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The Behind the Scenes of Baptist Pastor Search

In response to sharing my story in the recent article Switching Denomination: Why some Baptist ministers are leaving, I’ve heard from so many women who have experienced something similar to what I have experienced. While this is reassuring that I am not alone in my experience, it is also disheartening. As I listened to these stories, I realized that there is a behind the scenes to the pastor search process in the baptist world. I have heard again and again from denominational leaders in the CBF that there is nothing they can do when it comes to congregations actually calling women to be pastors or churches affirming LGTBQIA+ persons. Even when I heard these statements, I challenged and pushed. There was something about these statements that were not only defensive but also passive, allowing leaders the option to not take action or responsibility for what was happening in parish ministry.

And then I received an unexpected phone call. It was the head of a pastor search committee. The pastor position was not yet listed, but I had been recommended for consideration. At first, I felt extreme affirmation. A surge of pride overwhelmed me that instead of carefully crafting an interest letter and yet again changing the format of my resume, I was having a direct conversation with the head of the pastor search committee. These are the conversations I had been trying to have for five years. Resume after resume, email after email, phone call after phone call, just to try to get in front of a pastor search committee. I have written so many interest letters and sent so many resumes without ever hearing anything at all and now I was in a very important conversation. As the surge of pride ebbed, another realization washed over me. My heart sank as I understood. This is how it works. 

Over and over again, I had been told I was a strong candidate for full-time pastor positions. Conversation after conversation with mentors and denominational leaders led me to reformat my resume, refine my writing, and push myself again and again only to find that I was not being considered for the pastor positions I applied for. Coaching training was suggested. Intentional interim training was suggested. All of these not a financial possibility as a bi-vocational minister.

I was on the phone as it dawned on me that the one thing no one was willing to admit to me as I searched and searched is the behind the scenes phone calls that take place. The insider baseball recommendations. No one was willing to say that there are candidates that are recommended when a church contacts denominational leaders and mentors for suggestions and there are candidates that aren’t. Even as I was engaged in one of those behind the scenes conversations, I was struck by how much harm this not-talked-about, never-discussed part of the search process is harming very talented, very earnest ministers, especially women and LGTBQIA+ ministers. If you don’t know these conversations take place and you don’t know that it actually really matters a lot who you know, then you begin to think it is you as a person and as a minister. You don’t have enough experience. You don’t have enough passion. You don’t have what it takes to pastor because you aren’t being considered anywhere. You aren’t worth a conversation, an email or a letter in response to your submission for consideration.

This is not true.

I know too many very talented, highly educated, and extremely gifted female ministers who simply aren’t being considered or once they are called to pastor have their pastorates end abruptly. Women candidates and women pastors in the baptist world are held to impossible standards. As a woman pastor, you are expected to solve the financial crisis that many churches find themselves in (from male pastors who have mismanaged funds and not adapted with the changing economy). As a woman pastor, you cannot be a good preacher, you must be an exceptional preacher. As a woman pastor, the administrative tasks and expectations are often increased. I know numerous woman pastors who format and print and fold their own bulletins every week. In many cases, an associate pastor and senior pastor position are combined. While balancing all of these expectations, women pastors know that if they misstep and if they are asked to resign or their contract is not renewed, the congregation will be more likely not to call a female again. On top of that, women ministers are also still experiencing sexual harassment and sexist comments as they are trying to minister.

This is not a problem of individual candidates.

This is a systemic problem. This is a denominational problem. This is sexism. This is brokenness. This is spiritual abuse being covered up and denied.

I finished the phone call explaining to the person that based on what I saw on their website, they were not ready for a woman minister. “But we would like to have some resumes of women,” was the response I received. This was not the first time I had personally heard this statement. Three years ago, I would have submitted my resume saying that considering women candidates was the first step in calling a woman pastor. Maybe it is, but for the first time since I was called to pastor and to preach seven years ago, I didn’t have to “put in my time” and “be patient.” For the first time, I could say no. No to the behind the scenes phone calls. No to the systemic problems that allow for baptist churches in 2019 to act as if they are welcoming and affirming when there is no intention to actually call a woman pastor. No to the unrealistic expectations placed on baptist woman pastors. And no to the denominational denial that all of this exists as part of the pastor search process for women and LGTBQIA+ persons.

