On Growing Up an Evangelical Woman

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My pastor, Dan Collison, at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis asked if I would share my story of growing up as a female person in the evangelical church…and I wanted to share it with you. You can either read it below, or you can watch a version online. It is my story of navigating the conflicting messages of a God who loves me and a community that didn’t know what to do with the particularities of my embodiment; it is a remembrance of the external and internal struggles I have faced. I hope it can be both a source of encouragement, challenge, and solidarity to you- wherever you find yourself in making sense of your own ideas of your identity and beliefs about who God may or may not be. Thanks for listening.

The Backyard Bible Camp- Love Discovered

One of my earliest memories is of being in a fisher price playhouse at my friend’s backyard bible camp. I had a packet of verses, and I remember pulling out one and reading it—John 3:16- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.”

When I got home that afternoon I ran into the house, and with tears in my eyes, I exclaimed: “Mommy! Mommy! Jesus loves me!” I was crying because I didn’t know how to love Jesus back.

And so my mom told me about God’s love, and what it meant to ask Jesus to love me and be in my heart. I asked him in. And from that moment I became rooted in a deep sense that this God is a God of love.

Divorce, poverty, resiliency….and baptism- Love and Leadership

In community development theory, children’s possibility to emerge well from poverty is evaluated in terms of “resiliency factors”. These are internal and external indicators- such as intelligence, sociability, agency, drive, etc.- that combine to predict a child’s future wellbeing. The love of Jesus functioned for me in many ways as a resiliency factor. You see, less than one month after I asked Jesus into my heart, my parents split up. And it didn’t matter how hard it was, how sad my mom was, how much money we didn’t have…I knew that more than anything that God loved me, my mom, and everyone…so it was going to be OK.

Not only did I love God, but I loved church because it contained my three favorite things- learning, friends, and Jesus! In so many ways I flourished in this community.

The summer before 4th grade I had the opportunity to be baptized and publicly tell people what Jesus meant to me. It came time for the baptism and Pastor Greg asked who wanted to share. Being the only kid, I looked around to see which adult would go first. No one moved. My mom said: “Sara, you are a leader. You go first.” And so I did, as I shared the story of this God who loved me and everyone else so very much.

I continued to be involved with church throughout junior high and high school. I went to bible study. I sat in the front row and sermon notes. I was found at the helm of any youth group initiative as a critical leader in the project; I volunteered with the kids, I led bible studies, I evangelized, etc.

The other threads to the story I don’t like to admit

And while there is so much beauty in this narrative, there are other threads that complicated my experience and understanding of God’s love. Stories about what it meant to be a female person. Stories such as:

  • I will never forget a 15 year old having to go in front of the whole congregation and publicly confess because she had a baby out of wedlock. I must have only been 8 at the time, and I remember thinking: “Where is the dad?” All I saw was her deep shame and I am still shaken by the horror of that memory to this day.
  • My mom was the only single parent in our faith community; the only “divorced” woman. From the looks and stares and whispers that transpired at times when she walked by, I knew that she was a “sinner” in some way that other people weren’t.
  • I heard the discussion about how “girls like me” would grow up pregnant (you know, because we weren’t raised in a biblical family with a father).
  • I was sent to the principal’s office at my Christian school in kindergarten because my skirt was too short (it was an inch above my knee and I had grown three inches since the fall when my single mom had bought my clothes); I was sent to the principal’s office for being “immodest”…as a kindergartner.
  • I heard women in the church meet and talk about violence in their marriages and I heard them counseling each other that they needed to stay and “submit” themselves to their husbands and to God’s will (I’m not joking…I can recount at least 15-18 stories from my childhood of instances such as these)

It was these obvious injuries, but also the fact that every single Christian woman I knew both stayed at home with her children and (almost to a T), homeschooled them. I’m not denigrating any family that chooses to have one individual stay home with their children, rather I’m pointing out the what happens in a community when something is painted as the ONLY vision for what it means to be woman. And I KNEW for certain that this was not what I wanted for my life: I didn’t like kids and I didn’t want marriages like the ones I witnessed. I didn’t have this exact language, but honestly, I wanted to be Pastor Greg: to tell people about Jesus, to be smart and funny, and to lead people into knowing how very much they were loved.

