“I can’t tell you how many Monday mornings I cried in the bathroom not wanting to go to work because I was so terrified of what the senior pastor was going to say to me when he came into the church office. I just knew he was going to berate me with a long list of things I had done wrong the day before.”
These are the words of my friend, Amanda, whose name has been changed here for privacy.
Just a few years ago, Amanda was hired as minister of worship and media at a Baptist church in the South. As a friend and former classmate, I was proud of her for stepping into this position and making the move to a new city. I celebrated her achievement and had no doubt her leadership would be a blessing to those she served.
I learned this past spring that Amanda had moved back home. I did not initially overthink her situation; plenty of people move home for a variety of reasons. While I found it surprising that her new job was unrelated to vocational ministry, I did not investigate the matter any further until I read “The State of Women in Baptist Life Report 2021.”
This report notes several alarming statistics about the ways in which Baptist women in ministry are treated. It broke my heart to realize that behind every statistic were stories of real women who, in the midst of their service to God and their communities, had experienced sexual harassment, gender discrimination and an array of other injustices.
Learning Amanda’s story
I reached out to Amanda. I asked if she was aware of the report and if the findings reflected her own experiences as a woman who has served in a Baptist church. She replied that she strongly resonated with the testimonies shared in the report. She herself resigned from her position at her church after enduring two years of mistreatment.
“She claims he undermined her capabilities by talking down to her as if she were a child, and he regularly made last-minute changes to events she had spent weeks organizing.”
At this church, Amanda was the youngest member on staff. She worked alongside two males, including the senior pastor. Amanda remembers the first few months of her job fondly, but then she noticed a shift in the way the senior pastor treated her. She claims he undermined her capabilities by talking down to her as if she were a child, and he regularly made last-minute changes to events she had spent weeks organizing.
Amanda also struggled to manage the responsibilities of both preparing for worship and handling all the church’s media. She often was forced to work until 11:30 p.m. on Saturday nights because the senior pastor would not send her his sermon slides until then. Despite the extensive work she put in, she only received criticism for her mistakes.
Not his job to make her feel happy
According to Amanda, when she expressed her feelings of discouragement, the senior pastor remarked that it was not his job to make her feel happy — rather, it was his job to push her and teach her difficult lessons that would make her better. Only by improving her work performance would she earn the satisfaction of a job well done. He implied that if she could not accept his constant criticism, she was not cut out for her position.
Amanda described his particularly humiliating practice of pulling up recordings of worship services. Together they would watch the recordings, and along the way he would point out all the things he believed she had done wrong.
“I just sat there and didn’t know what to do,” she said. “He would make fun of me and tell jokes about me to the rest of the staff. Because he was the head of the church, there was nowhere I could go to report these issues. I confided in some friends from the church, but they said they had never witnessed him act in a hostile manner. Then they questioned me about my own behavior. I felt really lonely.”
Amanda said there were periods of time during which he would treat her well, and then his mood would switch. Some days he was friendly, and other days she was nervous to approach him due to his imposing demeanor and condescending attitude.
During one evaluation with the senior pastor, Amanda agreed that their work relationship had improved once he began providing more affirmation and encouragement. She felt optimistic about her future at the church until he told her she should not expect his kind behavior to last. He said she should prepare herself for things to return to how they had previously been.
“She felt optimistic about her future at the church until he told her she should not expect his kind behavior to last.”
Amanda already had begun looking for other jobs where she would have more agency over her ministry. She hoped to find a position where she could continue leading worship, even if it meant changing denominations or leaving the state. But after this distressing conversation with her pastor, she started looking for any job that would get her out of the toxic environment she was stuck in.
The breaking point
After a severe incident, Amanda reached a breaking point and resigned. The Monday after her 24th birthday, she went to work as usual. When the senior pastor arrived at the church office, he was clearly angry. A door knob had broken off one of the office doors, and he kicked it across the room. He yelled at the church administrator to either fix it or get somebody else to fix it.
After this outburst, he screamed at Amanda to meet him in his office. He began interrogating her about whether or not she had consumed alcohol on her birthday. Amanda informed him that she had gone out and had a few glasses of wine with a friend from the church who also served on the worship team. She had shared this information with another friend from the church, who had then reported her actions to him.
“Despite the pressure they put her under, she refused to confess any wrongdoing.”
