AGITATE with Pam Hogeweide

Agitate — By on December 6, 2012 at 3:00 am

“I can’t go to this church anymore,” said the brown-eyed woman, lowering her voice as if confessing a crime. “I don’t know if I’m crazy or what, but the way I feel devalued as a woman …” Her voice trailed off as her eyes misted over.

She had been part of her faith community for more than a decade. She met her husband in the choir and birthed two kids, both of whom had been part of the Sunday school since they could walk. Her church was her home and to think of leaving was like getting a divorce.

Her story was familiar to me. She loved her faith tribe, yet her soul was suffocating. Her church was as lovely as any church in her midsize town, but she felt crushed beneath the weight of teaching that men are to be leaders and women their assistants.

Many churches are doing their women wrong and many in the sisterhood are finally saying I Am Done.
In the summer of 2011, research organization the Barna Group, released its latest findings in regards to American women and the Christian faith. The number of women attending church has declined by 11 percent according to their research. Church volunteerism has fallen by 9 percent, which is to be especially noted since women have long served behind-the-scenes to keep church programs humming along.

Barna’s study summarized that the only religious behavior that increased among women in the last 20 years was becoming unchurched.

I like to believe that this shift of women leaving is positive, an indication of resistance to the injustice of inequality in the church. In fact, when I first read this study, I had just met three different women who left their churches (but not their faith) as a result of sexism they experienced in their faith communities.
One of the biggest questions anyone has who decides to ditch their faith community is where will I go from here? For many women, it can be the question that paralyzes her into staying in a stifling environment for another decade or two. Like a friend of mine who waited for nearly twenty years to be affirmed in her calling at her church. The problem was the theology: her church did not believe women ought to exercise authority over men. She hoped that she would be the exception. It was her dream, but it was a delusion which took years for her to wake up from.

She and her husband finally left. They no longer go to church and at this stage of life, they are just fine with that. “We didn’t leave our faith,” she explains. “We just left the church. Now we are finding God’s presence in the everyday places.”

A group of crowded in my living room. We are older women, all of us aged like rising full moons as we weather into our crone years. “Who among us is still in church?” I asked. “Anybody?”

None spoke up, though a few of us chuckled. These are veteran Jesus followers. All of us have been ministry leaders at some point in our lives, some of us for many years.

“Then what are we doing with our Sundays?” I pressed. “What does church look like for us now?”

The conversation flowed as we talked about being church compared to going to church. One of my friends, a retired church leader, said she now meets with a small group of Christ followers and together they are leaning into the knowledge of God. “It energizes me and I am seeing spiritual growth in myself and others,” she said.
“I just meet friends for coffee,” said another. “Church is no longer a place for me and I can never go back. I just enjoy fellowship wherever I find it.”

A glow of comfort swelled in my heart. Women, I thought, are finding their way.

I got an email yesterday from a reader of my blog. She is disquieted, agitated about the faith tribe she is in. She has had what Sue Monk Kidd calls, a feminine awakening. When a woman realizes the polite oppression against her gender in her beloved spiritual community, it will cause her discomfort and perhaps a bit of anger … and more than likely an exodus from what she once held dear.

I have spoken to many women while they are in this transition place of tension and upheaval. I tell them each the same thing : I am excited for you.

They are breaking from the ranks of Christian hierarchy into the wildlands of uncertainty. This is where the good stuff happens. It is where new trails are blazed and undiscovered terrain is mapped out. It is how people create new outcomes and new places. To create new forms of Christian fellowship, we have to agitate our imagination. For many people, this won’t happen until there is a crisis of belonging.

Crisis can be a good thing, a breeding ground for birthing new ideas. It’s how one of my friends began a ministry to the homeless in her city. Her faith community kept blocking her. So she left. Agitated and upset, she left, wondering if she was a fool to leave the fold. That was years ago. She has since demonstrated the love of God to hundreds of men and women who will never step foot inside of a church. If you ask her, she’s found church among the most destitute citizens of her town.

It is not the end of the church if women and men decide to exit and find new ways of creating spiritual community. Innovation occurs when we have courage to abandon the tried and true. Our imaginations soar when given permission. Women (and men!) thrive in imagining the new.

It is an exciting time to be a Christ follower. I am not disheartened by the emails I get of women divorcing their churches or statistics I read at Barna’s website. These are birth pains of new ways of being church.
Women are expert birthers.

Pam Hogeweide lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and is mom to two thriving teenagers. She is the author of Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church. You can learn more about Pam at

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  • Hope says:

    Great article. I would like to mention that women have more than two options – leave or stay silent. There are plenty of churches that welcome women in ministry (yes, even to men) and in fact have female pastors (Horror!) The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) just to name one.

