Defining the Relationship


Dear evangelical church, 

I know we both hate these kinds of discussions. They are filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, and they elevate our anxiety and stress. Believe me– if I felt that we could avoid this discussion any longer, then I would not be bringing it up. It's not that I'm afraid of conflict, as you well know; it's that I'm afraid of myself in the midst of conflict. I'm afraid of saying things that I don't mean or meaning things that I don't say. I'm afraid of using my way with words either to make jokes of matters that are not funny or to be scathing in my indictments as a way of avoiding the vulnerability that comes along with admitting hurt. But I simply cannot take it any longer. We have to define our relationship. 

You, my friend, have been so good to me for so long. So long, in fact, that it is nearly impossible for me to remember when we first met and became a part of each others' lives. I remember being a young child, attending Mass every Sunday, and being mesmerized by the aromas, the ceremony, the mystery of the Catholic Church. But I remember feeling frustrated as well. I had questions that were either not answered to my satisfaction or were considered taboo in that context. I remember wondering why the women only occasionally read a scripture passage or led a refrain. I remember being frightened by the gruesome image of the man on the cross. I remember taking my first Communion, bringing the chalice to my seven-year-old lips, and being repulsed by the taste of the liquid therein. I remember gagging, and I remember feeling incredibly ashamed that I gagged on the blood of Christ.

What initially drew me to you, besides the obvious draw of wanting to spend time with my friends who belonged to you, was that people did not seem afraid of my questions. In fact, they seemed excited to answer– and answer, they did! They had an answer for everything– a pattern, a formula, a three-step program that made the whole thing very palatable to me. There is, perhaps, no greater sense of security for a young person than being in a community that seems to have all the answers. When adolescence forced the tsunami of hormones, insecurity, and confusion, you became a fortress for me, a refuge from the storm. Though I was buffeted and tossed about (and though I occasionally jumped in the water just to see what it was like!), you were my strong shelter. You were full of music and food and laughter and friendship. You always had activities going on that filled many of my weekends and evenings. And you made space for me. Even when I would drift away for one reason or another, I knew that I could come back to you and that I would still have that space carved out especially for me.

I took our relationship very seriously, as you know. I took it so seriously, in fact, that I even worried my parents. While some young people were punished by being grounded from the television or phone or friends, I was sometimes grounded from seeing you! I don't know too much about how my parents imagined their offspring would turn out, but I can confidently say that they never anticipated having to utter the words "because of your disobedience, you cannot go to church tonight." That we give birth to strangers is a strange fact indeed.

You well know that you became so much a part of my life that I eventually grew to realize that we were headed toward a lifelong commitment. We were both very excited about this prospect, even though we weren't sure what it would entail precisely. I knew that there were certain things that I needed to do to prepare for this commitment, and so, as soon as I got my wits about me, I busied myself with those preparations. I read as many books about you as I possibly could. I read the Bible over and over and over again. I fasted. I prayed. I looked for opportunities to "try out" our commitment. I led anything that anyone would let me– Bible studies, meetings, music, retreats, camps. I even found myself, quite unexpectedly, as the youth director at one of your churches, and I spent three and a half years wading my way through that murky vocation, loving every young person that came through the door and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility. I found myself with a wonderful group of young people, each of them so unique and special, and they were, as I once was, full of questions and doubts and insecurities and fears. And while I tried my very best to provide that shelter that I had once known in the storm of my youth, I was plagued by the sense that I was cheating, that I was being phony, that they could do better than me. I wanted to be more, to do more, to know more. And so, with what I took to be your blessing, I embarked upon the journey toward a seminary education.

Many people have asked me why I ended up deciding to attend Princeton Theological Seminary. PTS is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and I was a misfit there in many ways, given that I never swerved in my allegiance to you. So, understandably, questions have arisen from many sectors about my choice in a seminary. I know that many people assume that the answer is that Peter wanted to go to PTS, and I just followed along like the obedient puppy-wife that caricatures many evangelical women. It's true that Peter wanted to go to PTS and that I was marrying the man. But I actually could have easily put off marriage for a few years if we had decided to go to different seminaries. I've never done the puppy thing very well, even when I've tried, hoping that, as they often promise, it will make my life easier and happier. But you know by now, that's just not my cup of tea.

No, I decided to go to PTS because I wanted to receive the best possible education I could in preparation for my commitment to you. I felt that you deserved the very best, and I also felt like PTS offered the very best. I know this is a debatable statement and that I might have been one of the most disgruntled critics of PTS while I was there. But I know that I thought it was the best choice for me at the time. I knew that, at PTS, I wouldn't just read about Origen, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, et cetera; I knew that I'd actually read Origen, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, et cetera. I knew it would be a place with a lot of diversity in almost all respects, that it is a place that attracts people of all ages, from all over the world, from all walks of life, with all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of beliefs. I knew that it would be a place that would push me and stretch me and force me to think and rethink and consider and reconsider. And I knew that I would meet some incredible people– professors, students, staff, University students, ministers from the surrounding area and from the rest of the country and world. And while I was largely put off (read: disgusted) by the whole name-dropping game that people play with the word "Princeton," I knew that the name would attract great scholars, great programs, and great opportunities. Thus, I decided to pursue my education there.

