The Church has a Power Problem DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published contained factual inaccuracies. It has been updated and corrected — February 27, 2021 I will not stay, not ever again — in a room or conversation or relationship or institution that requires me to abandon myself. -Glennon Doyle, Untamed My first church job in New York City ended when my boss and the chair of the personnel committee sat me down and told me “it wasn’t working out anymore.” It was Holy Week. I had grown close with the congregation, had been implementing some exciting new programming, and had been requesting more professional stability as I ventured through seminary and my ordination track. My second church job in New York City ended when the senior pastor emailed me, after weeks of blowing me off, to tell me that “the committee went in a different direction,” after promising that I would transition from Interim Director for Family and Children’s Ministries to a more permanent ordain-able pastoral role. My third New York City church job ended when I emailed the chair of the Leadership Table and the interim pastor to tell them that I could not continue to serve the church under the conditions they insisted on. My requests were a salaried position and the title of “pastor.” I had also asked to create a different staffing structure in which I was not relegated to a position of “associate minister,” answering a white man. All three of these churches recruited me because of my reputation as a creative, energetic, professional who specialized in the unique ministry of intergenerational worship and children’s liberation theology. All three of these churches were initially thrilled to have me on staff. Thus has been the bulk of my church work since hearing the call to ministry. I have personally known 5 other women/femmes in NYC alone, who have been pushed out, unceremoniously fired, demoted, and in so many sketchy ways sent packing, from self-declared “progressive” churches. Often lawyers are brought in and these women are required to sign gag orders after being granted enormous severances to keep the offending church from being held legally accountable. All of these incidents occurred when power dynamics were challenged or there was an attempt to dismantle the idolatry of “tradition.” None of these incidents were shared in their true form with the congregation or the general public. Friends, I write this with a great love for what the Church has taught me over the many years of my service to the institution. I write knowing that there are many people I love who serve the institution and yet are not celebrated and honored in the way they should be. I write knowing that I am sharing something that many people don’t want to accept or believe. What I’m getting ready to say is at best controversial and more realistically is a threat to my professional security and financial stability. I write because I must. Now is the time, now is the moment, now is the reckoning. I am here to tell the truth. … There is a well-known and yet unspoken pattern in the white protestant Church that women are hired to do “women’s work” — children’s ministry, mostly. Historically, women arrive to professional ministry fresh out of seminary and are convinced to accept the position of perpetual associate ministers. We are paid far less than our male counterparts and our jobs are often unbelievably unstable. We are then banished to basements and fellowship halls to pass out graham crackers and tell Bible stories with felt boards. As a children’s liberation theologian and intergenerational worship creator, people often think that I am a children’s minister. I am not. However, I am expected to feel honored to “get my foot in the door” by succumbing to the expectation that I will pay my dues in children’s ministry before I get to “move up” and do what I’m called to do. To be clear, children’s ministry is an imperative arm of the Body of Christ; it is also a dumping ground for the people whom the Church seeks to marginalize. What does that say about what we think of the children and youth in our congregations? I was once talking to a colleague while holding both of my own children saying that I would love to have a pastoral position that honored my gifts and talents. This person looked right at me and my squirming babies and declared, “but Rebecca, you have your hands full.” The message is clear: Be like a mother, but not actually a mother. I am learning that there is little to no space for me to lead and serve in the Church. I’m too expensive for the likes of an institution that uses age and lack of experience as a way of keeping people from challenging power and financial distribution. … In every church I have worked, I have seen what’s possible. Empty pews, idly waiting to serve as temporary beds for the unhoused. Dormant piles of tambourines, egg shakers, wood blocks crying to be tapped and shaken and thumped. Pulpits open and free to champion the words of children, if only there was a step-stool around. Voices craving to be unbound by the burden of a 5lb hymnal. Empty walls calling for artwork. I have seen so much potential and so much lost due to the fear of change. The Church is ripe for creativity, innovation, and change. The Church is also poised to