Last week I began answering the question of how women thrive in ministry.
My inspiration for responding to this question came from Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Meredith Stone. She asked recently:
If we imagine a world where women in ministry thrive what would it look like? How would it be different than the world right now?
I asked a similar question five years ago in “No Joke: Resisting the ‘Culture of Disbelief’ That Keeps Clergy Women Pushing Uphill.”
How do women thrive in ministry vocations that are still undermined or treated as a joke in so many parts of the church?
Last week I shared five one-sentence future stories. I stated each one in the present tense, as if it has already come to pass. I elaborated on the first two.
- Women thrive in ministry because churches pay equitably
- Women thrive in ministry because leadership is collaborative
- Women thrive in ministry when men focus on care for themselves and all people
- Women thrive in ministry because we are not so angry all the time
- Women thrive in ministry because child well-being is normative, expected, funded
Today, I want to address the third future story.
But first, an announcement. I’m excited to tell you that my next book is coming along nicely, and I want to invite your help!
Women thrive in ministry when men focus on care for themselves and all people
In far too many settings, women remain subject to unwritten expectations that they care for the emotional and spiritual well-being of everyone else in their lives. For women in ministry, this equates to an overload of spiritual and emotional labor, extending across work and personal relationships.
It’s one thing to give or teach pastoral care all day. To also come home to tasks like calming everyone else’s anxiety, organizing the family calendar, listening to each person’s troubles, and refereeing family disagreements, can feel like a never-ending-pile of needs that clergywomen face. It gives way to emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
Same-gender and queer couples can also find themselves dividing labors (deliberately or unintentionally) leaving one partner to bear a bigger and more demanding load of emotional work. When one partner is carrying the load of both the spiritual well-being of a faith community and an extra-large load of emotional labor in marriage and family, the results can include not only exhaustion, but also depression, burnout and many related symptoms.
They not only expend enormous amounts of energy giving care to others, they are left alone to care for themselves.
To manage all of this emotional labor, women often lean on friendships, therapy, spiritual direction, mental and physical health care, and various kinds of support outside family and work. A sense of reciprocity and mutual care is missing for clergywomen who are in this boat.
What Needs to Change?
One big cultural shift that would significantly change this dynamic or emotional labor at work and at home for women in ministry is this: Men taking more ownership of their emotional lives by seeking friendship, therapy, health care, and many other kinds of support.
Men shifting to take more care of themselves and others can dramatically contribute to women’s thriving. When men take more responsibility and care for their own emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being, they thrive more themselves. And they lighten the load on women in their lives. When men take more spiritual care of themselves, they expand their capacity to support their marriages, work relationships, and parenting partners.
In a world where women thrive in ministry, the men in their lives are listening, not feeling threatened, and far less defensive. Men reject the messages and values of US American culture to be always powerful, self-sufficient, and invulnerable. These are lies. Men — and all of us — need to stop believing in those self-destructive messages.
Men really aren’t thriving right now either. They’re succeeding and they are earning more, and they continue advancing in their careers. Men are still venerated by the culture in every way. But I personally know five men in their 50s, since Covid began, who died by suicide. Two more who died suddenly of cardiac / unexplained reasons. And others who struggled with mental and physical health after years of neglect.
And I want to put up billboards that say:
Take care of your health and spiritual well-being
Go to therapy. Get a new doctor. Talk to your friends.
Women in ministry can’t thrive if they’re burying their parishioners and fellow men in ministry after suicide. Women don’t thrive when they are consumed by the emotional care that comes afterward for the people who survive. When their own grief gets eclipsed.
To be sure, death is inevitable. And grief work will always be part of ministry. But what if we focused on what it means to have a good death? One that follows after a good life?
In the future where queer people and women thrive in ministry, instead of being perpetually responsible for the well-being of men, there is mutual holistic care between colleagues, church members, families, and the whole community of faith.
Ending the Culture of Toxic Masculinity
By asking men to take more responsibility for their well-being, I am not suggesting they take over or take charge of others. I’m asking that they take responsibility for themselves and their emotional and spiritual well-being. And I’m suggesting they give thoughtful attention to that rather than displace their needs onto their wives and coworkers and then blame those partners in their lives when things are not going well.
We can learn a lot on this future story from our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer siblings. Because the culture is so hostile to them at every turn and particularly the church, to thrive it is absolutely essential that they attend to their own self-care and well-being and recruit others to help them. Yet the situation is also a double bind for them.
As a woman and ministry, I long for ministry with and for everyone that is more vulnerable, open, and relational. Yet the dominant culture says these values are for the weak, the followers, the ineffective, the helpless, and the needy. So when cisgender women or queer people try to live into this vulnerability as a meaningful way of doing ministry, they are likely to be judged harshly by the dominant culture as unable or unprepared or inadequate for doing the work – any work including ministry.
Undoing the Double Binds for Women
Presently this is one of scores of double binds for women in ministry: They are expected to care for men and children in their lives, and yet the women themselves are expected not to be vulnerable or needy.
There is the third squeeze on this already tight double bind. Large sectors of the church still fail to recognize the full and beloved humanity of women and queer people. Until that changes, thriving in ministry will continue to be elusive. The inequality and oppression of some, impacts all of us. The larger reality inequality among Baptist, Evangelical and Catholic church cultures built on inequality, hurts thriving even in denominations and churches where the culture has shifted toward equality for all people.
Women and queer people can become our mentors in how to make and sustain a better world. When men are more stable and secure emotionally and spiritually, they are more ready to share power and leadership, to receive feedback, and to collaborate with a wider variety of leaders.
In the future where women and LGBTIQA+ people thrive in ministry, men care for their well-being, and they support and care for the leadership of everyone.
Join me for a Mini Writing Retreat this Week!
Still time to register for this week’s retreat on Friday, July 14!