I haven’t regularly attended church for....I wanted to say “a year or so,” but truthfully it’s more like two years. I’m bad at time estimates. I still say the 90’s was ten years ago. I know it’s wrong, but it feels so right. Anyway, let’s just say it’s been a while since I regularly attended Sunday services. This was a departure for me because when I moved to Portland I immediately got heavily involved with the first church I tried. When I say “heavily involved,” I mean that I attended service every Sunday and volunteered as a youth group leader, which meant youth events every Wednesday evening, monthly leader meetings, various girls sleepovers and dessert nights, and week-long summer camping trips. On top of that, I lived, ate, and socialized almost exclusively with other folks who attended the same church. I was in deep. This lasted about three years and it was pretty wonderful.
I had a close-knit group of friends whom I loved. Not only did we laugh together to the point of cheek cramps, but our shared faith opened the door for intimate talks and sitting with each other through hard times and tear-filled nights. The church gave me routine and familiarity and a whole lot of support. When I stopped attending what I will now refer to as First Church, it wasn’t because of any dramatic event. There was a bit of frustration with church bureaucracy, but for the most part my core group of friends moved on to other places and I decided that I was pretty exhausted anyway. Committing to spend your summer vacations driving a bunch of teenagers four hours each way in a van blasting Justin Bieber can take a toll on a person. So I decided to take a break and regroup.
For a few months I attended Karen’s Home Church, which meant sleeping in until 10:00am on Sundays, brewing a strong pot of coffee, and climbing back into bed to read the Bible or devotionals, listen to sermons by podcast, pray and journal. This was not a bad way to attend church, if you ask me, not bad at all. In time though, I missed walking into the sanctuary on Sundays and seeing familiar faces. I missed the unique feeling of mystery and awe that comes with closing your eyes and hearing hundreds of voices sing praises to the goodness of the universe. So I decided to start looking for a proper place of worship. The thing is, I had never really had to do this before. Since becoming a Christian shortly after I graduated high school, anytime I moved to a new place I had always gone wherever my friends went.
“You guys go to church in a Mesoamerican-themed nightclub in downtown LA where congregants paint abstract art on stage while the pastor preaches? Sure!”
“You wanna drive an hour each way to the satellite campus of a Texas mega church where the sermon is streamed live from yet another location on a giant projection screen? Whatever, I’m in!”
“Wait, you’re telling me we’re allowed to attend that church full of impossibly beautiful people that meets in the iconic Hollywood High School? Hell yeah, I’ma bag be one o’ them pretty church boys!” (Spoiler: I never did.)
This time around though, I wanted to give some real thought to where I spent my Sundays. What values did I want to see reflected? What sort of community did I envision? How did I want to contribute? I went to several different locations all over Portland, read a few Statements of Faith on church websites, streamed a few sermons, and asked a lot of people a lot of questions about what their churches meant to them. I hope you will not judge me too harshly to learn that after all that thought and research, I just kinda chose a place where a bunch of my friends went. Old habits die hard.
During my search I met a group of friends who were fun, adventurous, and creative and many of them attended a church in Northeast Portland where the congregation was decidedly hip, young, and artsy. From here on out I will refer to this church as Hip Young Artsy Church. One day after going to the regular service at Hip Young Artsy Church, I attended the extra-curricular, post-service “Discovery” class for new people. It was a packed room, a living room to be exact, in Hip Young Artsy Church’s adjacent parish house where a vintage-y silver samovar full of gourmet small batch coffee sat on a reclaimed wood table surrounded by impeccable white couches.
The associate pastor introduced himself and gave a brief history of the church and what their core beliefs were: “We love Jesus,” “We believe in community," "The Bible is cool." It all seemed to check out. Then one by one each of us went around, stated our name, and why we were there. Again, pretty standard fare:
“My name is Brian, I just moved to Portland. I’m looking for a place to get connected.”
“My name is Andrea, I just moved to Portland. I’m looking for authentic community.”
“My name is Luella, I just moved to Portland. I’m looking to smile and shake hands with at least eight new people a week and never remember their names afterwards.”
One of those I may have made up once I started to zone out somewhere around the fifteenth introduction, but you get the idea. Just as I was wondering if anyone would notice if I snuck another cup of coffee, my fifth of the morning, the last person finished their introductory spiel and the associate pastor opened up the room to questions. One girl’s hand shot up and she asked if she could comment on the church’s policy of not allowing women to be church elders.
Fwaaaaah?!?! My ears perked up and I forgot all about my caffeine addiction.
The pastor deftly evaded the question by saying that the elders of the church had written a position paper on that subject and he would be glad to send it to the girl and that they could discuss it further at that time. Next question please.
Thirty minutes later I was home and already emailing Associate Pastor Tom or Bob or Jim or something (how many fricking names had I just heard?!) so that I could get a look at this paper. He wrote back promptly with, “Thanks so much for attending! I have attached a copy of the position paper. Let me know if you have any questions or need clarification.”
Clarification, huh? Why? Because my feeble woman brain won’t be able to comprehend your sagacious man-speak?!?
Ok, calm down, Karen. Hear them out.