The senior pastor accused Amanda of getting drunk, which she repeatedly denied. He set up a meeting the next day between her and two members of the church’s personnel committee. Despite the pressure they put her under, she refused to confess any wrongdoing. The senior pastor threatened to put her on probation, but she brought her contract to the meeting to prove she had not violated any rules or expectations.
He and the personnel committee then argued that, as a Christian, she should have known better. They reminded her of Matthew 18:6, which teaches that it would have been better for her to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around her neck than for her to be a stumbling block for someone else.
With absolutely no basis for doing so, they then made her disclose the drinking habits of her family members. By the end of the conversation, they asked if she needed them to take her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“With absolutely no basis for doing so, they then made her disclose the drinking habits of her family members.”
The next day, Amanda went home to visit her family in another city. She had a mental breakdown, admitting she could not keep this job any longer. Her parents agreed with her decision and offered to support her as she moved and found another job.
During this time, Amanda had trouble sleeping and suffered a number of anxiety attacks. Returning to the church to turn in her letter of resignation took an enormous toll on her overall health and well-being.
Amanda cited the mistreatment she suffered from the senior pastor and personnel committee as her reason for resignation. She requested that she be allowed to work from home her last two weeks. This request was denied.
She was asked by the senior pastor to keep their conflict to herself, and he announced to the church that she was leaving because God was calling her elsewhere. He minimized any harm he had caused her, paid her a number of back-handed compliments, and wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation.
Not returning to ministry
Amanda is now settled in her hometown and is loving her new job. She does not see herself returning to ministry in the near future.
“I have no intention of working in the church again,” she said. “Right now, I am in a season of healing. And part of my healing is sharing my story. What I experienced was traumatic. It feels as if I fled an abusive relationship. I want any woman who finds herself in a similar situation to know that she is not alone.”
“I want any woman who finds herself in a similar situation to know that she is not alone.”
When Amanda concluded sharing her story with me, I felt immense anger and sadness. Mistreatment in the workplace, especially toward women, is all too common. But the theological justification that Christian men use to defend their abuse of authority only compounds my frustration. I marvel at their audacity and their lack of remorse for interrupting the work of God in and through the witness of women such as Amanda.
The senior pastor of her church did not see Amanda as a woman well equipped for church leadership. He did not want to support her in her calling for the benefit of God’s kingdom. He saw a young and inexperienced woman whom he could bully into compliance. He saw someone whose gifts and work ethic he could take advantage of.
Amanda was not the first, nor is she the last person he will treat this way.
Amanda is not weak for stepping away from ministry. She is strong for refusing to let a person with an abusive theology and in a position of power threaten her personhood. By prioritizing her own healing and well-being, she ensures that she may continue to share the love of God with others, even if she is not employed in a church setting.
“Amanda is not weak for stepping away from ministry.”
The light will not be put out
I have seen Amanda lead worship. I have heard her beautiful voice welcome others into communion with God and one another. The light in her soul will not so easily be extinguished. And whether she is standing on stage or sitting across the table from a friend, that light will never cease to shine through.
It is tempting to hear Amanda’s story or read “The State of Women in Baptist Life” report and surrender to anger and hopelessness. Those of us entering into or returning to ministry may feel a sense of dread. As I myself prepare for a career in ministry, I consider the lessons I have taken away from stories such as hers.
I have learned that, in case conflict arises, I should document every instance of written communication or concerning behavior I witness. I have considered developing a back-up plan in case a career in ministry does not work out. I have wondered about the importance of therapy and the necessity of support systems outside the church. I have struggled to determine the red flags I am willing to address and work through in a work environment as opposed to personal and professional boundaries that, if crossed, will lead to my own resignation.
Preparing for a difficult road ahead is somewhat discouraging, but in preparing for these obstacles, I also am preparing for a promising future in which women in leadership positions know their worth and are not afraid to advocate for themselves. We will not let those who interrupt our callings have the final say.
“The State of Women in Baptist Life” report includes complimentary resources that churches can utilize as they consider ways of empowering women in ministry going forward. Perhaps people will recognize ways in which their own churches have been complacent in harming women. Perhaps they will learn to hold their leaders accountable.
I hope anyone who has read this far will join me in expressing gratitude to Amanda for sharing her story.
“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue” — Proverbs 31:26.
Well done, woman of valor. Let’s go out for a glass of wine.
Madison Boboltz graduated from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. There, she studied religion at Logsdon School of Theology. Currently, Madison is attending seminary at Boston University’s School of Theology and is a certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. She plans to return to central Texas for ordination and begin her career as a pastor.