Rick Warren’s Saddleback church recently made headlines by ordaining three female leaders. I was grateful to see these women recognized and lent both the public authority and institutional accountability that comes from ordination. But when I read the news, I also thought with a heavy sigh, “Oh, here we go again.” I knew the debate about women’s roles in the church would dominate conversation all week, and I could already predict the rutted arguments I’d hear recited over and over.
Here’s an open secret: You know who hates talking about women’s ordination? Female pastors. Not all of us, of course. Some women have a special unction to debate this topic, and honestly, more power to them.
But the reality is that few of us become pastors in order to talk about women’s ordination. We get ordained because the gospel has captured our imaginations. We get ordained to witness to the beauty and truth of Jesus. We get ordained to serve the church in the ministry of Word and sacrament. (And, for the record, don’t get ordained for any “cause” other than the ministry of Word and sacrament. Nothing else is worth it.)
I wasn’t always in favor of women’s ordination. Until my 30s, I was a so-called soft complementarian. But I was also a woman in ministry. People in my church assumed that I’d eventually marry a pastor (as an unofficial way “in” to vocational ministry for laywomen). I interned at a Southern Baptist church in its youth group and a PCA church in “mercy ministries,” working among immigrants, the homeless, and the poor. Then I went to seminary, discovered I loved and had a knack for theological study, and eventually worked for years as a campus minister.
I spent time carefully studying the ordination debate and, over the years, changed my views. But once this long theological work was done, my decision to get ordained was a rather organic and practical one. I didn’t get ordained because I wanted to prove that women should be pastors or to make some statement about justice. I didn’t get ordained because I think women (or men) have an inalienable right to ordination. I got ordained because I was already serving as a lay minister and had a high enough view of the church and a high enough view of the sacraments that I could no longer understand my ministry as separate from the life and authority of the church.
I was already doing the work. I was already teaching people and forming disciples. I wanted to do it under the gaze and in the name of the body of Christ.
Now, when I preach, when I put my hand gently on the shoulder of a weeping woman and take her confession, when I write an essay, when I go on a walk with a student asking questions about the Bible, when I hold up the body of Christ before weary men and women and proclaim in the clearest, loudest voice I can that these are “the gifts of God for the people of God,” I’m not thinking about women’s ordination. I’m not thinking about Greek verbs or biblical womanhood. I’m silently praying that the Spirit draw us to himself in order to make his people whole and teach us to believe again.
Of course, women’s ordination is an important issue. I am very grateful for biblical scholars and theologians who are doing the work of looking closely at biblical arguments (most recently Beth Allison Barr and William Witt, who both have great new books out on the topic). We need to have these arguments. And I will keep having them.
But online and in the church, this issue is often bandied about, mostly in abstraction. For those of us in ministry, the work we do is rooted in the concrete—the lives of real men and women we love and serve. Although this topic rarely comes up among parishioners who just need to be cared for, too many people on the planet want to talk about ordination too much of the time. I don’t know a female pastor or priest who hasn’t sat by someone on a plane, train, or bus who, upon finding out she’s a lady preacher, feels a trill of righteous zeal and launches into a long lecture on how women’s ordination is wrong.
But while half of the church is trying to convince us to quit our jobs, the other half wants to cheerlead for us as gladiatorial smashers of the patriarchy.
Early on after my ordination, when I was in between meetings and still in my clerical collar, I’d pop into my local, hip coffee shop and get thumbs-up and enthusiastic smile-nods from customers cheering me on. I appreciated the response. I really did. But I knew they were seeing me as a symbol of feminist triumph, not as a preacher of the gospel. Plus, sometimes a gal just wants to be able to get coffee and read a book without being a walking theological “take.” I am a Rorschach test. I represent something to people, whether I want to or not. (Precisely for this reason, I don’t often wear my collar in public anymore.)
My very existence is troublesome to some or encouraging to others. And almost everyone assumes a lot about what I do or do not believe about the Bible and gender and Jesus.
There is an added complexity for those of us who are willing to collaborate with and even learn from complementarians. We love the church and the Scriptures and don’t want to “burn it all down.” Progressives see us as “fraternizing with the enemy,” and yet we never fit into complementarian circles. So we end up feeling like misfits in the conversation—buffeted by both sides of an immensely polarized church, which often regards the gospel of Jesus as second fiddle to the debates of the day.
In my own denomination, my sisters who are clergy are lightning rods in ways they never asked to be. They serve their churches. They each submit to their bishop. And they often have to navigate criticism about everything from their voice to their theology in ways that men do not. And yet, they continue to be pastors. Because that is what they are: pastors, shepherds, mothers, servants.
Yesterday, a younger woman in ministry sat on my couch and said, “I’m doing this to see people set free.” Because what draws us into ministry is Jesus and his mission. We aren’t motivated by second wave feminism or by “the impulses unleashed by liberation theology,” as Al Mohler put in his recent response to the Saddleback news. We want to serve the church with the gifts God has given.
As a female priest, I often feel like an unwilling pundit in a culture war that I frankly find boring. What’s interesting to me about ministry isn’t convincing anyone that I’m worthy of a particular office. What’s interesting about ministry is participating in Jesus’ work in the church.
In the end, the work of Christ himself is the only thing that makes women’s ordination remotely compelling. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Yes, we need to seek to be faithful to Scripture. Yes, we need to have these arguments about women’s ordination. But we don’t need to spend most of our time or energy arguing about how women labor in the field. Our eyes need to be set on the gospel. We will continue to do the hard work of ministry because we are seeking to follow the Lord of the harvest himself.
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