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One Woman's Journey into Ordained Ministry

By Rosie Nixson.

I was chatting to a Christian with whom I was working on a mission. We were comparing notes about our Christian stories, and where God might be leading us next. He was about to go and learn more about church-planting. Then he added, why didn't I go and do something like that?

I said, almost instinctively, 'Woman can't plant churches.'

To which he replied, 'Why not?'

What significance those two words had in my journey towards ministry!

Much of the current debate about women in ministry focuses on what women can or cannot do - according to criteria imposed by men. So I suppose it is not very surprising that my own story is one of either encouragement or discouragement, mainly from men in the church. It is the kind of story which has not often been told. And so I hope it will illustrate some aspects of training and preparing for ministry - from a woman's perspective.

Part of me wants to apologise for telling my story. But a recent book on women in ministry points out that the Bible's view of the relations between men and women is at its core a very personal topic: 'All of us Christians are either women who must do what the Bible says or we are men who must have to relate to women in some capacity.' My experience of calling and preparing for ministry has been affected by the fact that I am a woman more than by anything else. This may not be true for all women. Not all encounter the same degree of difficulty, but all encounter some, sooner or later. The tough ones survive. If the struggles harden us, that is regrettable, but perhaps inevitable when power in the church is mainly in the hands of men. And what of those who, more discouraged than encouraged, give up altogether? What waste of God-given talents, waste for them, for the church, and for a world which needs to know about Christ!

It would not occur to a man wondering about a calling to ministry to think that, as a man, he could never be called by God to plant a church. My first 'ministry' experience was that of a leader in my university Christian Union. One term, I had a lad who refused to be in the Bible study group I was leading: 'The Bible says women should not teach or have authority...' I was not sure I was doing either, but it did not seem worth arguing about. A few years later, another woman and I felt called to start a group for Christian postgraduates - for Bible study, fellowship and support. All was fine until the words of 1 Timothy 2 came back. After some debate, we were obliged to stand down.

But that was the start of much praying and searching the Scriptures. If, as I began to feel later, God was calling me to ordained ministry, what about these awkward Bible passages? And how did they square with Jesus' practice, and that of Paul, and the rest of the Bible? That is another story, but the reason for the search is that it was (and is) a very personal issue. How could I disobey God, by disobeying his word?

The men in Christian leadership who have encouraged me stand out, perhaps because they have been comparatively rare. For my college placement, I went to New Zealand, and spent time in a parish with a woman priest. I had a great time, learning something of a very consultative style of leadership. But I also spent time alongside her husband, Peter, a church growth consultant for the diocese. Five glorious weeks learning about church growth, attending clergy meetings and conferences, and chatting for hours over the breakfast table. At a meeting towards the end of that time, one woman remarked how non-sexist Peter was. That was it! Women are so often excluded from certain aspects of ministry. To come across a man in Christian leadership who treated a woman as a human being was remarkable.

Are women human?

As I went off to theological college, a friend gave me a quotation from Jane Austen to pin on my wall: 'A woman, especially if she should have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.' That was written long before the research that shows that girls often under-achieve at school because being intelligent is somehow seen as 'unfeminine'. One might expect the church to be different, but as a Reformed woman pastor wrote a few years ago, 'Woman still suffer, as they have in the past, the oppressive effects of stereotyping, of dehumanising expectations, of confused and inferior self-images, of great odds when they try to make it in what is yet a man's world, of attacks on their femininity when they are too successful.

When my Hebrew teacher encouraged me to keep going at Hebrew, I felt honoured. He was another who challenged the stereotypes.

I have met women in ministry who attribute their 'feminism' to their training, and I am not surprised. Nor is it surprising that the experience of training and work in the church has made many women more radical, often less evangelical in their theology. The impetus behind much feminist theology is the attempt to retain a sense of being a human being in a church that devalues and denigrates women.

Are women human? One definition of a feminist which I rather like is that it is anyone who believes that women are people. That usually makes people laugh. It seems very silly. But women still live with the legacy of church fathers such as Aquinas who thought that women were not quite human, that they were men gone wrong. There was a stage in the early church when women had to deny all that made them women in order to be saved, to be Christians. In some Christians today, subconsciously, vestiges of those views seem to remain.

I chose my college carefully. We have moved some way from the situation at Princeton Seminary in the 1970s when one woman was accosted by her evangelical brothers with the words, 'What are you doing in seminary when women aren't supposed to speak?' I avoided the college where I'd heard that one woman was the only one in her year, and that the teaching staff consistently taught as though they were addressing a roomful of men.

My college was one where the ministry of women was affirmed. But there was still room for improvement. Among some students at least, male camaraderie excluded women, somehow treating us as less than human, on the assumption we could not possibly want to talk theology. I wondered whether bookroom talk by men about which commentaries were the best, or how many commentaries they used in their preaching, was the Christian equivalent of fast cars or female conquests! I valued very highly those who treated me as a human being, and accepted me as I was (and am), someone who enjoyed talking theology with thoughtful people. I was touched by men who listened, who were sensitive and self-critical, willing to change their attitudes and their behaviour. I was moved by the male friend who sent me a card when the Anglican church voted to ordain women to the priesthood. The women rejoiced together, but when men shared the rejoicing, as he had shared the praying beforehand, that really meant something...

Not to be served, but to serve...

Ministry is about service. I did not expect to find that following the one who suffered and died for me, taking up my cross, was going to be an easy path to tread. But I could have done without the friend, formerly a CU leader herself, who wrote to me at college, 'I am sorry to hear about what you are doing. We do not believe that this is in accordance with the teaching of the Bible.' Men in ministry do not have these crosses to bear too.

