The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Monday, August 13, 2012

The "Stain-glass Ceiling" for Women in the Church

As you may or may not know, I serve the national Lutheran church on the advisory committee called "Justice for Women in the ELCA." I serve in this capacity because I believe women and men to be equal by design, and I have been asked to work for change from within patriarchy itself. Since I am not a woman, my work will always come with an asterisk, always from a position of oppression and power. So I ask for your voice, your help, and your power to be put toward the direction of female/male equality. For too long, the church has been the sacred foothold for gender inequality. While some of the best education I received in seminary was from female professors, many of them were not even allowed to seek ordination because they were part of the Catholic church. Their brilliance was always slightly dimmed because it seemed improbable that a woman could have developed such rich theologies.

I use this example because it is an easy target. It is far more slippery to nail down sexism in the ELCA, where women are ordained, and yet, still make less money than their male counterparts. Women clergy still fight prejudice and harassment, and still create a stir in congregations that don't exactly know what to do with a woman pastor. I have heard of female pastors be called "lady pastors" or sometimes "Mother" from ex-Catholics, but even calling someone "a female pastor" seeks to qualify the person in a pejorative sense. 

For those of you who want to continue to fight for equality in the church, the cause could use you, and for the moment, so could I.  

Over the next six years, the special task force of the ELCA will produce a study and social statement regarding the topic of justice for women. I have been asked to be an adviser to this task force. Next month I will go to Chicago to lead a discussion of the documentary MISSREPRESENTATION  which is about how women are negatively portrayed in the media.  

I will also be answering questions regarding the letter (below) that I wrote on behalf of the JfW advisory committee to aid the JfW task force in their study. I submit it to you for thoughts and feedback. You are encouraged to post comments and considerations. In what ways have you seen the church oppress women? How are we going to work against the stain-glass ceiling for women in the church?

To the social statement task force of the ELCA,
We, the advising committee for Justice for Women in the ELCA, are grateful that you have agreed to serve the larger church in this way. We believe that the work that you will do is in the name of our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose own life and teachings affirm inclusivity and justice for all people in the kingdom of God. And, in many ways, a social statement for justice for women is long overdue.
Women everywhere suffer from injustice. Sexism and patriarchy continue to rule every sector of American society.  It is prudent then that we prayerfully acknowledge that the pervasive dominant culture involves, and is in some ways is rooted in the church. As we continue to heal the wounds of sexism and patriarchy that have ruled Christendom for over two millennia, we can plainly see that women receive unfair treatment in the ELCA even today. While it is true that women have been able to seek ordination for decades, it is also true that the progress is slow for equality at the highest positions; including only six female bishops and one female seminary president.
Women in our congregations feel the effects of sexism too. Institutionalized patriarchy, church polity, and gender stereotypes are all contributing factors to the inequalities that exist. But perhaps the biggest reason that women have been mistreated in the church is due to the use and misuse of patriarchal theology. This area must be addressed if we desire to seek justice for women.
The mission statement of the Justice for Women advisory committee is, “the church is visibly engaged in the world for gender justice because the church understands sexism as a theological issue.” While Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista theologies have been adopted by many in the ELCA as legitimate Lutheran traditions, they are viewed as marginal theologies. It is our fervent hope that the ELCA will accept them as normative, gender-inclusive, and intrinsically consistent with the heart of Lutheran theology.
It also bears mentioning that we acknowledge that injustice of women is one global problem among many. The problems of human inequality are woven together in the sticky web of society. We, as God’s hands, must do God's work to dissolve this web of oppression. As Reverend King would say, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is worth noting that women are affected disproportionately to men in economic, racial, and age discrimination. Thus, we must realize that working for justice for women is also a fight against global oppression. 
We offer the following suggestions to you that have come out of our meetings on February 10th and 11th, 2012. We hope that they will be useful to you as you begin on this journey.
We have identified the following as ideas for your meetings and the process:
(1)    That gender-inclusive language be used at all times, including referring to God.
(2)    While there is much anticipation, the project need not be rushed.
(3)    Identify synodical leaders for active listening conversations.*
(4)    That a model is adopted for listening to voices along the spectrums of female and male; intra-ethnic and interethnic; various racial and biracial backgrounds; sexual orientation; classism; education; and age.
(5)    That differentiation and distinction be made between gender justice or justice for women.
(6)    That the task force build on the work of the Justice for Women advisory committee, as well as part of the required reading include Transformative Lutheran Theologies as well as Justice for women program materials and monologues.
(7)    That stories, case-studies, and anecdotes be deemed as pertinent to the study alongside statistical and sociological data.
(8)    That there be a process in place for the role of staff (including those who answer the phones) to respond to criticisms and answer questions.

Regarding the published study and social statement:
(1)    That gender inclusive language be used at all times, including referring to God.
(2)    Study does not have to be so academic, but should be readable and approachable.
(3)    That the process and statement be multi-layered and multi-pedagogical.
(4)    That the planning of the timeline include the implementation of curriculum in a timely way to congregations. Since most educational planning in congregations happens in the spring or early summer, you may plan accordingly.
We are in a vital part of the Church’s history as we lay groundwork and create precedent for the 21st century.  As God beacons us into the future, we, the advisory committee for justice for women, are praying for you and the very important work you are doing. 
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,

Rev. Daniel Pugh on behalf of the advisory committee of Justice for Women in the ELCA


  1. Daniel! What a well-written letter, I applaud you and the efforts of the task force.

    As a woman, I think the work that you're doing is necessary if not crucial to the life of our church. I experience the sexism in it's major and minor ways as a seminarian and leader of the church. Something, certainly, needs to be done.