completely dismantle the toxic history of misogyny and white supremacy which plagues our entire system. They are one in the same — dismantle toxic masculinity and white supremacy and evolve into a newly changed, sustainable church. The message I hear over and over, however, is that the Church isn’t interested in any of that. The Church, as a collective institution, believes it can survive without self-evaluation, innovation, or change. And so herein lies the reason why even “progressive” churches are not immune to traumatizing people with misogyny, capitalism, ageism, racism and so on. In my experience, the people involved in the church system believe (if not subconsciously) that white men actually have the answers, women are too emotional/demanding/bossy, and children are too noisy/messy/unpredictable. Yet, these same people believe that if they say “all are welcome” they are doing something progressive. The Church has a power problem. The Church is also full of women and children. This is a terrifying equation for abuse of power, trauma, and an untenable future. Many times, I have wondered what my life would be like if I had towed the line at any of those 3 churches and just did the thing and stayed in my place. If I didn’t challenge people to think differently, to look toward possibility, to live in a culture of abundance rather than depravity. Many times, I think about women who are able to hang in there for years, never getting the professional recognition granted to their male colleagues. I wonder if they know. I wonder if they are happy. … I no longer see myself as a change agent for the Church, not in the way I used to. I no longer believe that the Church is actually interested in liberation. The Church will not save us. Only a divine entity like Jesus can do that. These days, I’m not giving a lot of space for the Church to falter. We’ve had ~2000 years to get it right, so I don’t have time for any futzing around about how the Church practices justice within its own walls. The progressive church will not survive if they continue to mistreat women, people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, and children. Certainly I can’t serve the Church in any other way than to insist that my work and talents be honored — not just honored in the way they have honored white men over millennia, but rather in a new way; a collaborative way, an expansive way, a truly progressive way. It simply is not enough to say, “all are welcome” and then grant yourself progressive. In fact, I have never seen a church where “all” were truly welcome. No wheelchair ramp? All are not welcome. Generationally segregated worship? All are not welcome. Shoddy sound system? All are not welcome. Over-intellectualized, lengthy sermoning? All are not welcome. Last year, the PCUSA held their General Assembly. Because it was being hosted online, the Assembly paused a particular agenda item: a proposed statement on the mistreatment of black women and girls within the denomination. This is the statement, written by Rev. Ashley Detar Birt and Rev. Kerri Allen, that was put on hold until 2022: In this moment, when black women like Althea Bernstein and Oluwatoyin Salau, and especially black trans women like Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, and Nina Pop are facing brutalization and death because of the intersections of race and gender, it is imperative that we lift up and honor the ways that black women and girls are disproportionately affected by the systems of white supremacy and misogynoir in communities, the church, and society at large. As the 224th General Assembly, we cannot adjourn without making a statement on Black women and girls, we cannot sit by and allow Black women and girls to remain invisible. We must confess that we have participated in structural sin that has exploited, abused, and dehumanized Black women and girls. We affirm the imago dei of Black women and girls as we recognize their cries. We commit to listening and in the work of racial justice, attending to the particularity of the plight of Black women and girls. From my vantage point, postponing the conversation on the abuse of black women and girls is a rejection. … I used to say, “the Church is not dying, it’s simply changing.” What I know now is that I am changing. Pandemic and the reality that I live in a country where leaders are not held accountable caused me to intentionally evaluate what I should expect from any organization that claims to be progressive. In my experience, any church that keeps anything from the congregation and/or the public — like abuse of power or sexual misconduct or oppressive staffing practices — is not progressive. Any church who can’t seem to pay anyone — including the maintenance staff and people in non-ordained director’s positions — appropriate salary and benefits, is not progressive. Any church that hosts any event — worship, committees meetings, fellowship gatherings, etc — where children are not invited to fully participate or childcare is not provided — is not progressive. Any church that uses youth labor as a guise for “service” is not progressive. Any church that only allows for youth leadership once a year or only on special Sundays or only on certain committees (without voting rights) is not progressive. Any church that