I knew that you were confused and, if I may be so bold, frightened by this decision of mine. I heard the confusion and fear in the questions your people asked me. It was easily read on the faces of friends and family and others who met Peter and me at some gathering of your people. Whenever a prayer was to be said before a meal, all eyes turned to Peter, the seminarian, and he was asked to bless the food. Whenever a theological topic began to be discussed, all eyes turned to Peter, the seminarian, who was asked for his opinion on this or that topic, his take on this or that scripture passage. Whenever we were first introduced to new person or group, people shook both of our hands and asked Peter what sort of church he was hoping to pastor after seminary. Peter would smile and reply that, in fact, he was working toward a PhD in theology with the hopes of teaching, while I was, in fact, the seminarian who was hoping to pursue some sort of pastoral ministry in the church. The unmistakable look of mingled confusion and fear would cross the people's faces as they would smile and nod at me as if to say "how cute," while their lips remained silent.

These sorts of experiences began to accumulate, and as they did, I began to feel as though that space that you had once so carefully carved out for me was getting tighter and tighter. My little space seemed to migrate as it shrunk, and soon I realized that I was surrounded by the small group of women ministers in your ranks. Collectively, we made up a tiny sliver of your representative pie chart. And, while there are always exceptions to any generalization, I was shocked to discover the general characterizations of the women by my side. There were some who were much older. They had either had their families already or they had never had a family of their own. They had fought long and hard to maintain their space in your ranks. They were the initial artisans who had spent hours and tears and toil, chiseling through the seemingly impenetrable walls of your unspoken hierarchy to claim their space, to carve out the space for the rest of us. They were tired and weary and skeptical. They were almost adamantly post-menopausal, post-sexual beings. They were women, to be sure, but the exhaustion of their labor had gotten to them over time, and they had long forsaken the frivolous and time-consuming tasks of feminization, such as makeup or fashion.

And then there were the younger ones, like me. We were overwhelmed with our debt of gratitude to those older women, still at the front lines, still chiseling and war-torn. But we were also frightened by them. We knew they loved us and were proud of us, but they looked at us with their wise eyes decorated by their wise lines and warned us that it would not be easy. They told us things in the confidentiality of our womanhood, things that would make us blush to speak aloud, things that made us cry ourselves to sleep.

"They will not like you," they said. "If you want to be liked, do not stay here."

"You will have to work four times as hard and you will receive 1/4 of the credit," they said. "If you need affirmation or appreciation, do not stay here."

"You have to downplay your gender as much as possible," they said. "If you like to dress fashionably or wear makeup or if you happen to be naturally physically attractive, do not stay here."


"Your family will not understand you and will probably resent you, if you have a family at all," they said. "If you want a happy, healthy family, do not stay here."

"Your presence will always infuriate some people and you will constantly be facing those who do not want you here," they said.

"If you cannot stand up to mockery or allegedly biblical arguments about the very vocation that you feel God has laid upon your heart, do not stay here."

I soon noticed that you have a well-concealed emergency exit near in our small space, and, needless to say, I have watched my neighbors flee in droves. They are often well-educated, well-trained, eager to serve and love and give and grow. They initially drift over to our area, starry-eyed and hopeful, and they give it their best shot. They look for jobs as pastors, and they are told that they are not a good "fit" with a congregation that almost immediately thereafter hires a less-educated, less-qualified man as their pastor. They are told that they would make great foreign missionaries or terrific Sunday school teachers. If they are hired at churches, they show up for the first day to discover that their position has been renamed. They are "directors" or "coordinators" or "leaders" or "teachers." They are told that their knee-length skirts are too short or that their translucent makeup is too heavy or that their clavicle-grazing blouse is too low-cut. If they are single, they quickly become every congregant's matchmaking project. If they are married, they are treated to an incessant bombardment of questions about their fertility and plans for motherhood. If they have children, they are eyed with suspicion and sized up for their mothering skills.

And so I watch the dark circles appear under their eyes. I watch their posture gradually slump. I watch them make their sad procession to the exit. And I watch them leave. And I watch in stunned amazement as they are neither mourned nor missed.

My friend, you know that I love you, that I am faithful to you, and that I am ready to commit myself wholly to you. But I have to be honest with you. I am feeling claustrophobic in this little corner of yours, and I have one foot on the emergency exit. I don't want to leave you, but you have to be honest with me. Where is this relationship going? What am I to you?

Wanting to be yours sincerely and affectionately,

Megan DeWald Kline


4 replies
  1. revdebmatt
    revdebmatt says:

    Oh, my, how this sounds familiar to friends of mine, and even my own struggle to understand and then accept “women ministers.” Thank you for sharing this love letter.
    And thank you for naming and describing the struggle all women in ministry still have, in defining what the next wave of women in ministry will look like – no longer women who have (appeared to have) rejected femininity or family, but those who are _Women_ Who Are _In_ _Ministry_.

    Reply
  2. ann
    ann says:

    hi megan,
    thanks for writing and sharing this. though i’m coming from a different angle in some ways, i can definitely relate.

    Reply
  3. JAT
    JAT says:

    You have articulated what feels like my own story. I actually thought for a moment, someone had written this about me. I am a Texas native, raised Baptist, a Baylor graduate and received my MDIV from Princeton in 2006. I feel denominationally homeless and at the same time right where I am supposed to be. Some bridger-of-gaps, perhaps; I am still seeking my role. Thank you for writing. I enjoyed reading.

    Reply

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