    My questions is: what is the role of a binary understanding of gender in the activism and advocacy in which the task force partakes? In other words, in what ways does the belief that there are only two expressions of gender (male and female) affect what we advocate for, for whom we advocate, and the results we hope for in our advocacy?

    There are many expressions of what it means to be a "woman" just as there are many expressions of being "man." The kingdom of God has room for all of these expressions, how can we model that?

    I'm not sure that my comments provide straightforward tools, but perhaps just some food for thought.

    Thanks for your work!

  2. I agree that this work is vital to moving our church forward, and I would second Amanda's concern that we resist the temptation to make everything too binary. If we understand gender and sexuality as falling along a continuum, then we know that there are infinite varieties of ways to live out who we are as children of God. If it's always about two distinct categories, then it's tempting to contrast these categories with each other, to essentialize notions of gender in a way that too easily reinforces stereotypes, and to view as "other" anyone who doesn't neatly fit into our preconceived categories. Thanks for being engaged in this work, and keep us posted about opportunities for input along the way.

    Christa Compton

  3. Hey Daniel,

    A few of comments:

    I am wondering if you have seen this debate between Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and Princeton prof Anne-Marie Slaughter? Sandberg gave a 2011 commencement speech at Barnard and related TED talk. Somewhat in reply, Slaughter wrote a piece for the July/Aug 2012 Atlantic mag entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Lots of other responses have followed. It is about women in the secular world, of course, but a nuanced portrayal of complex issues and maybe helpful?

    I would also echo Amanda's comments about our need to think of gender as a spectrum and not two poles.

    Life is not the same for men and for women. I would argue that equity is a bigger issue than equality and that things need to change for all of us. How can we re-imagine our work expectations so that everyone has the time and flexibility to care for kids and home? How do we ensure that ALL kinds of work are affirmed and compensated? How are we measuring our success?

    Also, issue of pay equity and parental leaves are huge deal in the ELCA, not just between men and women, but between congregations. Our polity ensures that synod guidelines have little bite, for better and for worse.

    And, please don't take this the wrong way, as I know that you are more than qualified and well-intentioned, but maybe a woman should be the spokesperson for the advisory committee? I am not sure if this is your official role, but it seemed that way from the letter? Forgive me if I have this wrong...

    Thanks for the conversation,

    Becky Langholz

  4. Amanda, Emily, Christa, Jeremy, and Becky-

    How I miss you all! Thank you for your input. I realize we are scraping the surface of a several-thousand-year-old iceberg.

    To Amanda and Christa- You bring up sevral salient points to this discussion. I hope to post in a few days some edited pieces of my gender-inclusive work regarding Jesus as simultaneously hyper-masculine and hyper feminine. My fear in this discussion is that by breaking down the lines of the binary female/male or feminine/masculine that in so doing we dissolve the collective suffering of a group of oppressed people. If we begin by saying that the "women" category is flawed and misses the mark, how can we successfully discuss the corporate injustice that women experience? (I really am asking here, not rhetorically, but because yall are brilliant and I want to know what you think)

    Emily- With your permission, I will bring your comments to the JfW committee when we meet in November. As always, I am grateful for our friendship.

    Jeremy- Like you, there are times when I enjoy the "gendered-ness" of God. There are things about masculinity within biblical texts that adequitely describe how I feel about a masculine God. My contention is that God the Father is masculine, not male, and can easly be seen as God of Wisdom, God of Love, and God of peace, which can all be historically viewed as feminine.

    Becky- Thanks for reading and posting! I value your distinction between equity and equality. It made me think: without equity, we would never have had Affirmative Action, or other social programs that seek to make up for countless years of oppression and injustice.
    Like you said, I am becoming well aware that the disparity between churches lacks equality and equity, and I also know that we are one of the only nations that does not have governmental paid parental leave.
    Thank you for the push-back on why I'm the one writing this letter. I am not the spokesperson for the JfW committee, if it reads that way it is only from my vanity. I was merely asked (as a new member to the committee) to synthesize what the committee talked about during our last 3 day meeting. The chairperson of the committee, combined with the people who are in charge of the national WELCA office and the ELCA JfW office oversee our committee meetings. Ideally, one of them should have formed the letter, although I was glad to do it when they asked me. I am going to Chicago to lead a discussion on the film Missrepresentation (I think) because of my experience in theater and film.

    There is much more to this conversation. I hope to write more in the future. I hope you will as well!

    In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,

  5. I think a non-binary reaction to the statement that there is collective suffering for women would be to say: no there isn't. There may be agreement among many women on certain issues, but I don't think we can absolutely say that all women would agree on every issue.

    This may not seem helpful - in fact, just reading it myself it sounds very frustrating.

    But, thinking about it this way does not need to inhibit progress or prohibit advocacy and activism.

    What could happen, is that we could say: "many women talk about XXX as being a problem and see YYY as the solution." Instead of saying that YYY is the ultimate solution and should become the expectation, we could instead see YYY as an option (as a position on a continuum). When we stop seeing gender as a binary, we may stop seeing solutions as binary - which, I think leads to the conversation about equity vs. equality.

  6. Wow, I had no idea you were doing this. Your comments have raised my admiration for you even higher. I have a "history" with the women's movment of the 70's and been viewed by fellow chuch members here and elsewhere for being too outspoken on the very subjects you raise in this blog.