I read the paper. Then I read it again, taking time to read each Bible verse that it referenced and look up commentary on said verse to provide context. I read the paper a third time then sort of sat in a trance staring at the wall for a while. After careful consideration and wall staring, here is my summation of the paper’s thesis:
Women can tooootally do lots of awesome and important stuff in the church except-hold-the-highest-position-of-leadership-because-2000-years-ago-only-dudes-did-that, but ladies are like soooooo good at so many other things, don’t you agree?
To say that I felt condescended to would be to call Donald Trump “a bit of an asshat.” The most frustrating part was the time, effort and, I’m sure, incredible amount of thought and discussion that had gone into the writing of this paper. I’m sure the authors thought they were being entirely fair and reasonable and that they were lovingly but firmly shepherding their flock according to the divine will of God. Here’s the problem though: those authors are all middle-aged white men who have never been barred from any position based solely on their gender, race or any other category outside of their control. By this point my ears were throbbing with indignation and I immediately began drafting a response email to Tom or Jim or Bob or whoever explaining my disappointment at this policy and how I regretted that it meant that I would not be able to attend Hip Young Artsy Church after all, and how the Bible touted the concepts of balance and inclusion and how women in leadership (real leadership, not just second-in-command leadership) could only serve to strengthen the church, and how important diverse representation is to the wider community. But then I stopped. I had no connection to this Tom Jim Bob person and only a cursory connection to his church. I had a feeling that railing against him would only cause more frustration. And in any case, Jimmy Carter already said everything I wanted to say far more eloquently than I ever could. So rather than arguing with a stranger, I talked to my best girlfriends instead.
I brought up Hip Young Artsy Church’s “Boys Rule, but Girls Are Almost as Good” policy at our next Girls Night. Most agreed that the policy seemed unfair, that it bothered them a little bit or a lot, but accepted that it was how things were and each concluded that there were enough benefits of church to continue attending despite this policy. "Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater," so to speak. Just as I began to wonder why I had gotten so worked up in the first place, one friend added matter-of-factly, “You know that First Church has the same policy, right?” Suddenly I had the same feeling I'd had as an eight-year-old in soccer when I'd valiantly (and accidentally) blocked a goal kicked from three feet in front of me by the world's largest third grader using nothing but my ribcage. No, I said as the air rushed from my lungs, I had not realized that the institution I devoted myself to for three years also had a policy of discrimination against women. I felt sick that in all that time I had never even thought to ask. I knew this sort of thing happened in more conservative sects of Christianity, but I had always assumed (naively) that the more modern and seemingly progressive places I'd attended held a an egalitarian view of gender.
Then suddenly an even bigger realization struck: I wondered how many churches I’d attended in the past 12 years had this same policy barring women from being elders. Of all the church websites I could find and all the “Leadership/Staff” pages I looked at, not one of them showed a woman in the position of elder (unless she happened to be in the picture sitting next to her church-elderly husband). Ladies were certainly well represented though when it came to being an “Executive Assistant,” “Early Childhood Director,” or “Women’s Pastor.” It was also interesting to note that while Hip Young Artsy Church allowed only married men to be elders, noting a strict interpretation of 1 Timothy as it describes elders as “husband to one wife,” First Church had at least one non-married man on the elder team. Because apparently you can take some liberties with scriptural interpretation, but only up to the point where it would allow girls into the Boys Only club.
I am not discrediting all of the wonderful things that the church has done for me in the past twelve years - all of the good guidance and wonderful relationships I found there, so why does this one issue bother me so much? As Rachel Held Evans put it in her much more academic and admittedly less snarky post on the subject of women in the church,
“In a more egalitarian culture, where women are assumed to have the same value as men, restricting women’s roles based on their gender is unnecessarily offensive. It drives people away from the gospel - and not because of the cost of discipleship.”
Or, in my own words, if you tell me that I can’t do something, whether it’s lead a church or hold the world record for farthest unicycle jump, and your only rationale is “because you’re a woman,” then you’re wrong. Maybe I can’t do the aforementioned things because I personally have no interest in them/I don’t care for unicycles, but it certainly has nothing to do with having lady parts...unless the reason I have no interest in church leadership or unicycle greatness is because I was subliminally discouraged from pursuing them or never saw anyone who looked like me in those roles during my formative youth! Gah! How deep does this thing go?! You see the problem here.
So now I am brought back to the original topic of this post: Finding a church. I never expected the road to be this long and winding, with so many pit stops, dead ends, and wrong turns, but of course that can be said of any journey in life that you don't give up on. I’m grateful to that girl who raised her hand in the Discovery class so many months ago and I’m even grateful for the leaders of Hip Young Artsy Church for writing their poopy position paper, because it brought to light an inequity that had been present but muted in all the other places I had chosen to worship in my life. I’m grateful that I have finally come to a few steadfast conclusions:
- I will bite anyone who cites the Bible's use of "masculine pronouns" to justify male authority. Don't even get me started on that bunk.
- I'll keep looking for a new church. Here are some questions I'll ask along the way:
Do you believe in a just and loving God? Do you use The Bible and other spiritual texts as a guide for your faith, and seek to extract the overarching lesson as it best applies to your own era and culture, knowing that a strict and legalistic interpretation of every word is impossible and misguided?
Do you allow women, and all people for that matter regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic background, sexual preference, or any other category an equal voice in the church? Do you choose leaders based on merit rather than any of the aforementioned arbitrary labels?
Do you have good coffee and am I free to drink as much as I want without fear of judgement or reproach?
Cool. Then I’m in.