A friend shared with me a quotation which he and others had found very helpful: 'If you desire the best, no human hand can grasp it. You can only wait for God to give.' But then I reflected, usually I do wait. In fact, the trouble is, I wait for too long. Kathy Keay, founder of Men Women and God, wrote a prayer called 'Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye'. Women need to stop waiting for someone to make things happen, and take our own responsibility for responding to God's call on our lives. Some men in ministry who seem to act as if they are God's answer to every problem, have appalled me. But sometimes I have done the opposite, hung back waiting for someone to notice me and ask me to join in some work of service to God. Of course one cannot make generalisations about all women and all men. But being as I am, I have been very grateful for friends who have convinced me that I could do things I was not sure I could do, and have supported me in them.

I wonder if we can learn something from feminist theology's reflection on sin. The besetting sin has normally been thought of as pride. It has been suggested that this applies to men but does not apply so much to women. Women are more often guilty of self-deprecation, of under-valuing themselves. They need to be helped to overcome this rather than have it reinforced.

What is ministry? Christ set an example of ministry with a bowl of water and a towel. We talk of servant ministry, but often ministry seems more about status and power. Women, used to serving, may have something to teach men about Christ-like leadership.

The whole idea of excluding women from service seems slightly ridiculous, looked at this way round. A servant does not have status or authority, but does have responsibility. Perhaps our models of Christian ministry have become too similar to those of the world.

What will happen to the church as the number of women in ministry, in leadership positions, increases? Social scientists tell us that the status of jobs is devalued when women enter them. Look at the example of secretaries. When typewriters were new and felt to be difficult to operate, stenographers were men. Now there are very few male secretaries. Will the ministries which women enter be 'devalued'?

But the model we have is that of a servant. We are called to count others better than ourselves, and what is more humble than the role of a servant? Through the pain I feel when fellow evangelicals take a different view of Paul's teaching from my own, I do wonder sometimes whether this view arises partly from fear and threat. It is curious that it is the role perceived as most important from which women are excluded. In some churches it is priesthood. In some it is the pulpit. In some it is leadership. In some, I gather, it is in the role of worship leader than few women are to be found. How curious!

The future is female?

I am not one to emphasise gender differences, since so often they have been used to oppress women. However, men and women are socialized in different ways, and therefore some of their needs in training and preparing for ministry will be different. Many women lack opportunities to try out and practice certain skills, especially the more public ones. Encouragement and opportunities from those who are in a position to give them would be of great benefit to future generations of women.

I was very struck when the vicar of my church referred in a sermon to his mentor, someone who had been really valuable as he had been moving into Christian ministry. 'That's just what I need', I thought. But it hurt that this same person had done nothing to help me. Women in training need role models; there are relatively few, but we need to make use of them. While I was at college we had the opportunity to go to a conference for women in training for ordained ministry. 'Why a conference for women?' some asked. 'We do not have conferences for men!' Many conferences are useful but it was valuable to go to one where some of our specific needs were addressed.

In society there are more and more women in leadership positions. Many women now entering ordained ministry have left responsible jobs to do so. Clearly the church should not simply follow the trends in society, but can recognise that these may create new opportunities. Paul appears to have restricted the ministry of women when they had limited knowledge and experience. Now there are women entering ministry who are mature Christians, highly intelligent, and who have well developed teaching and leadership gifts.

A friend of mine who is training for Baptist ministry went to a church to preach. After the service a woman came up to her, saying, 'That was the most anointed preaching I've heard for a long time.' She explained why she had found it so helpful. 'But I just have one problem', she said, 'I don't agree with some women preaching.'

It is quite confusing. Does God call women? Does he give them gifts as he does to men? Does he expect women to follow him, to serve him? Can women preach, or is it still as it was in the days of Dr Johnson, that 'a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not well done; but you are surprised to find it done at all.' I have been encouraged by those who have helped me in my preaching. I have been encouraged by all the books I have found, the teaching I have heard, which has grappled with what the Bible teaches about women. I have been especially struck by stories of men who have made sacrifices so that their wives can pursue their ministries, rather than it always being the other way round, and who have shunned the criticisms they have encountered. Does that make them less of a man? If so, by whose standards, those of worldly masculinity, or those of Christ, who affirmed women, and Paul, who told women to learn, and to catch up on the things they didn't understand by asking their husbands at home.

I have been encouraged that some of the men with whom I trained left college less sexist, more appreciative of the ministry of women, than they were to start with. But there is a long way to go before gender relations are truly based on mutuality rather than on dominance and superiority. Men need to learn to see women as partners, as people worthy of camaraderie, respect and dignity. I have been saddened when I have seen women denied access to information - about jobs, about conferences, about things of importance. I am particularly grateful to one friend who never ceases to encourage me, showing by his respect that he treats me as a human being, and someone with a future which need not be limited by the fact that I am a woman.

When I was struggling with the sense of God's call, I took heart from the portraits in scripture of Joshua, Moses and Jeremiah, hesitantly responding to the call of God. By contrast, many of the men in ministry whom I know seem confident and self-assured. I respect the ones who have been willing to show the person beneath the confident, often 'macho' exterior, the ones brave enough to be vulnerable, who live out the truth that we have this treasure in jars of clay so that we know that the all-surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

The Rev Rosie Nixson is curate of St Andrew's, Hartcliffe, Bristol and has written two Grove booklets. She has degrees in English and Theology, and before training for ordained ministry worked as an editor for UCCF. She is a member of the planning group of Men, Women and God.

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You are reading One Woman's Journey into Ordained Ministry by Rosie Nixson, part of Issue 5 of Ministry Today, published in October 1995.

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