So quite early I internalized this conflicting message of a God who loved me, but of a faith that also didn’t have space for me. And so I did what I had to do so that I could serve this God who I loved. When I was in 7th grade I made a decision not to date. I decided this for two reasons:

  • I wanted to serve God and I didn’t have time to waste on stupid guys. I was busy!
  • I also decided not to date because I couldn’t figure out how to hold together being embodied as a female person, along with being a leader, while also being in relationship with a guy. I saw that all of the young women in my youth group (along with the grown Christian women I knew) lost themselves if they dated, so I figured that I would stay single and then I could serve God. This was reinforced by my youth pastor who came up to the only other single girl and myself and said: “You two are the only ones I can count on. Every other girl is too busy dating the guys.” So I learned that to lead as a girl meant one should be single.

Additionally, even though I didn’t have the language to articulate it this way then, I intentionally became as androgynous as possible. What I mean by this is that I wouldn’t wear make-up or care about my hair, and I made sure my clothes were as boxy as possible. This way, people wouldn’t think I was too girly…because if I were “too girly” then people would start asking me to work in the nursery and would expect me to date and get married young. By appearing as non-female as possible I helped ensure people didn’t ask me these questions, and thereby I got to do what I really wanted to: be a leader in my youth group. The only questions I was asked about were how I was doing in school and what mission trip I was going on or which bible study I was leading.

And for the most part this worked out really well.

Then came Paraguay- coming face to face with the conflicting messages

Right before my freshman year of college this all came to a head. It all started with being in the center of a square in Paraguay and our group being surrounded by men. I knew enough Spanish to know what was being said, and for the first time in my life I knew what it meant to feel like you were a piece of meat. I was angry and I was terrified. Afterwards, I was debriefing the situation with one of my good girlfriends. One thing led to another and we got to the topic of women submitting to men, and she quoted Eph. 5, which is often translated: “Wives submit to your husbands.” I said: “Well, screw that.” She told me that I would have to submit to my husband because that’s what the Bible said. I told her that I wouldn’t get married then. Suddenly, I began to panic. I went from my youth pastor and asked: “Al, what do I do with this? Do I have to submit to a man?” Then I went to a woman leader on the trip and asked: “Must I submit to a man even if he abuses me?” She replied: “Sara, there is a reason that I’m still single at 36. Plus, all I can say is that you can pick who you marry.” Really?? Are you serious?? This was supposed to make me feel better? I was supposed to “hope” that if I got married that I wouldn’t marry an abusive man? That’s all I got? In that moment I watched the blocks of my faith start falling apart.

And the reason is this: for thirteen years of my life I told everyone I knew of the story of a God who loved the world so much that he gave his only son. But, if this God…if this God not only sanctioned, but allowed for the abuse of over 50% of the population (which this God created!)….this was not a God of love. I might have only been 17, but I knew that love and abuse are incompatible concepts.

I was left with two options: 1) That this God was not a God of love; 2) That there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t just “take” the bible and deal with it. I wrestled and yelled and said: “God! I want to be David! I want to be a leader after your own heart. God, I don’t want to be Hannah. I don’t want to pray for years on end and be quiet and submissive. I want to lead. I want to inspire people to know you.” And faced with the two options of my faith being a lie, or of me being the problem, I found the latter to be much easier to deal with.

The wrestling

I spent much of the next five years wrestling with what it meant to be a woman person, and what it meant to have my gifts and passions. I tried to become the woman I thought God was calling me to be- one who home schools her children and learns to cross stitch (my friends found that idea especially comical). I came to a point where I didn’t think women should preach. My faith was killing me. Emblematic of this time was a comment I said to my mother: “Mom, I’ve been to the well and it’s the only water that will satisfy my thirst (a la the woman at the well) the problem is that it’s killing me.”