    • HI Hope,
      Thanks for reading. Yes, there are more than two options. Totally! Part of the message here is that as women feel agitated with inequality in their specific faith tribe, it can become a catalyst to imagining new ways of being church and having spiritual fellowship. Finding a new church that welcomes women in All of their gifting is definitely something women consider. What I’m finding, though, is that there seems to be a deeper root of discontentment that is much bigger than the unequal treatment of women in the church. I wish I had written that a bit stronger and clearer.

      Thanks again for reading!!!

  • I love how you presented this, overall. I will reiterate what I have said many times in the past: many complimentarians who believe that women are not to preach or hold certain leadership positions do not do so with the intention of being oppressive, sexist, or whatever other inflammatory descriptions we can come up with. They are often good people who read the bible differently than you do, and we should be careful casting them in a certain light.
    One of the loveliest things about Burnside is the respectful way we treat those with different theological perspectives, and complimentarians come to their position simply because of how they read Scripture.
    Disclaimer: I’m not a complimentarian when it comes to church leadership. But I was for many years, and know these are good people. I also know that many women in such churches see the same thing in Scripture that the men in question see, and they don’t feel oppressed.

    • HI James,
      I agree…. and yet I disagree.

      It was good hearted Christian folk who defended slavery in 19th century America and it was good hearted kind intentioned Christ followers who were willing to battle for the right for Americans to own slaves. Oppression, no matter how polite or velvety the source, is still oppression.

      And yet there is need for compassion and respect and grace. I write about this at length in my book, Unladylike, including how my own journey from a complementarian view to an egalitarian view evolved over two decades. And it was a long evolution because I was fretting about being at odds with the good hearted people I knew who taught and embraced a view of women that hurts women.

      It Hurts Women. And men. Patriarchy is an unfair system that is rooted in power. To reject complementarianism is to reject a system, not our brothers and sisters, and though I do choose (rather deliberately) language that is strong (words like oppression, sexism, Christianized sexism….) I do so to make clear that this is not a mere difference of doctrinal point of view. Complementarianism hurts women and keeps women in a subservient posture.

      I appreciate that BWC makes room for varying points of view, including mine. I respectfully offer my perspective for those women (and men) who are in the margins wondering if their discontentment is born out of their selfishness. Women with a complementarian upbringing often feel tremendous conflict as they deconstruct themeselves free from this paradigm. I get emails every week from readers telling me so.

      Thank you for reading my first column for BWC….I’ve written articles over the years, but this is my first column and I will be writing on a variety of issues concerning the transition the church is in right now (and it’s not just women!!)…. I look forward to more dialog as we go forward in our faith!

  • Kristen M. says:

    Thank you Pam. Your words hit a tender spot in my heart this morning as I read them. I’m currently facing the irony that I was just newly commissioned as a pastor, and yet our family has no church home in our community – for many of the reasons you allude to here. It’s a difficult road to walk, particularly with young children whom we want to raise well.

    • Hi Kristen,

      First of all, congratulations on your new commissioning as a pastor!!

      Oh my heart is with you sister! It was for women like you– many of my friends — that I wrote Unladylike.

      I am convinced that there are new forms of Being Church that we can lean into when we cannot find a church to call home. It is a difficult road with kids, as we so want that community to be a part of our kids growing up. Yet at the same time many women I know choose to leave the system BECAUSE of their kids… they don’t want to pass on the legacy of how to endure inequality.

      My heart is with you, sister. Come by my blog. I think you’ll like the posts I’ve done on women and the church. I am passionate about equality!!

  • Susan D says:

    The most real moments of faith and love that I experience are in intimate settings or one-on-one. There are aspects of ‘going to church’ that are nice – corporate singing and worship for example. But even that can grate on me when I think of the hours spent preparing a ‘show’ rather than showing up and letting the Holy Spirit lead us into our expression of worship -whatever and however that may be. And don’t get me started on building funds and other programs to ‘bring people in.’ I can see women as the new spiritual leaders that say ‘enough’ and begin grassroots communities and gatherings without the trappings but with the Message. As Pam commented, it’s more than ‘inequality’ . . . it’s a desire to be free of the trappings and BE church, BE Jesus, however that plays out for each individual.

    • Love how you say it, Susan. I did not realize this until a pattern emerged as I had conversation after conversation with crowds of women. We’d start off talking about inequity and end up discussing How Then Can We BE Church?? I am convinced that the holy winds of change are gusting up!

