The term ‘microaggression’ has been floating around the internet these days. A recent post on The Junia Project, about women in the church, defined microaggressions as “brief and often subtle everyday events that denigrate individuals because they’re members of particular groups.”
In the church, microaggressions towards women abound. They are the gender-exclusive language we use so much, like referring to a pastor of unknown gender as “he” by default, or referring to human beings as man or mankind. They are the habits we carry, like always telling little girls (or even women) how beautiful or pretty they are, but telling little boys (or even men) how strong, or smart or capable they are. They are the subtle gender stereotypes we have, like that weakness or sensitivity is girly, or strength or power is manly.
Each microaggression is small and subtle. Most go unnoticed, even by their victims. Over time, the microaggressions add up to create larger bias and prejudice within us.
Working to eliminate and catch ourselves (and others) on their microaggressions is vital and important work both in the church and in the world.
But let’s not forget all the MACROaggressions towards women that are happening in the church every day. These macroaggressions can just as often go unchallenged, and they are harder to replace with egalitarian attitudes and behaviour.
If microaggressions are the small events that denigrate, macroaggressions are obvious and blatant. Gender macroaggressions are just as ubiquitous as the microaggressions in Christianity. Macroaggressions are found in progressive churches and they are found in conservative churches.
These macroaggressions need to be named so that we can begin to change them, and strive for gender equality. So let’s name some:
- The macroaggression of excluding women from the clergy. Some denominations permit the ordination of women, but many still don’t. Many actively claim that scripture prevents women from having teaching authority over or preaching to men. They claim that women are unsuited for leadership in the church and should be submissive in the home and in marriage. They claim this aggression without admitting the ambiguities found in Paul’s writings, the questions of authorship, the ambiguity of the Greek to English translation, the effect of 1st century cultural baggage on the text. The macroaggression is maintained when Christian leaders ignore other biblical texts that point us to women who were leaders in the early church, and by ignoring Paul’s – Jesus’ really – theology of equality in the body of Christ.
- The macroaggressions towards women who are clergy. For those fighting for the right to ordain women in their denomination, don’t think the fight ends when woman are allowed to be ordained. Even in “progressive” denominations, congregations will try to pay women who are clergy less (because they have husbands who work). Women who are clergy are often overlooked for positions in cities or as senior pastors. Some congregations won’t even consider female candidates for pastoral vacancies. Women who are clergy are often given less respect and challenged more often by congregation members. People will do and say things to women in ministry that they would never do or say to a male counterpart. And when it comes to creating policies that foster gender equality, denominations are behind. Church leadership has been working for years to implement sabbatical policies for pastors, but it is rare to see meaningful maternity leave policies implemented.
- The macroaggressions towards women in congregational leadership positions. When electing council or board positions, women are often considered for secretary positions not chairperson positions. Women are expected to serve on altar guilds or Sunday School committees, but are rarely asked for property or stewardship committees. Women are expected to decorate and serve meals by default but are rarely consulted on property matters. Women are asked to plan Christmas pageants or lead bible studies for other women, but are rarely asked to preach or lead congregational wide studies. Staff are often hired by traditional gender roles. Men are preferred as pastors, but so are women preferred as office administrators (so much so that I have heard complaints about a “secretary” whose “phone voice” was too low so it sounded like a man’s).
- The macroaggression of gender exclusive theology and scripture. Some bible translations intentionally use gendered language like brothers, when brothers and sisters should be used. Some say men, when human kind should be used. Many Christians intentionally choose to use He, Him, His as pronouns for God (so much so you might even think He is the proper noun for God). God is described with traditionally masculine attributes, both physically (old white man with white beard in the sky) and in character traits (powerful, strong, wrathful etc…).
- The macroaggressions of bullying, sexism, and chauvinistic behaviour towards women. This might be the most significant of macroaggressions in the church. The problem is that all of the macroaggressions above not only happen, but are often condoned, even encouraged by many in the church. Like my post on bullying suggests, often times we just sit back and allow the sexist comments or jokes, we encourage women to be kind and sweet instead of standing up to those who put them down. Women are told that men can’t be expected to change, that bad behaviour is just a reality that must be accepted.
Challenging microaggressions makes a difference, they break down prejudice and bias. Yet, it is the macroaggressions that need to be ended.
There are ways to counteract these MACROaggressions. We need to eliminate the macroaggressions from our language, and insist on the pronouns for God being God, God’s, God-self, even when it causes awkward sentences in sermons. We need to describe God with male AND female characteristics found in scripture in a balanced manner. We need to practice not assuming the gender of a pastor, a congregational chairperson (instead of chairman), or secretary, even though it is habit to assume gender.
Men need to volunteer, and suggest other men, for secretary positions on boards and committees (I have several times). Women should be considered for congregational chairpersons. I have suggested women consider and be nominated for this leadership role, not just because someone is a woman, but because a particular person is the best candidate and a woman. We need to encourage women to serve on property committees and encourage men for altar guilds and decorating committees.
We need to intentionally promote pastors who are women in congregations who have little or no experience with ordained women. Men need to suggest that congregations should consider a woman for their next pastor, when the time comes.
Eliminating the microaggressions from our speech and habits takes intentionality and effort. Eliminating and challenging macroaggressions takes purpose and conviction. It means speaking out against the obvious aggressions against women in the church and in the world. It means being open to changing theology. It means being willing to risk feelings, traditions, cultures, systems, conflict… people being mad at us. It means challenging the established systems of privilege for new systems of equality.
And it will take all of us to do it. It will take all of us – who are tired of watching the women we love being subjected to bullying, sexism, chauvinism – to not forget the macroaggressions against women.
More posts on women in ministry: