When the Church Becomes an Abusive Boyfriend

Ministry shouldn’t hurt. Before you start hurling scriptures at me about taking up the cross, and suffering, hear me out. It is true that ministry is hard. It is true that ministry takes sacrifice. But ministry shouldn’t hurt. That is a truth that no one ever taught me in seminary.  But it is a conviction that lives resolutely in my soul: ministry shouldn’t hurt.
We teach young women the same concept in romance. We teach that love shouldn’t hurt. And we tell young women that if a man says he loves you but hits you or treats you badly emotionally or psychologically, then it isn’t love at all.
It is the same with ministry. If you find yourself in a ministerial setting where you are taking a pounding from the congregation, the senior staff, or the denomination, it isn’t ministry at all.
We do not tell female clergy this enough.

We live in a time when more and more women are choosing pastoral ministry as a vocation. And yet we live in a time when vocational ministry for women is still plagued with a concept of scarcity. There are so many women who stand with seminary degrees and who also stand without a job. Therefore, women are taught to just be thankful for any opportunity to serve, to pastor, to lead in the church.

“I’m just happy to be here,” is the mindset for many women as they assume their appointment, their call, and their positions. This desperation to work, this zealous willingness to serve in any location, under any circumstances, regardless of condition or compensation can lead a woman minister to wake up one day are realize that The Church has become her abusive boyfriend.

It is the elephant in the room that we all know but do not articulate out loud: women in ministry are not treated well.
The tales of abuse of women in ministry are as shocking as they are numerous.

Tales of violence. I know a female minister who was nearly raped while sitting in her pastor’s study preparing for Sunday worship. I know a woman who was fired from her prominent position because she refused to submit to the sexual propositions of her senior pastor

Tales of bullying. I know a woman who was attempting to run a leadership meeting but couldn’t get through the meeting because a hostile trustee openly and aggressively undermined her authority as pastor. I know a woman who was trapped in her office as the senior minister yelled at her until she was nearly faint with fear, pain, and grief.

Tales of disrespect. I know a woman who was denied the opportunity to serve communion even though she was fully ordained and had more seminary training than the rest of the entire ministerial staff. I know a woman who was paid least in an executive ministry team even though she had the most ministerial experience and corporate executive experience.
I could go on and on lifting up the abuses that women in ministry face in the church.

Why does this happen? If one in five seminarians are female, if more and more women are serving in fulltime professional ministry, why are women in ministry facing such abuse? The answer is two-fold, bad theology and fear.

Women clergy get trapped in abusive ministerial environments because of bad theology. Pastoral vocation is a vocation that is wrapped around the language of divine calling. We do not chose pastoral ministry, rather we are called by God into pastoral ministry. So even if the ministerial position causes pain, harm, or abuse women in ministry rationalize it by telling ourselves that God has called me to this pain, harm, or abuse. Moreover, women in ministry can easily normalize the pain and abuse by over identifying with the elements of suffering and painful sacrifice that are present in the Christian faith, “I am hurting so I must be doing something right. I must be like Christ.” And just as with an abusive boyfriend it becomes difficult for a woman to separate love from pain, love from violence, love from abuse so too when The Church becomes an abusive boyfriend it becomes difficult to separate God from violence, separate calling from coercion, and separate ministry from abuse. This is simply bad theology. God does not affirm or support violence, corruption, or coercion. God is a God of peace, of love, and of justice. If peace, love, and justice are not present in your ministerial position, then your ministerial position is not of God.

Women clergy get trapped in abusive ministerial environments because of fear. A female minister can be consumed with fear in her ministerial position. There is the fear of being disliked which makes her smile and say that everything is ok when everything is not ok. There is the fear of failure which makes a female minister muscle through even the worst situations so that others won’t say “she simply wasn’t cut out for ministry.” There is the fear of dispensability, a female minister must endure the covert and overt messages that tell her that she can be replaced at any moment with another more benign, more amiable woman.

The Church can be an abusive boyfriend to many women in ministry. The answer is not to quit for God has called us women in to pastoral ministry and we are here to stay. The answer is not to endure the abuse because God does not ordain this sort of oppression happening within The Church. The answer is in recreating the relationship between The Church and women in ministry. In order to recreate this relationship, there are three things that every woman in ministry must do:

1. Believe in your calling. If God has called you into ministry, you have to believe it. Believing in your calling will make you bolder and stronger, and less afraid. Because when God calls you, no one can take that calling from you.

2. Hold fast to your value. If you have been appointed or hired for a pastoral position, you must really believe that the gifts for ministry that you bring with you are valuable. You must really believe that the Church is made better because you are there to serve. You are not dispensable, the Church would not be the same without you.

3. Advocate for yourself. You have to speak up for yourself, no one is going to do it for you. Learn to speak up about your compensation, your job description, your support staff and other elements of employment that are hard to discuss but are necessary conversations for healthy ministry environments. Learn to speak up when someone is disrespecting you, “you are not allowed to treat me this way, talk to me this way. I am a minister of the Gospel, and a child of God.” Say it again and again until you believe it and others will believe it as well.

Being called into pastoral ministry is one of the greatest gifts that God can give. When you are called into pastoral ministry you get spend the whole day helping others to see God in Life’s great and small moments, in life’s happy and sad moments. Ministry is beautiful. And ministry is taxing. And ministry is hard. But ministry shouldn’t hurt.