By Miriam Méndez
Listening on the other end of the phone, I was informed by the chairperson of a search committee why they had decided not to pursue me. “Rev. Méndez, we were very impressed with your interview and you are indeed a gifted pastor, preacher and teacher,” he said. “Your references speak very highly of you. However (here it comes), as the committee talked with various people from the congregation, we realized that we are not ready for a woman.”
I responded, “Thank you for your honesty.” And in a gracious and polite manner I said: “You do realize that you contacted me. My name was on my profile and it was clear in my narrative that I was a woman. Can I ask you a question?” He responded, “Yes, of course.” I asked, “Can you help me understand what that means, not ready for a woman?”
Growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., I was blessed to be mentored by many powerful and amazing leaders who were instrumental in helping me grow spiritually and in developing my gifts for ministry. For me, being a woman in ministry wasn’t an issue, it was the norm.
It wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Ore., that I discovered that being a woman in ministry was controversial. I can recall the first time I was invited to preach in my local church and finding out that some people did not show up because I, a woman, was going to be in the pulpit. Although I had been in the church for several years, held various leadership positions, established good relationships with these people, the fact that I am a woman was still, in their minds, a hindrance.
I remember thinking that if I was going to be an obstacle, then I should not preach or hold any leadership positions. At the time I was completing my first year of seminary and I was taking Greek. We were assigned a project which included studying various controversial passages in the Bible. I was assigned 2 Timothy 2:11-14.
Before studying the passage I spoke with two people (a man and a woman — both of whom were professional, spiritual, educated, and ordained) and I asked them to be in prayer for me and to hold me accountable. I had made the decision that I would research and study this passage thoroughly. If I discovered and was convinced that a woman should not preach or teach, I would end my studies at the seminary and I would not pursue pastoral ministry — or for that matter any kind of ministry. Believe me, this was not an easy task. During the process I prayed and agonized about the whole thing. It was a spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting time.
On another occasion I was told that the church couldn’t pay me, but they would reimburse me for my makeup, nylons and shoes. They said, “We wouldn’t want you to have runs in your stockings!”
I have had people leave the church upon my call as their pastor. I have been called “sweetie.” I have had my face squeezed. And along with this, coming from both men and women, were the words, “It’s not personal.” These are just a few of the many challenges I have experienced; others are too personal and too crazy to even write about.
It’s sad to say, but I am sure that this will not be the end of the obstacles I will encounter being a woman in ministry. However, I have established various practices that have helped me in my journey, and I believe they will be helpful to me in the future.
It has been invaluable for me to spend dedicated and uninterrupted time with God. Silence, prayer and keeping a journal have provided me with ways to reflect on my experiences. One of the most valuable resources in the process has been the support of solid, spiritually mature colleagues in ministry. The renewing of my mind has been another critical piece of the process. Engaging in conversations with people who hold different points of view, and reading books and articles, has helped me to grow and stay informed of information about which I was not previously aware.
Not ready for a woman — what does that mean? “Well, I don’t really know what it means,” he said.
We need to know why we believe what we believe. Is it theological? Is it cultural? Is it stereotypical? Is it ignorance? Is it prejudice? Is it fear? Whatever the reason, can we please find out?