[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
How has my identity affected how I work with and support churches and communities? From the inside out, in the place of formation—a woman created, knitted together in my mother’s womb. Born into a world that shouts your identity and tries to define you before you are personally self-aware, I had to take a journey in what I call “core confidence,” knowing who I am as a beloved daughter of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
As the oldest daughter of parents of two children, both girls, I observed early the outside world’s perspective on our family. My father, a pastor, often had male mentees who would assume there was a vacant place for a son. Many of them lamented for my father, suggesting that something was incomplete in his life, in our lives, because there was no male child in our family to learn the way of the “family business.” Well, are ministry, service and calling a family business? These mentees made statements like, “I’m your son, Pastor. Teach me, I’ll be by your side.” It was as if they were on a rescue mission for my father’s ministry, calling and gifts, which might be lost because there was no male to whom to pass on his ministry. Were my sister and I not enough?
There was a great deal of gender bias that I absorbed and was a part of, as well, in my own projections of myself and of other women. Growing up, my sister and I never thought we would be leaders in the church or in church-affiliated organizations. Our service in the church would be as a Sunday school teacher, worship team leader or youth leader, and we were content with that. The thought of any leadership roles in the church never crossed my mind, nor did anyone ever ask about or name our gifts with titles that were traditionally reserved for males. In my late twenties, I started to experience a shift in the types of responsibilities and service to which I was feeling called and drawn. How could these callings be living in the skin I’m in—Camp Pastor, Program Director, Conference Speaker, Lead Pastor, Oversight Minister?
A pouring came into my life, a flood of opportunities. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). My gifts, professional skills and experience were opening doors and leading to invitations for roles in my local context that had been traditionally filled by and reserved for males. Our communities and cultures are so deeply steeped in tradition, a tradition that has often been mistaken for the Gospel. But Jesus modeled the value of women in spaces despite the customs, rituals and traditions of his day. His active love moved to heal, restore, liberate and empower women. Throughout the gospels, Jesus hears the voices of women and does not silence them. They, too, were a part of his inner circle. Women provoked, inspired and even filled Jesus with expanded compassion.
As I responded to these calls, the way I had been knit together started to emerge, gradually revealing the me as I was before the seeming restriction of my body. Like a child in the womb, developing so she can later become free and evolve, I slowly discovered that my gifts were areas for growth, not restriction. Before I could expect others to accept me for who I am in my varied roles, I had to admit my own inner worth, value and purpose, and commit to those truths daily. Difference and gender can be spaces that easily unhinge confidence and cause an internal tug and pull of self-worth. If I am welcomed and joyfully received everywhere, but internally doubt my value, then I will always be emotionally tossed back and forth by every word of praise or disregard.
During this season in my life, I began to seek out mentors, other women in leadership and pastoral roles who could walk alongside me, sharing the journey together. One of the essential spaces in this area of development has been a mentoring group, Radical Anabaptist Women (RAW). This group of women supports and mentors other women as they discern call, ministry and service. This group has helped me on the journey as one of God’s leading ladies.
Even with these supportive mentors, I still faced challenges as I took on leadership roles. For about eight years, my husband and I were co-pastors of the congregation formerly led by my father. On one occasion, the church hosted an event with a Christian comedian. Due to another obligation, my husband could not attend, so I was representing both of us. When the comedian arrived, I was introduced to him as the pastor. During his show, I sat on the front row, and, every time he did something that included audience participation, he would refer to me as the “first lady.” In many African American churches, the title “first lady” is reserved for the pastor’s wife. Yes, I was the pastor’s wife, but I was also a pastor. After about the third time he used this reference, several men and women in the audience yelled back “PASTOR!” This Christian brother could not and would not acknowledge me in my pastoral role; he could only see me from one perspective. He was in a box and wanted to keep me in one, too.
Our narrow spaces can become our equipping spaces. There is a difference between social boundaries for development and imposed boundaries of oppression. Learning to live into the who and the how of my identity started with embracing a fundamental truth in my life: I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, and God pours out his spirit on all flesh. These scriptures, among many others, have become a protective covering for the truth that I have hidden in my heart and embrace with my life. I have come to a place of personal declaration. This same truth compels me to be gracious to those who attempt to box me into their definition of “me.”
There are times when my voice or contributions have been minimized and rejected because of gender. I have learned that my value and worth as a woman cannot be defined by the imposed traditions of others. Staying rooted in God’s words anchors me in spaces that historically reject and minimize me. Whether I am considered as a woman, black woman, leader, mother, wife, pastor, colleague, friend, sister or neighbor, I am fearfully and wonderfully made!
Hyacinth Stevens is the New York City program coordinator for MCC East Coast.
McKenzie, Vashti. Not Without a Struggle: Leadership for African American Women in Ministry. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press. 2011.