The First Through the Wall

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A couple years ago Dr. Tod Bolsinger came to Grand Rapids to speak to pastors and ministry leaders about leading change in uncharted territory, based on his book Canoeing the Mountains.

During the question and answer portion of the day, I asked a question related to leading change in the congregation I was pastoring. While I don’t remember my specific question, his response has stuck with me.

First he asked if I was the first female minister to pastor the congregation, which I was. He then pointed out that the congregation was already in uncharted territory. A woman preaching, offering pastoral care, and leading a council meeting was new and unfamiliar to them. We were doing ministry off the map.

This realization was sobering. Before I even opened my mouth, I was presenting a new paradigm to the church. This was a perspective I hadn’t considered before. By simply walking into the room or into the pulpit, I was, in some way, asking them to change. Some embraced the change, thrilled with the opportunity to grow and eager to hear Scripture expounded on by a female preacher, but others were resistant and opposed. 

As I reflect on my pastoral ministry, we—the congregation and I—didn’t always understand each other, nor did we always extend enough grace to one another. I’m sure I was impatient, not realizing the full impact of the paradigms I was challenging, and some members negatively acted out their anxiety as my presence threatened the way they had always done church.

If this year has taught us anything, it has shown us how hard it is to let go of well-worn ways of doing life and ministry. Economist John Maynard Keynes said, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” 

In the book by author Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was later made into a movie, Billy Bean, the manager of the Oakland A’s, takes the baseball industry off the map into uncharted territory by proving that one of its deeply held paradigms is flawed. As a result he is heavily criticized by others in the industry.

At a crucial moment in the film, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry says to Billy, “I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall always gets bloody. Always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds, it’s threatening the game.”

As we continue to navigate the changing landscape of ministry, including, but not limited to, women leading in the church, we need a renewed commitment to extend grace and compassion to one another. My brief exchange with Bolsinger gave me an increased awareness of what it means for some when I walk into a room, and a greater appreciation for how difficult it is for a congregation to change.

I’m grateful for those who are willing to be the first through the wall, those who are called to present new paradigms and challenge the way things have always been done. I’m also grateful for those on the other side who are willing to welcome, receive, and be changed by the one who emerges from the rubble.

Let’s cultivate humility and compassion as we take down the walls that divide.

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I am persistently thankful for the men who could make things happen in congregations when there was social opposition...Some men, who led a vision for women in church leadership, suffered for many years...some of them who brought it up in silent council rooms, were shut out and never allowed back in.  These men, who understood a different path of biblical interpretation, had forsight and were given a new paradigm.  They understood that, in certain ministry settings where the barriers were not theological but sociological, women could bring a perspective that could not be achieved by a council of only men.  They understood that the depth and breadth of their ministry could be enriched by broadening the pool of available leadership.  I honor these nameless men...men who made uncomfortable decisions that opened the doors for Rev. Ruth Hoffman, Dr. Mary Hulst and the many others that followed...and I honor these congregations that welcomed them.  I cannot imagine our lives without these women in elder, deacon and pastorships. God has worked through them in powerful ways and the church is blessed by their work.

For those with a complementarian perspective, I have also developed respect for those who theologically choose not to accept women as deacons/elders/pastors; for that I humbly allow a difference of opinion.  I encourage them to seek out ways to encourage women to contribute in their ministry settings and develop their own spiritual gifts to the fullest extent possible.  May we be patient and encouraging to each other in all of our God-given callings.

One can be first through the wall and then, turn around and find they are the only one through the wall.

 

We are mistaken if we believe that all change is desirable and/or good. We are mistaken if we believe that everyone is equally open to change. Some come on board quickly and eagerly, other much more slowly and cautiously. We are mistaken if we believe we can leave the past behind. The future is nothing more than the past realized, the present is that infinitely fine line between what has been and what will be. We are mistaken if we believe we can initiate change and not be changed ourselves. We are mistaken if we place change ahead of healthy relationships, which translates into mutual respect for where each one of us are in our journey and a willingness to listen and understand. Every would be leader, when considering change, needs to ask, "Is this change for my good or for the good of the Body?" If the former, drop it. If the latter, then work with the Body, not against it.  

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Thanks for your gracious leadership, Elaine. I, too, am thankful for those who have gone before us to prepare the way and break through the wall - showing that the 'game' isn't threatened, it is improved. And to the men (and the Synod of '96) who have recognized that it is in our created human selves as male and female that we reflect the image of God to the world, both gifted and called to serve together. It is in that created oneness and uniqueness that we serve and work for the kingdom to answer the urgent call of the gospel. My mom and dad, and many others in their 'senior' generation have lived through this change and seen the shift from male only leadership in the church to both male and female leaders, and even though this is a major paradigm shift for them, have come to appreciate it and see the benefits. 

For many who are still working to walk through the large hole in the wall that you and others have already created, we must continue to pray. May God's love and the passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ lead the way, giving courage and strength to all.