Being a Woman in Southern Culture

In the wake of the Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony revealing allegations of attempted rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there has been much discussion about whether victims of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse have space and a voice to share their experiences. Many have argued that the social climate and context in the 80s perceived attempted rape by a known person as somehow different than by a stranger in a dark alley indicated in movies like Sixteen Candles.

I would argue, too, that the geographic culture of the South and the Bible Belt have also made it difficult for victims to report and to share their experiences. This has a lot to do with the stereotypical picture of a Southern Woman. Growing up as a woman in the south in the Bible Belt, I heard again and again that the greatest aspiration for a woman was to be a mom. As a mother of three and one on the way, I agree to this sentiment, but not to the stereotypes and unrealistic expectations that are in the subtext of that statement. There’s a false and dangerous assumption here that a southern woman should be completely fulfilled when she becomes a mom. There is so much damage in this cultural expectation for women who don’t want to have children, women who need or want to work after they have children, and for stay-at-home moms who want time away from their kids. The expectation that underlies this idea is that a southern woman who is a mom should have endless and boundless amounts of energy to devote to her children, which creates dangerous patterns of ignoring self-care, signs of fatigue and exhaustion that lead to ongoing health problems, and never, ever asking for help because this is what southern women are supposed to do. It’s the idea that somehow as a southern woman who constantly self-sacrifices in the forms of hospitality and serving because that is we are wired and created to do. Not only is this an unrealistic and untenable expectation, it is a gross overgeneralization of gender roles.

I personally didn’t realize how much this was ingrained into as a girl who grew up in the Bible Belt, southern culture until I had children of my own. The pressing thoughts in my head about providing them meals and clean clothes and guidance would drive me to the point of frenzied anxiety. This anxiety permeated our home and our family for no good reason except this internal “this is what I am supposed to do.” Until I took the time to analyze and wonder where these ideas were coming from, I drove myself and my family to the point of exhaustion and fatigue. Perhaps it was also a need to be needed that drove these thoughts and ideas, but no matter the motivator, it was unhealthy and unbalanced.

It is never, ever easy to ask for help, but there is so much more joy and love and just plain fun when we work to create intentional space to grow and learn together. To be certain, I still fall into these learned behavior patterns and those expectations and societal expectations I learned long ago still creep in, but the more time I take to ask myself, “What do I want my children to remember about growing up?” the more time I find for dance parties, fort building and serving our community together.

Halfway There, Living on a Prayer

Yesterday, we hit the 20-week mark on this journey to welcoming a new little one into the Harrelson Pack. It took me by surprise to think that we were already halfway there to meeting this little one. This little one that we just found out is a GIRL!

In the midst of the excitement, I was inundated with the news of the accusations of rape against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaughn and conversations surrounding this news. To read that Republicans claim this wasn’t a big deal and then to read religious leaders claim it’s not a big deal heaping spiritual abuse onto Dr. Ford have left me speechless. To think that these leaders who are trying to push through a Supreme Court nominee who wasn’t accountable to the law is baffling to me. How can we expect that he will not use the law to get away with other forms of abuse once his power increases if he is confirmed?

But even more than these details about the overall health and integrity of the most powerful governing body in our country, my mind keeps returning to our baby girl. How are we supposed to raise a girl to become a strong, confident woman in the midst of this climate and context where women aren’t believed? How are we supposed to keep her safe and strong and brave? How when there are so examples of political abuse and spiritual abuse protecting men who break the law? How when we have a president who has multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment and jokes about women’s bodies?

And I think 20 more weeks isn’t enough to create everything I want to create for this little girl and for our 10-year-old and 8-year-old girls. It’s not enough time. There aren’t enough people working to overcome these powerful, powerful forces that have protected crime against women again and again. There’s not enough money to hire the best lawyers to fight NDAs and settlements and discrimination that sets the foundation for this type of oppression to take place. There’s not…enough.

Even as the tears fall in my laments, there are rays of hope. Women supporting Dr. Ford and her courage and bravery from her high school. Women and men coming together to rally again, understanding that the #metoo is not over and there’s still so much work to be done.

Here we are halfway there, living on a prayer and a hope that we will come together and we will create a better place for girls and women.

Spiritual Abuse: Actions Speak Louder than Words

I’ve been pondering the discussions about Pastor Charles H Ellis and Ariana Grande for over a week. There was so much about this interaction that reminded me of similar situations I have been in as a woman and as a woman who attends religious services regularly. There is no doubt in my mind that Ariana felt uncomfortable in the interaction. I also recognize the exhaustion and pressure Pastor Ellis must have felt as he performed such a monumental and lengthy funeral as a member of the clergy.

But perhaps it is his fatigue that indicates where the problem lies. Perhaps it is when we are tired and when we are under pressure that we revert to our natural instincts and reactions. As a society, our natural instincts or our normal mode of operation is one that includes harassment, sexism, and spiritual abuse. Even with the revelation so the #metoo movement, we all witnessed before millions the way power and position are used to control women. In Ariana’s case, she was stuck in an extended embrace. Many women can tell similar stories of being stuck in too long or awkward or unwanted hugs. We recognize the look on her face and she realizes he’s not letting go. We feel her powerlessness as the “I’m stuck” realization washes over her face.

It’s hard to watch. It’s uncomfortable to watch.

Just as it is hard to hear of yet another victim coming forward in the Willow Creek’s former pastor Bill Hybels’ sexual misconduct case come forward. Not another one, we hope. Because another one would indicate that there were even more people who were silenced and told not to share their stories. Willow Creek’s response has been to concentrate on communication, but some are arguing that communication, or words, are not enough. Action is needed.

But we must open our eyes and see that things have not changed since the #metoo movement. We have heard the stories, but those stories, those conversations haven’t changed our mode of operation or what we do when we are exhausted and tired. If we really want to change these things, we must examine not only our words and language but our actions too.

Actions speak louder than words.

Spiritual Abuse and Hidden Lives

When I heard about the resignation the president and Chief Executive of the SBC’s Executive Committee, my atenea went up. Even before the story of the “inappropriate relationship” came out, I wondered if there was another story, a hidden story, that hadn’t been shared before. Many would claim that the #metoo movement has been a reckoning for white, males who have enough power and privilege to keep silent the women who they have abused, harrassed, and mistreated. Decades of stories are coming to the surface raising the question, what is the real story of how our society operates?

As these stories arise, the question of why the evangelical support of the president who has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual harrassment hasn’t wavered is becoming clearer. It’s because many of these evagenical leaders share the hidden life of sexual harassment and “inappropriate relationships” with our president shares. These leaders, like our president, hope that enough power and enough money can keep these stories hidden and out of the public eye. But these leaders, like our president are realizing their power is waning. They are losing the ability to keep up their public personas while keeping hidden the ways they have exploited and oppressed women behind closed doors. Keeping these stories silent while preaching and proclaiming the word of God and calling others to repentenace is spiritual abuse.

As a country, we reflect on the assassinaiton of MLK, Jr. fifty years later and we have to wonder what is the hidden life of our country? A country that would extinguish a voice of challenge and change at such a young age. A country that has decades of stories of abuse and harrassement rising to the surface. A country that has in its very foundation racism and sexism. We must learn to confront these difficult truths within ourselves and within our country if we have any hope of rebuilding.

Eastertide offers us the time in the church calendar to contemplate what resurrection and new life mean, but we will never get to the new life if we don’t first die to the selves that seek power and privlege and self-promotion at the expense of other individuals.

That’s not a compliment. That’s sexual harassment.

It was not long after Ben was born that I was attending a minister’s conference. Ben was in tow, but it was still wonderful to be able to speak about the changing dynamics of church and congregations and to feel like a professional again.

I was riding high on conversations with good ministers when someone stopped in one our conversation and said, “Wow, look at you, you’ve lost all the baby weight. Good for you.” I forced a smile on my face and made my way to a different part of the room.

There was no part of the conversation I had been in that he had joined that had to do with weight loss or post-partum recovery. The conversation this male colleague joined just long enough to make “an unwanted or obscene sexual remark” was about that how to rethink giving patterns as ministers.

“But he was offering you a compliment.”

No, that’s not a compliment. That’s sexual harassment.

