gender

If We’re Being Honest (Part 2)

If We’re Being Honest (Part 2) 800 450 Corey Leak

I’ve been a Christian for 35 years and have worked in churches for the past 20 years. I’m a Christian, and as a Christian, I think there is one more topic we should be more honest about.

Jesus

Image result for Jesus

There is not “Christian” without Christ aka Jesus. Following Jesus is what every Christian signed up for. We spend time in church, prayer, worship and Bible reading trying to become more like Jesus. We want to be conformed into the image of Jesus which is admirable and virtuous. I was a teenager when the WWJD movement began. Remember the bracelets? I thought anyone who wore one HAD to be a Christian. The bracelets and the movement itself were a tool to remind us before doing or saying anything to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?”. Great question. The answer is probably more complicated than we think, however, and here’s why.

The default image of Jesus has been white, cisgendered, heterosexual, married, patriotic and male. That’s the image we’ve been lead to believe is the standard for a follower of Christ. It’s no wonder the overwhelming majority of Evangelical Churches in America are lead by pastors and boards that reflect that image. Think about how Evangelicals traditionally vote. What makes Evangelicals take to social media to share their outrage?

Image result for colin kaepernick

Can you imagine what we would think of a faith leader like Jesus in our context today that wasn’t married? We Christians tend to assume that a person, especially a man, who isn’t married by a certain age has something wrong with them or they’re hiding something about themselves. That forces an extra layer of social expectation for being like Jesus.

Most of what is taught about this historically Jewish rabbi is filtered through a lens that is white, American and male. Which means, that if you’re an American citizen of color, an immigrant or a woman, you have work to do to find yourself conforming to Christ’s image. If your transgender or gay, you’re out of luck.

Based on what we know from the birth narratives in the Bible, Jesus was born to Jewish parents who spent a few years as immigrants in Africa. According to historical accounts of his adult life from the Bible, he never dated, married or had a romantic relationship with another human being. He healed sick people, walked on water, miraculously multiplied small meals to feed thousands, gave his life as a ransom for all and then resurrected from the dead according to scriptures.  He never pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. His language on marriage was pretty clearly in support of heterosexual marriage as normative, and he was mum on slavery.

If we’re being honest, having Jesus as a role model isn’t simple. It’s complicated. It’s not as cut and dry as we might like to believe. Based on just what I describe above (which left out chunks of his life) I couldn’t name a person I’ve ever met who is truly like Jesus. So, what does it mean to imitate or be conformed to his image? How can we answer the question WWJD? How can we live in our culture and act like he would if he were born in our time? How can we be like Jesus if we don’t do and say all the things he did?

Love.

Jesus told those closest to him that the way people would know that they were indeed like him was by love.  Any expression of Christian faith that isn’t loving isn’t Christian at all. A faith in Jesus that is exclusive, self-centered, homogeneous, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic is not faith in the Jesus of history or scripture, but faith in America’s default Jesus birthed from patriotism and supremacy. The story of Jesus from birth to resurrection is one of liberation, love, and inclusion. And, if we are going to be conformed to an image or imitate his legendary exploits and ideas, we should consider what THAT Jesus would do when we ask ourselves WWJD.

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Not Safe For Church

Not Safe For Church 4224 2604 Corey Leak

A friend messaged me this video yesterday and asked what I thought of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6KPJONhj7w

Initially, I wanted to have a conversation with the pastor….

I’m not sure I’ll ever get to have that conversation, but I do have issues with this video on several levels. I’ll share a few.

Theologically

This one time Jesus (Jewish Rabbi) took his disciples to a town called Caesarea Philippi, and while there he had a ground breaking conversation with them. I imagine most Christians are familiar with the story. It’s in Matthew chapter 16 if you’d like to read it for yourself. What’s obscure to modern readers about this story is that the town Jesus brought his teenage students to was not a nice town. The town was dedicated to the Ceasars and was the home of a pagan temple for worshipping a Greek god.

Rabbis forbade “good” Jews from going to Caesarea at all, so the fact that Jesus not only went there, but took his disciples is pretty unusual. More remarkable is the fact that this is where Jesus says one of the most famous phrases in history.

“Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.”  Perhaps you’ve always thought these words were talking about religious institutions versus a raging fiery place where the devil lives. Most of my life that’s what I believed, but that’s actually not true. The word church means gathering of citizens, and the “gates of hell” is an actual physical place that you can visit today. Ancient people believed it was mystical because of the literal mist that would come up out of the opening of this mysterious looking cave. They believed it was a doorway to the underworld where the god Pan lived. They would engage in pretty obscene sexual acts to worship Pan that would be NSFW to this day.

Image result for god pan

Yes, Jesus and the teenage boys with him were within hearing and watching distance of some really nasty stuff while having this conversation. Anyone who’s watched GOT and tried to follow the story line without enduring all the sex scenes can identify with how hard it is to try and pay attention to what’s being said over the debauchery happening in the background. Jesus is saying some really important and ground breaking things to his closest disciples while there is an orgy going on nearby. Of all the places to start talking about this new kind of gathering called church, why do it in Caesarea Philippi? Why not Jerusalem, the capitol of the Jewish faith? What statement does this make about what Jesus’ intentions were for church? It’s unlikely he has this talk where he has it by accident.

Could it be that Jesus is making a statement about who is welcome? This announcement about church and its impact could have been had within the friendly confines of a Jewish synagogue or inside the temple, but instead it’s happening out in the wild where “those” people are. That should inform our belief about church and the messiness that Jesus intended “his” gatherings to be part of. If Jesus could sit with his disciples in a place where people literally had sex with goats to worship a pagan god, how should we imagine he would treat a transgender man or woman in church?

Morally

Let’s suppose you are a person who truly believes that in order to keep faith based space “holy”, you have to keep all the really bad sinners out. What is gained from embarrassing a human being in front of a whole room? I have a moral issue with stripping another human being of their dignity simply because I believe they are acting in ways I disagree with. I wonder how many people in that room, including the pastor, could remain in that church if we were to put all the unsavory behaviors, practices, or thoughts on display for a whole room to judge? This hierarchy of morality is neither godly or appropriate for society. Shame on all of the people in that room who clapped and shouted amen at that reprehensible act of grand standing. It was wrong, and I hope this pastor is lead to see that it was wrong and apologizes to whoever he was targeting with his tirade.

Personally

Often times our negative feelings about others are triggered by something we see in ourselves. I pray that I don’t have any degrading caricature of true religion left within myself, but I know that I once did. I can remember one of my first sermons as a youth pastor. I was full of personality and wit, and for some reason I decided to direct my wit and humor at the LBGTQ community. I was grossly homophobic in my language, and thought I was right to talk the way I did. It’s one of my greatest regrets in life. It breaks my heart to know that someone in the audience was probably made to feel ashamed of who they were because I was trying to prove I was cool.  My final issue with this video is me. I’m sorry I have used words publicly to shame people. On behalf of the Christian church in America to anyone who has been hurt by rhetoric like you watched in the above video or that I used as a young, insensitive, dummy, I’m truly sorry. Every human being is on a journey, and you don’t deserve to be degraded for yours. It’s my hope and prayer that churches and pastors that dump shame on people learning to accept who they are close their doors unless they learn to practice inclusive faith that makes room for everyone to belong.

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Believe Her

Believe Her 2716 1810 Corey Leak

Have you ever had a friend tell you she was pregnant? Did you believe her? Of course you did! You’re not a crazy person. I’ve never asked any of my friends for proof when they’ve told me they were carrying a baby in their bodies. We all have the capacity to take women at their word when it comes to their bodies. After all, it’s her story, her body and her experience. When she tells her story, we should believe her.

Maybe you’ve had something happen to you that you didn’t address right away. Someone says or does something offensive to you out of nowhere. An incident occurs, but it takes a bit for your mind to comprehend that something truly wrong happened. When it sinks in, you question if you really heard what you thought you heard. Was what happened really over the line or that big a deal? If you come forward with an accusation after you’ve walked away and collected your thoughts, maybe it’s too late. Maybe how you remember things happening aren’t actually how they happened. If your accusation is against someone powerful (boss, priest, pastor, president) you’d sure better have your ducks in a row. The onus for being accurate in your detail is on you. So, you probably hold your peace. It’s not worth the hassle. You carry the burden of what happened to you on your own. Perhaps you tell a close friend or a therapist, but that’s it. You’re a victim of physical or emotional trauma, and you’re carrying the weight of your experience while the antagonist in your story is unencumbered. It’s your story, your body and your experience. We should believe you.

