Several months ago I received a phone call inviting me to speak on a panel to a cohort of women clergy who met monthly. Several of them were associate pastors, struggling mightily with how to claim any authority at all in their respective ministry settings.
The facilitators were inviting me, they said, because I was an “outlier” in my own call; the relationship between my older male colleague and I was understood to be an anomaly because we functioned as partners more than anything. They knew that we shared a genuine, mutual respect and that we actually enjoyed our working relationship. They knew that I exercised considerable agency and authority in my role, and that my colleague supported me in that, rather than being threatened by it. They knew that we pushed each other to be better, more authentic, and more courageous in our pastoral identities, and that both our congregation and the wider community were benefitting as a result.
Let that sink in for a minute – my pastoral colleague and I have a functional working relationship built on mutual respect, and we enjoy each other’s company. That makes us outliers.
This is a problem.
It’s a problem for the church in general, but it’s especially problematic for the thousands of younger women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in this country and around the world who are routinely treated by their older, male senior colleagues as if they have none of their own God-given gifts for ministry, even in ministry settings and denominations that claim to believe otherwise.
Another member of the panel that morning was a younger male associate pastor. At one point in the conversation he was beside himself with grief at what he was hearing from the women in the room, and he wondered aloud about how he could be sure he didn’t become the very problem they were naming so clearly. Not wanting to assume that we in the room had all the answers ourselves, I posed his question to several online clergy groups, garnering responses from hundreds of women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in a wide array of Christian denominations.
As you can imagine, their responses ranged from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. They offered examples that were uplifting, heartbreaking, and everything in between. As best I can summarize, their responses to the question “What do you want older male clergy to know about how best to function with their younger women/femme/non-binary associate colleagues?” are as follows: