A woman’s place


I’m thinking a lot about the role of women these days. Not in the sense of clergy women so much… although a discussion about this will be forthcoming. I am thinking more of the role of the regular, pew-sitting mother. The exhausted one who is begging for children’s Sunday school during worship and falling asleep during the sermon. She is not faring well during our cultural shifts–especially in our churches.

I imagine that in many ways she looks a lot different than a mom did fifty years ago.

In the fifties and early sixties, our mainline denominations grew up in the post-war boom, with civic-minded pride, and the dominance of white, protestant culture. Women’s roles in this moment are particularly interesting. When the war effort was over and the troops came home, women who had briefly entered the workforce resumed their domestic duties.

However, new technologies were evolving and making it easier for women to work outside of the home. The dishwasher, washing machine, and clothes dryer all made things faster for women to complete their household chores, and yet, they still did not have an economy, childcare system, or societal understanding that supported a flourishing female workforce. More women began attending college and entering the educational system or the secretarial pool, but when a woman married or became pregnant, she was expected to go back home, and stay there.

So what were women going to do with all of that energy, intelligence, and imagination, once their children went to school? They found a place where their gifts could flourish. As sure as the bricks and mortar, women began to build the church, with all of those talents and volunteer hours. 

Often congregations were the center of a woman’s life, and so it followed that a spouse and children were expected to attend services every Sunday. Religious education flourished as women with strong callings to teach and preach, found a niche teaching Sunday school and leading Bible studies. Women’s groups grew up within our denominations, complete with gifted officers, abundant budgets, and full schedules. These groups became powerful influences on denominational structures, as they built alternative basis of influence outside of the traditional religious hierarchies.

 When many of the mainline denominations finally affirmed the ordination of women to become deacons, elders, and ministers, I’ve heard that some women were actually disappointed by the development. They had built up such powerful influence outside of the structures that being inside of them felt like a demotion!

Now the Mainline church is in the midst of all of this, mourning our membership decline, as the wonderful people who built our congregations in the Fifties are passing away. Our church cultures were often formed forty years ago, and there can be a certain disconnect as we reach out to our current world.

At the heart of this, I don’t think we ever quite figured out what to do about women. Our denominational culture has welcomed women clergy and academics. Of course, we have a long way to go. Many people in the pew who are still uncomfortable with a woman in the pulpit and women’s voices in our educational institutions are still an overwhelming minority, but as we look at the broad spectrum of our religious culture, we continue to be on the cutting edge in these areas.

But what about the average mom in the pew?

In the post-war culture, women kept things going. They taught Sunday school, took care of the sick and the elderly, kept the women’s programs together, and cooked the mid-week dinner.

Now, forty percent of working mothers make more than their husbands. And yet, our expectations of them have not changed much in the church. We still want wives to do way more work than their husbands do, and we do not give them the type of head-of-household respect that we give men. We still expect them to do a great deal of our housework.

Working moms are at their jobs long hours, and get very little time with their kids. The time that they do have, they often don’t want to spend it trying to police their small children in the pews. They don’t have time to keep our Sunday school running, or mid-week dinners cooking, or the deacon board populated. When they do come to church, they are often greeted by guilt-ridden invitations to attend the mid-week morning Bible study.

You know what they say–Equality begins at home. So, when we look at church cultures, are we expecting women to do most of the housework? Do we silently shame them for not keeping up with their grandmother? Do we make snide remarks about how the young women these days just don’t care about the church like women used to? Do we pass judgment on their children’s soccer schedules? Do we wonder (with big, long sighs) why they won’t take part in women’s groups? Do we expect them to do more work than we expect from their husbands?

Or, can we just give them a break? Can we begin surrounding them, caring for them, supporting them, and trying to make their lives a just a little bit easier? 

photo by imaGENEation

8 thoughts on “A woman’s place

  1. These are good questions. But who will do the caring? How do we make the connections? Whose job is it?
    I feel women in ministry (myself included) want to vault past the jobs that are still associated with “women’s work,” the ministries of care and education, because equality means serving as Head of Staff or Senior Pastor. Why do we judge those ministries as somehow *less* professional, less of a vocation?
    No answers, just more questions at this point.

  2. Maybe Christ’s experiences with Martha and Mary are appropriate here. Making time to take time to be with Jesus was the lesson He taught the two sisters.