Three women have come forward with incidents involving Brett Kavanauh from 40 years ago. They have told the world what happened to them, and are drawing skepticism from the people peering into their experience from the outside. Why did they wait so long? This is just a ploy by “the left” because they hate Trump. What does it matter what Brett did as a teenager? We all did bad stuff as teenagers. Sound familiar?

Every one of the above statements are valid if you view human beings as inherently evil, and if your world view gives you a pessimistic picture of humanity. If you believe 3 women would subject themselves to public shame, rejection, and embarrassment to block a supreme justice nominee or for some sort of personal fame….

DO BETTER! For every woman I’ve ever talked to about this, and there are several, being sexually assaulted is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to a woman. That alone should cause us to pause before jumping to the conclusion that women are lying when they come forward. There are also the statistics.

Based on recent data. One out of every four women have been a victim of some sort of inappropriate sexual behavior from men. Two out of three incidents go unreported, and less than ten percent of the ones that are reported are false claims. The numbers are overwhelmingly in support of us offering compassion to the women who have the courage to come forward and share their stories. Still, we demonize women for the timing or manner in which they come forward.

I’ve witnessed men talk about a woman’s obligation to report what happens to them in a timely fashion as if we have any concept of what it is to be the victims of sexual assault, unless you’re in the 3 percent of American men who are victims. I struggle to express how dangerous and insensitive this way of thinking is. I find myself so frustrated as I write this. Any language that minimizes the traumatic experiences of other human beings based on personal or political biases tears away at our collective humanity. 

My wife and I are raising three daughters, and I pray that the world they will soon adult in will be a safe place for them to be women. That’s only the case if we create an environment where women can come forward on their own terms without our judgment. Every time we shame women for coming forward we are communicating that how we feel about their story is more important than what actually happened to them. That’s not ok.

The idea that as citizens we are innocent until proven guilty is not mutually exclusive to the idea that we should believe women when they tell us their stories. It’s insensitive for us as men and also for women to rush to defend the man’s innocence in cases like this. We can wait for all the facts to unfold before determining the guilt or innocence of an accused man without doubting the validity of a woman’s story. It’s her story, her body and her experience. We don’t get to tell her what to do with any of the three.

Lastly, I would urge any Christian reading this blog to deeply consider how damaging our shaming of women for coming forward can be. I feel I can say with relative certainty that Jesus routinely took the side of women in society. Consider the woman caught in adultery. She was legally guilty of wrong, and politicians used her story to try and gain political high ground. Jesus sided with her. He showed her compassion, and dismissed the men who tried to have her harmed. I wonder how considering how Jesus responded to this woman might affect how we process the stories we here.

Imagine one of these three women are related to you. How would that affect how you view their story?

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A Problem to Solve | Part 3 | (Because I’m a Woman)

A Problem to Solve | Part 3 | (Because I’m a Woman) 720 362 Corey Leak

Written by Stephanie Zibell

“Pastors, the lack of women in executive level leadership positions in the church is incredibly concerning to me and it should be equally concerning to you.”

This is the statement that I wanted to use to end this blog post.

My intention when I began to write this was for men working in church leadership to see the lack of women being represented in the church, and for them to decide to act on it. They would walk into their next meeting, look around, and begin to notice if the room had equal representation of both men and women.

Then I remembered my own journey towards advocating for women in leadership. It wasn’t until I stepped out of the context I was accustomed to and became curious, that I began to place a high value on the diversity of gender in leadership.

So, I decided not to write this as a persuasion piece for men who hold roles of leadership in the church, and who might be blind to what’s at stake…. I wrote it for the curious.

THE FACTS.

Recent findings in Outreach’s report on “The 100 Fastest Growing Churches in 2017″ show us that of the 100 fastest growing churches in America, ONE of them has a woman leading it, and that woman co-pastors the church with her husband.

“The National Congregations Study”, a 2015 comprehensive report conducted by Duke University, found that on a National scale, about 11% of congregations are led by women. This percentage has stalled, and remains unchanging since 1998.

You don’t need a myriad of studies and reports to believe me. Any one of us can Google search “churches near me”, click over to a staff leadership team page and confirm these findings.

To take it one step further, “The 2017 Women in the Workplace” study found that nearly 50 percent of men think women who work in companies are well represented in leadership – where only one in ten of those women are senior leaders. A much smaller but still significant number of women agree: a third think women are well represented when they see one in ten in leadership. The Pew Research Group completed a “Religious Landscape Study” and found that the gender composition of the Evangelical Church congregation is 55% women and 45% men.

What this tells us is that over half of the people who walk through the doors of a church are grossly under-represented on their church board, executive team and from the stage. And as we saw in the Women in the Workplace report above, there is a large group of both men and women who are currently “okay” with this notion.

THE WHY.

There are many reasons why churches are run by mostly men. I will focus on only one.

Like Corey has already mentioned in Part One of this blog series, there is a popular movement in many church environments where the staff holds a high value of “hiring people to do life with”. To be honest, for years I thought this was a pretty great approach.

What’s unfortunate about this approach is that churches who adopt this notion don’t realize the wealth of information, experience, perspective and wisdom they are missing out on when they choose to surround themselves with people who are a lot like them. They might not even realize that by hiring people who are friends and people they “do life with”, they will more than likely end up with a lot of other like-minded men on their staff.

I have come to believe that this hiring practice is actually a dangerous idea. The problem is, although it is veiled in community and the desire for belonging (which are both beautiful things), it breeds exclusivity.

Unintentional exclusivity is every bit as dangerous as intentional segregation.  

Corey asked me to speak about my experience as a women in church leadership, but I would be re-miss to not take a moment to say that as a women who is strong-minded, extroverted and unafraid of conflict, I am also white. Relatively speaking, it has actually been a fairly easy road for me to have a voice.

I cannot speak on behalf of the black community, hispanic community or the whole of any community for that matter, but if have felt dismissed and small and like I need to fit into a perfect little package to fit the narrative of a woman in church, I cannot even imagine the exhausting burden and disappointment a person of color, or more specifically, a woman of color, feels when entering a church with little to no representation in leadership.

THE PERSONAL.

As a woman who has worked in both Corporate America and the American Church, I have always felt that in order to get a seat at the table, I needed to downplay my womanhood.

Don’t be too strong or you might come across bitchy.

Don’t be too soft or you might come across as sensitive.

Don’t crack a joke or you might look like you are trying too hard.

Make sure you laugh at the weird joke or you might look like you are a prude.

And the list goes on…

I have spent too much of my adult life trying to sit at the table despite being a woman. I’ve positioned myself as the expert on various platforms, but never on the platform of my womanhood.

This feeling of inferiority was validated over and over by the words and actions of mostly well meaning men and the values they held.

When I am told that my income is supplementary because I was married and therefore, the offer is a lower amount.

When any administrative task is tossed my way, regardless of my job description, because the assumption is that I will be good at it.

When I am asked to co-lead worship with a man because “men can’t sing along when its in a female key”.

When I was the only female in a ministerial internship to become a pastor, and also the only person asked to baby-sit, run errands, and be a support to the wives of the men leading.

Although I was never told that I was less than because I was a woman, the narrative that I believed was this: In order to become one of the few females running a department, board, or executive team of a church, I had to be more like a man.

However, the more I became fully alive in and aware of who God created me to be, I became empowered to believe that I need to sit at the table because I am a woman. Coupling my expertise and ability with my unique female perspective and experience is the golden ticket. This perspective is needed in decision making  rooms in the church.

THE SOLUTION.

I think there are two critical keys to becoming a gender and racially diverse church.

Value and Exposure.

When something is a core value, it becomes an integral part of how you operate and make decisions. It is a guiding light of sorts. Something you will fight for even if it isn’t expressed.

If it is a personal and organizational core value that the perspective of both men and women is vital to the transformational work of the church, then how you hire, how you develop your staff, and how you create weekend programming will align with this value.

While many churches fill their meeting rooms with men, there are a lot of churches who are truly egalitarian. The church we currently attend is one of them and I am grateful for their strong example. Outside of the church, there are many organizations who are playing an important role in the advocacy for women leaders.

Find them. Read their work. Reach out for a conversation. Think of a women you respect and ask her to be your mentor. Expose yourself to people, churches and workplaces who think differently than you.

Exposure is one of the most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves and the people around us. By exposing ourselves to new ideas, thoughts, experiences, perspectives and cultures, we have the opportunity to grow in empathy, advocacy, and understanding. Exposure breeds inclusion, so expose yourself to the churches and organizations that are already there and learn from them.

I don’t think that we will experience the highest level of transformational change in our communities until we make diversity a value in the church. Inclusion and representation matters to an individual and it is time that it matters just as much to the church.