Alisa Harris: Raised Right

I’m a pastor in Washington, D.C. The job is not at all what I supposed it would be. When I lived outside of the beltway and looked in, I saw a group of power-hungry, egomaniac talking heads, yelling at television cameras or rabid crowds.

I didn’t expect what I encountered—a group of idealistic individuals, who love God and love their neighbors. They have allowed their dreams of what the world ought to be seep into what they do each day. They work for nonprofits (or as they say around here, NGOs, non-governmental organizations). They lobby for the environment, lead with teachers unions, and work on the Hill. I don’t serve one of those congregations where the superstar politicians go (there are those churches), but I serve the one where people might be hanging out with a guest at Miriam’s Kitchen on one day and affecting policy on the next.

Of course, we have a thread of ego-driven power-mongering in all of us as well. We are a church, after all. But for the most part, after pastoring this congregation, I’ve learned a bit more about day-to-day politics and the people who are rightly known as “civil servants.”

I had a chance to think about this a lot this weekend. Not only was it the 10th anniversary of September 11, but I’m also participating in the Patheos Book Club Round Table discussion on Alisa Harris’ book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics. I loved reading how Harris went from Hillary bashing at a goat pageant to burning thrift-store bras as a feminist protest at her conservative college. So much of her story resonated with my own.

As I sat, consuming the pages, I wondered, What now? I may be over-reaching in my analysis, but I dare say that we are watching the coming of power of many women who learned the ways of politics through the pro-life movement.

Think about it… we’ve got Sarah Palin. We’ve got Michelle Bachmann. We’ve got a whole bevy of Mama Grizzlies. You may scoff, but they became solid political figures as a result of their activism. Liberals scratch their heads, wondering why so many Republican candidates are wearing power skirts, while those who fought for women’s rights still seems to be overwhelmed with old white guys. But those of us who grew up in the Religious Right hotbed know exactly why (and if you’re wondering, read Harris’s book).

I’m a full-grown, full-blown progressive now. Palin and Bachmann make me feel like I gulped down a glass of milk before realizing it was six-months out of date. But I was raised looking up to women like them, and I often wonder, If I were still conservative, would I be running for Congress right now? The truth is… conservatives are better at developing young leadership than progressives…. They’re even better at developing their young women.

Which brings me to my earlier point about my congregation, about the everyday work. Harris’s book didn’t make me want to give up on politics, or even completely untangle my faith from politics (even though they are now woven together in a different way now). But it did make me realize that if we represent a new generation of political creatures, then we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with the daily grind. Not just in rallies and protests, not just in posters and sound-bytes, but also in day-to-day justice. In being honest journalists and courageous pastors. In making sure that our daughters hear a different message.

One bit of the book keeps rolling around in my mind, and I find myself wrestling with Harris’s words:

Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love. It can be a good act, even a noble and heroic, but love is something that takes place behind a barricade; it happened in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups. Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity but to love your neighbor.

I suppose that I agree more with what Cornel West famously said: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I know that politics is messy, but I also believe that individual acts of love are only going to go so far. As one hand feeds the hungry, the other needs to be working on the larger scale.

Putting energy into helping one homeless person does not keep you from defending the poor in the political sphere. Loving my daughter does not keep me from fighting for women’s rights. Recycling one can does not keep me from working to make sure regulations are in place so that environmental degradation does not consume our planet. One action informs the other, and we need to keep doing both.

It is a profound moment for a new generation of politics, especially as we learn to engage our faith in the public sphere. And reading Harris’s story is a good reminder that our faith should never be tightly wound up into one political party. And as we engage our faith in different ways, we can remember that being involved in politics means that we must keep thinking for ourselves.


Seven Things Guys Need To Know About Post-Evangelical Women

I’ve been in a conversation about the post-evangelical movement. During the conversation, someone asked me to blog about post-evangelical women’s issues for their blog. This is what I wrote. While the post is about PEWs, it’s relevant to Mainline situations as well. For those who read this blog regularly, forgive me for sounding like a broken record on so much of this!

Right now, in the US, many of us wrestle with the Evangelical movement in which we were raised. There are a lot of reasons for that. Our questions are theological, as we struggle with the atonement, the Kingdom of God, or Hell. We ask sociological questions about the role of women, LGBTQs, social media and politics. And philosophical and generational issues arise regularly. We’re in this exciting moment of turmoil right now, and we can realize we make real differences.

