One of my favorite podcasts is ‘Judge John Hodgeman,’ in which comedian John Hodgeman pontificates over somewhat trivial disputes between friends and family members. It’s a funny, well-produced, and often thought provoking romp through pop-ethics in all the best ways. If you haven’t listened before, it’s well worth your time (and may I recommend the episode wherein Hodgeman judges how often a pastor’s beloved must attend church with her?).
Over the span of hundreds of episodes, some aspects of Hodgeman’s ethic have become “settled law.” For example, “people like what they like,” meaning: you can’t force someone to like (or not) like something just because you do (or don’t) like it, we all have our own preferences, it’s part of being human. My favorite bit of settled law is this: be mindful of the work you leave for others. I think on this advice often, when I’m tempted to put back a grocery item in the wrong aisle (because it’s just so convenient for me…) or when I grumble about putting my children’s books back on the book shelf for the umpteenth time in a given day. It is sage advice: be mindful of the work you leave for others. It’s not revolutionary or unique or even all that new, but it is wisdom which bears reminding.
And so we come to the question of women in ministry…you knew I’d get here eventually. There are several dozen things I wish people knew about what it means to be a woman serving in a profession where you can be legally discriminated against based on gender, but for today, let’s look at the settled law: be mindful of the work you leave for others.
Much like the advice of Hodgeman, this take isn’t new or unique or revolutionary, but it bears reminding: when you’re working with your pastor/colleague/friend/etc., and she happens to be a clergywoman, be mindful of the work you’re asking her to do. I have the distinct honor and privilege of serving as the Co-Chairwoman of Young Clergy Women International, alongside the brilliant Rev. Dr. Molly Field James; one of the great gifts of this position is hearing and holding the stories of over 1,600 clergywomen around the globe. Together we celebrate our triumphs in ministry, we seek advice for thorny situations, and we commiserate over the innumerable jabs and slights which we take as part and parcel of our context as young, clergy, and women.
In my 5 years of leadership, what I’ve come to see most distinctly is that the members of our organization are often bearing far more than their share of the load, and it takes a toll. It comes in small ways: reminding the organizer of a clergy panel or the editor of the New York Times that if they used proper titles for men, they must also use appropriate titles for the women; smiling and nodding through fifteen comments about a haircut, and not a single response to a sermon; confirming that it is hard when the local clergy group will not allow a woman into their ranks, lest some denomination or another be offended. And, of course, the toll comes in big ways: sending meals to a sister when her church will not give her medical leave following a miscarriage; walking with a friend as she files an official sexual harassment charge against her superior; holding a colleague in prayer as she’s fired because of thinly-veiled (if veiled at all) misogyny on her church board.
In each of these cases, the toll is, of course, emotional and often financial, but what I notice most of all is the toll in terms of time these large and small slights bring to clergy women. This goes double for clergywomen of color and our LGBTQ sisters, who are often fighting the battle on multiple fronts of misogyny, race, orientation, marriage, and more.
The time it costs clergy women to educate their parishioners, their colleagues, their bishops and superiors, the local clergy group, the town newspaper editor, the teacher at their kid’s daycare, the grocery clerk who comments on her clericals, and so much more…that time is valuable and costly! Especially in the case of educated colleagues, superiors, and others with the education and context to know better, it makes me want to yell from the mountain top: be mindful of the work you’re leaving for others! Be mindful of the work you’re asking her to do for you! That’s her precious and valuable time! Do. The. Work. Yourself.
Earlier this year, Princeton Seminary and the Kuyper Center got themselves into a bit of a kerfuffle when Rev. Tim Keller was offered an esteemed prize and lectureship. Many students, alumni, and faculty were enraged by the dualistic message it seemed to send: we ordain women, and yet, here’s a prize for a leader of a sibling denomination which split over this very issue. There are a dozen or more think pieces out there all about this, go google it.
In the midst of this, I knew the seminary president, Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, would be receiving plenty of mail enumerating the theological and ethical concerns of alumni, so I took a different tack and asked a different question: do you understand how much time this has cost the alumni and students of your school? Time we could have been spending preparing sermons and caring for our people? Did the committee count the cost of this decision before making it? In short: I accused the Kuyper Center of not being mindful of the work it left for others. The response of President Barnes was less than helpful. He kindly, but jokingly, assured me that this issue had taken a lot of his time, too.
But, of course, the logical fallacy of his joke (was it a joke?) is plain to see: my time and his time are not equivalent in this particular case. President Barnes is paid, and paid well, to be the public leader and face of Princeton Seminary, in good times and in the midst of a self-inflicted wound. On the other hand, the alumni and friends of the seminary (myself included) who took time to respond and share our thoughts and perspectives were doing so by taking time away from other aspects of our lives: our jobs, our congregations, our children, or maybe just reading a good book. It’s his job to deal with this, it wasn’t mine, in a literal sense.
This issue of not being mindful of the work you leave for others is a deep, entrenched, and often invisible issue. It’s a hard cycle to break, especially for clergy women, because by refusing to do this work, we’re often left with the bad outcome of being seen as uncooperative or allowing unjust situations (like the Keller issue) to stand uncontested. It’s present in the home, as couples divvy up housework (where women still do far more hours than men). It’s present in secular work spaces, as women do more “office housework” with less payoff (taking notes, doing dishes, cleaning whiteboards). It’s present in the church, when clergy women must first establish their right to merely exist (and do so again, and again, and again) before actually entering into the work of ministry.
On behalf of the more than 1,600 women of Young Clergy Women International, and our countless sisters around the globe, this is my plea: be mindful of the work you leave for others…and maybe, just maybe, google it for yourself, before assuming that your friendly, neighborhood clergy woman will do it for you.
Rev. Kelly Boubel Shriver serves as the Pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in West Linn, Oregon, a southern suburb of Portland. She is a graduate of Princeton Seminary, with a focus in Women’s Studies, and has served churches in Washington, New Jersey, and Michigan. Kelly also serves as the co-chair of Young Clergy Women International. Kelly and her husband, John, keep themselves busy caring for their three sons, Enoch, Moses, and Jonah, and a dog, Bristol. When not corralling one of her many creatures, Kelly loves to hike, bake, read, and watch Star Trek (TNG, obviously) and The Great British Bake-Off.