The new gender equality

On the way to our summer mission trip in Red Lake Indian Reservation, an ELCA church graciously allowed us to spend the night in their facility. The next morning, we worshiped with them.

Later, many of my students commented on how the church we stayed at was pastored by two females and no males. While many of my students liked this, a few were disturbed by it.

Those most disturbed by this were themselves female. 

To be honest, their reaction disturbed me.

In the weeks since, I've wrestled with my own reaction to this. Why is it that I expected all people – especially the girls in my group – to celebrate a congregation pastored by two females? Or at the very least, to appreciate it?

Clearly, the girls disturbed by the presence of two female pastors and no male pastors have never been denied a ministry job exclusively because of their gender. They've never been told they're not a real youth pastor, just because they're a woman. They've never been invited to something as a token female representative and as such, asked to speak on behalf of their entire gender. They've also never had their idea ignored in a meeting until their male colleague repeated it five minutes later (and took the credit). They've never had well-meaning people respond to their preaching not by commenting on it's content but instead by saying, “It's so good for your girls to see a female up there.”

In contrast, all five of these things have been part of my experience in youth ministry. No doubt all of these experiences also colored my excitement in seeing two seemingly capable, competent women pastor a congregation.

A few weeks after this conversation, I met with my student leaders. As part of this meeting, we discussed Doug Fields' book, Help! I'm a Student Leader. The particular chapter we were discussing focused on how student leaders have a ministry. It therefore encouraged student leaders to develop a global mindset. To aid with this, we brainstormed a list of causes we care about.

Two of the causes that made my students' list were women's rights and equal opportunities.

Initially, I thought how strange this was coming from a group who, weeks before, struggled with worshiping in a church pastored by two females. But then it hit me.

My students care about both women's rights and equal opportunities.

Unlike so many of us in the Christian world, they have not yet fallen prey to the dichotomy of either / or that so pervades our world. They have not yet been taught that the success of one kind of person must naturally preclude that of another.

Instead, they believe strongly in equality, so strongly, in fact, that many of them believe the words from the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal” are actually Biblical.

It's no wonder, then, that when my students saw a church with two female pastors they saw it not as a triumph of women's equality but rather as a gross example of inequality; As an underrepresentation of men.

In the midst of all of this, the ELCA – the denomination I am fortunate to serve – elected the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as it's Presiding Bishop. Though I know next to nothing about Eaton, I'll admit that I am proud to serve a denomination in which a woman can ascend to it's highest office.

In her excellent piece about Rev. Eaton's election, a pastor in the ELCA, Nadia Bolz-Weber, reflected on how she longs to live “in a post-gender world, a world where the election of Elizabeth Eaton is celebrated because she is an extraordinary leader (which she is) and not because her gender is, in anyway, interesting or worthy of comment.”

I, too, long for this day. Unfortunately, like Nadia, I also know that “There are still little girls in white, Sunday school shoes who will never hear a voice that is like theirs speak the Gospel, who will never see curves like the ones they will have under the robes of the one raising bread and wine behind an altar and speaking ancient, holy words of promise and forgiveness, who will never know without reservation that she is made in the image of God in all her glorious girl-ness.”

That said, in the wake of the election of Rev. Elizabeth Eaton as Presiding Bishop in the ELCA, I am hopeful that this post-gender world we imagine might in fact be attainable.

And I am hopeful not just because the ELCA elected a female as it's Presiding Bishop but because the youth in our denomination care deeply about women's rights and equal opportunities. They care so deeply, in fact, that they see inequality not just when women are absent from the pulpit but when men are too.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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