For me, the questions (or lack of questions) around gender have been interesting. I find myself wanting to explain what it’s like to grow up as a conservative Evangelical woman and how difficult the transition into leadership is from that place. I work a lot in the conference world, and my issues often arise there. I hear the whispers that men don’t. So, even though I’m at risk of sounding like a bad Cosmo article, I decided to write 7 Things Guys Need to Know about PEWs (Post-Evangelical Women). Basically, it’s the stuff we’re saying or dm’ing when you’re not there.

1) We were told to keep silent in church. Sometimes it was overt and other times it was subtle—a youth or Campus Crusade for Christ director buddies up with the cool football guys, takes them to lunch, and focuses on their leadership potential while the young women were left stranded. To go from “you must be silent” to finding your voice can be a long, arduous process.

2) We’re not welcome at every table. Nobody’s a blatant sexist (well, almost nobody…), so we have to look for cues. When a PEW sees the leadership of an organization or the splashy landing page for a conference, and we notice that the gender ratio is 14 to 1, it causes panic. We think, I thought this movement was different! I thought I was welcome here! It may be that we are welcome, and the leadership thought that having one female voice was good enough. But, for PEWs who grew up listening to “women should keep silent,” major gender inequity is a clear signal that the table is off-limits to us.

3) We don’t want to hear whining about forced quotas.
We’ve heard the tiresome response: “We don’t do quotas. This movement isn’t about counting and making sure that there’s a particular number of non-white males.” I’m sorry, but there’s no way around it. There will be no transformation in women’s leadership unless women are in leadership.

4) PEWs hear a defensive response as “you’re not welcome.” Sometimes on Twitter or blogs, a person might point out an appalling gender ratio. The PEWs who bring it up get the smack-down. I’ve been the recipient of coordinated pummeling twice by organizations who care about gender issues. I don’t understand why they did it, other than defensiveness. Ironically both boot parties were orchestrated behind the scenes by other women. If you care, please stop.

5) There are enough women. I’ve been hosting a podcast for a couple of years, and I regularly receive emails from men who ask to be on the show. I rarely get them from women. Women may be less willing or less able to self-promote. We’re harder to find. But we’re here. We’re writing, speaking, and preaching.

6) Please refrain from using “organic leadership” or “meritocracy” as an excuse. When the subject of PEW leadership comes up, we hear, “Our leadership grows up organically. If women want to be involved, they need to produce.” If organic growth or meritocracy is a reason for not having women in leadership, you have to realize that for post-evangelical women, we’ve have had weed-killer sprayed on us for 20 years. You’ve got to spread the manure to all the corners of the garden for a couple of decades before you can expect women to naturally grow into leadership.

7) Money Matters. Forgive me, but there’s no delicate way of saying this. I’ve spoken at conferences where I have as many credentials as the guy standing next to me. Sometimes more. I’ve gotten paid fifteen times less than he does. You know what makes things more awkward? The conference leaders congratulate themselves for flattening leadership, overturning hierarchies, or unbinding the church. The guy next to me is known for his hard-core social justice work. I’m here to tell you… no one’s overturning hierarchies at a conference where a woman gets seven cents to a man’s dollar.

Blogging around….

Although I haven’t been here, I’ve been at a few other places… It is my dream that someday I will have a site that will automatically pick up the feeds from the other places I blog, and put them here. Until that dream becomes a reality… I have to keep up my erratic cross-posting.

I’m at Clayfire Curator, talking about Liberating: the Sermon.

At Duke’s Call and Response blog, we’re discussing the relationship between seminaries and churches. What can we do to strengthen that bond? Also Daniel Kirk has picked up the discussion on his blog.

At the Huffington, I reflected on Amy Winehouse’s death and talked about the Columbian Free Trade Agreement.

In other places… Bo Sanders has been hosting an interesting discussion on the use of terms evangelical/liberal/progressive.

Also, my mom just gave me a heads-up on this lovely eulogy that Rob Kirby, the Senior Editor of Beliefnet wrote about my dad.

That’s an eclectic list of topics…. Hopefully there will be something there to interest you!

