I will never forget the first time I met my pastor. Our family had been at the church for two years before a meeting with another staff member threw me into his path. The first words out of his mouth were, “Jen Wilkin. You’ve been hiding from me!” A giant grin on his face, he draped me in a friendly hug, and then proceeded to ask me about the people and things I cared about. He kept eye contact. He reflected back what I was saying. I was completely thrown off. I don’t remember what books were on his desk or what artwork hung on the walls, but I left his office that day with a critical piece of insight: this room is not haunted.
He was right—I had been hiding. Coming off several years of “part-time” ministry at our previous church, my husband, Jeff, and I were weary and in no hurry to know and be known by the staff at our new church. But as a woman with leadership background, I had other hesitations as well. Any woman in ministry can tell you that you never know when you’re walking into a haunted house.
If you’re a male staff member at a church, I ask you to consider a ghost story of sorts. I don’t think for a minute that you hate women. I know there are valid reasons to take a measured approach to how you interact with us in ministry settings. I absolutely want you to be wise, but I don’t want you to be haunted. Three female ghosts haunt most churches, and I want you to recognize them so you can banish them from yours.
These three ghosts glide into staff meetings where key decisions are made. They hover in classrooms where theology is taught. They linger in prayer rooms where the weakest among us give voice to hurt. They strike fear into the hearts of both men and women, and worse, they breathe fear into the interactions between them. Their every intent is to cripple the ability of men and women to minister to and with one another.
Though you may not always be aware these ghosts are hovering, the women you interact with in ministry frequently are. I hear ghost stories almost on a weekly basis in the e-mails I receive from blog readers.
The three female ghosts that haunt us are the Usurper, the Temptress, and the Child.
1. The Usurper
This ghost gains permission to haunt when women are seen as authority thieves. Men who have been taught that women are looking for a way to take what has been given to them are particularly susceptible to the fear this ghost can instill. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly a strong one:
- You find her thoughts or opinions vaguely threatening, even when she chooses soft words to express them.
- You speculate that her husband is probably a weak man (or that her singleness is due to her strong personality).
- You feel low-level concern that if you give an inch she will take a mile.
- You avoid including her in meetings where you think a strong female perspective might rock the boat or ruin the masculine vibe.
- You perceive her education level, hair length, or career path as potential red flags that she might want to control you in some way.
- Your conversations with her feel like sparring matches rather than mutually respectful dialogue. You hesitate to ask questions, and you tend to hear her questions as veiled challenges rather than honest inquiry.
- You silently question if her comfort in conversing with men may be a sign of disregard for gender roles.
2. The Temptress
This ghost gains permission to haunt when a concern for avoiding temptation or being above reproach morphs into a fear of women as sexual predators. Sometimes this ghost takes up residence because of a public leader’s moral failure, either within the church or within the broader Christian subculture. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly an attractive one:
- You go out of your way to ensure your behavior communicates nothing too emotionally approachable or empathetic for fear you’ll be misunderstood to be flirting.
- You avoid prolonged eye contact.
- You silently question whether her outfit was chosen to draw your attention to her figure.
- You listen with heightened attention for innuendo in her words or gestures.
- You bring your colleague or assistant to every meeting with her, even if the meeting setting leaves no room to be misconstrued.
- You hesitate to offer physical contact of any kind, even (especially?) if she is in crisis.
- You consciously limit the length of your interactions with her for fear she might think you overly familiar.
- You feel compelled to include “safe” or formal phrasing in all your written and verbal interactions with her (“Tell your husband I said hello!” or “Many blessings on your ministry and family”).
- You Cc a colleague (or her spouse) on all correspondence.
- You silently question if her comfort in conversing with men may be a sign of sexual availability.
3. The Child
This ghost gains permission to haunt when women are seen as emotionally or intellectually weaker than men. If this is your ghost, you may behave in the following ways when you interact with a woman, particularly a younger one:
- You speak to her in simpler terms than you might use with a man of the same age.
- Your vocal tone modulates into “pastor voice” when you address her.
- In your responses to her, you tend to address her emotions rather than her thoughts.
- You view meetings with her as times where you have much insight to offer her but little insight to gain from her. You take few notes, or none at all.
- You dismiss her when she disagrees, because she “probably doesn’t see the big picture.”
- You feel constrained to smile beatifically and wear a “listening face” during your interactions with her.
- You direct her to resources less scholarly than those you might recommend to a man.
These three ghosts don’t just haunt men; they haunt women as well, shaping our choice of words, tone, dress, and demeanor. When fear governs our interactions, both genders drift into role-playing that subverts our ability to interact as equals. In the un-haunted church where love trumps fear, women are viewed (and view themselves) as allies rather than antagonists, sisters rather than seductresses, co-laborers rather than children.
Surely Jesus models this church for us in how he relates to the role-challenging boldness of Mary of Bethany, the fragrant alabaster offering of a repentant seductress, the childlike faith of a woman with an issue of blood. We might have advised him to err on the side of caution with these women. Yet even when women appeared to fit a clear stereotype, he responded without fear. If we consistently err on the side of caution, it’s worth noting that we consistently err.
Do some women usurp authority? Yes. Do some seduce? Yes. Do some lack emotional or intellectual maturity? Yes. And so do some men. But we must move from a paradigm of wariness to one of trust, trading the labels of usurper, temptress, child for those of ally, sister, co-laborer. Only then will men and women share the burden and privilege of ministry as they were intended.
My most recent meeting with my pastor stands out in my memory as well. He’s often taken the time to speak affirming words about my ministry or gifting. On this occasion, he spoke words I needed to hear more than I realized: “Jen, I’m not afraid of you.” Offered not as a challenge or a reprimand, but as a firm and empathetic assurance. Those are the words that invite women in the church to flourish. Those are the words that put ghosts to flight.