Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Only Woman in the Room

The first time was the summer before I started seminary when I went to a District Ministers meeting.  I was an intern working at a small church outside of Asheville, NC.  This gathering in June 1986 was one month after I had arrived for the 12 week assignment at Bethel UMC.  The church was served by Tom Beall whose wife was Helen, a high school band director.  Since this was the first district meeting right after moving day, both pastors and spouses were invited for a meal and introductions.  After everyone ate together, the spouses went inside the home, while the "preachers" stayed outside.  Helen looked at me and said, "Are you going to be one of the ladies, or a preacher?"  It was then that I realized that all the preachers were men and all the spouses were women.  It hadn't dawned on me until that point.  So, not only was I the youngest "preacher" but I was also the only female that stayed outside for the "preacher's meeting."

Since that time over 25 years ago, I have never been the only woman preacher in a district meeting.  In smaller gatherings, certainly, I have sometimes been the only female.  In larger gatherings, particularly Executive Session at Annual Conference (clergy only meeting), I am very aware of my "minority" status within the room.  When we sing "And Are We Yet Alive" I am still overwhelmed by hearing so many male voices in the room.  Since my ordination 20 years ago, I hear my voice more strongly now and I can hear more sopranos and altos in the room with me.  I know that the numbers are changing and more women are entering ministry, but are our voices still being drowned out?

A few weeks ago, I found myself once again in a room where I was the only female clergyperson.  It was surprising and distressing to me on a number of levels.  The invitation had come from the District Superintendent via email.  I had no idea who else was invited, but the invitation was to clergy of vital congregations in the two Birmingham Districts to attend a gathering with the Bishop as he was preparing to leave.  In my experience, when invited by the DS to a gathering that includes the Bishop, you had better have a pretty good excuse if you say no.

So, feeling honored and having no excuse, I attended. As I arrived at the Methodist Center, young clergypersons were leaving.  This group had met with the Bishop on this particular day and that group included several younger women within the conference.  I also know that the Board of ordained ministry, which includes several clergywomen, had met earlier that day during the morning hours.

My surprise and distress came from the same source.  I was surprised when I realized that the room included pastors mainly from larger growing churches.  Only having been back in the parish for one year and at a small church, I felt out of place with this group.  But, what distressed me more is that I was the only woman in the room. 

Surely, there were other women who had been invited. So, why was I the only one who showed up?  Was I the only woman willing to accept an invitation to the gathering with the Bishop about his tenure here in North Alabama?  What does that say?

But, what is most interesting to me about all of this is that I chose not to open my mouth during the gathering.  It was a time to give the Bishop feedback on his time here and the changes that have taken place under his leadership.  The longer I sat realizing that mine was the only female voice in the room, the more silenced I felt.  No one else inflicted that feeling on me; it was my own doing.  I kept my mouth closed because I was worried about what would come out if it, if I opened it.

NOTE:  After some comments on facebook, there's something I want to make clear... NO ONE in the room made me feel unwelcome or that I couldn't speak. I was the one who made the choice not to talk for a variety of reasons-- not just because I was the only woman. 

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