The Church for the 21st Century

So, I’m heading up a national Presbyterian committee which is studying the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century. We’re asking people five questions. I’ll answer them here (although it’s going to take several posts…), and if you’d like to answer them, please let me know and I’ll link your blog! We’d also appreciate feedback emailed to us at 21cchurch (at) gmail (dot) com.

If you’re not Presbyterian, please forgive the insider talk. I’ll try to translate as much as possible, but since many Mainline denominations are in the same situation, some of the information applies across the board.

What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?

It’s clear that God is doing a new thing in our midst, and in this important time of discernment, we can become open to what and who God is calling us to become. In the PC(USA), the average age of our membership is over 60 and the median Sunday morning attendance is about 70. Clearly, a lot of things will be changing in the next 20 years. My hope is that many churches will continue to exist in health. Just because a church is small, does not mean that it’s dying or that it’s ill. Often it simply means that it’s small.

The problem comes if that church is not able to reach out to a new generation or to its neighbors. If that happens, then churches will come to the end of their life spans. Their assets will become available and we will use them to plant new congregations that are able to tell the good news in our particular time and place. From time to time, I hear, “We’re closing churches! Why would we start new ones? We can’t keep the ones we have going!”

It is true that we are closing churches, but that is the reason to start new congregations. Most of our churches have been geared toward the cultural context of the post-World War II generation. The Builders who put a great deal of energy and hard work into establishing so many of our civic institutions have been the heartbeat of our congregations. As a result, we have many customs that have conformed to this great generation that may not translate well in a new generation. What are they? Well, there’s more than four, but I’ll just list the top ones that come to mind and I’ll concentrate on the first one in this post.

1) Work
2) Finances
3) Family Structures
4) Racial ethnic makeup

As we live faithfully in a new century, we can take the work of a new generation into consideration. One radical shift that has occurred in the last 60 years is that more women have entered the workforce. At first, a wife working was considered an extravagant “additional income,” but with the cost of housing and education going up, middle class families quickly found that two incomes became a necessity.

Another thing that changed in those 60 years was the kind of work that we do. Our occupations moved from agriculture and industry to retail, service, and tech jobs. Now the majority of young adults work retail positions and they’re technologically wired.

How does this affect how we do church? Well, our congregations have been thriving with a huge volunteer force, made up largely of women. We can all think of women who have made our church communities their part-time job. We have had strong women’s circles, women coordinating the potlucks, and women keeping our Christian Education going. What will we do now that this massive volunteer force will no longer be available? Will we be able to maintain the way that we do church?

Many people have pleaded for a shift from volunteerism to discipleship. This is an important distinction, and I think it has as much to do with the church as it does with the disciple. Instead of asking people to show up for a committee meeting so that we can shoot down any new ideas and affirm that we should do everything exactly the same way that we did it last week, we can realize the importance of their time. Value it. Make sure that each hour we ask of people is spent in meaningful ways. The disciples were asked to give up their lives in order follow the way of Jesus, and to change the world. Do we expect that people will change the world? Or are we looking for them to rubber stamp our customs?

Not only is time valuable, but our availability might be different as well. It no longer takes 40 hours to keep a household afloat. It now takes 80, or even 100. And a new generation works retail, service and tech jobs, which means we don’t usually fit into the traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday workweek. If we’re working retail, it’s almost impossible to get Sundays off (unless you’re in management). In other jobs, we have negotiated flexible schedules in order to balance work and family, but that often means that we are on duty on Sunday. Even if a person is highly committed to church, he or she just may not have the ability to attend at 11:00 am on Sunday morning (a time that was convenient for farmers), and so worship, the heart of what we do, becomes difficult for many.

So as we envision a church for the 21st century, we can ask ourselves the following questions:

What sort of work do young adults do in our community?

Do we ask people to give up their time for meaningful work? Do we ask them to engage in committee work where they have no creative freedom to change things? Do we have an important mission in our communities? Are we doing enough to change the world? Are we working to feed the homeless or provide shelter for the needy?

Does the time of our service make sense in our community? Is it even possible for younger generations to attend our church?

What if it’s not men that men are looking for?

I got into a car recently, with another female pastor and an Evangelical man. I asked the guy about his church and he said, “I go to a church where men’s leadership is very important. Men don’t go to church any more. And so our church puts men in leadership so that it will attract more men.”

