Changing Boxes and Changing Minds

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For half my life, I believed that women should not speak from a pulpit. Of course we were equal to men, but we were also different. Different in a way that meant we probably should seek other avenues for influence. We were more a reflection of God’s beauty and a little less his [God was always a man] justice.

I preached this Sunday. I wore a red dress and I walked up to the pulpit with confidence. I didn’t feel like I was participating in anything subversive or revolutionary. It was all so normal; I had something to share and an invitation to speak. So I did. Standing up front, waving my arms in big gestures, sharing stories, linking theology to action, I felt at home and at peace.

Here I stood, in a place that I would never have allowed myself to imagine twenty years ago. Instead of anger, I feel gratitude. “What is different now?” is a question that a mentor has been encouraging me to ask, and to ask others. While anger may be justified, rather than asking what stopped me from preaching all those years ago, a more interesting question to me is to examine the conditions that made today possible. What changed, in me and in others, and how did it happen? How can that change be replicated?

First, the friends and family who gently poked at my beliefs and called me to something more. I told a friend that line about God’s beauty and his justice, and was flabbergasted, and then thoughtful, when she responded with horror. My aunts, who didn’t say a lot directly, but simply demonstrated how to lead in their own lives. My parents who went through their own process of learning and relearning. In fact, the most important part of my ability to change my own mind was to be around people who were open to changing their own minds, receiving and digesting new information and taking it seriously, about women in ministry or anything else. To change and to grow was suddenly a very natural part of being alive. More than anything else, that was permission to also change.

Young Anna.

Additionally, the very training I had received in critical thinking and interpretation at conservative bible college, where women did not preach, gave me the tools I needed to ask the questions on my mind. If we could make the text we were reading say one thing, why couldn’t we make it say another thing? I credit one of my professors, who in a first year class drew a box on the whiteboard, filled it with belief statements and called it a worldview, drew another box beside it, filled it with different belief statements, and called it a worldview. All of a sudden, beliefs moved from being unchanging facts in my mind and started being frameworks that we built to understand the world, frameworks that made perfect sense inside one box, but not in another. There I was, suddenly standing outside one box, and inside another, trying to determine the rules of engagement so that I could keep on moving from box to every expanding box. Life became less about what was true and more about what the act of sense-making revealed about ourselves and how we understood the world. [This is also the point where I realized that anthropology is the true secret power.]

As I changed my vantage points, things simply stopped making logical sense. In a world were I could become a business owner or even the prime minister, why couldn’t I preach? I had one of the highest GPAs in college, yet somehow the thoughts and ideas in my head were not worthy to be shared in public, simply because my head was a women’s head. If that was what I was supposed to believe, it wasn’t worth believing in, because it meant that I wasn’t worth believing in.

Still young Anna

Surprisingly, I didn’t get angry. I got curious. This whole thing never seemed worth my anger. Rather, I felt like I was watching something from the outside, able to understand exactly how those beliefs made perfect sense within the box in which they were held. I was simply unable to believe in the box anymore. The box also contained many good things: community, love, certainty in an uncertain world. The debate about women in the pulpit was much less about me and much more about an attempt to make sense of a changing world within a framework that seemed impossible to change, at least from the inside.

I could see the inconsistencies inside the box as well, and the way women and men, while loudly promoting one thing, actually did the opposite. A favourite woman professor in bible college who mentored men in her classes to be better leaders and pastors. The women leading meetings and setting agenda that would influence an entire congregation. It was never the same as direct leadership, but when I could identify those inconsistencies, I could also see ways spaces from which change and agency could emerge, with some compassion for the restrictions of the box.

Slowly, I started to push back. I would raise my hand in class and question the logic I was hearing.

Thai lunch after church on Sunday. How fitting.

I still have vivid memories of long and loud arguments into the night on a bus in Thailand with a group of fellow students, all participating in a mission trip (that is a whole other story of change), questioning all of the group’s assumptions of a women’s place in the world, and especially in the pulpit.

Of course, I was fortunate. I could step out from one space into another space, filled with welcome and room to lead. Many women or member of the queer community don’t have that choice. Because pastoring was never my dream, I never had to face rejection and a lack of opportunities to follow a calling. I avoided that altogether by doing something different, filled with its unique forms of sexism and boxes, but it is not the same.

Still, I take special enjoyment in every moment that I am in front of a crowd, simply for the reminder that change is always possible. That I can change. That others can change. That change is beautiful. That my role now is to work to encourage change for others. And that to wave my arms in front of people and speak with authority is a gift.

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