Sunday morning. February 2021. As I prepared to head out to church to attend service in-person, I spent a few minutes with my daughter who would be watching on-line. My other daughter interrupted the conversation by sharing that she had barely slept after a late meal that caused her discomfort through out the night. I was torn leaving her at home, but after supplying her with fluids, crackers, and medicine and praying with her for comfort and healing, I headed out.
As I arrived in the church parking lot, my phone buzzed. It was my daughter with an upset stomach. After a few minutes of texting back and forth, I gathered my belongings and walked quickly across the asphalt, toward the church entrance. Following the pre-service sound check, I made a trip to the bathroom to double check that my hair was in place and my mascara had not left dark streaks under my eyes. On the way back, I was stopped in the hallway for a friendly chat, but I lost track of time.
I was late. The audio visual staff restarted the count-down clock to our Sunday worship service because I was missing from the sanctuary. How embarrassing! I grabbed my presider notes and mic and scurried onto the stage. I took my place behind the metal podium. With shortness of breath, I smiled and began, “Good morning! Welcome to our Sunday worship service. …”
How did it happen?
Two and half years ago, I approached my senior pastor about possibly serving our church as a worship presider. The interest began stirring about twelve months prior but conversations about it remained private, mostly between me and my husband. I desired to see women in visible leadership roles in the local church contexts, while still honoring the complementarian framework. I hoped to model for my daughters the significance of being created female. And I longed for them to be part of a Christian community that esteemed, espoused, and celebrated this biblical truth, “…there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This would include seeing women, alongside men, in influential public roles, utilizing their gifts for the building up of the church.
I grew up in the Korean immigrant church that also subscribed to a complementarian position which defined distinctions and interactions for men and women. For example, the fellowship room was divided by what seemed like an invisible line. The women congregated on one side of the room while the men filled the opposite side. When they gathered in homes for small groups or visitations, the men ate their meal at the formal dining table while the women gathered on the floor around a low, foldable table adorned with mother of pearls. It’s at this intersection of Korean immigrant church culture and a complementarian framework where my understanding of womanhood was rooted.
My current church context differs from the familiarity of my childhood but it also has semblances of it. On a given Sunday, the majority of the congregation with whom I worship are of Korean descent. Women in leadership are well represented in women’s and children and youth ministry, music ministry, prayer, discipleship, outreach and missions, and hospitality. They exercise their gifts because they deeply care for the health and vitality of the church. Yet, I noticed there were ministries where the presence of sisters serving alongside their brothers, was noticeably absent. Perhaps historically, certain leadership positions were filled primarily by men and the lack of female representation received little to no attention.
After attending a weekend training event led by a guest speaker, notably male, the timing felt right to initiate and pursue a conversation beyond the privacy of my home. The speaker made a couple of suggestive jokes and inappropriate innuendos about women. I gasped. My heart raced. The room filled with collective laughter. As is often the case, laughter is an expression of astonishment in hopes of alleviating felt tension or to assuage perceived embarrassment. But for me, the nervous laughter could not diminish or hide the feeling of being demeaned and dishonored as a woman.
At the next break, I took a deep breath and approached the front of the room where the speaker was standing. I had rehearsed several versions of what I wanted to express but when face to face, I focused on just one of the two comments that he made. To be honest, I found myself trying to be delicate in my delivery for fear of making him uncomfortable. When he reacted, “You were offended?” I backpedaled and said, “I know you didn’t mean it.”
This both grieved and horrified me.
Yes, I’m offended!
But then, why am I left feeling bad for not letting this one slide?
Why am I minimizing and defending his behavior?
Why do I feel responsible for this awkward exchange?
Unfortunately, incidents like these are too often excused and explained away — “It was a joke”; “It’s not a big deal”; “He didn’t mean it.” And the person who draws attention to the moment is told that they are being melodramatic, too serious, making a mountain out of molehill. Because the presumed intent was not ill-willed, the impact is dismissed. The impact goes unnamed and understated when in fact, the impact lingers even if it was an unintentional slip of the tongue.
Furthermore, the more subtle the degradation, the harder it becomes to name its impact. It’s often cloaked in humor. It’s compared to other more obvious and egregious examples and the conclusion is, “It could be worse”; “It’s not as bad as ______________.” When you attempt to name the subtlety, it is quickly brushed off. You second guess yourself, undermine your body’s gut reaction, and shift the blame and responsibility to yourself — “I misunderstood”; “I’m over reacting”; “I should be more gracious.”
Because the impact can differ from the intent, stories of impact need safe places to be voiced, heard, and known. Otherwise, they can be thoughtlessly categorized as trivial, eclipsed by the next headline, and minimized. And the nuances and particularities of the story stay untold.
My experience at that training propelled me to take the next step; from a behind the scenes volunteer, to a visible leader. Thankfully, our church leadership had begun to prayerfully and intentionally wrestle with women’s role in the local church ministry and my ask to preside was welcomed into this already existing conversation.
Ten months after my initial inquiry, I had the humble honor of publicly inviting people into the presence of the One who says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20)