I walked into the Catholic church in town armed with witty retorts and snappy come-backs, steeled for the condescension that comes with the territory of being a young, female minister in a crowd of clergy. I was helping lead the community Service of Prayer for Christian Unity, and it was the first time I’d met these colleagues.
This was an ecumenical event, too, with Catholics (who don’t even ordain women) and evangelicals (whose history with women in leadership isn’t exactly stellar). I was ready.
The disrespect isn’t always malicious, and it’s often unintentional. But defending my ability to carry a title or preach from a pulpit or lead a congregation as a woman under 40 does often feel like part and parcel of this calling. So, on this particular evening, I put on the familiar armor and readied my defensive rejoinders to the old assumptions: how I must have just graduated from seminary (“Actually, I’ve been working for the church for a decade”) or wondering if I’m an intern (“Nope, I usually train the interns, now”) or inquiries about my marital status (“Single, y’all, just like Jesus was”).
I walked into the building and a priest in full clerical garb greeted me, offering his hand. “Hi, Pastor. I’m Father Andy. And this is Rev. Warren, from Joy Ministries.” Joy Ministries is a big African-American congregation, another sector of the church not always keen on women in ministry, and I knew that this minister had been there for decades. I winced. Rev. Warren also extended his hand, smiled and greeted me: “Hi, Pastor. Where are you serving?”
Um, what? I’d expected disrespect or disinterest and received, instead, gracious welcome, immediate acceptance. I mumbled a greeting, mentally shuffling the snarky responses to the back, grasping for graceful conversational alternatives. The service went smoothly. I read scripture, shook all those kind ministers’ hands, and went home, chastened and repentant.
The irony is not lost on me. I’d been preparing for a Service of Christian Unity by arming myself and preparing a self-righteous defense. How often, I wonder, do we arm ourselves in preparation to encounter another person? How often do we assume we know what someone else is thinking before we even meet them? And what would change in our own hearts if, instead, we approached each person presuming welcome? What would change in the church if we arrived at the next worship service or Annual Conference eager to greet our sisters and brothers instead of putting on the full armor of mistrust and self-righteousness?
The next evening, I ran into Rev. Warren at another event. He’d been chatting with a member of my congregation, who excitedly introduced me as the new pastor when I joined the conversation. “Oh yes, we’ve met,” I said. “Oh! Isn’t she a great minister?” my congregant asked Rev. Warren. “Well, yes,” he said, “She is. Good to see you again, Pastor.”
Dana Cassell is pastor of Peace Covenant Church of the Brethren in Durham, North Carolina. She also writes at danacassell.wordpress.com.