When I was a little girl, I went to Louisiana with my family. Right in the middle of the hot sticky summer. When we walked off the airplane, I looked at my mother and asked her what that feeling was in the air. What was happening, I wondered? She laughed. “It’s the air. It’s called humidity, Tina.”
One afternoon, my granny hauled me and my sisters down to the local Wal-Mart in her green Buick. The car weighed more than a tank. My sister, Rachael, and I somehow got separated from Granny and ended up on an aisle by ourselves, toy browsing, when two much bigger girls came along. I was a tiny thing, with twig legs and hair the color of the sun, skin pale and freckled, and a tongue as sharp as an adder’s. No one has ever had to ask me what I think… because I will have already told them.
My mother had recently cut my hair off, something about tangles and snarls and not wanting to deal with it anymore. This was in the 80’s when mothers weren’t worried about damaging their child’s self-esteem over things like haircuts. They considered it their own personal mission to raise us to be resilient, just-go-with-it human beings. I hated my short hair.
Anyway, this big girl, who was probably three years older than me, and much stronger, with frizzing black hair, sized me up and down. “You’re a boy,” she told me.
I eyed her with suspicion. “No, I’m a girl,” I said, reassuringly.
“You’re a boy,” she said.
“No. I’m not. I’m a girl.” Short hair or not, I was in fact, a girl. And nothing was going to change that fact.
My gender-accuser stepped toward me, wrapped her fingers around my neck and started to strangle me, I presume with with some kind of intent to wrangle the real truth out of me. She widened her eyes and got so close I could smell the heat coming off her skin. “You. Are. A. Boy.”
My eyes were as wide as saucers. I could hardly talk. My fierce heart beat so hard it took on a life of its own pumping out of my chest, but I stood firm. “No, I am a girl,” I said in a coarse whisper, mainly because my vocal chords were being squeezed into silence.
She finally relented because her sister wanted to go to the next aisle. I was in the battle of my life; she was merely looking for someone to pick on. Picked on or not, nothing was going to steal my identity from me. I was a girl. I am a woman.
* * *
Speaking of identity, I knew wanted to be a preacher by the time I was eight years old. I used to have a tape-recorder for my preaching. My mom still has one of my recordings. When I listen to my little girl voice lifted high in proclamation, it makes me smile. I want to cheer her on. It’s no small thing to be a girl and know you’re supposed to be a preacher.
It didn’t take long to discover my passionate calling was going to be tested. Girls don’t preach, they told me. Girls are pastors’ wives, they aren’t pastors. Girls share their stories, they lead devotionals, they don’t preach. But, I’m tenacious and resilient, and for the record, so is God.
There was a time in my when I wanted to preach so badly, I’d lift my voice to the wind, to the sea, to the rocks and declare the goodness of God, the love of Jesus, and his marvelous ways to anything that would stand there and listen. Even my pet dogs.
When I graduated high school and headed off to become a sailing missionary, where I lived on a ship and sold educational literature to developing countries, I had the honor and privilege of preaching, teaching, serving, loving, and living life with people all over the world. It changed me forever.
However, it was later while working at a church when I realized that while I was allowed to preach and teach, allowed to lead, and share my heart for the Lord and do the work of the ministry in all kinds of ways, in many churches, the title Pastor was intentionally withheld. That was a man’s title.
When I addressed the inequality of it to the powers-that-be, the explanations usually had something to do with headship, with right order, proper covering, submission to authority. “See the Pauline epistles,” they’d say. Right order or not, it felt exclusive, and deeply painful. The only thing I wanted was for those men to affirm me and say … “You’re a pastor.”
Finally, one afternoon I fell into my friend, Leigh’s, office. Leigh reminds me a lot of Jesus. Ask her a question and you get a story, which almost always makes you see everything from an entirely new perspective.
That day, sitting in her office, despairing over the powerlessness I felt about being a woman in ministry, in leadership, in a frustrating system that withheld the title I ached for just because of my gender, I got the lesson of a lifetime.
She smiled knowingly and leaned back in her chair. “You may never get invited into the good ol’ boys club, Tina. But God will never hinder you from fulfilling your calling. He’ll make a way. You have to decide if you want to fulfill your calling on God’s terms or on the terms the men have set up.”
There was my stark cold truth. I was lamenting a system I felt was motivated by pride and exclusion, of being kept out of something because of my gender. The only thing I wanted was to be a part of that system. I wanted to be recognized by the men as one of them.
My friend, Leigh, had the wisdom to see that we don’t tear down systems by demanding to be a part of them. We tear down systems by creating new systems that are designed differently.
I was looking for men to give me permission to be who I am, like they have the corner market on God’s will and ways, and I needed to change their minds about God’s ways. But they don’t have that kind of power, power over my identity, unless I give it to them.
That girl in the Wal-Mart tried to tell me I was a boy. She had a set of preconceived ideas about what a boy looks like and what a girl looks like, and I didn’t meet her standard. I looked like a boy to her. My hair was short. I had no earrings in my ears. I was scrawny and scratched up. But she couldn’t change my identity even if she tried. I was and am a girl.
As a woman in leadership who has served in all kinds of capacities, who believes the church is the people of God, not an institution, but a living active organism held together by the very word of Jesus, a woman who believes the church is a body not a system set up to keep the status quo in place, I have to remember not to buy into the lie. Titles come and go. Identity is internal and comes from a different place altogether.
Even if we don’t look like the pastors of old. Even if we have long hair and earrings, tattoos here and there, or babies on our hips … we are pastors. Titles or not. Praise God for the churches who have opened their hearts to God’s truth on these matters. But for women in churches that are still figuring it out, don’t be afraid.
You may feel like people have their metaphorical fingers wrapped around our necks, demanding that you call yourself something they are comfortable with. Maybe they want you to relent and admit that you are a director or a teacher or a leader … but no matter. The truth is, we are who we are and nothing will change it. We will be pastors. We will preach, we will lead, we will declare the wonders and goodness of God in the streets and in the plazas, in our neighborhoods, in the townships .. or wherever we go … because it’s who we are.