Thank You for Naming… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

I am deeply grateful for Larissa Kwong Abazia’s reflection titled: “Thank you for NOT asking.” which she guest posted this week on

grounded in three

grounded in three

Jan Edmiston’s blog, A Church For Starving Artists. She writes of her experiences in the call process, of being asked “inappropriate questions” and of wrestling with how to answer them faithfully. She raises some really good and some really hard questions for those of us who are committed to the ongoing work of justice, inclusion and education in the Church. Here is the issue it raised for me:

 Sexism and gender privilege is real and it is present in all of our interactions, even when good people of God are working to call a great pastor, if we don’t name these issues and the ways in which they manifest then things will not change and we will continue to struggle to find wholeness in the Church.

Just as is the case for those of us who are queer pastors in the Church and know that while the passage of 10A is cause for much celebration and thanksgiving it doesn’t shift the job market, many churches will only consider calling lgbtqia pastors when the hard work of education, hearts changing, and policy writing is done, and this is true for women in ministry as well. We have been training and ordaining women in the PCUSA since 1956 but only 34 percent of our currently ordained clergy folks are female and only one out of five are in what’s considered a pastor/co-pastor type of position, this includes small church solo pastors as well as head of staff position.

I believe our individual experiences with and responses to what Larissa has called “inappropriate questions” are shaped by the intersection of our experiences of privilege and oppression. I also believe that our experience of these questions and how they make us feel are a culmination of many of our experiences over time in similar settings.

When I think back on my own experience in my last search for a call in the PCUSA I am certain that I held a much more positive perspective the first time someone on a PNC asked me why I wasn’t married or how my kids would survive “at home alone while I was at work” (someone was making a lot of assumptions, weren’t they?) if they called me as their pastor. It was much more difficult many months, even a year into the search to respond to questions such as, how old are you? And, who will pick your kids up from school if you’re working? Without taking that to mean that the person asking was assuming that I might be too young or inexperienced for the job or that I am not intelligent enough to organize and make arrangements for the care and well-being of my family while I am at work.

I would suggest that it’s tricky business to say that we should respond to these questions with the assumption that the person has the best of intentions or is looking out for my best interest which is what MaryAnn McKibben Dana offered as one option in her well thought out response at her blog, The Blue Room. Overall my experience with PNC’s and APNC’s are that they are in a tough time of transition, they feel a great deal of pressure to make the right choice on behalf of the whole congregation and while they could most likely use some pastoral care they are often asking questions that revolve around the care and well-being of the congregation not the candidate in front of them. I have even experienced members of a PNC whose questions were obviously motivated by their personal needs and issues as well. Therefore, I would be more likely to assume that these “inappropriate questions” arise from unexamined assumptions about the role of women in the life of a family, internalized gender oppression if the person asking is female and sexist ignorance (however benevolent) if the asker is male. I would not assume they meant harm but that is not the same as assuming they are well-intentioned.

Let’s assume also that these questions are not asked in a mean-spirited way and therefore are an opportunity for some education, deeper understanding and personal growth which in the community where, I am in fact, the called and installed pastor it is absolutely part of my calling to help provide. However, a candidate at a job interview is not in a pastoral position of authority. The majority of the power in the relationship is held by the PNC or APNC. They are in a position to continue the process or not, the PNC has the power to recommend you as a candidate to the congregation or not, the PNC has the power to ask an array of questions ranging from faith and formation to theology to your personal life. How do we, as pastors and candidates respond so that we do not perpetuate attitudes of sexism, how do we provide the right amount of transparency without contributing to an imbalance of power and authority and yet care well for those who are asking the questions? It’s definitely a balancing act!

This raises, for me, a hard question. Why do questions about my ability to care for my children, to manage a family life and career or questions about my orientation, stature, my looks or my gender make me feel small, invisible, or powerless? I’m both funny and intelligent, two things Mary Ann McKibben suggests help her to be a strong leader but I have also had some bad experiences. I have often fielded questions that were meant exactly how I took them, meant to make me feel small and insecure. They were asked out of a place of judgment and skepticism as to my skills and abilities. These experiences leave one raw and worried about future questions and experiences and while those of us who have these experiences can and should do the work of wrestling with them and healing the wounds we should also expect the Church to hear and respond to these experiences. To work to create processes for educating PNC’s and encouraging them to tackle difficult issues of sexism, racism, privilege and oppression as well as insuring professional standards for interview processes.

So how do Church leaders, Executive Directors, Associate Execs, COM and CPM Chairs and COM liaisons take responsibility and take steps to institute education around not only sexism but racism and homophobia as well? How do we, as minister members of presbyteries understand our role in the interview processes that are unfolding in the congregations around us?

Let’s begin by naming it when it happens and then by doing some education around these issues. Let’s listen, and truly hear the stories of those who have had good experiences and those who have had hurtful ones. Let’s hear them and believe them and then take the next step of critical analysis as to how and why these scenarios happen and how the positive ones can be reproduced and the negative ones can be corrected. In the meantime, I agree it’s a good choice and it shows a commitment to having a healthy pastor to ask questions about a pastor’s spiritual care practices, about how she attends to her own spiritual and emotional health and how she will balance her professional and private life. These are questions that can be applied to any candidate, no matter their status, female, male or transgender, no matter their racial/ethnic background, whether they are a parent or non-parent, caregiver or grandparent, single or partnered, straight or queer.

1 Comment

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One response to “Thank You for Naming… A Response to Larissa Kwong Abazia

  1. Shawna, thank you for your thoughtful response that highlights the dynamics of power, privilege, and intersectionality that are at play. I often joke with friends that I am a hit for committees who are told to be concerned about equal opportunity: they can “check off” that they have interviewed a young adult, female, and person of color. It’s a funny joke but, sadly, just might bear some truth.

    Equality is an important element in the interview process. If a question cannot be asked across the board, I hope committees will consider not offering up the question. While those about self-care and balance are important, probing questions can take advantage of the interviewee’s vulnerable position as you state.

    I dream of the day when we will be seen as whole people composed of everything that our life experience, both professional and personal, has created us to be AND that some (or all) of these are not seen as liabilities to one’s service in the Church. Until that day, I agree with you that COMs, presbyteries, Church leaders/staff, and search committees need to work together on education on such issues.

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