This Tuesday I passed my thesis defense and am one step closer to being a Communication Wizard (or MA. Whatever). These days, as I sleep in all the way until seven and have stopped compulsively writing to-do lists, I am a little aimless. Cut loose. Mourning the weeks of work that unless I’m able to condense it, no one will read.
My project was to discover what kinds of identities Evangelical women claim for themselves and if those identities enable them to be more or less influential within their church communities. So I conducted focus groups in churches of disparate gender ideologies, asking women to tell me about a time when the church either sought out their spiritual gifts or didn’t have space for their gifts.
I found that women expect themselves and other women to be servants in the church and often that expectation is tied to their femininity (e.g., they do not expect the same of men in the church). Moreover, even if service is not their personal spiritual gifting, service in the form of unskilled busywork is often the only gift Evangelical women are able employ to get involved at their church.
Narratives that stick with me:
A woman reflecting on her “back-up” spiritual gifts:
[S]houldn’t I be able to come in [to a new church]and use my leadership gifts, my skills with kids? And it was actually a real struggle to find the right fit. And I ended up like in here during the week doing a lot of administrative, like putting labels on mailers and stuffing bulletins . . . So I stuffed bulletins. Which was needed, you know? And I was happy to do that. Because my fourth gift would be service, you know, and need. If it needs to be done, I’ll do it.
A woman remembering her own brief time of discontent with unequal expectations of men and women in the church:
There are some women. . . who . . . are so militant about being in leadership and wanting, you know, “I want to serve the church, the way I want” you know, that they don’t serve the people right around them that they could be serving as women. I remember one time, I began to feel that way . . . . And I woke up one day and I thought, “Well, why can’t I just pretend like I’m on staff.” Okay! I’m going to be on staff today! And you know whoever needs something in the church, I’m going to help them! . . . So much more gets done that way. You’re just standing around and arguing about it.
A woman remembering a time her gifts had been rejected by a church:
[W]e had started going to this church and I was like “I’ve got to get into a Bible study” and they were going to start one and so I went to sign up. After finding out I wasn’t allowed to go because I had a child and they had no child care. And I was so disappointed. And then I went “Okay, fine.” So I went to the office and I was returning my book and they were going to give me my money back and I said, “You know, I love doing Bible study, I would love to be a leader for moms with young children.” And they were “Oh no no no no no. If you’re not really a member, if we don’t know who you are. Sorry. You can’t help at all.” Broke my heart. That was a really hard story. I bawled all the way home.
A women reflecting on how to have voice in marriage and the church:
[T]here’s so much joy in submission, and men will listen to that and respect that. Because you don’t go in as this spastic, nagging, negative, controlling—what other things? Not that it never happens; we’re supposed to be really—we just don’t vomit out. And then they’re like, “I’ll take your point of view.” You know, and that goes at home and at work, you know, serving.
A woman describing her experience with children’s ministry
I mean I love children, but I would say serving in the kids ministry is not one of my biggest spiritual gifts, um, but there was desperate need for so I went, based on service being one of my strong ones, but I think that just something that like talking to parents a lot I think that happens a lot.
Turns out, it does happen a lot. Women in my study, many of whom were exceptionally talented leaders, found themselves relegated to spiritual grunt work based on the idea that women should serve in quietness and full submission—because after all, shouldn’t all Christians serve one another? And what could be the downside of a gentle and quiet spirit?
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).