Strategically silent? – World Baptist News

Having grown up in the South, I learned that “children should be seen and not heard”. In too many cases, the same maxim applies to women.

Many churches seek to silence women who display gifts for ministry, believing that the Bible limits these roles to men. But what about women in churches that allow women to be ordained? Could some of them also remain silent on matters related to their ministry in an effort to maintain peace and continue serving?

I found this to be true in my interviews with eight women ordained by Baptists in Atlantic Canada. These women, ordained between 1976 and 1987, were pioneers in the ministry. In order to negotiate challenges, these women often remained strategically silent while relying on their sense of vocation to support them through difficult times. As evangelicals, women prioritized godliness in their ministries, while avoiding actions that would have labeled them troublemakers or liberals.

“In order to negotiate challenges, these women often remained strategically silent while relying on their sense of calling to support them through difficult times.”

The women I interviewed were confronted a variety of obstacles in their ministry. One of them was the issue of compensation. Joyce Hancock was underpaid by her church, as she reported:

Some of the women in the congregation, when it came to budgeting, made a big deal of the fact that I earned much, much less than the rest of the pastoral staff. They came forward and said they wouldn’t accept if it didn’t get better. But what I heard from the senior pastor later was, ‘Wow, you’re getting a nice raise this time! Are you unlucky?

Hancock’s situation exposed the sexism of her senior pastor as well as that of the congregation, while demonstrating the growing awareness of equality among a few faithful women who were not afraid to speak out. Hancock herself did not raise the issue of her salary; perhaps she thought it would cast her in a negative light. Whether this strategy of silence compromised his ministry or was necessary to preserve it is debatable.

Sharon Budd suffered lesser kind of unfair treatment during a break from a faith meeting. As she reported:

A number of male pastors came in and introduced themselves to each other. They started talking about ministry issues and one of them interested me, so I made a comment to inject myself into the conversation, and the conversation stopped. So they started talking about something else. So I stepped in again and made a comment, and the conversation stopped. And I was like, ‘I could make them change the conversation all afternoon! All I have to do is keep intervening! But I did not do it. I went back to (re)read my book.

The pastors in the room with Budd ignored her, perhaps thinking a woman in the ministry was not worthy of a vote. Her response demonstrated her reluctance to be seen as a woman with an agenda; she decided not to continue interacting with men.

A larger conflict erupted among Atlantic Baptists in 1987, when a motion banning women from being ordained was presented to the convention assembly. The discussion of the motion extended beyond the 42 minutes allotted. However, almost no women spoke publicly about the motion. Perhaps due to their conservative beliefs and background, the women I interviewed used a strategy of silence during the sectarian conflict.

“Perhaps due to their conservative beliefs and background, the women I interviewed used a strategy of silence during the sectarian conflict.”

Miriam Uhrstrom and Sarah Palmater recall advising other women to keep silent as well. Uhrstrom advised, “If you are where God has called you, just trust who you are and don’t worry about what anyone says. I never had a debate with anyone. In this way, she appealed to women’s sense of divine calling to sustain them. Sara Palmater went further:

Some of the girls came up to me and they were really upset and said, “What are we going to do? And I said, ‘We’re absolutely not going to do anything. …If I see any of your names in the paper, I will kill you…because we would be seen as radical feminists trying to prove we could do it and not obeying God’s call on our lives.

Like Uhrstrom, Palmater appealed women’s sense of calling to strategic silence, using God’s plan as justification for inaction. Unlike Uhrstrom, Palmater acknowledged that silence was also a strategy to avoid possible rejection by members of the denomination.

Because of their conservative background and beliefs, these women viewed feminists with skepticism and feared being associated with such a group. They worried that other members of the denomination would see them as liberals rather than Bible-believing Christians who happened to be women.

As products of an evangelical denomination, women avoided what they saw as the radicalism of the women’s movement (while still benefiting from the gains received from the movement as women in ministry). They did not appeal to feminist rhetoric but rather to divine calling to justify their ministries. In the final vote, the convention agreed to continue ordaining women ministers. Although (or perhaps because?) they did not speak out, the women had a victory thanks to the actions of the convention.

“As products of an evangelical denomination, women shunned what they saw as the radicalism of the feminist movement.”

Have things changed for Baptist women in ministry in Atlantic Canada, or for that matter across North America? I believe many women are still strategically silent. Some may simply want to pursue their calling with excellence rather than championing a cause. This could provide a non-threatening introduction of women in ministry to those around them and keep women focused on ministry goals rather than other issues.

But other women in ministry may feel they have to keep their heads down and their mouths shut to be successful in ministry in a conservative setting. They may fear that speaking for themselves as women would label them as troublemakers and harm their ministries. These women may feel pressure to be passive rather than prophetic.

How do churches – even those that support women in ministry – miss hearing the voices of these women speaking at full volume? Are we too quick to label women ministers without paying attention to the gifts and messages God has given them? How can we provide safe spaces for women in ministry to exercise their callings and share their perspectives without fear? And what actions should we take in response to what we hear?

I pray that churches and denominations across North America (and beyond) will listen carefully as God speaks to us through the voices of women.

Melody Maxwell

Melody Maxwell is Associate Professor of Christian History and Director of the Acadia Center for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Her research focuses on Baptist women from the late 19th century to the present day.

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