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