The Common Good

Mary and Martha: Women in Ministry in the 21st Century

I've always found this story of Mary and Martha perplexing. Mainly because of Jesus' response to Martha. It seems very reasonable for Martha to want to do everything possible to make Jesus feel comfortable and extend hospitality like most of us would do when someone comes over to visit. In contrast, Mary sits herself at Jesus' feet, soaking in his presence and hanging on every word. When Martha protests, Jesus says that Mary has chosen what is better. I have to admit that every time I read Jesus' response, I feel an instant punch in the gut, and yet, I'm intrigued by his response at the same time.

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The progressive feminist inside of me says, "Yay for Jesus!" How wonderful it is for Jesus to empower Martha to sit, learn, and engage in thoughtful, theological dialogue. The other side of me who takes pride in an orderly clean house (the kind a Korean mother would be proud of) says, "Oh no you didn't!" I can understand a sense of betrayal or embarrassment for being put in my place that Martha may have felt. One can argue that it was Martha being distracted versus what she was doing that Jesus was addressing, but even so, I often feel that Mary and Martha symbolize the tug-of-war of my own sense of call as a pastor and as a woman in ministry in the 21st century.

As a woman who is both a mother and has a career, I am grateful for the many women in my field who have paved the way so that I have the luxury and benefit to be both. It is because of the struggles that women before me have endured that I can honestly profess: I love my job. I love my congregation. I love my Head of Staff.

It seems unlikely that these three love statements I just made be true. Especially since I am a woman -- a racial ethnic woman -- and on top of that, a young (ish), racial ethnic woman. And yet it is true. I serve a congregation that values my gifts, ideas, and vision. I work with a Head of Staff who values me, trusts me, collaborates with me, works through conflict with me, respects me, and most of all does not let his ego get in the way of sharing leadership.

Given my reality, one would think that women in ministry have come a long way now that we have entered the 21st century. In many ways we have. In many ways we still have a long way to go. And in many ways, new challenges have cropped up. If you followed what happened at the 219th General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., an overture to form another non-geographic, Korean language presbytery, which overwhelming passed in committee, was later overturned in plenary. One of the issues I raised was in regards to the challenges of ordination of Korean women as well as opportunities for younger generation leadership. Even as the Korean-American Presbyterian Clergywomen celebrate 20 years this year, many Korean-American women still struggle to find a call to be ordained as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. And although these struggles still remain, I find myself facing even new challenges as a woman in ministry trying to have it all and do it all.

One of the challenges that I believe women in ministry in the 21st century face is the increasing diversity among us. As the world grows more connected via advanced technologies, as our communities become more multi-cultural, as our churches are stressed with issues that test their faith, the concerns and challenges we face as women also change and diversify. Often times, when I attend a women's gathering, I notice a generational divide between those that have faithfully paved the way and those that have benefited from the paved road. Part of the tension that I feel is there isn't an overwhelming issue that unifies us -- one common obstacle to focus our energy on like women's rights for equality, ordination, and inclusion. Depending on geography, generation, culture, race, single/not single, children/without children, small church/big church, or whatever influences your ministry, there are different elements that impede and enhance our ministry experience. Some questions I have heard women in ministry ask are:

  • How do I meet someone when the only people I hang out with are people at my church? How do I have the freedom to date while being entrenched in a faith community?
  • How do I advocate for adequate maternity leave? How do I juggle motherhood and pastoral duties? How do I "convince" my congregation that having kids is not a hindrance but an asset?
  • In a church that functions using a top-down model, how do I establish more collaboration, mutuality, and shared leadership?
  • In a congregation that doesn't revere women leadership as highly, how do I navigate through the customs and politics in a way that is prophetic and not isolating? What do I do when I am not being taken seriously or not acknowledged when male clergy are present?
  • What do you do when cultural traditions are used as a reason for women in ministry to not be accepted or respected?
  • How do I grieve in public after experiencing a miscarriage or personal loss or am I expected to hold myself with composure?
  • How do I react when congregants constantly comment on my hair and clothes, but not to the male clergy? Or when my pastoral authority is questioned or negated because of my gender?
  • In a small congregation, how do I find resources and colleagues for support?

This list certainly isn't complete or exhaustive, yet it gives a good snapshot of the Mary and Martha-like tug-of-war many of us may face between our personal and professional life, our reality and what we hope our reality will be, and all the factors that play into our experience as women in ministry. For me, being a women in ministry in the 21st century means being both a pastor and a mom and not being able to separate the two. Luckily, I serve a congregation that is very kid-friendly. But what do you do when you are in the middle of preaching, driving home your final point and your 3-year-old son who refuses to go into the nursery throws a temper tantrum right in front of you? What do you do when you are about to break bread during communion and your 2-year-old daughter has escaped the nursery and tries to steal the communion bread out of your hands? Or what do you do when it is the fourth night in a row that you have come home past the kids' bed time?

For me, to be like Martha would mean taking care of my family and having the time and energy to spend with them, while to be like Mary would mean being able to devote myself to spiritual care and the needs of my congregation without distraction. However, the tug-of-war doesn't have to be about motherhood and ministry. I think we all experience the challenges and joys of trying to feel fulfillment in our sense of call. For others, Martha may represent the more active parts of our ministry, while Mary represents the more contemplative and passive.

My hope for us women as we continue to do ministry in the 21st century is that we embrace the diversity amongst us and therefore extend grace to one another in the sisterhood. The world is already a challenging and judgmental environment. We should celebrate the accomplishments of each other, stand in solidarity with those who are still fighting the good fight, empower each other to take ownership of our authority, and share our stories and resources because none of us can do this work alone. Let us use our unique, God-given gifts to change the world.

What has been the tug-of-war in your ministry experience? What have been the joys and challenges of being a woman in ministry? How do you feel the landscape of women in ministry has changed in the 21st century?

portrait-theresa-choTheresa Cho is a Reno, Nevada native who graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago with awards in preaching and theology. She blogs at Still Waters.

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