churches leading up to her recent promotion as the leader of her congregation.
Yesterday, I was able to see their successes in a way I hadn’t before. I wasn’t looking for gendered issues in this project, but my recent experiences sensitized me to notice the way this faith community has responded to women’s voice and authority. Considering the encounters I’d had the previous weekend, it was remarkable how unremarkable Lisa and Pam’s gender has been in their work. After all, they are church leaders in a Christian denomination that still has churches where women are not allowed to lead or preach. Every semester, I see male and female students struggle to accept or understand an egalitarian view of women’s place in ministry, yet these congregations seemed to have moved past that struggle.
It was refreshing to see a church where a woman’s authority or voice is not questioned simply because of her gender. The interviews I’ve been conducting allowed me to hear from men and women who report to and work with these women in Christian ministry. When people talk about Lisa, her authority is assumed; it was established back when she began sharing her vision for the church restart. She served with other ministers and staff persons, some of whom were male, but their positions neither undermined nor legitimized hers. Pam’s position of senior minister is new; she just started the position in February. But she possesses the knowledge and experience to succeed. In their own words, both women expressed confidence and assuredness in their abilities, too. It was inspiring.
As a feminist, my vision for the world isn’t about a reversal of patriarchy where women take over and exert power over everything. Rather, I want a world where people–however their gender is expressed–can follow their dreams, be their best selves, and earn the respect of others without having to suppress their true selves. I’m grateful I got to see a version of that yesterday. I’m disappointed I don’t see it often enough.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter or academia.edu.
Categories: authority, Christianity, Community, female friendship, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Gender, Gender and Power, microaggressions, Patriarchy, power, Power relations, Scholarship, Sexism, Women and Community, Women and Ministry, Women and Work, Women in the Church, Women's Power, Women's Voices