At the time of this writing, Mary Lou Hutson was a manager in the claim department at Royal & SunAlliance in Charlotte, NC and a member of Central Church of Christ in Salisbury.
Not the Same Woman at Work:
the split personality of professional women in the Churches of Christ
What would happen if a person wrote to the eldership at your congregation and described the following qualifications: fourth-generation member of the Church of Christ; graduate of Lipscomb University; singer in Lipscomb A Cappella for four years; graduate degree; manager at a big company; married for 13 years; deeply involved at several congregations including service on the finance committee; and a trustee at one congregation. The writer is moving to your town and wants to know whether you could use these skills in your congregation. How would the leaders of your congregation reply?
Oh, and by the way, the writer is a woman. Now, how would the leaders of your congregation reply?
My husband and I once worshipped in a small, storefront congregation. There were so few members that there were often not enough men present to fill all the roles required for worship. Sometimes the song leader would also need to preach, or the man presiding at table would also need to lead singing. The congregation studied the issue of women’s participation and decided there was no scriptural reason that a woman could not lead singing, read scripture, or lead a prayer. But when the time came to allow a woman to do one of these things, the Sunday I had been asked to lead singing the decision was made that they weren’t ready to do that yet.
Why does it matter that I can’t lead singing or read scripture in church? It doesn’t make me any less saved, any less a child of God, of course.
But let me ask it this way. Have you ever known a man at church who seems to be a fine person, upstanding, a leader in the congregation? Have you ever thought about doing business with this man or his company, mentioned your idea to someone else, and heard, “He’s not the same man at work?” How did that make you feel about this person? Wouldn’t you think that his Christianity was lacking, that his faith was superficial, if you were told that he was a different person Monday to Friday?
Well, let me tell you, a few years ago I realized that I was not the same woman at work that I was at church. At work I was a manager, a problem-solver. At church I was not allowed to solve the minor problem of who would lead singing on the days we were shorthanded.
Like many people, I reacted to this by deciding to use my talents where they were appreciated. Extra time at work was appreciated and rewarded; extra time at church was not. I became a Sunday-morning Christian for a time; it was just easier. I suspect that a lot of women in my age group are reacting the same way, although they may not have thought it through or stated it as plainly.
Since that experience, I have made an effort not to fall into the same trap at church. When we moved to a small town in the South, I made a conscious decision that I would participate in all the areas of church work where I had a talent and was allowed to participate, and that I would make an effort to get to know people so that they would know me better. I felt that I had a place in that congregation. But whenever we move, it is harder to reconnect again. There is a terrible temptation not to be involved much at church, because it’s not clear how I will fit in.
When new members join a church, one of the first questions people ask them is, “What do you do?” If it’s a man, his answer to the occupation question tells them a lot about how they could plug him into the congregation. If he’s a banker, they’re thinking finance committee; if he’s a building contractor or an electrician, they’re thinking building and grounds. When a woman answers that question, if she says she teaches school, they are primed to ask her when she can start teaching Sunday school; otherwise, their eyes glaze over because the answer is totally irrelevant to what she might do in the church community. If you went to any one of the congregations where we’ve been members and asked ten people what my husband does for a living, all ten could tell you what that is. If you asked the same ten people what I do, maybe one or two could give you an idea.
I can’t speak for all women. I can only speak for myself and my experience. Many congregations of my church make me feel that I am not as valuable a part of things at church as I am at work. At church, I feel that my contributions are not needed or wanted, and that my gifts are expendable. Because they are completely uninterested in my life the other six days of the week, I feel that the other members of my church community don’t really know me and don’t really want to know me.
I am tired of being a different person during the week from the person I am on Sunday. During the week, what I do makes a difference as to whether my company succeeds or fails. During the week, the people at work notice my demeanor and my tone of voice and if I seem unhappy, they ask me if something is wrong. During the week, if I didn’t show up someone would notice and ask why not. At work I am told that the company needs my ideas, my productivity and my talents, and when I get a good result, someone says, “You did a good job with that.” Studies have shown that most people are motivated by understanding how their performance fits into an organization and how their work makes a difference.
Some will say that I am making excuses and that “What you get out of church depends on what you put into it.” There is an element of truth to that; it is certainly more rewarding to be involved than to disengage. But it is really, really hard to continually maintain a split personality, one for work and one for church. And it gets harder and harder to convince myself that God really wants me to contribute such a small portion of my talents to my church community in comparison to my workplace. Unfortunately, I do not have the gifts that our tradition appreciates in a woman. I don’t have children and I’m not particularly good at teaching them, though I admire those who have that talent. There are a few congregations out there where I do feel at home. I wish there were more. I wish that all women in our fellowship could be the same talented, competent, valuable person on Sunday as they are during the week.