Leaning in together

Social gains, whether in the workplace or the church, are never handed out. They must be seized.

By Molly T. Marshall

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has created quite a stir with her national best seller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. She rightly applauds the social change over the past 50 years since the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, but argues there is more to do in establishing full equality for women in the workforce and at home.

Many dismiss her jeremiad about women’s leadership as unrealistic. After all, she does have unlimited resources for childcare, a husband who parents equally and an executive position that allows her to set her own hours. All that notwithstanding, she offers cogent and pragmatic advice for women as they craft the lives they want. She knows that “social gains are never handed out. They must be seized.”

That is true, whether in the corporate world, the academy or the church. I remember how I got one of my first opportunities to preach. I was a first year M.Div. student at Southern Seminary in 1973, and I overheard a fellow student inviting his friend to preach for him at his ABC church in southern Indiana.

I pretended he was inviting me, and quickly whirled around to tell him that I would love to fill his pulpit. Startled, yet with good humor, he said “why not?” He became a proponent of women in ministry and opened many doors of opportunity over the years.

Sandberg is most concerned by what she terms “the ambition gap.” Society rewards men for being ambitious; however, ambitious women pay a social penalty, even in 2013. Rather than allowing patriarchal conventions to discourage, she advises women to “lean in” to their vocational aspirations and claim their places at the table.

Baptists should be the chief advocates for the ambition kindled by the Spirit of God. We privilege the fragile freedom that allows religious liberty for all, which surely includes the right of women to follow their calling.

Tonight Baptist Women in Ministry will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Founded in Louisville, Ky., in 1983 by 33 “mothers” of the movement, this organization has been essential in educating and advocating for women for women as “full partners in Christ’s service,” to borrow Jane Parker Huber’s words. I give thanks for BWIM, which has transformed the landscape for so many women and the churches they serve.

Yet we know that many churches have yet to consider seriously the candidacy of a woman to be their pastor. Fear of women’s spiritual authority, usually unexamined and unspoken, prevents churches from calling the creative leadership it needs. How the church treats women and sexual and ethnic minorities is the litmus test for many young adults. They do not want to participate in structures that are not fully egalitarian.

Each year I observe how much easier it is for graduating men to land in ministry positions than their graduating sisters, who often outstripped them in seminary studies. Many of these women will be “underemployed,” betraying their arduous investment in ministry preparation through theological education.

It is imperative that ministry colleagues -- women and men -- provide “demonstration plots” for women to prove their competence. Several ABC and CBF and NBC congregations in Kansas City are known for their mentoring of women. These teaching churches welcome students as interns and help hone ministry practice. It is a transformative initiative, and these churches -- and the women they help prepare -- are the better for it.

CBF is currently experiencing a “game change” as it has called a woman to lead this branch of the Baptist family tree. Unthinkable only a few short years ago, this clear acknowledgment of the calling and giftedness of women is already re-branding our identity on the ecclesial landscape.

As Baptist women and men lean in together, we will become a more graceful instrument of the Spirit of God. Our witness to the agenda of the Reign of God will be more robust as we create space for the full participation of all.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.