    And this stress and busyness is not just gender specific either. I see young Dads doing a lot more with their kids today than ever before. I guess it all boils down to priorities – either Christ is first in our lives or He isn’t. Or how did Jesus put it – you have to love me more than father or mother, sister or brother, son or daughter. It seems we’re looking for a compromise that just isn’t there.

  3. Here’s a comment from my facebook site, from a wonderful pew-sitting mom and friend:

    This is all too true. So many institutions were built on women’s energies, and they are suffering today because women are stretched ever thinner.

    I would add to your list of church problems a lack of acceptance of, or understanding of, how parenting has changed. I find that too many are judgmental of women’s parenting choices: on the one hand, they wonder why parents aren’t bringing children to church, and on the other hand, they roll their eyes and suggest liberal beatings when the children are present. I’d feel slighted, but it is far from just my kids! The tensions within the family and within society are playing out in church. While that isn’t surprising, I fear that for many women it just feels like more of the same instead of a spiritual opportunity.

  4. This post should be published in the NY Times or someplace like it. It deserves the widest possible readership. Thank you.

  5. Interesting side note about housework getting easier because of technology in the first half of the century – it actually didn’t. House chores still filled a housewife’s time in spite of the declaration of “higher efficiency.” While the machines did alleviate the time to do each individual chore, women were expected to DO MORE with MORE TECHNOLOGY (per advertisements’ guilt trips and family’s subsequent expectations) in order to make up for the time gained.

  6. Even as a pastor I feel defensive, not of your post Carol, but the attitude that many women of older generations in the church have against young moms like me. By capturing the nostolgia of the 1950’s they project the attitude that unless we can return to those days our future generation have no hope. That the reason the church is dying, the reason there is no one there to do the “jobs” in the church is because women are working ouside of the home. Because they are overscheduling their children and letting them be exposed to the “sinful” culture of technology.

    When a mom sits down in a pew on any Sunday morning, I don’t think they are only worrying about the equity they may or may not be getting at home but the judgement placed on them by women of previous generations. That we aren’t doing our job of mother, wife, “woman of the church” well enough to live up to their standard because we aren’t doing it their way.

    You are absolutely right, and as a pastor/ mother/ wife I get this all the time from my very own congregation. The older women of the church want me to reniforce their expectations otherwise I am not only a bad woman but a bad pastor. The the world and family of the 1950’s doesn’t exist anymore so why is the church continuing to hold it as the standard of what a “successful church” is?

  7. As an old boomer, now a grandmother, I resonate with this post and with my daughter and grandmother. I have been the woman in the pew stretched too thin and I now see my daughter and daughter-in-law making different but equally authentic choices of their involvement in faith communities. Just as woman’s roles have been redefined, the congregations that are most effective in reaching today’s families are those that have redefined themselves. Where authentic communities are formed, where we know and honor one another’s life journeys, there is a greater chance that how we participate in the life of the community is reformed. I do not participate the way my mother did anymore than she was like her immigrant mother. What we share is our understanding of a loving and forgiving God, saved by grace, we respond as we are able. The leaders of congregations who are open to new ways of doing things and supportive of the contributions of all people will lead in forming communities.
    I am defensive about the comments of older women and men in the pews. First I have to ask, Really? Are people still saying those things and secondly, just as we did not have good social support or day care choices 30 to 40 years ago, can you imagine the remarks about who will teach Sunday school then? I still feel guilty that I didn’t want to be the room mother, work outside the home and bear 80% of the day to day housework while being in the women’s group at church. We have heard these objections for a long time but some of us have visioned a church where there is room for spiritual nurture and growth to support all the other roles we take on. First and foremost we are children of a loving and creative God, surely she has a place for all of us!

  8. As one who is involved in Christian Education and Formation at a church, this depiction of church rings incredibly true.

    Carol’s primary interests, however, need to be taken up as equals:
    1. What can the church do for women (whose roles in the church have changed, who are the subject of disapproval, and are feeling the brunt of expectations)?
    2. How must the church evolve to be better suited to the current environment?

    It is a sincerely scary notion to recognize that we are continuing to operate under a 60 year-old model that hasn’t matched the culture in over 40 years. My mother’s generation (Baby Boom) struggled with the church she inherited from her parents, and yet it is still in operation, even though Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials have all rejected the “woman’s work” label.

    This reveals the underlying concern that I would expand on Carol’s conversation:

    Who does the work?
    or perhaps more directly:
    Who is (or is not) doing the work today?

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