uses finances as an excuse for denying accessibility is not progressive. Any church that won’t declare in public that black women’s and girl’s lives matter is not progressive. Any church that has more men on staff than women/femmes is not progressive. Any church that hangs a rainbow flag in the window but won’t preach about the murders of trans people is not progressive. Any church that slithers around denominational policies or institutional ethics intended to protect employees and congregants is not progressive. These are all situations in which I have served the Church with a dedicated heart. Not anymore. The changes that the Church must make before I will consider serving in any professional capacity are abundant but not impossible. These changes are completely realistic. Indeed, I’m still hopeful, but I’m also not compromising. … Almost exactly a year ago, my family fled NYC to shelter-in-place at my in-laws’ house in New Mexico. Right around the time we left, churches, in a matter of hours, began to completely restructure and rethink the way they do worship and church life. Literally, overnight, churches began the practice of existing only online. It was a phenomenon that I wrote about because it was so profound — that it took a pandemic for churches to understand themselves as flexible and creative. The last worship service I led was the first online worship service for that particular congregation. We did a hybrid pre-recorded youtube for the worship part and Zoom for fellowship following the service. I structured it this way out of consideration for screen-exhausted children and the intention of flexibility for people who need to be able to worship at a time that is best for them and their families. Before the pandemic, when we worshipped in person, there were consistently about 25 souls in worship. The online worship service attracted over 125 souls. It was such a powerful experience to know that we could have an exponentially wider reach by simply embracing the technology that made it possible. Incidentally, after I left that church, they continued with a new leader and only offered live Zoom worship — of which I had explicitly advised against. The following week, congregants began emailing me, wondering where I went. This church’s leadership had just let people believe I disappeared. So, am I breaking up with the Church? Not exactly. And I’m certainly not giving up my faith. In fact, in this process of reevaluating my service to the Church, my faith has strengthened and focused. I am, however, putting the Church on notice. I’m still certified, ready to receive a call in the PCUSA. I am simply asking that the “call’’ be true to the spirit of my ministry. I will no longer try to fit into anything just for a job. And thanks to the internet, I don’t have to. My ministry can reside on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok, Medium, Zoom, Google Meet, Youtube, and anywhere else people look for virtual but very real signs of hope, love, and healing. When I heard the call to ministry and entered seminary and the ordination process, so many people were excited for what I had to offer. My ordination committee practically cheered every time I met with them. The Church needs you and the type of ministry you are engaging was the refrain. Please become a leader in this organization. We need you. And I agree, the Church does need me but the message I have received time and time again is that the Church doesn’t want me. Why would I change for anyone or anything that needs all of me — all of my expertise, experience, education, intuition, and professionalism — but doesn’t want all of me? It’s nothing less than abusive and toxic. I am only committed to a ministry that I can fully endorse based on my own terms. I will only lead within an institution that honors my family with appropriate salary and benefits of which I determine; provides professional stability in the form of title, job description, and contractual obligation on the part of the hiring body; and instills a staffing structure that does not place me in subjugation to my oppressor. Ministry is my second career. I graduated from seminary in 2017 after fifteen years on various career paths. I am 39 years old. I have 2 young children. I have a $175,000 student loan bill. Church, you’re going to have to pay me. I have worked in many churches in different roles and capacities. I got my MDiv and I went through an (abusive) ordination process. I have a family to support. Church, you’re going to have to call me Pastor. I am brilliant. I am skilled. I am talented. I am empathetic. I am professional. I am knowledgeable. I am driven. I am creative. I am experienced. Church, you are going to have to let me do my ministry as I feel called by God. If you don’t want children’s liberation theology and intergenerational culture, you don’t want me. Church, I won’t be reporting to your white male cis senior pastor who has no managerial experience. These are the boundaries I am establishing. They are designed to protect me from you because you have created an unsafe environment. I am aware of what it might mean for me to adhere to these boundaries without exception. This is the resistance that I will practice, it is the liberation I will seek, it is the justice I will expect.