Growing up in the South, I learned that “children should be seen and not heard.” In too many cases, the same maxim is true about women.
Many churches seek to silence women who demonstrate gifts for ministry, believing the Bible limits such roles to men. But what about women in churches that do allow women to be ordained? Might some of them also remain silent about issues related to their ministry in an effort to keep the peace and to keep serving?
I found this to be true in my interviews with eight women ordained by Baptists in Atlantic Canada. These women, ordained between 1976 and 1987, were pioneers in ministry. In order to negotiate challenges, these women often remained strategically silent while relying on their sense of calling to sustain them in difficult times. As evangelicals, the women prioritized piety in their ministries, while avoiding actions that would have labeled them as troublemakers or liberals.
“In order to negotiate challenges, these women often remained strategically silent while relying on their sense of calling to sustain them in difficult times.”
The women I interviewed faced a variety of obstacles in their ministry. One of these was the issue of compensation. Joyce Hancock was underpaid by her church, as she reported:
Some of the women in the congregation, when it came around to budget time, made a big deal about the fact that I was earning much, much less than the rest of the pastoral team. They came forward and said they would not accept if it had not gotten better. But what I heard from the lead pastor later on was, ‘Wow, you’re getting a good increase this time! Aren’t you lucky?’
Hancock’s situation revealed the sexism of her lead pastor along with that of the congregation, while also demonstrating the growing awareness of equality among a few female congregants who were not afraid to speak out. Hancock herself did not bring up the issue of her salary; perhaps she felt this would have cast her in a negative light. Whether this strategy of silence compromised her ministry or was necessary to preserve it is debatable.
Sharon Budd encountered unfair treatment of a lesser kind during a break from a denominational meeting. As she reported:
A number of male pastors came in, and they would introduce themselves to each other. They started talking about ministry issues and one of them interested me, so I made a comment to inject myself into the conversation, and the conversation stopped. So, then they started talking about something else. So, I interjected myself again and made a comment, and the conversation stopped. And I thought, ‘I could keep them changing their conversation all afternoon! All I have to do is keep interjecting!’ But I didn’t. I went back (to) reading my book.
The pastors in the room with Budd ignored her, perhaps thinking a woman in ministry was not worthy of a voice. Her response demonstrated her reluctance to be seen as a woman with an agenda; she decided not to continue interacting with the men.
More significant conflict arose among Atlantic Baptists in 1987, when a motion prohibiting women from being ordained came before the convention’s assembly. Discussion of the motion extended beyond the 42 minutes allotted. However, almost no women spoke publicly to the motion. Perhaps because of their conservative convictions and environment, the women I interviewed used a strategy of silence during the denominational conflict.
“Perhaps because of their conservative convictions and environment, the women I interviewed used a strategy of silence during the denominational conflict.”
Miriam Uhrstrom and Sara Palmater recalled counseling other women to remain silent as well. Uhrstrom advised, “If you are where God has called you to be, just be confident in who you are and don’t worry about what anyone says. I never got into debate with anybody.” In this way, she appealed to the women’s sense of divine calling to sustain them. Sara Palmater went further:
Some of the girls came to me and they were really upset and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘We are going to do absolutely nothing. … If I see one of your names in the paper, I’m gonna kill you … because we would be seen as radical feminists out to prove that we could do it and not obeying the call of God on our lives.’
Like Uhrstrom, Palmater appealed to the women’s sense of calling to urge them to strategic silence, using God’s plan as a justification for inaction. Unlike Uhrstrom, Palmater acknowledged that silence also was a strategy to avoid possible rejection by members of the denomination.
Because of their conservative context and convictions, these women looked on feminists with skepticism and feared being associated with such a group. They worried that others in the denomination would see them as liberals rather than Bible-believing Christians who happened to be women.
As products of an evangelical denomination, the women avoided what they considered the radicalism of the feminist movement (while still benefitting from gains received from the movement as women in ministry). They didn’t appeal to feminist rhetoric but instead to divine calling to justify their ministries. In the final vote, the convention agreed to continue ordaining women as ministers. Although (or perhaps because?) they had not been vocal, the women experienced a victory through the convention’s actions.
“As products of an evangelical denomination, the women avoided what they considered the radicalism of the feminist movement.”
Have things changed for Baptist women in ministry in Atlantic Canada, or for that matter across North America? I believe many women are still strategically silent. Some may simply want to pursue their callings with excellence rather than advocate for a cause. This could provide a non-threatening introduction of women in ministry to those around them and keep the women focused on ministry goals rather than other issues.
But other women in ministry may feel they must keep their heads down and their mouths closed to succeed in ministry within a conservative context. They may fear that speaking out for themselves as women would label them as troublemakers and damage their ministries. These women may feel pressure to be passive rather than prophetic.
How are churches — even those that affirm women in ministry — missing out on hearing these women’s voices speak at full volume? Are we too quick to label female ministers without paying attention to the gifts and messages God has given them? How can we provide safe spaces for women in ministry to exercise their callings and share their perspectives without fear? And what actions might we need to take in response to what we hear?
I pray that churches and denominations across North America (and beyond) would listen closely as God speaks to us through the voices of women.
Melody Maxwell serves as associate professor of Christian history and director of the Acadia Center for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Her research focuses on Baptist women from the late-19th century to the present.
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