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Michelle Miller says:

    Thanks as always for your strong and theologically refreshing writing. A friend recently invited me to stop using the word “complementarian” in favor of “patriarchalist” so as to better represent the meaning of the word. I’ve found it a great experience and people are always taken aback by the stark reality exposed.

    On another note, I work in the area of sex trafficking and am continually baffled by churches who want to “fight” trafficking on the one hand but refuse to interrogate their own complicity in institutionalized male domination that undergirds the both the sex industry and their own churches. We can never end sex trafficking until we end the male demand for paid sex based on a sense of entitlement.

  • “Thanks, Pam”, said the former fundie and complementarian. I appreciate the tone and content of your comments a much as I do the column. Thanks for joining us

  • Nan Roberts says:

    Nice article,Pam. I belong to the Foursquare Church, where women are pastors. (Considering our founder, we’d be odd if we didn’t do that.) Women are counsel members, ushers, on the worship team doing all the jobs. A few things grate on my nerves: “ladies” stuff. Ministries, retreats. Why, I ask sometimes, can’t we have women’s ministries or retreats? And how come when the men have retreats, they get to do paintball fights, or sometimes rope courses, and we get to decorate baskets, or do crafts. (Mind you, I am a crafter, I like it. But I want to do some paintball stuff.)
    And all this varies from church to church within the denomination. And I’m grateful that our denomination doesn’t require women to wear special clothes, as some do.

    • Nan, I hear that. At our church, when our girls have gone to 4/5th grade Fun Nights in the past, the boys got to play dodgeball while the girls painted nails. Didn’t seem right.

      Our church does, however, have a group called True North Travelers for women that hike and stuff. That’s a cool thing.

  • @Susan D,

    Love how you say it, Susan. I did not realize this until a pattern emerged as I had conversation after conversation with crowds of women. We’d start off talking about inequity and end up discussing How Then Can We BE Church?? I am convinced that the holy winds of change are gusting up!

    Thanks for commenting!

  • @Susan D.

    Love how you say it, Susan. I did not realize this until a pattern emerged as I had conversation after conversation with crowds of women. We’d start off talking about inequity and end up discussing How Then Can We BE Church?? I am convinced that the holy winds of change are gusting up!

    Thanks for commenting!

  • (there were some issues with my comments not going out, hence some were published twice. Here is one long comment post with my replies to each commenter. Sorry for te techno glitch!)

    @Michelle M.  I may have to borrow your friend’s word, “patriarchalist.”  That makes such a great distinction of what we are talking about….and yes, like you I note the sad irony that faith communites that champion women exploited in sex trafficking are sometimes oppressing their own women inside their church.  I write about this at length in Unladylike, referring to it as a “half measure of justice,” and we know that half measures don’t really get us anywhere.  I appreciate your comment and am glad I am not the only who is disturbed by this contradiction.
    @Larry, brother, thanks for your comment and encouraging words!! The conversation in the comments is the BEST part of posting any article. At least it’s my FAVE part…which is why I am having Kim post for me since for some unknown reason my comments are posting.  I appreciate you taking the time to pop by .  Love ex-fundies as I am an ex-er too. I tell folks I am a recovering evangelical.  That’s kinda the same, right??!  See you around the Collective!
    @Nan, I am heartened to hear that you are seeing women free to Be Who They Are in your specific church. I love Foursquare, but the truth is that not all foursquare churches are demonstrating a community of equals with their women and men.  I hear many stories from all kinds of denominations and non-denoms where women become even more confused when on paper and in creed women are affirmed, but in practice they are not. It makes it more foggy for a woman to discern if her personhood is really being downsized or not. 
    I get what you are saying about womens retreats, crafting, etc….  we all live under the cultural forces our gender is shaped by.  Maybe you can be the one to organize a different kind of experience of women, cuz I bet there are more women like you waiting for a less-girly hang out time together!!!   Thanks for commenting!  And did you see what Kim posted about the women’s hiking group at her church?
    @Kim, thanks for commenting, and yep, those cultural forces are to be acknowledged and I personally don’t have an issue with it though it would be nice to see a variety of options for gatherings. I would bet there are brothers out there who do not want to play paintball and are not comfortable with he-man competitive type mens retreats.  (My husband being one of them !!)  Options are good, but i think the real issue here is being aware of how we might be unintentionally messaging one another that you are less than a girl or less than a boy if you do not fit in these stereotype gender roles. I def have a problem with that!!   (and THANK YOU for posting this for me! Hopefully the mystery of this techno glitch will resolve itself!!)

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