I was not very quick on my feet… it had been a long day… so I didn’t say anything and just swallowed the insult. After all, it’s not a new theory, I’ve heard it about a thousand times. It’s just one of those indignities that we endure as women clergy.

“Men are attracted to male leadership. We need more men. We will hire a man so that men will attend our church.”

Other than it being a clear affront to me as a female pastor, I also wonder if it’s true. I mean, overall, men have been running the show about 99% of the time. And if you look at the whole of Christianity, then the men have been in charge 99.99% of the time. And still, there are an overwhelming number of women in the pews.

What if these commonly held assumptions are incorrect? What if opposites attract? Maybe I should just start declaring that male leadership attracts female members (I mean, that seems much more historically accurate). And it must follow that female leaders would attract more male members. And so male pastors are really kind of obsolete.

Do I think that male pastors are obsolete? Of course not. But after being a pastor for growing congregations for the last twelve years, I’m really getting tired of the assumption that I’m obsolete, and that men won’t go to a church I pastor.

Diversity Still Matters

I was at a Presbytery meeting in South Louisiana, and a woman got up to the microphone. I shifted in my seat. I knew what she was going to say, because she always said it. She was going to bring up the fact that there was not enough diversity in our leadership. I have to admit. I rolled my eyes and thought, Here we go again.

I can’t tell you what happened between that meeting eleven years ago and now. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a dozen years watching my friends get passed over for jobs, book deals, speaking engagements, and board positions over and over again. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been told:

“You were invited to speak at that conference? You must be the token woman.”

“Male leadership attracts men, and female leadership doesn’t. That’s why we need more men in the pulpit.”

“Pastoring is becoming a pink-collared profession.”

“Since women were ordained, our denomination has been in decline.”

“You don’t have enough administrative experience for this job.” (Even though I was a business manager and oversaw 27 employees before I entered seminary.)

Never mind spending four years at Moody Bible Institute. I hear these things consistently in progressive circle, among people who claim to be committed to inclusion.

It seems like I have been in the midst of many discussions around diversity issues lately. The contexts have been different: in new church movements, denominational settings, academic discussions, conference planning, and pastoral hiring. The questions and resistance persist. In fact, maybe it’s me, but the resistance, even among my progressive friends, seems more prominent right now. And, many times, I have been shocked at the responses. I guess I want to attend to some things here.

(1) If I am a part of your conversation, whether it is around a movement, organization, institution, or conference planning, and there are great inequities, I will ask questions. Just expect it. I’m not trying to ruin your event, discount the work that you’ve done, or question your integrity. I know what it’s like to plan an event and have it turn out to be a white guy gathering. It’s frustrating. I’ve personally planned events where the diversity was not what I hoped. I know that sinking feeling when I’ve been called on it. But… we just have to keep each other accountable with this stuff, or it will never change.

(2) I have been told that it is racist or sexist to reserve certain positions for people of color or women. The logic goes that if there is a bias toward women/people of color then there is a bias against white men. And that is racist or sexist. I understand the logic, but I don’t agree with it.

If you look at the whole of religious positions, there are a tiny handful of positions with a bias toward hiring women and POCs. When an organization is looking for a woman or a POC, it is usually only to correct an overwhelming proclivity towards white males within the organization. If you’re a white guy who got passed over for a less qualified woman or POC, I sympathize with you. But I know the feeling because it’s what we face all the time. Most religious jobs are biased against women, and many are biased against POCs. Women often get better grades in seminary, they are outnumbering men at many seminaries, and they still make up a small fraction of Heads of Staff, conference leaders, and board leaders. We are usually relegated to second tier positions for our entire careers.

If you are a white male, and you were passed over for a job because it was given to a POC or woman, hold on to that feeling and outrage. Understand it. And realize that’s what we live with most of the time.

(3) I understand that I am in a position of great privilege. When talking about this stuff, people often look at me and say, “What the heck?” (Okay… so they use more colorful language than that….) “Who are you to talk? You’re a writer and a speaker. You have a great job in downtown D.C. Why are you whining about not having enough power?” I know that I’m a powerful person. And that’s the main reason I bring it up. You see… I would have never talked about this stuff if I were powerless, because I would have been afraid that people would think that I was trying to hone in on some position, job, or slot. Or, because I would have been afraid it would ruin my career. But now, I can speak out more on behalf of others. And I know how important it is for those of us with privilege to recognize our own power and do the same.

