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Watching Out for the Crocodiles

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

I originally wrote a post about this back when I graduated from seminary in 2008 (You can read that original post here) which addresses all the scriptural arguments regarding why women are also called into ministry. It was a statement my seminary professor made to me during my approval for ordination interview. "Watch out for the crocodiles." I thought she meant to look out for all those people who would be telling me that I was usurping the will of God, that I shouldn't be a pastor, etc. etc. The people who would be looking to eat me alive.

Fifteen years later, however, I realize that's probably not what my seminary professor was talking about. I think while, yes, those were people to contend with, she was more concerned about the ones who swim under the surface. The ones who seem harmless, like they might even be supportive of you and your ministries. The men who claim to be feminists, but then, when confronted with some form of accountability, will attack and undermine you. You don't see those crocodiles coming, because they're stealthy, swimming quietly below the surface and are able to creep up on you, lull you into complacency, make you think they're safe to be around--and then they strike.

In a lot of ways this is more devastating and difficult to comprehend and deal with. The betrayal runs deeper when it comes from the people you think have your back and are on your side. While I certainly have not felt the full brunt of what straight up misogyny can look like in the church (I've not been subjected to having council meetings called to discuss my boob-size or how I should straighten my hair to look more 'professional"...yes, those are real things that happened to female colleagues of mine), I've been dealt enough blows, microaggressions, and subtle sexism to realize that even among some of our most staunchest male "feminist" supporters, those habits die hard deaths.

Subtle Sexism

My first call was pretty uneventful on the sexism front. Or so I thought at the time. I think part of what I didn't ever realize was that I had normalized so much of what I experienced in the work place all my life, I did not even recognize sexism for what it was. I got along well in both my secular professions as well as with the senior pastor I worked with. It was probably Karoline Lewis' book, "SHE: The Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry" that helped me begin to realize some of what I had been experiencing, even in those "good" relationships, was sexism. In particular, when you have ideas and they later get morphed into your male superior taking credit for them as their ideas.

The first time this really became apparent was during my first call. I know it happened a lot during my years at Disney and as a marketing manager, but I don't remember the specifics quite as well. What sticks out from that church setting, however, was when we hired a second female pastor and she expressed to me some frustration that her ideas weren't being listened to by the senior pastor. I laughed a little and said, "Well, here's how it works. You tell him your idea, he'll not be all that excited about it and you walk away. But, you've planted the seed. A few weeks later, he'll bring that same idea up in a staff meeting, but it'll be his idea now, not yours. I guess the important thing is that the idea gets implemented, regardless of who actually came up with the idea." She laughed a little and a few weeks later, she came back and went, "You were so right!" I shrugged it off. Of course I was right. I knew how this worked.

Despite knowing exactly how it worked, I don't think I internalized this was sexism because I had no male peers to really compare my reality against. Maybe this was just one of those blind spots people in power have when it comes to their subordinates in general.

Where it really reared its head, however, was when I was going through my divorce from a malignant narcissist who had been sent to federal prison for making threats to federal employees. I go through that entire nightmare in my book, "Once Upon a Nightmare," which will be released later this spring/summer, so I won't go into the nitty gritty details of that here other than to say he was kind of a scary dude and I was fearful for my safety. When I expressed those fears to the senior pastor, that once he got out of prison he would likely come to the church so some security might be in order, those concerns were dismissed and sidelined.

I wasn't wrong. He showed up within twenty-four hours of his release. But I was not there. I left town, so the senior pastor was left to deal with the crazy man I'd warned them about. Needless to say, we got a security system in place after that.

But that's the reality when women express concerns about their safety. I want to say that was a one-off, but nearly a decade later, there were some posts made on social media about me that were threatening in nature by a former employee. They were alarming enough a member of my council texted me that I should "watch my back, they're gunning for you." After an unhinged in-person tirade that triggered my PTSD and had nearly resulted in the preschool director calling the police, once again my concerns for my safety were sidelined and dismissed by another male senior pastor I was working with. I was being "irrational" apparently to have these fears, despite the known mental health issues that were going on. This was followed up by some gaslighting and subtle spiritual abuse among the staff that I needed to forgive, or else I didn't truly have Jesus in my heart, and I really shouldn't hold people's worst moments against them.

Never mind the interim I once worked with who insisted on calling me "kiddo." Oh, I know, I heard all the excuses about how that was a southern thing and I shouldn't take offense, except--that's not how you refer to a colleague that you supposedly respect. Southern-thing or not. And, the more blatant realities of why he felt the need to infantilize me became clearer a short time later.

We were supposed to have a meeting with some of our musicians one evening and he didn't show up for that meeting. I knew what we needed to discuss, so I went ahead and talked to them about it since all of us were there.

That following Sunday, he came into the media booth where I was talking with our deacon, grabbed me firmly by the shoulder and said, "Don't you ever usurp my authority again. I'm the senior pastor, you're not." I gritted my teeth and held my tongue as I knew better than to create a scene in front of another staff member right before worship started.

But first thing Monday morning, I was waiting for him when he came into the office. I sat him down, informed him he was never to dress me down like that in front of another staff member ever again, and pointed out that the only reason I led that meeting in the first place was because he had failed to show up when he was supposed to.

His response was to admit: I intimidated him. After standing up for myself, he then proceeded to walk out of my office and informed our youth director how she could improve the children's sermons by doing what he used to do: use puppets. I followed him out when I heard this going on, propped myself up next to him and stared at him until he felt uncomfortable and walked back to his office. I looked at the dumbfounded youth director and shook my head and said, "Don't worry, that was about me, not you. You're just who he's taking it out on right now."

I was also pretty bad at recognizing sexual harassment. You think of sexual harassment as being this blatant thing, saying things to you that insinuate they want to sleep with you or something along those lines. I never really lumped inappropriate jokes into the sexual harassment category, yet when those jokes are made so frequently that it creates a hostile work environment, then you have a problem. Being told your sermon was a "real bra-burner" and being physically touched without your consent, even if that touch isn't meant to be sensual--still not appropriate. Comments about your clothing, comments about your appearance...female pastors deal with these kinds of things so often, we almost don't think about it anymore.

"Watch out for the crocodiles." Watch out for the stuff that swims beneath surface. That professor knew, and she tried to warn me. I just thought the crocodiles were the ones running full steam at twenty miles an hour--not the slow, stealthy circle that you never see coming.


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