His comment revealed that not only had he checked out my body in that professional conference, but he had enough knowledge of the way my body looked before I had our baby to compare before and after. I had not made public any goals for weight loss on social media. I had not been discussing post-partum weight loss in that setting or in the conversation he joined. He didn’t see me as a colleague in ministry nor did he, in that moment, treat me as a colleague in ministry.

Why didn’t I say something? Because as a young minister just getting started in what purports to be a welcoming and affirming Baptist world, I didn’t want to cause waves. This is where reporting sexual harassment is difficult for those who experience it. Inevitably, there are ramifications for the person who reports sexual harassment and because sexual harassment occurs in a professional setting, those ramifications directly have to do with job security and income.

Sexual harassment won’t stop occurring until those with power and privilege step up and take a stand for those who have little power in the systems and networks of professionalism. Sexual harassment won’t stop occurring until we come to an understanding that sexual harassment happens everywhere: in churches, at minister’s conferences, in doctor’s offices, in business offices, in Hollywood, and in the tech industry.

Will we have eyes to see? Will we have ears to hear the stories? Will we have mouths that say enough is enough?

That’s Not a Joke, That’s Sexual Harassment

I was filling my car up with gas, when I heard a car drive by. The male driver yelled, “Hey, hey can I take a pretty Mama to lunch?” My back was to the car as it drove by, so I didn’t turn around. I was worn down. I didn’t have the energy to face sexual harassment, name it, and fight it in the parking lot of a gas station.

Sexual harassment is defined as:

harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

But too often when I have pointed out that a comment is sexual harassment, the response I’ve received is, “It was just a joke. I was only kidding.” It’s not a joke. It’s an attempt to make a person feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s testing boundaries of professionalism to see how someone will respond and react. And it’s always directed at an individual, usually a woman, to exert power over that individual.

It’s not a joke. It’s sexual harassment. It’s sexual harassment when it’s spoken out loud. It’s sexual harassment when it’s sent in a text message. It’s sexual harassment when it’s sent in a DM on social media.

Until we, as a society, can be brave and courageous enough to name sexual harassment when we experience it and when we hear it, we will continue to have 1 and 3 women who report that they have been sexually harassed in the workplace. We will continue to have to wrestle with the fact that

Every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. That means every single day more than 570 people experience sexual violence in this country.

We have created a culture where sexual harassment, violence, and abuse is normal. It doesn’t get us riled up. It’s so common, we just gloss over it, explaining, “We all make mistakes.”

I want to create something new. I don’t want this to be the culture my children grow up in. I don’t want to have to tell my girls that they should report these incidents, but they probably won’t have any action that follows the report.

Thanks be to God, for good people working and hoping that we can together create something better.

 

The Ghosts of Our Past

I just finished reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved part of my commitment this year to read more books by women authors, authors from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and authors of different ethnicities and races. Morrison weaves a devastating tale of African Americans trying desperately to find freedom from slavery. Her main character Sethe is beaten when she is pregnant to the point that she will wear scars on her back for the rest of her life. In a pivotal moment, Sethe’s old owner finds her in Ohio and intends to claim his property back: her and all four of her kids. What is she supposed to do? That moment of decision plagues her for the rest of the book. Ghosts from her past keep her up at night, make her question who she is, and make her wonder whether she is a good mother.

I’ve often said I wish I could go back to the community of faith I grew up in now that I have found my voice and speak into the sexism and spiritual abuse I encountered. I wish I could stand up to that power and privilege protecting the hierarchy and often times missing opportunities to meet the desperate needs of the community. These ghosts of my past keep me up at night, make me question who I am, and make me wonder whether I am a good mother as the theology I grew up in taught that a woman’s most important role was to raise her children, not share God’s word, especially from a pulpit.

This weekend, we saw the ghosts of our past as a country in broad daylight in the violent protests of Charlottesville, VA. We saw the hatred and enmity as one woman was killed and nineteen others were injured. We saw the racism, sexism, and elitism that are usually subtexts and passive aggressive comments broadcast in public. We were confronted with the reality that our country was founded on the backs of treating people like property and animals. We discovered there are still some who believe that the past is not only ok but the way things should be.