(4) I reject the notion that “organic” should be used as an excuse for leadership being all white men. This is used in emerging movements a lot. If “organic” means that only WM are stepping up, there’s a clear cultural bias that we’ll need to recognize and work to overcome. If we are working in a post-evangelical context, we are often laboring with a very strong and deep prejudice against women that we need to identify and name. Organic farmers spend a whole lot of time spreading manure, pulling weeds, and encouraging growth in certain areas. If we are claiming to be organic, then we need to do the same.

(5) I’ve left so many out… LGBTQs, those with disabilities, those in poverty. Sometimes the list seems overwhelming. And recognizing that makes me realize how we need to keep pushing….

Are things getting any better? Yes, I think they are. But it’s only because people like that woman in South Louisiana ignored my eye-rolling and kept speaking up. (In the subsequent year, I ended up in a prominent leadership position, thanks to her.) It is because all of the hard work of men and women who keep questioning, keep studying, and keep pushing on those stained glass ceilings.

Born Again

I was teenager, standing in front of the mirror, hating every bit of the reflection. I was born in the seventies and grew up along a beach town in Florida. It’s a place where–sometimes by necessity–people don’t wear many clothes. The beach dominated our recreation and businesses, and it was so hot that a lot of clothing didn’t make sense. Many restaurants had to instruct their customers to wear shoes and shirts in order to receive service. I never wanted to wear a bathing suit in public. I had a less than perfect body, and never got over my self-consciousness enough to venture out without full covering. And as I stared into that mirror, my body consciousness turned into shame, and then hatred began to take root, until I loathed what I saw. Every imperfection, every curve, I treated with a disgust that haunted me throughout the day. It came out in subtle ways, mostly with an eating disorder that never allowed me to consume food without guilt.

Sadly, my Christian faith didn’t help matters much. As a teen, we attended a conservative mega-church. I was a “born-again Christian,” fashioned in a tradition where I was always taught to “take up my cross” and to “die to self.” There was a dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, they told me. As a Christian, I was caught in an internal warfare, where I was trying to contain the flesh and discipline it. This hatred of the body fit in well with the emotional and hormonal turmoil I went going through as a teenager, as I began to develop in strange and unusual ways, and I could no longer quite squeeze myself into a bathing suit. Our church constantly encouraged us to fast as a spiritual discipline. Our pastor went thirty days without food, and preached about the experience constantly. So I fasted. I learned to ignore the cravings for which my body yearned. I turned away from the hunger, pain, and stress, all in the belief that I, as a good Christian, ought to keep any cravings of my body under spiritual control.

I didn’t come into a full understanding of my folly until fifteen years later, when my body began quickly and drastically changing again. I was pregnant, and each day I would stand in front the mirror, just like before. Yet, the experience was completely different. This time, it was with pure wonder at what was happening, as each part of my body swelled. I could no longer ignore my cravings. I had to listen closely to them, because they told me exactly what my body needed—leafy greens on one day and dairy products on the next. If I shunned my hunger and skipped a meal, I would vomit. My body let me know when the stress of my job was becoming too much and I needed to slow down, or when I needed to sleep more.

During this second time of profound physical change, I no longer had the same spiritual teachers. My theology had also evolved radically, as I read more feminists in my tradition, and the voices of those women reminded me that I needed to love my neighbor and I needed to love myself. They lifted up the fact that God said creation is good, and we need to take care of it. As I looked down at my enlarged flesh, I realized that I was not only a part of creation, but I was a partner in creation. As my body morphed into new shapes, my faith took on a new form as well, as I read theologians who shunned the idea that every sin begins with pride, while lifting up the fact that often people live with the violation of self-hatred. When I looked into the mirror, my new teachers whispered to me that I must great respect for that reflection. Because what I was looking at was imago dei–I was made in the image of God.

Feeling those first kicks made me experience my spirituality much differently. So much of what I had been taught had been focused on death, especially Jesus’ death on the cross, and that act of human cruelty had become central to my faith in unhealthy ways.  And yet, through those nine months, and the years that followed, I began to see my spirituality through the lens of birth and life. I became “born again,” as I understood that the Spirit was giving birth to me anew. God was using me in the act of creation, and I learned the importance of deeply-loved flesh.