I hated it when people said that to my wife.
There was a time when people would regularly make this suggestion to her. She was unemployed, or the technical term in our denomination “without call”, at the time. We were hoping that there would be a position for a pastor or chaplain coming available close to where we were living, because we both wanted to be following our call to work for Jesus in the church. While the baby comment was probably offered with the kindest of intentions, the underlying idea was that her vocation as a pastor could be, and likely should be, easily set aside for the womanly vocation of motherhood.
My wife took all these comments in stride and with grace, eventually she would jokingly say, “This is the worst time to have a baby, I am unemployed and have student loans to pay”.
My wife could make a joke, but I was never impressed, and these comments bothered me. They still bother me when I think about them.
When my wife and I decided to get married, we were living 1000 miles apart, serving congregations in different provinces and synods. We had been seminary classmates, but only started dating a few years after we graduated. We informed our Bishops of our desire to be serving in the same area, so that we could live together when we got married. We were willing to go anywhere.
In the year of our engagement, waiting and hoping for possibilities to open up, we eventually decided to both move. I was called to serve a congregation 100km from my first church, where there were promises of imminent openings for Courtenay, either in parish ministry or chaplaincy. It was just a matter of time.
I was being a given a fairly prestigious opportunity. The largest church in the synod (district/diocese etc…) wanted to call me as their Senior Pastor. This was pretty much unheard of – a 29-year-old pastor with 3 years experience in a small rural congregation becoming the senior pastor of a flagship congregation.
Many colleagues let me know that I had been given a big opportunity and that I had made it to the real show now. Some were concerned that the work load would be too much. Some felt the struggles that the congregation had been having for the last few years were too much for me to deal with. Others thought I would receive a wake up call once I got there. Still others weren’t sure I could manage such a large, multi-staff congregation, with so little experience. All my predecessors had been much older and more experienced pastors. I even heard through the grape-vine that accepting a call like that, to a congregation like that, was surely a sign that I was setting myself up to be a Bishop.
The congregation had contacted me in November, and it took until June before I actually moved. 3 months before our wedding, I started my ministry as the 29-year-old, engaged to be married Senior Pastor of a large Lutheran Church. And this whole time, these promised, imminent options had not become available… there was still no call or position for Courtenay.
“Now listen here Missy! You leave the business and management of this church up to us. You just deal with the ministry.”
My wife has told me about many sexist, ageist comments she has received in her time as a pastor, but that one pisses me off the most.
I always had to hear about the comments from a distance, so when we got married and moved to the same place, the comments started coming for different reasons. They were patronizing statements masquerading as support:
“You will just have to wait because Pastor Erik has a call.”
“Maybe you can get a job somewhere else, there are lots of other jobs around”
“We hope that something comes open for you, because we really like your husband.”
“You could just have a baby, we would love that here.”
“It must be nice to be able to be at home all day.”
“You could come lead the ladies’ bible study or sing in the choir, those are pastor-y things.”
“We will pray that God helps you” (for my wife to see that she should be supporting my call)
“That is just the way older men talk to women, they don’t know any different.”
The worst was when friends and colleagues offered some of this unhelpful advice. As Courtenay was waiting for a call to parish ministry or chaplaincy, many people: family, friends, colleagues, parishioners would try to be supportive.
But so often, their words ended up minimizing my wife’s call to ministry. Somehow my call, because I was a man, because I was a Senior Pastor, because I couldn’t have babies through my body had become more important. It was like God had called me double or triple, and God had given my wife options – be a lady pastor or a mom or a housewife. Those 9 years of education and the call of the church don’t really matter because your body can make babies. Oh, and you have a husband now, so you are real woman and can do womanly things.
The leadership in the congregation was aware that Courtenay and I were waiting and were unhappy. For most people it only felt like a few months. For us, the process to find two calls had begun over a year before. When after only 6 months, I informed the leadership of the congregation that we were looking at the possibility of two calls elsewhere, people were understandably upset.