Internal & External Pain

Not only did I wrestle internally, but as I matured into adulthood I began running into external realities about what it meant to be a female person.  I found myself no longer able to hide that I was becoming a grown-up woman. Suddenly my relationship with a couple of my mentors became very confusing. The lines around our relationship became blurred – like one leader who approached me in a field during my “quiet time” when I was studying the bible and asked me personal questions about what I would look for in a guy that I would date and told me about issues he was having with his wife. I grew increasingly uncomfortable. I still remember the deep shame I felt of- wondering what was wrong with me that he was doing this? I learned that to be a female person was dangerous because men might presume that I wanted something other than what I did- all I was doing was being nice and trying to talk with them about Jesus.

Healing the internal narrative

And so I went to seminary. I went terrified. I went kicking and screaming, but I went. Inside I knew I was going there because it was the final chance to discover if this God- was this God a God of love? Or was I going to have to leave this faith so that I could be who I am? My very first paper at seminary was my wrestling with this God as Jacob had done in Genesis– in 20 pages with 10 point font and .75 margins (it had to be less than 20 pages) I fought with every scriptural text and read book upon book on the topic of women in leadership. And it was tentative, it was haltering, but through this paper I took my first, defiant steps of saying: “You know what, that four year old girl who read John 3: 16…she was right! God made the way I am for a reason. I can be exactly who God has called me to be.” And it began to heal the narratives that told me I couldn’t be this full person.

I’d love to tell you that everything has been perfect since then. But it hasn’t. Sometimes being a female continues to have painful edges:

  • Such as being told by my preaching professor that I was the best student he had in a long time. He asked me then to preach a few Sundays at the church where he was doing an interim stint. When I found out it was an Evangelical Free Church I queried: “You do know I’m a woman, right?” (because the EV Free denomination doesn’t believe women can preach). He maintained that this wouldn’t be a problem…only to never get back to me with a date (because, as it turns out he discovered what I already knew.
  • Or being an associate director at Bethel University and upon arriving at a meeting being greeted with: “There’s Joseph’s (my boss) pretty face.”
  • Or of having male colleagues at my Christian institution who would refuse to meet with me behind a closed door…because even though I was their colleague I was a woman…exactly what did they think was going to happen?

The external narrative made right

So imagine what it meant to me when I started at Luther Seminary and I got to just lead. Being female was part of that, but it didn’t mean anything less than or anything dangerous…I just got to be Sara, the leader. Or it was this man who sat in the front row the first time I preached at his church and he came up to me after and said, “you are a great preacher.” He wasn’t threatened by me being me…and that guy was the one I married (Andy!). Yet, sometimes those old internal dialogues resurface that tell me that he might wish he were with a more submissive woman. Then I look at his face and remember both: 1) Who he is and that; 2) He knows who he signed up for.

Or it is the gift of coming to a church like this where the first Sunday when we visited, my spouse spilled the beans that I have a M.Div. and that I preach (which I never tell male pastors right away). And Pastor Dan responded not with a look of horror, but by saying, “That’s great. We should get coffee sometime and talk about that.”

So for me, this invitation is one that asks if we are going to actually say yes to becoming an Acts 2 community:

Joel: ‘In the last day, God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,

 I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy…’”

 (Acts 2:1-4, 14-18, NIV, italics mine)

Is it going to be a kingdom where we actually believe Galatians 3:23…where we no longer play these power politics games of who gets to rule over who, but instead we take down the walls that divided Jew and Greek; Slave and free; Male and female…and actually believe that Christ is all and is in all.

And for me this is nothing less than an invitation to together build a kingdom that looks like John 3:16- of a world where all are beloved by God and live in this world in the fullness of who God has created them to be.

Thank you.

7 thoughts on “On Growing Up an Evangelical Woman

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Sara! I too have wrestled with being called to leadership and the difficulties that come with that in some evangelical church circles. Reading your story was so encouraging! 🙂

    1. Hi! Thanks so much for the note. I’m glad that my sharing could be an encouragement to you. I saw from your blog that you are presently a worship leader- that’s great. How did you find my blog?

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