The thing about ghosts of our past is that we don’t want to seem them. In fact, most of convince ourselves that ghosts don’t exist brushing aside the missed opportunities to offer a helping hand to someone in need, excusing the privilege we have enjoyed with defenses of why we deserve what we have (forgetting this means others don’t and can’t have what we have), and forgetting that what we saw this weekend, we helped create.

But being confronted with the ghosts of our past reminds us of where we have been and challenges us to ask the question who do we want to be. Do we want to be the kind of people who try to ignore the racism, sexism, and elitism that abounds in our country limiting the possibilities of other people? Are we going to brush aside people’s stories of racism, sexism, and elitism when we hear them blaming the victim? Or are we going to be the community that surrounds these ghosts of the past and exposes them?

At the end of Morrison’s book, there is a beautiful scene of the community gathering at the edge of the property where Sethe lives. They sing, they pray, they stay until she comes out of the house and they stop her from repeating her past. This is the power of community.

We can’t face the ghosts of our past alone. We need the power of community to help keep us accountable and courageous to become something more than who we used to be.

Spiritual Abuse and Failure to Follow Up

Last week I wrote about another story of spiritual abuse. This story involved the woman being told to keep quiet and to let the men handle things. It’s not an uncommon story. I know it’s happened to many people who have experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but this isn’t the only thing that happens to victims of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

In many cases, victims are strong and resilience. They don’t listen to the people telling them to keep things quiet and to not report what has happened to them. In many cases, these courageous and brave victims report their experiences. They share the abuse they have been through even though it’s painful and traumatic to recount. They overcome their fears and their shame in order to make it better for someone else.

Even though they show incredible courage and bravery, these victims are often met with people who fail to follow up. Over the past couple of weeks, the tech industry has been reeling from story after story of  women entrepreneurs who have sought advice and investment from men. The story for these women was that they had to endure sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted sexual advances in the midst of trying to grow their businesses and procure funding to make their ideas become reality. When they reported these investor’s and advisor’s behavior to their businesses or firms more often than not, the business didn’t take their accusations seriously or follow up at all. Years of reporting, bravery, and courage on the part of these victims has finally brought to light the engrained sexism and privilege that exists in the tech industry.

But it’s not just the tech industry.

Women who are in fundamentalist and conservative communities of faith often are counseled and encouraged to stay in abusive marriages in order to protect the sanctity of marriage and avoid divorce. Women who are beaten, raped, and told they are worthless again and again are told to remain with their abusers because it is “God’s will.” This is spiritual abuse. There is never, never a reason to tell a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. There is never, never a reason to blame God for the abuse a woman is experiencing. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a matter of life and death:

 More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to intimate partner violence — and in 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention.

It would be easier if we just continued on our way without worrying about these deep issues and how deeply engrained sexism, sexual harassment, and spiritual abuse are in our churches, in our business, and in our country. It would be easier, but it would be failing to follow up and we’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

Spiritual Abuse and Keeping Things Quiet

I heard another story of a young woman sexually harassed by a minister of her church who brought the sexual harassment to the leadership of the church and was told, “Just keep this quiet. We’ll take care of it internally.”

This is spiritual abuse.

This is what perpetuates a culture of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Churches and communities of faith should not operate as if they can handle clergy misconduct internally, especially when a law has been broken. This thinking is how communities of faith become hotbeds for sexual abuse and spiritual abuse.

There have been more and more people interested in the clergy misconduct and the sexual abuse and child abuse that has taken place in evangelical churches, but these stories unfortunately are not getting the press and attention that the Catholic church received as they did the hard work of uncovering decades of sexual abuse and child abuse.

This is something we must expose. We must be willing to share our stories. We must be willing to end our silence. We must be willing to listen to the stories of the number of people who have been impacted by a culture of silence and shaming and spiritual abuse. We must be willing to confront the hard truth of uncovering just how many people have been impacted by spiritual abuse and sexual abuse in our churches.

We must read the stories of child sex abuse and the resulting cover up. We must read the reports of task forces seeking to find best practices. We must read the stories of young women and men who were brought into sexual awareness in an abusive situation by a man of God. We must come to terms with the fact that by keeping things quiet and “handling it internally,” we have created a place for abusers to keep abusing again and again and again.

This is spiritual abuse.

This must stop for the sake of our communities of faith and for the sake of our children.