Prayer meetings were called and people were genuinely concerned. So many were starting to understand the difficulty that we faced with Courtenay being without a call and unemployed. Many people were wonderfully caring. Many people prayed for God to call my wife to something.
But for some, there was an undercurrent of frustration. There was the sense that Courtenay shouldn’t complain. Her husband was serving a church after all. Wives should support their husbands, especially if their husbands are pastors.
It was even suggested to me that I get my marriage in order, that perhaps we needed marriage advice or counselling to resolve the “impasse” between us.
Here is the thing, though.
There was no impasse.
In fact, I was the one who suggested we contact another Bishop. We knew of an area where there were 5 churches in our denomination looking for pastors.
Courtenay is amazing. She loves me enough that if I asked her to wait without a call for longer, she would have. She had been waiting for a year, and it would have been at least another, maybe longer as far as we could tell. She would have waited to make me happy.
But I couldn’t bear that. Every day I got to go to the office, I felt guilty. We had made a promise to each other – we could be pastors anywhere, but only married in the same place. I was, now, breaking that promise. We were married but not both serving. Important early years of her career could slip away, sitting at home with nothing to do.
The guilt wasn’t all. I often had the feeling I was the only person taking her call as seriously as mine. I was the only who believed that God had called her to be a pastor in active ministry, just as much as God had called me. I know that sometimes pastors who want to serve in a certain city have to wait, but the limit on my wife pastoring a church was me. I couldn’t do that to her, I couldn’t ask that of her. And I felt God calling me to consider a change, a move so that we could both serve Jesus and be together. I mean, that is why we moved in the first place.
Throughout the whole experience, I could never shake the feeling that people would respond differently if our roles were reversed. I could never drop the idea that if Courtenay got a job at Starbucks, a lot of people would be okay with that. There would be outrage if it were me picking up a service industry job. It always seemed that ‘having a baby’ was a viable alternative for Courtenay to pastoral ministry, but paternity leave would be frowned upon for me. Becoming a “Pastor’s Wife was not out of the question for Courtenay, but not even in the realm of possibility for me.
So Courtenay and I left, after only 9 months of being the Senior Pastor of a prestigious church. We moved to a place where we could both be pastors and serve Jesus, and Jesus’ people.
This was by far, the hardest thing I have ever had to do as Pastor, as a Christian, as a husband. It would have been much easier to go with the tide. It would have been easy to claim that my call to this prestigious church was a priority. It would have been the easy thing to do to make my wife wait, for who knows how long, to do what God was calling her to do. God was also calling her to be my wife, right? It would have been easier to buy into the privilege that so many people were implicitly offering to me, and believe my call was more important than my wife’s.
The whole way along, there were people who ‘got it’ – people who were not satisfied with other options for Courtenay. Those people were great, and we needed them. But too many others were willing to rank our calls by our genders.
Being married to another pastor has completely changed the way I understand God’s call. God can call me to do God’s work anywhere, but I can only be married to my wife where she is. Yet, maybe more importantly, being married to a wonderful woman who is also as pastor, and to a pastor who is a woman, has shown me that we aren’t there yet. We haven’t made it as a Church. Even when we have female pastors and female bishops, we still have hang-ups about women in ministry. We still see men as the ‘default’ when it comes to our image of ‘pastor’, and we are willing to unthinkingly put women’s calls into secondary categories defined by gender.
Things are slowly getting better for women in the church. My hope is that more and more church people will start to get it. My hope is that one day people saying “You have or wait” or “You can have a baby” will be just as unacceptable to tell Courtenay as it currently is to tell me. My hope is, that one day, gender won’t define pastors in the church. My hope is that all of our callings, ordained or lay, in the church, in the world, in the home will be understood as equally valid.
For more on male privilege and women in ministry:
Have you own story of your Jesus Feminism being put to the test? Share in the comments or with me on twitter @ParkerErik or follow my wife @ReedmanParker